One of the main criticisms leveled at natural perfumes is that they just don’t last as long as their aromachemical counterparts. Key to unraveling the truth behind the myths and facts (and I’ll explain why both are possible) about whether natural perfumes have less staying power is understanding a bit about the structure of perfumes.
My post on how to enjoy and sample natural perfumes is a good starting point to learning about the structure and development of naturals. But, there is more to the time factor that meets the eye, as the longevity of scent can be down to the perfume wearer’s expectations and preferences and perception of time itself.
Time in Perfumery
Time plays a complex role in perfumery, whether you work as a perfumer or are a fragrance consumer. Our sense of smell can compress time, taking us back to rekindle memories evoked by a particular scent. Time also dictates how the perfumer works. As a natural perfumer, I have to let new modifications macerate upward of 6 weeks to three months at times. Synthetics need less time to infuse together.
However, time has been played about with by the perfumery industry for commercial reasons. Jean-Claude Ella, former in-house perfumer for Hermes, devotes an entire chapter to time in his book ‘The Alchemy of Scent‘. He says that longevity shouldn’t be seen as a benchmark of a successful fragrance.
He goes on to explain how perfumery time changed in meaning during his working life. Focus groups and demand-led marketing emerged to create perfumes that had:
“…the illusion of compactness ….[that had to express themselves] without significant variation, with a strong, tight and lasting presence. Diffusion and retention on the skin became powerful sales criterion”.
You can sense between the lines Ellena’s regret at the dampening of creativity and the ebbing away of ‘slow perfume’ as commercial rationality took a grip.
The indie, niche and natural perfumer can eschew much of the commercial time pressures and demands but their output will be subject still to benchmarks that consumers expect from the mass, synthetic-dominated industry. Structure, longevity and sillage are the pillars of mainstream fragrance development and create the benchmarks consumers are now used to in contemporary fragrance.
How Fragrance is made to last
Synthetic-dominated mainstream perfumes designed for mass consumption and to be in and out of fashion at whim, need to be instant hitters with consumers. Big fragrance houses and their partners such as fashion and other luxury goods firms need to get their rewards in terms of profit and building their market share and PR buzz.
To ensure consumers understand a fragrance from first test spray and go on to full flacon purchase, they will use a structure and chemicals that ensure the consumer can grasp the meaning of a scent without too much thinking time.
It is no accident that in the past decade or more, we see commercial fragrances with more linear structures that do not evolve from top to base notes and which remain ‘what you test sniff is what you get’ more or less from first few minutes to several hours later.
Having caught the fragrance consumer’s attention with the actual scent, the second device employed is to ensure the fragrance lasts – probably as long as our office hours or long evening out. Fragrance with cache’ – aka fashion house brand behind it, for example – isn’t a cheap purchase. Imagine if purchasers complained that the juice didn’t last long for the price per ml? The press, Instagram and various other social channel reviewers would be spreading the word fast. Again, various aromachemicals can help ‘fix’ perfume to satisfy consumer expectations of longevity.
In reality, a perfume need not last more than an average working day (6-8 hours), but depending on the desired effect and raw ingredients used, it can do. I have even had fragrance last two showers and a lot of hard scrubbing but rare is the person who wants their scent to last the next day.
The last in a trio of ‘devices’ used in contemporary synthetic fragrance structure is sillage; or the power of a perfume to leave a trail in the wake of the wearer. My post on perfumery vocabulary and fragrance terms spells out exactly what this is. Whether it’s something a wearer desires however is a purely personal choice. There is quite a fragrance-free movement these days campaigning for no perfume in public spaces like theatres. not everyone wishes to experience someone else’s fragrance choice.
So, to sum up, a synthetic ingredient-dominated perfume may use some or all of these devices to create impact – linearity of structure, longevity and sillage all interplay to varying degrees depending on the fragrance brief. Natural, and especially botanical perfumes can adopt these structural tactics too of course, but have the vagaries of the raw, natural materials to cope and work with as well.
Do Natural Perfumes Last?
Yes and no. Fact and myth.
Let’s start with dispelling the myth: To put it simply, I can load up a natural perfume formula with notes that will peel off the skin slowly. Sandalwood, for instance, can easily last a month or more on a scent blotter. So too can various notes we associate with ‘base notes’: vanilla oleo resin, labdanum, cistus, frankincense, patchouli, ylang ylang, jasmine, vetiver, musk ambrette and even notes like Cognac, which is one of my current favourites.
These are all heavier molecules that may have a low impact initially but are very tenacious over time. They generally don’t fly off the skin fast, depending on personal skin biome, climate and humidity. These base notes can be used to create a natural perfume in entirety – a kind of linear structure without surprises – and also to fix more volatile top notes like those of the citrus family.
Another way to make a natural perfume last is to use some natural isolates in the formula. These are akin to concentrates and are often extracted using CO2 from raw aromatic and botanical materials. They are richer, more powerful versions of the original material. They can be less nuanced but I use them to add ‘kick’ to a perfume. One I love using is guaiacol natural isolate which is a moody, woody, smokey note extracted from pine root.
It is therefore entirely possible for natural perfumes to be long lasting. It is up to the creativity and skill of the natural perfumer to juggle the percentages to craft the desired perfume. And the end juice might be one that can equate to those of the commercial mass market, or alternatively be a perfume of rare qualities desired by the indie market cognoscenti.
Facts about Natural Perfumes not lasting
There are some limitations on the natural perfumer. It is not easy to create a light airy citrus cologne that will also last a long time. Citrus notes are highly volatile and will evaporate fast. They can be fixed with those base notes and slowed to some degree.
Of course, it’s not strictly true that citrus flies all at once as along with the citrus will be some of those heavier molecules and, vice versa, the citrus molecules will have had a role to play during the macerating period of a perfume, in altering the state of the base notes. A perfume is a melange after all.
Tips on Making Natural Perfume last
My advice to anyone shifting over to natural, botanical perfumes is to understand the key structural differences naturals have from mainstream synthetic fragrances and to adjust their expectations. If you love deep, moody base note-rich perfumes or even narcotic white florals for example, then you won’t be disappointed by a journey into naturals. If you adore colognes and light airy citrus scents, be prepared to reapply them after a couple of hours.
As we’ve seen in this discussion, that is a simplistic view of naturals as with clever perfumery, naturals of all hues can hold up to scrutiny with synthetics on longevity. It’s a case of knowing how to play around with them and wear them. As my tips below show, you can anchor even cologne-style and Eau de Toilette concentrations, and top note-rich perfumes to make them last longer.
Moisturise your skin first
This will help provide a fixative layer on your skin to anchor the natural perfume. Its heaviness ensures the natural perfume molecules are more slowly released as they become entrapped in the oil layers. The emulsion or oil acts also as an occlusive layer preventing your own skin biome or perspiration from interfering with the natural perfume and speeding its evaporation. The emulsion or oil need not be fragrance free as you can use it as a complementary layer. Some natural perfume ranges also offer body care – lotions and shower gels – so perhaps buy a matching fragrance and other body care product together.
This concept has been in vogue for a while now and some fragrance houses like Jo Malone advise customers on how to layer fragrances and which pair well, either to create a new third fragrance experience or because one helps fix another. It is certainly worth exploring with a natural perfumery range. Ask the perfume house for advice.
Nape of Neck & Scarves
Don’t apply your natural perfume to your wrists. The scent will be masked by clothing most of the year and be nowhere near your nose for you to enjoy it. Naturals may be highly concentrated Eaux de Parfum (10-18%) or even Parfum Extrait (18-35%) and it would be shame to waste them on wrists. Try also spraying or dabbing your natural perfume onto a scarf or even in your hair. It is in fact in terms of perfume history only relatively recently that we apply perfume to our bodies. I’ve seen a growing trend for perfume wearables on Instagram; lockets and other jewellery with perforated or applied ways in releasing scent.
Your expectations of natural perfumes
Last but not least, approach wearing natural botanical perfumes with a different mindset. I have argued here how they can be long lasting, but ultimately, naturals are composed of myriad unpredictable raw materials that vary from seasonal harvest to harvest, geographic region and method of extraction, storage, transportation and more.
They are like fine wines and require a certain approach and understanding to appreciate at their best. Expect a more intimate sense of pleasure in wearing natural perfume; they offer up their beauty to those who love and appreciate a secret liaison with scent, rather than a sillage of synthetic fragrance.