Let Perfume Be Thy Petaled-Medicine
Perfume's Provenance: From Pharmacon to Poseur
Perfume was birthed in infinite purity, and from a sacred desire to connect with botanical realms and the ethereal nature of the heavens. Its origin so pure, the very essence of life and beauty, it was purposed and dedicated to purifying the body and spirit. Humans turned to these aromatic oils to help us repair, mourn, worship, love, birth, meditate, purify, calm down, and perk up. Esteemed as precious, perfumes were offered as royal gifts and sacred libations.
Perfume: the word, originates from Latin: per- means "through" and fumus means "smoke." Long preceding the Latin language, perfume itself is one of humanity's first discoveries as plants and flowers were primitively steamed to collect their scented oils.
Essential oils perfumed the trails that weave through all of recorded history. Scent swathed these trails with us…
A frankincense footpath traversed the trade routes with ancient wise men.
Myrrh from the mysterious Land of Punt was coveted by Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut.
Rose oil scented the sails that carried Cleopatra to greet Anthony.
Mary's mane shrouded the feet of Jesus with soothing spikenard oil.
Poseidon’s waves presented Phoenician glass bottles of perfume to Greece.
Hellenic distillers deferred to Theophrastus's "Concerning Odors," the first written perfume-mixing protocol.
Attar Persian poet and physician, Avicenna, distilled potent perfume pharmacons to restore his patients.
Titillated by thyme, the Greeks perfected perfume as therapy and titled it "thymiatechny."
Jasmine journeyed the seas with the Moors; riding the winds from Arabia to Europe.
Primitive perfume bottles and the oldest oil distillery were unearthed on Aphrodite's island of Cypress.
Plant perfumes protected medieval perfumers, distillers, and aristocrats (who balked at bathing) from the Bubonic Plague's Black Death.
Fragrance-frenzy swept through 14th century France and the glorious gardens of Grasse were planted to provide plant oils.
Fanatical for flower essences, King Louis XIV demanded a new scent daily, earning his court the label of "the Perfumed court."
Foreshadowing today's polluted perfumes, scent was scandalized in the "Affair of the Poisons" when fragrance turned fatal as a front for lethal poisons.
Our flower-petalled scent-trail hits a historical dead end in the late 19th century. Scientist Albert Bauer, while attempting to improve the effectiveness of TNT, noticed that the byproducts of the petro-based nitrobenzene used in the explosive smelled like musk. He began chemically formulating nitro-musk or Bauer Musk, which was quickly adopted by fragrance companies for perfumes and colognes. Laboratory accidents like this one spurred the development of synthetic scents: Jicky (1889), L'Heure Blue (1912), and Shalimar (1925). Perfumers abandoned plant oil to the past.
Today, the aromatic molecules used in fine perfumes, processed foods, cleaning products, air fresheners, cosmetics, and medicines are comprised of laboratory-made scent molecules. Single chemicals, called isolates, are engineered to resemble the primary aromatic component found in the original source. For example, the primary aromatic component of lavender oil is linalool. Chemical and bio-tech engineers have discovered methods of making linalool-isolate apart from a lavender plant and divided from all of the other components of really real lavender oil.
There must be thousands of online articles about perfumes and their caustic-chemical dangers. As public awareness grows, department store retailers and some of the big perfume manufacturers are introducing "natural" and "organic" lines of perfumes to meet the public's demand for safe scents. What they consider "natural" and "organic" may surprise you. Currently, fake fragrance manufacturing falls into three categories: chemical synthesis, microbial platforms, and plant tissue cultures.
“Relics of an old notion, like Old Spice: it’s fine that it exists but no one should actually use it.”
~ Russell Brand
Organic Perfume? Chemistry, E.Coli, and Culture
Most department store and drug store perfumes are complicated formulas comprised of hundreds of synthetic chemicals like phthalates, acetones, and petroleum byproducts. To transform individual chemicals into one compound, they are exposed to a variety of proprietary catalysts and chemical reactions including various enzymes, metals, extreme heat, and pressure.
The clean, fresh scent of citrus is widely used in perfumes, skin care, foods, and household cleaners. A chemical engineering company formulated a method to make barrels of citrus-scent without using any citrus fruits or plant material. They manufacture this citrus-like odorant, called citral, by joining isobutene and formaldehyde under high pressure using metal as a catalyst. Isobutene is "cracked" from naphtha which is a liquid mixture of petroleum. Citral can be chemically modified to produce other aromatic substances like linalool and geranial, which are single constituents of lavender and rose odor molecules. The most obvious issue with citral is the use of formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, allergen, and irritant.
Hundreds of odor compounds are made synthetically like this, full of undesirable chemicals and residuals from processing. The odor compounds may lawfully be listed as "fragrance" or "perfume" on the ingredients label without mentioning all the chemical components.
Franken-fume: Perfume Thyself with E. Coli?
Growing public awareness of the issues with synthetic perfumes has motivated scientists and biotech firms to find a way to produce aromatics without the chemicals. Over the last few years, they have discovered a way to genetically engineer microbes (bacteria and yeast) on a large scale to produce key aromatic isolates.
Bacterium such as Escherichia coli and yeast like Saccharomyces cerevisiae (baker's yeast) are used in the process. These "host" microbes are used because they are easy to cultivate and grow on cheap media and they are easy to genetically modify. The exact process used by biotech companies to develop their "microbial platform" is proprietary. In general, the process works like this: E. Coli and S. cerevisiae are grown in a rich medium to encourage rapid multiplication to build the "platform." E. coli is grown in amino acids, yeast extract, sodium chloride, distilled water, and an antibiotic. S. cerevisiae is grown in a similar medium with the addition of hydrochloric acid. Yes, highly corrosive hydrochloric acid.
These microbes are turned into odor molecule factories; they are implanted with the genetic pathways that have been removed from the plants that naturally make the targeted scent. The genetic code for making the enzymes that joins all the odor molecules together is also removed from the plant and inserted into the microbe. These genetically modified (transgenic) fungi and bacteria are then fed inexpensive sugar-based agricultural and food byproducts to stimulate fermentation. The result from the fermentation process is terpene, a constituent of most essential oils. The terpene is then put through another process (hydroxylation, isomerization, oxidation, reduction, or acylation) to make it into a useable substance.
One example of this is Valencene Pure™ made by Isobionics. Valencene is one part of the scent compound naturally found in oranges and grapefruit and is a common base note in perfume. They claim that this trademarked product's "odor and taste similar to valencene from oranges."
The odor compounds produced via microbe fermentation can be labeled in the US as "natural" even though the compounds are produced by genetically modified organisms that are grown in antibiotics and chemicals like hydrochloric acid.
Compare the contrived process of microbial fermentation with the natural scent-producing relationship between plant and bacteria. Scientists have discovered naturally occurring bacteria on vetiver roots, which is the part of the plant that is distilled for the oil. The root cells work symbiotically with the bacteria to create a complex and fragrant oil.
In the mid-1900's, university botanists began cloning plants in petri dishes using cells taken from roots and growing tips. Soon, botanists were delivering brand new species of plants by mixing plant DNA using in vitro fertilization. In the 1980's, what began as an academic experiment to learn about how plants grow became a boon for horticulturalists and agriculturalists who adopted the plant-tissue culture process to promote plant species improvement as well as rare and difficult to propagate plant reproduction.
Biotech companies are now trying to use this technology to selectively grow the plant tissues and organs that make the desired oils. The end goal is to grow and sustain these organs in a sort of "organ farm" to produce industrial quantities of specific plant oils – totally separate from the rest of the plant, the dirt, fresh air, and sunshine.
"Never does nature say one thing and wisdom another." ~ Juvenal, Satires
If your jaw is agape and you are asking, why?? Why go to all this trouble to make a scent-mimic in lieu of using the real deal plant oils? Why invest so much time, energy, and money into a bio-tech produced scent that nature effortlessly produces and graciously offers us? It seems backwards, upside-down!
The bottom line is the bottom line: the food and fragrance industry is looking for larger quantities of odor compounds that are cheaper than synthetic chemical fragrances and essential oils distilled from plants. Also, the industry needs a solution to the increasing demand for natural products. The marketing-madness is legal, allowing laboratory made scents to be labeled as "natural," but I suspect that this is not quite what savvy consumers have in mind.
Microbe platform and tissue culture produced scents are referred to in the industry as "nature-identical" or "bio-identical" because the chemical structures are "identical" to those produced by plants grown naturally. In fact, these products can be legally labeled as "natural" in everything from perfumes to drugs to cleaning products. Some may even be bottled up and sold as a plant's essential oils. The fragrance industry touts that these products will be high-quality and pure because they will have pesticide, herbicide, or petro-byproduct residues.
If the substance is actually identical to the natural one, then why does it need the label "nature-identical? If it were really real, wouldn't it just be called the name of the real thing instead of having a copyrighted name, such as Isolanene 70®? The reality is that bio-identical isolates and fragrances are like the cheap, brand name knock-off purses sold on city sidewalks; the surface-level sameness collapses upon closer inspection. There are major differences between plant oils from nature and those made in the laboratory; for starts, laboratory fragrances will have by-products not found in nature, and they will require fuel and resources for production beyond sun, rain, and dirt.
Ain't nothing like the real thing, baby.
There are numerous hitches in trying to recreate a plant oil in a lab. The fragrant oils distilled from plants, called secondary metabolites, are part of a plant's defense system against pests, predators, microbes, sunburn, and drought. They are also part of the plant's reproductive system used to lure in friendly pollinators. These plant mechanisms are complex and interconnected with metabolic challenges as well as free radical and oxidative stress in the plant. The potency and qualities of the secondary metabolites made by the plant are unique, reflecting the subtle differences in the plant's environment, influenced by the soil it grows in and even by what is growing next to it. All of these factors contribute to the exceptional qualities of pure plant oil, and they cannot be recreated in a lab.
Perfumes made with only really real essential oils are magnificently multifaceted and unequalled by anything produced in a laboratory. A true, pure essential oil is greater than the sum of its parts. Lavender essential oil is more than just linalool, which is the component that most laboratories are producing under the guise of lavender scent. True lavender oil also has traces of other compounds like α-pinene, limonene, and 1,8-cineole. All true essential oils are complex mixtures of phytochemicals and phytonutrients that work synergistically. "The property of the whole essential oil results from the limitless rearrangement and permutations of the basic components." All of the trace components contribute significantly to the fragrance of the oil and how the fragrance affects us physiologically.
While artificial and contrived perfumes affect us physiologically, with sneezes, lightheadedness, headaches, and in countless other ways, pure plant perfumes soothing scents ease sensitivities, cool aching heads, and ground and focus minds and thoughts. They are the remedy to many synthetic-stimulated issues.
"True plant oils, waters and wild flora exist to gladden all beings as a matrix of gifts, revealing inner strength, intuition to restore, greater currents of consciousness and beauty to behold." ~ Ablutions
With due respect to Kahlil Gibran, I ask, "For what is perfume but the expansion of oneself (yourself) into the living ether?"
Some of the flower oils, like jasmine, are complete on their own. Simply apply neat, a drop on the wrists or an anointing of the chakras. By combining a few oils you can create your own signature scent or make a uniquely therapeutic perfume suited just for you. To guide you, on the Libations website we describe the scent nature and physiological energy or activity of each single oil.
Here are a few easy tips and tricks to use oils as perfume:
• Single note oils can be apply neat, one drop right from the bottle.
• One or two oils can be mixed with jojoba to add another layer of moisture and scent. Jojoba oil is best because it does not go rancid.
• Combine high quality alcohol, like organic vodka, with your favorite oil in a spritzer bottle for a refreshing body spray.
• Extend the life of your perfume by rubbing a drop of oil or a drop of your scented jojoba through your hair. The scent lasts longer because, unlike skin, hair does not absorb it.
• Of the oils, vetiver has the best staying power (maybe it is the beneficial bacteria).
If you prefer prepared perfume, Libations offers ten plant poetry perfumes for men and women that scent and fortify your body and soul. From sensual to gleeful, floral to woodsy, there is a scent that will resonate with your own body and sense of smell.
Essential Nature of Living Libations
I love beautiful scents. I love for my skin, my breath, my clothes, my hair, and my house to smell like flowers and earth, sun and rain. Beautiful and true plant oils distilled from real plants permeate, purify, and perfume my life, grounding me to the earth and to human history. My botanical inclination began over 20 years ago, and the life-energy of plants continues to inspire us to create the purest of the pure botanical health and beauty products on the planet.
A beautiful proverb attributed to many philosophical writers posits:
The fragrance always stays in the hand that gives the rose.
This is why I am committed to plant purity, because every bottle I offer “stays on my hand.”
If you want to avoid pretend perfumes and infuse your life with what's really real, know your source and follow your nose! Your nose knows what is real and true.
“Judge like a king, and choose the purest, the ones unadulterated with fear,
or some urgency about “what’s needed.” ~ Rumi
Nadine Artemis, the founder of Living Libations, is the author of Holistic Dental Care: The Complete Guide to Healthy Teeth and Gums, and Renegade Beauty: Reveal and Revive Your Natural Radiance, which was named one of “The Top 10 Books on Skin Care” by The Strategist of New York Magazine. She is a respected media guest and contributor, and her products have received rave reviews in the New York Times, LA Times, Elle, People, Vogue, and Hollywood Reporter. Described by Alanis Morissette as “a true-sense visionary,” Nadine crafts elegant formulations and healing creations from rare botanicals that have skin glowing around the world. Her concept of Renegade Beauty encourages effortlessness and inspires people to rethink conventional notions of beauty and wellness.