Traditionally, when applied to the skin, a perfume "unfolds" in three successive "olfactive phases
|The head note (also known as top note): the fragrance perceived immediately after application of the perfume. Since this fragrance is a decisive factor in the purchase of a perfume, the head note is generally more intense than the other components and is conveyed by volatile (and therefore fleeting) aromatic substances. For this reason, when testing a perfume it's always better to allow its full range of scents to unfold for a few hours: this gives a fuller picture of the real nature of the perfume and how it interacts with the skin.
|The heart note: the note that is dominant once the "head note" has dissipated.
|The base note: the "character" of a perfume, constituted by less volatile but more persistent aromatic elements. These elements are the foundation of the perfume and are present at the beginning of formulation (and are usually the most expensive component).
... In our view, the above account is little more than "folklore
" After application, a perfume evaporates by a process of distillation. This process can occur quickly or slowly. As the components gradually fraction out, they separate (i.e. make themselves perceptible), with the most volatile components appearing first and the least volatile last.
By its very nature, therefore, a perfume can never release the same olfactive note for a sustained period of time.
It's often said that a good perfume can only last if its contains a good fixative.
The reason for this - so the urban legend goes - is that the fixative works by binding the perfume's components together in some kind of alchemical bond.
This belief, which has acquired quasi-mythical status in the world of perfumery, is worth examining in detail.
The earliest "fixatives
" were none other than natural pheromones obtained from aromatic substances of animal origin, such as musk and civet: compounds designed by nature to resist exposure to the elements, as they function as powerful sex markers which the male of the species deposits to delimit its territory to other males whilst attracting females of the same species. Musk therefore performs a dual function, and perfumers have long exploited both of its characteristics: sensuality and persistence. And persistence has always been a sign of quality in a perfume. The human nose finds musky smells highly attractive. But one problem remains: pheromones were "designed" for use in the animal world - to
be sprayed on rocks, trees, leaves etc. but not on human skin. In old-fashioned
"handkerchief scents" (which were also applied to gloves and scarves), animal musk worked perfectly well as a "fixative
". But its powers are considerably reduced when used as a component of modern perfume formulations designed for use on the skin: when applied to the neck or the wrists, for instance, it is easily outlasted by a pure and natural essential oil such as patchouli, vetiver or ylang-ylang.
As Guy Robert, a perfumer famous for his work with Christian Dior
, once remarked: "...Despite the evidence to the contrary, the myth of the fixative has persisted down to the present day, and is assiduously cultivated by the perfume manufacturers... I hate the theory of fixatives and find it stupid....
" And the myth continues to prosper even today, we might add, because it contributes to the aura of mystery and secrecy that still surrounds the art of the perfumer.
The fact is, aromatic ingredients with a powerful and lasting fragrance have always been touted as "fixatives". And some substances - such as agarwood, benzoin, frankincense, oakmoss, sandalwood, vetiver and others - do in fact possess fixative properties. Although they're limited
in effect and not determining factors
in the character of the perfume, these properties cannot be solely attributed (or reduced) to the persistence of the substance itself.
This brief account of perfumes and perfumery would not be complete without a word on one of the great "debates
" in modern perfumery: is it true that for a perfume to be defined as "high quality" and "totally harmless" it must necessarily and exclusively be made from ingredients of natural origin?
Once and for all, and in the name of scientific honesty
, we would like to point out that the equations:"NATURAL = BENEFICIAL", "NATURAL = HARMLESS" AND "NATURAL = QUALITY"have absolutely no foundation
, Sadly, most consumers still hold them dear. No doubt it's a misconception that years and years of relentless pro-nature
propaganda have drilled into our minds.
It's a measure of how successful the advertising has been that most people take these "equations" as self-evident
truths, without even stopping to think about them. The "natural is good" mantra has become a secular article of faith. A faith that's followed by many but has absolutely no foundation. It's nothing more than a promotional gimmick designed to fool the uninformed.
Think about it: even a child can tell you that a lightning bolt, or a deadly mushroom, or the bite of a venomous snake or spider are enough to cause instant death: yet all of these phenomena are perfectly "natural"!
So let's stop believing in fairy tales, once and for all.
In the case of perfumes, consider the examples of such pure and natural essential oils as artemisia, calamus, winter savory, or black mustard: all of which can be harmful when improperly used. And then there are scores of totally artificial - i.e. synthetic - aromatic
molecules with interesting olfactive properties which are totally harmless to the human organism (and without them, the modern perfume industry wouldn't even exist). Another factor that has to be taken into account is concentration. Many substances - natural
or otherwise - can
be toxic or powerful irritants if used in the wrong concentration
: but when properly formulated alongside other ingredients they're totally innocuous.
What this all means is that there's NO
clear correspondence between natural/organic/artificial/synthetic
and the emotional categories of "good
" and "bad
": here as in other fields, the dividing line between "good
" and "bad
" is for skilled professionals, using the right laboratory equipment, to decide.
To sum up, then, remember that:
|all raw materials, regardless of their nature or origin, can vary in quality.
|all ingredients coming into direct contact with the skin - even if classed as harmless and therefore approved under the complex IFRA regulations - can in theory trigger a negative reaction (irritation, increased sensitivity etc.) due to allergic responses in the individual.