Do you ever wonder what makes bottled fragrances smell so good? The answer is more complicated than you might think. Your favorite bottle of perfume may have more than 100 ingredients in it. Fragrance oils are common inclusions in perfumes and colognes and are typically synthetic reproductions of a plant's chemical composition. This makes them different from essential oils that are wholly natural and are extracted from plants.
Fragrances are usually categorized as floral, fresh, woody or oriental. Oriental or exotic fragrances are heavy and plush -- think vanilla and musk -- that contrast with, say, the smell of cut grass (which has a fresh scent). Sometimes people refer to a fragrance as exotic because the source comes from a faraway place. Over the next 10 pages, we'll introduce you to some of the sources of exotic fragrances. Some are rare, others are more familiar, but all have a pleasing aroma.
There are several different species of sandalwood trees, but the white sandalwood is the one used in perfumes because of its fragrant scent. This tree grows in southeastern Asia and the South Pacific, and it contains an aromatic oil that can be obtained through steam distillation.
The scent has been cherished since ancient times and smells warm, fresh and woody. Sandalwood oil is a popular ingredient in fragrances for both men and women, and it's also used to make candles, room fresheners and incense sticks. Sandalwood oil even has some therapeutic properties. It's antifungal, anti-inflammatory and has been used as an antidepressant. Because of its relaxing properties (research has shown that it slows brain waves) it's also frequently added to to massage oils.
Jasmine, like sandalwood, is an incredibly popular oil. In fact, jasmine is likely the most commonly used oil in fragrances, and there's even an old saying that no perfume is complete without it. Many species of jasmine exist, but the type that perfumers love grows as a vine and has white flowers with a full and honeylike scent. The essential oil of jasmine is said to have sensual properties and has been used for centuries as an aphrodisiac. Jasmine flowers are very delicate (they last for a day), and this makes extracting their oil extremely difficult. The plant also only produces a few flowers at a time. Because it's hard to get the essential oil without damaging the flower, chemists often try to mimic the pleasurable scent of jasmine synthetically. Most perfumes contain this man-made jasmine aroma because the actual essential oil is so costly to obtain.
Perfumers often use vanilla in exotic fragrances because it mixes so well with spicy scents. Like jasmine, vanilla grows on a vine that produces white flowers. However, it's the beans, or the fruit of those flowers, that contains the vanilla. But the beans are costly and cumbersome to harvest and prepare, which is why vanilla is one of the most expensive spices in the world.
Luckily, vanilla extract -- which is often derived in part from lower-grade varieties of vanilla beans -- is cheap, fragrant and readily available. If you cook or bake a lot, you know how common vanilla extract is in sweet foods (it's in everything from French toast to ice cream). Perfumes often contain pure vanilla extract or oil, while others contain synthetic reproductions of the sweet-smelling fragrance.
Vanilla is one of those iconic scents that people love on its own, undiluted by any other aroma, as well as when it's mixed with other elements and becomes more subdued. Like sandalwood, it's frequently used to make fragrant candles and room fresheners in addition to perfumes.
If you're a cook, you're probably familiar with nutmeg. It's a spice that commonly appears in autumn dishes like pumpkin pie, apple bread and is often sprinkled on top of eggnog. The warm, spicy scent of nutmeg also adds some kick to exotic fragrances. Nutmeg is native to Southeast Asia, though it is now grown for commercial purposes in Indonesia. It comes from a fruit-bearing evergreen tree, and its oil is typically extracted via steam distillation. Unlike vanilla, nutmeg doesn't usually stand on its own as a good perfume -- it's blended with other scents to add spiciness to a floral or fresh fragrance. Nutmeg's spicy qualities make it a staple in men's cologne, but it's a common ingredient in women's perfume as well.
The oil that comes from steaming the needles and twigs of evergreen cypress trees has a sweet and delicate scent. While you may not be as familiar with the aroma of cypress as you are with vanilla or nutmeg, cypress oil is a very common ingredient in perfume and cologne. It appears in fragrances by Clinique, Dior, Gucci, Calvin Klein, Dolce & Gabbana and others. People also cherish cypress for its therapeutic properties, as it can be used to help regulate blood pressure. Cypress blends particularly well with other oils on our list: sandalwood and bergamot.
There are tons of eucalyptus trees in the world. In Australia alone, the Eucalyptus genus makes up almost 75 percent of the total number of plant species! Some people call them "fever trees" because of their medicinal properties. Cough drops and other products used to help relieve chest congestion often contain eucalyptus oil. One species, the eucalyptus citriodora, is used more commonly in perfumes. This species has a lemon scent and mixes well with bergamot and lavender. Because eucalyptus oil is so potent, you don't need to use very much of it when creating a perfume -- making the oil a cost-effective and common ingredient.
Ylang-ylang is sometimes called the perfume tree because of the scent taken from the flowers that the tree produces year-round. It grows in the Asian tropics and people there have infused coconut oil with the fragrant ylang oil for generations to use as a hair dressing. Like eucalyptus, ylang oil has such a potent scent that it has to be used in small amounts or else it can be overpowering. The sweet-smelling oil has calming properties and can be used in massage oils or exotic potpourris, but it's probably most commonly found in men's cologne where it adds sweet, floral notes.
The oil derived from bergamot delivers a fresh, citrus scent. The bergamot orange is a native of tropical Asia but now mostly grows in Europe and the Ivory Coast. Unlike the rest of the fragrances on this list, the essential oil of bergamot isn't extracted through steam distillation. It's extracted through cold expression -- a process that involves crushing the peel of the unripened fruit and then separating the oil from the pulp. The scent of bergamot is said to build confidence and uplift spirits, so the next time you're feeling low, take a whiff and feel better!
Vetiver isn't a household name (or a name that many people know at all), but it's an essential ingredient in many fragrances, including exotic ones. Vetiver is a perennial grass native to India but is now grown around the world, and its essential oil is extracted through steam distillation of the plant's roots. Its scent is both sweet and earthy. While it's aroma is greatly valued by perfumers, they also treasure vetiver because of its fixative properties, meaning that it helps a fragrance last longer on a person's body.
Like vetiver, Peru balsam is loved for its long-lasting properties. Although called Peru balsam, this essential oil is actually drawn from trees that grow in El Salvador and has a vanilla aroma that's quite rich. Peru balsam is commonly used in exotic fragrances because it blends well with strong, sensual and spicy scents. Some people have found that Peru balsam is irritating to the skin, often causing a reaction or inflammation at the point of contact. Because of this, it's usually used in small amounts in order to limit the risk of irritation. In addition to perfumes, Peru balsam has a history of being used in religious anointing oils.
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- Aura Cacia. Essential Oil Directory. (May 1, 2012) http://www.auracacia.com/auracacia/aclearn/ar_directory.html
- Drugs.com. Peru Balsam. (May 1, 2012) http://www.drugs.com/npp/peru-balsam.html
- Edens Garden. Peru Balsam. (May 1, 2012) http://www.edensgarden.com/peru-balsam
- Encyclopedia Britannica. "bergamot orange." (May 1, 2012) http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/61711/bergamot-orange
- Encyclopedia Britannica. "sandalwood." (May 1, 2012) http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/522032/sandalwood
- Environmental Working Group. "Not So Sexy: Hidden Chemicals in Perfume and Cologne." May 2010. (May 1, 2012) http://www.ewg.org/notsosexy
- Fragrantica. "Cypress." (May 1. 2012) http://www.fragrantica.com/notes/Cypress-186.html
- Roach, John. "Oldest Perfumes Found on 'Aphrodites Island.'" National Geographic. March 29, 2007. (May 1, 2012) http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2007/03/070329-oldest-perfumes.html