Perfumes were first used in ancient Greece and Egypt, and for thousands of years they were made from natural materials such as flowers, plant oils, resins and roots, and oils from the scent glands of such animals as the musk deer. Most perfumes are now made with synthetic scents — chemicals formulated to smell like natural ingredients such as rose, jasmine and musk. Synthetic scent compounds are less expensive than organic ingredients, and are used instead of, or in combination with, natural oils.

Base Ingredients

The scented ingredients of a perfume are always blended with a solvent. The solvent either consists of ethanol alcohol or a mix of ethanol alcohol and water. The various grades of perfume refer the amount of fragrance oil that is blended with the solvent. Perfume, or parfum, is the most intense type of perfume, and it consists of approximately 22% fragrance oils. Cologne, the least intense type of perfume, consists of approximately 4% fragrance oils.

Organic Ingredients

Plants are the main source of natural perfume ingredients. Different parts of plants produce different scents. All parts of a plant, including bark, roots, flowers, leaves, fruits, wood and resins, or sap, are used to create perfume. Popular natural ingredients include rose and jasmine, sandalwood, patchouli and citrus oils. Distillation, which involves steaming the plant material, is the most common way to extract oils from natural materials. More expensive ways to extract essential oils from plant material include maceration (seeping the fragrant material in oil) and expressing, or squeezing.

Synthetic Scents

There are hundreds of synthetic scent compounds used in perfume. Some mimic organic ingredients, and others are unique scents or blends. Popular synthetic scents used in perfume include benzyl acetate, a synthetically produced jasmine scent, Galaxolide, a synthetic musk-like scent, and ethyl linalool, a lavender scent. International Flavors and Fragrances is one of the top producers of synthetic fragrances in the world.

Fun Fact

Ambergris is a substance that is found in the digestive tract of sperm whales, and it has a musky, floral scent. Ambergris, also referred to as amber, was historically a popular fragrance ingredient. Ambergris is now reproduced synthetically.


Phthalates, chemical compounds that make a fragrance’s scent last longer, are found in many perfumes. Phthalates can accumulate in the body’s fatty tissue, and the use of some phthalates has been banned in Europe because of fears of damage to reproductive health. According to, a website run by The Personal Care Products Council, a trade organization representing the cosmetic and fragrance industry, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration finds the levels of phthalates in fragrances sold in the United States to be safe.