Letters from the Bureau of Scent and Recollection: Longevity

Letters from the Bureau of Scent and Recollection: Longevity

My aunt sent her thank you notes on a beautiful light blue stationary that smelled of ylang ylang.  The scent lingered while it read her words.  Eventually the aroma dissipated and was barely perceptible.  I would put it back in the envelope and wait a few days, and then reading it again the perfume of ylang ylang was invoked.    Whether she meant ylang ylang to be her aroma “calling card” or not, I still do not know, but the scent reminds me of her, and I was always grasping for the perfume to persist. 

I’m in a lot of fragrance groups, and the question of a perfume’s longevity pops up a lot.  There is even advice on how to increase the longevity of a perfume.  One post described the wearer’s “longevity regime” that involves several types of exfoliations and then a base coat of an unscented lotion rubbed in before the perfume is applied.   Some of the perfume these people are wearing cost over $200 per ounce, so it understandable that a wearer would want it to linger or persist 

Yet, persistence in the environment conveys a different meaning.  Molecules that persist often are constructed to provide insulation, coolants, electrical conduction, or a whole host of other manufacturing applications.  To work effectively, they are designed not to degrade, and some have lifetimes estimated over 1000 years.  Manufactured (people made) chemicals have not evolved with our environment.  By contrast molecules like carbon dioxide have many places they can be stored within the Earth (i.e., ocean, soils, rocks, organic matter, and atmosphere).  What this means is that manufactured molecules do not have anywhere to go and linger in our atmosphere. 

Perfume applied to skin can enter into the bloodstream within 20 minutes.  The body identifies it as foreign and begins the work of removing the perfume molecules mostly via the liver.  The process can be completed in as little as 1-4 hours depending on the chemical.  For example, smaller (or lighter) molecules will break down faster.   Limonene is present in all citrus essential oils.  It is a very light molecule that easily penetrates the skin barrier, and it will break down very quickly.  When private clients tell me that they want a natural citrus perfume that persists or has longevity, I must help them manage their expectations.  It simply isn’t a matter of constructing the perfume correctly.  A blend comprised of all citruses will not last.    There is no secret alchemy that will work. 

For natural perfumers, especially those of us who do not use animal products such as civet, longevity is a challenge.  Natural molecules that evolved alongside us are friendly to our bodies and easier for the liver to break them down.  However, there are some techniques to enhance persistence.  One is to include fixatives within the blend to enhance the longevity of the blend.  Sandalwood, patchouli, vetiver, oud, and my aunt’s ylang ylang are some examples of botanical fixatives.  Even small doses of these essential oils can anchor a blend without changing the characteristics of the perfume. 

scent strips of the same essential oil dipped at different times

How a blend performs on an individual’s skin can vary drastically where a perfume might last 8 hours on one person and only 4 hours on another.  A person’s ability to detect odors has a role too, of course.  For my clients who are intrigued by naturals, I ask them to consider a natural perfume as a special type of live performance art.  Just like a live play, dance, or piece of music, there may be that one moment that you absolutely love.  It is compelling and you are completely present within that moment.  Afterwards, you may relive it from memory or a conversation with someone who also shared the event.  Eventually the memory fades into the recesses of the subconscious and you are left with the lingering emotive quality of the performance. 

 I love sharing the evolving nature of natural aromas with clients.  For some of my fragrance workshops I prepare scent strips ahead of the event.  I will dip the scent strips into a blend or essential oil at one-hour intervals.  Participants enjoy going back into time by smelling a scent strip that was dipped four hours, three hours, two hours, and one hour before their arrival.  They are able to detect the nuance of the blend complexity.

Natural perfumes also share this performance quality.  Although some synthetic perfumes evolve to the “drydown” or base notes most lack the depth and nuance found in natural perfumes.  And like the unfolding of a live performance, the perfume assists in encapsulating a moment into the subconscious.  But what differs with natural perfume from a live performance is that perfumes can draw that memory forward to the present each time a little bit transformed by the act of recollection.