What is the difference between aromatherapy and perfume? This is a question I get a lot at markets where I vend my blends and perfumes directly. There are some differences, but of course, there are many similarities, especially using because I use natural ingredients. When we think about aromatherapy, we might think of how a tincture, essential oil, or distillate might help us with a wellness concern. Perfume is considered a luxury to be sampled and enjoyed. The fragrance may bring you happiness, but there is no expectation of wellness associated with it. In a world of modern synthetics, this distinction is only partly true. For example, the molecule linalyl acetate is one of the two main molecules found in lavender. Linalyl acetate can be distilled from other less expensive plants, and it can also be synthesized in a lab. There are multiple studies that examine linalyl acetate effectiveness at relaxing our bodies (just to cite a few: Koto et al., 2006; Ataka et al., 2020)
Inhaling linalyl acetate regardless of the source (i.e. natural or synthetic) will help to relax vascular smooth muscle and have a mild uplifting impact on depressive mood states. In short, what this means is that perfume can serve a wellness function because it is the aroma itself that causes the effect. But there are differences we can make between aromatherapy products and perfume. It comes down to five things: 1) dilution, 2) intent (smell or physiological effect), 3) impact; and 4) labor.
Dilution: One of my most popular blends, Calm the Flame, is a combination of lavender and frankincense. The aroma is a twist on classic category of perfumes called a Fougeres. I developed the aromatherapy blend to serve the needs of many complaints: generalized anxiety, inflammation, mild pain, sleep issues, mild breathing issues, and it helps with bug bites. Perfumes are usually at concentrations well above 5% and most aromatherapy blends are around 2%. My “aromatherapy” blends would not be very therapeutic at such a high concentration and not advisable to rub all over one’s the chest.
Intent: In general, aromatherapy blends are very simple including no more than 5-7 components, typically. For me I evaluate each of the aromatic gas chromatography/mass spectrometry reports and this affects which essential oil I buy or which one I use in a blend. One of my clients requires rose in her aromatherapy blend for vaginal dryness. It is unusually for me to make aromatherapy blends with rose because generally you can find other oil substitutes for a lower cost. In this case rose is required. The rose oils that I look for are ones in a therapeutic sense are ones that high in citronellol and low in methyl eugenol. For perfumes, I am most interested in a complex and inviting aroma that has a beautiful depth. The percentage of citronellol doesn’t matter to me in a perfume as much as the aroma matters.
Impact: With a perfume, especially a natural perfume, you want to go on a scent journey. The perfume issues an invitation with the top notes and the aroma shifts to the middle notes, and then finally the base notes are left. It blends with your skin and natural chemistry and evolves. It is a luxury that provides a deeply personal experience. I have witness people tear up when the smell a personal blend I have made for them. Aromatherapy is expected to have a certain effect such as reduce pain, improve breathing, or help you relax. There is a very specific expectation of what the effect should be, with perfume the expectation is to be delighted.
Labor: The labor involved in making both aromatherapy and perfumes is similar until the blending begins. For both, I develop a “brief” which sets the intention of the blend. I develop, make, and research the ingredients. My most labor-intensive product for aromatherapy is the St. John’s Wort oil I make. I harvest fresh John’s Wort flowers in mid-June, and steep them for 6-8 weeks in organic olive oil. This provides the base for my Deep Relief salve.
For my perfume blends, I make many of the base notes via tinctures. Some of them will take a year to steep such as my Ambrette Seeds. I spend significantly more time developing and layer the aroma for perfumes. Because they are so complex, many of the perfumes require a minimum of 6 weeks to mature.
Often when I make a blend for a friend as a gift, I also have a very different feelings depending on the intent. For the aromatherapy, often I am giving them a blend because they have a wellness need. Perhaps they have injured their back, they are stressed, or they feel a cold coming. I know my blends help many people, but there is an urgency as I drop off the salve. With a perfume I have had the time to make a beautiful little gift box. The occasion is an indulgence in an often overscheduled day. I watch them open the gift. Their delight is my delight. And their sense of joy is so palpable when they indulge in the aroma.