Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, was a shrewd, accomplished woman. Among her talents was expertise at designing perfume. According to the historian Plutarch, when Cleopatra prepared to meet Marc Antony, she dressed like Venus, the goddess of love, and sailed in on a barge bedecked with gold and silver and so redolent with fragrance that "perfumes diffused themselves from the vessel to the shore." By the next day, she had the ruler of the Middle East wrapped around her little finger.
Cleopatra doubtlessly knew what science has proven: Of all the senses, the sense of smell is most powerful in exciting passion. Smells are perceived by the brain's limbic system, the same region that's involved in mood and emotion. Aroma and emotion flow like two streams that converge.
The art of mixing perfumes goes back at least to ancient Babylon, circa 4000 B.C. Then, as now, the recipe was simple: Fragrance-bearing oils, called essential oils, are dissolved in another substance. The original oils were extracted from herbs and spices and tree resin such as frankincense and myrrh. The solvent was animal fat or olive oil.
Today, natural oils may be complemented by laboratory-born inventions and dissolved in ethyl alcohol (ethanol). Science has made perfumes more varied and available, but the price can make them seem like a royal luxury. You don't need the riches of a queen, though, to feel like one. In the spirit of the clever Cleopatra, we offer 10 tips for making the most of your favorite potion.
Perfume is activated by heat and chemical reactions. It's more effective when in contact with the body rather than the clothing. In fact, it can stain and damage some fabrics. Silk, for example, is an animal protein, which is prone to degradation due to the alcohol in perfume. Fabric dyes can bleed and fade. Alcohol evaporates a few minutes after application, however, and the fabric is preserved. On the other hand, synthetic fabrics such as polyester repel liquid ingredients, including alcohol, but are more susceptible to stains from perfume oils. Again, avoiding direct contact helps to minimize the problem.
Fragrances can be indirectly applied to fabrics, however, to safely scent your wardrobe. You can spritz perfume on padded clothes hangers, for instance. Or add a few drops of essential oils to the water when you rinse lingerie, or to the water in the iron to steam press handkerchiefs.
If you're handy at crafts, you can carry your favorite scent in a perfumed locket. Add a few drops of oil to melted beeswax, then pour the beeswax into an empty locket and let harden.
Pulse points are places on the body where the heart rate can be felt through blood vessels lying close to the skin. The warmth of the blood makes them prime targets for applying perfume. Pulse points are literally found from head to foot. The most strategic ones for application are located at the temple, just below the ear lobe, at the base of the throat, inside the wrist and elbow, and behind the knee. Choose points from different areas (but not every point in every area) to spread the fragrance evenly.
As for the eternal question, "Should you dab or spray?" dabbing with the fingertips may seem more precise, but may also leave as much perfume on your fingers as on the pulse point. A light spray applied about 8 inches (20 centimeters) from the skin will cover a wider area for greater effect.
What about rubbing the area after applying perfume to generate heat? Not recommended. Rubbing breaks down the molecules, sometimes called "crushing the fragrance." The scent may morph into something different or disappear completely.
A note is perfumery parlance for a scent. Perfumers use notes as musical composers do, building and layering them for an overall pleasing effect. As in music, some fragrance notes are light and lilting; others are heavier and resonate longer. The order in which notes are released is an important consideration in formulating perfumes.
Top notes, or head notes, are the first to greet your nose. They smell fresh, fruity and slightly sweet. They also evaporate first, so their impact is fleeting. Some disappear after 10 minutes. Lemon, apple, melon, and berry are popular head notes, with the occasional "sea breeze" or "ocean air."
As top notes fade, middle notes become prominent. Middle notes, also called heart notes, are richer and longer lasting. They include pleasantly pungent herbs and spices such as rosemary, nutmeg and cardamom, as well as headier florals like jasmine and gardenia.
Middle notes take center stage for about one hour, then blend with bottom, or base notes. Base notes are the most dramatic and longest lasting. They carry the perfume for up to four hours. Notes like cedar, pine and musk are called woodsy. Patchouli, frankincense and vanilla are termed orientals for evoking Asia and the Middle East.
Most perfumes include all three ranges of notes, but some favor the lower end of the spectrum. Research perfumes online. Check the list of fragrance notes or descriptors such as smoky or mellow. Experiment to find those you enjoy and that smell good on you.
Scented liquids go by a number of different names: perfume, cologne, eau de toilette, among others. These aren't just exotic-sounding aliases thought up by advertisers. Each one indicates a ratio of essential oils to alcohol, or concentration, which makes a real difference in how long a scent lingers. The industry hasn't established a standard for concentrations. By definition, however, a perfume is highest, at up to 40 percent essential oils by volume. An eau de parfum is about 15 percent, and an eau de toilette may be as little as 5 percent.
Having a variety of concentrations lets you match the form to the need. You can refresh a perfume for an hour or so by layering it with its eau de parfum version, for example.
When deciding what form to buy or apply, remember that a fragrance's concentration is different from its lightness or heaviness. A perfume composed mostly of light, citrusy notes may need touching up sooner than an eau de parfum with a strong cedar or mossy base.
You can make your own concentrations by starting with essential oils and diluting them as desired. Use a mixture of nine parts alcohol to one part distilled water as the solvent. For a concentration of 20 percent, for example, you would add eight drops of the alcohol-water blend with two drops of the essential oils of your choice.
The temperature of the environment affects how, and how long, a fragrance wears. Heat energizes the chemical reactions that release fragrance, resulting in a stronger scent. In warm weather, you'll need a lighter application, or a less concentrated form, of whatever scent you wear.
At the same time, heat speeds evaporation. If you go with lighter scents, you'll need to reapply them more often in warm weather, due to their low concentrations. As an aside, be careful of what you wear outdoors. Certain unwanted creatures may share your taste in fragrance. Bees are attracted by sweet, floral scents. Beetles prefer spicy ones. Bats are partial to musky notes. Something to keep in mind if you're heading to a backyard barbecue.
The same principle applies in reverse in cool weather. Chemical reactions are more sluggish at lower temperatures. Fragrances emanate gradually, with less intensity. If you're wearing a warming winter scent, however, consider the heartiness of the bottom notes. Adding an extra spritz could give you the ambiance of a human pine forest.
When you buy skin care products, your skin type -- oily, normal or dry -- is the first thing you need to know. That information is also handy when you choose perfume. The alcohol base in a perfume evaporates more quickly on dry skin than on oily skin. Each layer of notes is released in quick succession and the scent fades sooner. Having oily skin, which is often seen as a problem concerning health and hygiene, is an advantage when it comes to making perfume last longer.
If you have dry skin, you may already use a moisturizer. Look for a moisturizer with the same scent you plan to wear that day. This will help stretch the fragrance as well as soften skin. Or use a fragrance-free moisturizer before applying the perfume.
Dry skin is one area where health and beauty really do go together, by the way. Dry skin can be a sign of a poor diet, for instance. Are you getting enough skin-friendly nutrients, like essential fatty acids and B vitamins? And don't forget water. Even your favorite perfume can only go so far in picking you up if you're physically run down.
Layering involves using different products having the same fragrance to sustain the scent through the day. Think of it as a relay race where one product hands off the aromatic baton to the next. For example, you might start with an eau de toilette in the morning, smooth on some lotion in the afternoon, and finish with a dusting of powder for an evening out. Or start with a scented moisturizer and mist on perfume later in the day. You could add a few drops of scented bath oil to a warm bath, or apply to pulse points while the skin is still damp after showering.
The beauty of layering is that it lets you vary the concentration of the fragrance according to the situation. With a little experimentation, you can find a combination that gets you noticed but doesn't overwhelm anyone -- or waste expensive perfume. It's also a good excuse for a leisurely soak in the tub.
Chemically speaking, you may not be the same person you were last week. Any number of factors can trigger a change in body chemistry, which can alter the skin's chemical environment. That in turn can affect how your skin responds to your favorite perfume. Everybody's body chemistry is unique, so the triggering factors and their effects will vary from one person to the next.
For example, the hormones androgen or progesterone affect oil production in the skin. Some foods and medications -- not to mention pregnancy -- can raise or lower androgen and progesterone levels. Because oily skin carries a scent longer than dry skin, a change in diet -- or maternity status -- could mean more or less frequent applications.
Sweat can impact skin chemistry as well. Heat-related sweat deposits salt and other minerals on the skin. Stress-induced sweat carries fats that are broken down by bacteria. The process can also change the body's natural odor, and not for the better. In both cases, the fragrance compounds may react differently to their new chemical neighbors. You may want to save your usual perfume for a time and try another scent.
A fragrance is not meant to announce a coming attraction or serve as a souvenir of your visit. In other words, it should arrive and leave when you do. Instead, think of a fragrance as an aural accent, like a paisley belt on a solid blue dress, a dash of color to brighten the overall impression of your presence.
How can you tell if you're achieving that balance? In general, if a scent is just noticeable to you, it's agreeable to others. Remember that fine perfumes are effusive; they travel well through air. Excessive application is not only wasteful, but can also make you unwelcome.
In some cases, your nose lets you down. You may have a sinus infection or age may have dulled your sense of smell. You can also become so accustomed to or fond of a fragrance that you don't notice when you're overdoing it. When in doubt, ask a friend (one whose nose you do trust) and err on the side of safety. Some people are sensitive to strong scents.
Fragrance compounds are degraded by heat and light, even before you open the bottle. Off aromas may develop, turning that special occasion into an odoriferous affair. Lighter scents and less concentrated forms are most susceptible. Depending on what chemical compounds are formed, a fragrance could leave you red and scratchy. If something has been irritating your skin lately, it may be your perfume.
To keep perfume in its prime, protect it from its enemies. Keep it in comfortably cool and dry conditions, away from heat sources and direct sun. Don't keep perfume in the bathroom, where humid air can infiltrate the bottle. If heat and humidity are inescapable -- in the Florida Everglades in July, for instance -- keep it in the refrigerator. The crisper is specially designed for reduced humidity. It's also a good idea if you need to put an open bottle in storage for a few months -- to keep a summer fragrance during the winter, for example.
Buy perfume in spray bottles, if possible. They let in less air than ordinary bottles, which reduces evaporation, contamination and chemical reactions. To transfer perfume from a bottle to an atomizer, first rinse the atomizer with rubbing alcohol to remove the old fragrance. Let it stand a few minutes, then rinse with water and air dry.
Under optimal conditions, an unopened bottle of perfume will keep for up to 18 months. Bu who could buy a new perfume and wait that long to use it?
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