How Perfume is Made

With a market worth almost £40 billion, it would be hard to thumb one’s nose at the perfume industry. But how is perfume made? Just how is perfume manufactured? We’ve sniffed out the answers.

Engineering How It’s Made
1 July 2022

How perfume is made is an art and a science that has evolved over centuries. Indeed, in understanding the answer to “how was perfume made in ancient times”, one can appreciate how it paved the way to that of how perfume is made in factories today.

The first known chemist, Tapputi, was also a perfume maker or ‘perfumer’. According to a Mesopotamian tablet from circa 1200 BC, she would distil and filter her own scents. And civilizations both before and since have used fragrance for everything from medicinal to religious practices.

The Egyptians used it for embalming, in rituals and in lotions. The Greeks believed it could ward off bad spirits. The word “perfume” is itself said to derive from the Latin “per fumum”, which translates as “through the smoke”.

Nevertheless, it wasn’t until the 13th century that perfume is said to have reached Europe, and not until the 19th century that it began being mass produced there.

Today, perfume is made all over the world. The global perfume market is worth a staggering £39.3 billion. So, how is perfume made today?

How was Perfume Made in Ancient Times?

With so many different civilisations making perfumes over the centuries, there is no single answer to “how was perfume made in ancient times”. Some clues have been garnered from archaeological digs. Like the oldest known perfumery, discovered in Cyprus in 2004. This vast operation, dating back to 1850 BC, is thought to have used stills to extract scents such as myrtle, laurel and cinnamon, combining them with olive oil to make perfume.

It’s believed that it was the Persians who made the first non-oil based scents, paving the way for how perfume is made today, whereby alcohol is used instead. In other ways however, the way we make perfume today is not so different from ancient practices. Perfume made in ancient times contained many of the plant extracts and animal products still used today.

How is Perfume Made? An Overview

Perfume creation (Photo: Patrice Coppee via Getty Images)

Interestingly, perfumery is an industry that, whilst involving automation, still relies on a lot of manual input. The prime source of fragrance in most perfumes is derived from plant oils. Therefore, much of the answer to “how is perfume manufactured” is about extracting those oils and blending them. However, this is far from the full story. Just one perfume can have 800 individual ingredients, some natural, others synthetic. Once blended, the perfume is aged. Only then can it be bottled and boxed.

How Perfume is Made: A Formula for Success

Perfume Bottles with different scents (Photo: Richard T. Nowitz via Getty Images)

Creating a perfume is a matter of creating the perfect formula. Perfumers mix and test hundreds of ingredients to create each scent, sometimes based on their own ideas, other times to a client’s brief. The process can take years. Once the recipe is ready, it can be sent to manufacturers anywhere in the world for production. But once the formula is ready, how is perfume made in factories? Let’s distil the process down to its individual steps.

How Is Perfume Manufactured? Sourcing Ingredients

Perfume Sprayer Amidst Plants (Photo: Anna Galkovskaya / EyeEm via Getty Images)

The answer to “how is perfume made in factories” begins with the arrival of the requisite ingredients. These might be flowers, plants, resins, leaves, grasses, fruit, animal products or synthetic chemicals. Alcohol, specifically pure Ethanol, is a prime ingredient of perfume.

Only around 2000 flowering plant types are known to contain the oils required for making perfume. These are picked and delivered to the factory for oil extraction. Creating just a small amount of oil can require hundreds, even thousands of flowers. For example, 15ml of perfume may contain the oil of 600 to 700 roses. That’s why high-end brands might have their own flower fields.

For those flowers or plants that have no such oils, such as lily-of-the-valley, their scents are emulated in labs via synthetic means. In fact, synthetics have become increasingly common for all types of scent in how perfume is made, with manufacturers preferring them to natural sources, both due to cost and ease of production.

Animal fats are sometimes used in perfumes as fixatives, that is as a way to make the perfume last longer. Amongst these are male deer musk, beaver castor and ambergris from sperm whales.

While most of the ingredients of a perfume will arrive ready to use, the oils from plants, flowers or fruit are extracted on site.

How is Perfume Made via Extraction?

Close up of perfume spraying from bottle (Photo: Image Source/Still Factory via Getty Images)

There are six main ways to undertake plant oil extraction, the choice of which will differ not only from factory to factory, but will also depend on the flora or fauna in question.

Expression is generally the cheapest form of oil extraction, not to mention the oldest, and basically amounts to squeezing it out. However, this is most effective not for flowers, but fruits, and especially citrus peel.

Oils can also be extracted via steaming flower petals or even boiling them, then distilling the resulting gases.

Enfleurage and maceration are two further extraction methods in how perfume is made. Both involve pressing flower petals against glass surfaces greased with vegetable oils or animal fats. The fact that pressing can take weeks and that it has to be repeated several times makes this too costly in most cases.

However, in terms of answering “how is perfume manufactured” it is solvent extraction, whereby chemicals dissolve the plants, that is most commonly used. This usually entails large tanks wherein the plants or flowers are covered in substances like petroleum or benzene. The resulting waxy matter is then immersed in alcohol, making the oil rise to the surface. The alcohol is then evaporated.

How is Perfume Made? Blending the Oils

Different perfumes on a dressing table (Photo: Cavan Images via Getty Images)

The process of how perfume is made goes back to the start at this point, referring back to the formula devised by the perfumer. The oils are blended in accordance with this recipe and then mixed with alcohol and a small amount of water. The amount of alcohol used will determine whether the resulting liquid qualifies as a perfume, or whether it is more diluted and thus a cologne or eau de toilette. Generally, perfume should comprise 40% extracted oils, compared with 15% for cologne and 10% for eau de toilette.

As mentioned above, how perfume is made includes hundreds of ingredients, which will also be added in. Antioxidants like Butylated hydroxytoluene are one such example, increasingly added to perfume to increase its lifetime.

How is Perfume Manufactured? Ageing

Perfume testing (Photo: Anna Efetova via Getty Images)

Like a fine wine, perfume must mature. This phase, in which the perfume is stored in cool, dark conditions, allows the oils to bond and blend with the alcohol. Ageing can take months or even a year, and should result in the smell becoming more powerful. It may also be cooled and filtered.

How Perfume is Made: Testing and Adjusting

Woman trying on fragrances in store (Photo: Hybrid Images via Getty Images)

Once ageing is complete, a perfume expert, known in the industry as a “nose” will judge the fragrance. If any adjustments are to be made, these are then carried out.

And that’s the rub. The answer to “how is perfume manufactured”. From “how was perfume made in ancient times” right up to modern day and how perfume is made in factories, we hope this guide to how perfume is made has come up smelling of roses.


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