Guide to Selecting Natural Fragrance Oils

fragrance oils
Fragrance oils can be tricky, but they can smell oh-so-sweet!

Selecting the right fragrance oil, perfume or other scent variety can be tricky. You want a fragrance that reflects your style and one that isn't overpowering. It has to appeal to your significant other, too. You may also want one with aromatherapy benefits that will help you relax after a long, hectic afternoon or maintain your cheerful demeanor in stressful situations. If you have allergies or sensitive skin, it's also a good idea to choose a fragrance that's made organically, or with all-natural ingredients.

That's a lot to ask from a little dab of scent applied to your wrists (or your knees). Or is it? Fragrance is powerful. It can heighten mood, evoke long-buried memories and help add depth and resonance to new ones. Fragrance can also work a kind of culinary alchemy on food ingredients. It turns out we eat with our noses as well as our mouths. The judicious addition of a little aromatic cinnamon, vanilla or even licorice has the power to turn a ho-hum meal into an olfactory and gastronomic feast. Adding some of those food ingredient aromas to perfume can heighten physical attraction and interest. Remember that the next time he says you look good enough to eat.


The sense of smell is closely linked to areas of the brain that handle emotion and process new ideas. That makes smell a kind of sense-memory bellwether. If you smell carnations during your prom, 10 years later that spicy aroma will bestir memories of the dress, the dances and your first crush. If you were wearing jasmine when he fell in love with you, wear a little jasmine on your anniversary and he'll suddenly remember that spot behind your ear that's oh-so-sensitive.

Science is just beginning to understand the deep mysteries of smell, but that doesn't mean you have to wait to discover the perfect fragrance for your unique personality and lifestyle. On the next few pages, we'll look at the practical side of essential oils to discover the what and how of personalizing your scent. When you want that lingering fragrance on the evening air to remind him of the promise and magic of you, we've got the answers you need.


Finding Your Fragrance Oil Scent

Fragrance scents are made up of natural as well as synthetic ingredients. Getting scents from flowers into liquid form is a science that uses techniques like distillation (as in distilling alcohol) and enfleurage (a process that transfers aromas from flowers and other botanicals to neutral oils). Concentrating fragrances is an art as well as a science, and the essences used in fragrance production are usually super concentrated. Fragrances can actually be made up of dozens of ingredients -- sometimes as many as a hundred or more. Some of the ingredients are stabilizers, fixatives or carrier oils designed to make scents last longer once they're applied to the skin.

Fragrances contain essential oils, but not all essential oils are appropriate as personal fragrances. Think of a prepared fragrance as a rich stew of ingredients designed to smell wonderful. An essential oil is a single note scent in that stew, like lavender, lemon verbena, tea rose or cloves. Essential oils are the building blocks of fragrance, and even though you may not want to dab pine essence behind your ears for your next date, a minute amount of pine, rosemary or sandalwood essential oil mixed with flowery or citrusy oils could yield the perfect scent -- instead of leaving you smelling like a Christmas tree.


Occasionally, essential oils come pre-blended, especially for craft applications like making potpourri or candles. These blended fragrances are very concentrated though, and they're not typically used as personal fragrances.

Essential oils form the basis of most perfumes and colognes, and the perfume industry places fragrances in five basic categories: floral, woody, oriental or exotic, fernlike and fresh. Your fragrance preferences probably fall into one of these broad categories, and if you like, say, a woodsy fragrance, it's a good bet that other woodsy fragrances will appeal to you, too. You probably won't be able to pick out all the ingredients in a prepared fragrance, but knowing what fragrance category you like will make it easier for you to discuss the available options with a fragrance expert or find fragrances that have names that correspond with a particular category. Fragrance retailers are pretty savvy when naming their products; you can sometimes get an idea of the category of a scent just by its cute or colorful name.

Your favorite natural fragrance oil or other preparation will change over time, too. Temperature variations and the effects of evaporation alter some of the ingredients in prepared fragrances. Perfume experts know this and build fragrances to compensate for the way scents develop and dissipate. Most fragrances have an initial scent, a secondary scent and a base scent that begins to emerge after an hour or so. The fragrance notes you smell at the cosmetics counter may be very different from the ones you end up wearing after a couple of hours. They should still smell pleasing -- at least that's what the perfume manufacturer intends. To play it safe, test personal fragrances before you buy them by applying a sample spritz to a pulse point like your wrist and wearing it for at least an hour before deciding if you like it or not. If it still smells nice to you, you'll probably continue to like it under most circumstances. Fragrances can be unpredictable, though. They can change subtly based on factors like temperature, humidity, altitude, skin acidity and even whether or not you're a smoker or are taking medication.

By all means, find a scent you love and adopt it as your very own. Think if it as an adventure, though. Just when you think your scent is totally predictable, you'll discover it has an unexpected, subtle nuance you've never detected before. That's one of the great pleasures -- and risks -- of wearing fragrances.


The Purity of Natural Fragrance Oils

Fragrances are classified by the amount of essential oil they contain. Prepared personal fragrances fall into four basic categories based on their strength and staying powder. The more essential oil in a prepared mixture, the stronger and more long lasting it will be.

  • Perfume -- These are the most long lasting fragrance mixtures. They're about three parts alcohol to one part, or slightly less, essential oils and other fragrance essences.
  • Eau de parfum -- With 15 to 20 percent essential oil content, this fragrance mixture is somewhat less potent than perfume. An eau de parfum product will dissipate more quickly than an equal amount of perfume.
  • Eau de toilette -- Less concentrated than eau de parfum, eau de toilette contains from 4 to 8 percent essential oil.
  • Cologne (or eau de cologne) -- This is the least potent fragrance preparation with about 3 to 4 percent essential oil.

When you're buying individual essential oils to make your own signature scents or cosmetic mixtures, the rules are a little different. Essential oils are usually sold as pure essences. They're designed to be used as ingredients in other preparations, so they're very concentrated. In fact, undiluted essential oils are so intense they can cause lightheadedness, respiratory problems and skin irritation when handled improperly.


Essential oils may also vary based on their intended application. Pharmaceutical grade oils are designed for use in cosmetics and in aromatherapy. They're typically the purest essential oils on the market. Next in line are food grade essential oils produced for cookery applications. Oils in both these categories should be free of harmful ingredients and consistent with their labeling.

Should is the operative word. Fragrance oils aren't as tightly regulated as many other products on the market. A few fall under the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, but most do not. Because fragrance formulas are so secret, manufacturers aren't required to list individual scent ingredients, and the fragrance industry is largely self-policing when it comes to product purity and choosing ingredients that are safe for consumers.

When choosing essential oils, a good rule of thumb is that a quality oil will probably cost more than a pretender. Buy from a reputable source, and select manufacturers whose products you've used before and who you trust based on experience. You should always use new oils sparingly until you know they will perform to your expectations and not cause skin irritations, headaches or respiratory problems.


Organic Natural Oils

fragrance oils
A little is going to go a long way.

Because essential oils are so concentrated, any dangerous ingredients they may contain can be more concentrated, too. That's one reason organic natural oils are becoming more popular. Organic production also has environmental benefits. It takes a lot of rose petals, lavender blossoms or lemon verbena leaves to make an ounce of essential oil. When flower farms use fewer pesticides and chemical fertilizers, fewer hazardous waste products make their way into nearby ecosystems and waterways. In the United States, product manufacturers using the USDA's Certified Organic seal are also held to a higher standard in their production and packaging methods. That goes for imported products carrying the seal, too.

Not all natural oils marketed as "organic" carry the USDA's seal, though. Terms like "all natural," "healthy," "wholesome" and "organic" are more marketing slogans than reliable indicators of a product's quality. USDA Certified Organic products will carry a green seal on the packaging.


Expect to pay more for organic natural oils regardless of their origin. Organic yields are usually lower than plant yields produced using powerful pesticides. That's why large growers love bug sprays. Less pesticide means more pests -- and more pest damage. Buying organic scents produced without chemical fertilizers may have an impact on the quality of the fragrance, too. Fragrances are chemical compounds, and the more wholesome the process, the purer the results -- maybe. At least consider the possibility and compare the essential oil products you buy for scent quality and staying power. You may be surprised at how deep, rich, appealing -- and worry free -- organic oils can be.

Ensuring that the essential oils you buy are organic and completely safe to use is the first step, but there are a few other considerations, too:

  • Choose oils sold in colored bottles. Blue and brown essential oil bottles are dark in color to protect the contents from damage caused by light exposure.
  • To make sure you get the oil variety you really want, look for the Latin (scientific) name on the product labeling. Reputable essential oils will list the common name as well as the scientific name of the plant from which the oil has been extracted.
  • Buy from a reputable source. If you find a great bargain on a marked-down essential oil, think before you buy. If the retailer is unloading a shelf worn product that may have been stored improperly, you could be paying for damaged goods -- even though the price looks like a bargain.
  • Always store essential oils in a dark location.
  • Avoid oils in plastic bottles or with rubber squeeze lids. Both plastic and rubber can react with the oil, changing the nature of the fragrance. Rubber gaskets can also degrade over time, allowing vapor to escape.
  • To test the purity of an essential oil, pour a drop on a sheet of paper. It should evaporate in a few minutes. If it leaves an oily residue behind, it's probably a blended product and not 100 percent pure.
  • Read the directions before using any essential oil you buy. It may sound like fun to make your own relaxing jasmine hand lotion, but using too much of a pure essential oil, getting it on your unprotected skin or working with it in an unventilated location can make you, your children and even your pets sick. Essential oils are fun to use, but they are also potent ingredients. Handle them with care.


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