How well do you know your perfume ingredients? It's okay if the answer is "not well at all." If you've ever found yourself asking, "What the heck is oud?" we have some answers for you. Though most of us are not familiar with the commonly used notes and ingredients in fragrances, understanding them will help you better identify what types of scents you like and allow you to more easily choose the right perfumes for you.
Keep scrolling to learn the most common perfume ingredients.
An aldehyde (see below) with a characteristic green, musky odor, "Agrumen is a fragrance compound used as a base in perfume creation," explains Spongellé CEO Elaine Binder. "It has a light green aroma."
Organic compounds are present in many natural materials that can be synthesized artificially, such as the aliphatic aldehydes used to give sparkle to Chanel No. 5. "Aldehyde adds an effervescent and bubbly almost kinetic feeling to fragrance," says perfumer Adriana Medina. "It first became popular in the 1920s with the launch of Chanel No. 5, making it one of the first synthetics in fragrance."
A heavy, full-bodied, powdery, warm fragrance note, amber oil comes from the Baltic amber tree. "Amber is a warm, powdery, sweet scent. It's a combination of synthetic and natural ingredients such as vanilla, patchouli, labdanum, styrax, and benzoin," says Medina. "Amber provides sophistication and sensuality to a fragrance."
As fragrance expert with Fragrances of the World Clayton Ilolahia explains, ambergris has been used in perfumery "for centuries." "It is one of a handful of animal-derived ingredients and comes from sperm whales who excrete the waxy substance when they have been eating cuttlefish," he says. "Ambergris develops a more pleasant aroma the longer it is cured by nature’s elements in the sea. When it is fresh, it is blackish in color and smells quite foul. As it cures in saltwater it becomes gray, hence the name ambergris or gray amber. Eventually, it is retrieved from a shoreline on the beach." Illolahia says that ambergris is typically used as a fixative in perfumery, and has a subtle but long-lasting odor.
"Due to scarcity and cost, as well as restrictions on animal-derived fragrance and cosmetic ingredients imposed by many countries, modern perfumery uses synthetic alternatives, which can range in smell. Some of these alternatives smell close to the real thing, with animalic tones and other alternatives smell like sun-bleached clean laundry or driftwood."
"AmberXtreme is the superpower of perfumers. Its extreme power will boost any fragrance composition with intense woody and ambery notes, which consumers around the world have learned to recognize and love," says perfumer Carlos Benaim.
This oil obtained from ambrette seeds—which come from hibiscus—has a musk-like odor. Commonly, ambrette is used as a substitute for true musk. “Ambrette seeds are probably one of my preferred ingredients because of their soft animalic character, and warm nutty milk undertones. It is the most natural musk sensuality," says perfumer Pascal Gaurin.
A white-flowering bush or tree found in Haiti and South America, amyris is often used as a less-expensive substitute for sandalwood.
Benzoin is a balsamic resin obtained from the bark of a Styrax tree. "It's milky and sweet, without being sugary, like vanilla with a hint of caramel. A perfect ingredient to blend with patchouli and spices. Its richness allows for multiple ways to create with it,' says perfumer Caroline Sabas.
The tangy oil that expressed from the (non-edible) bergamot orange, which is grown primarily in Italy. "Bergamot is a fragrant fruit that grows on a small Italian evergreen tree called Citrus Bergamia," says Binder. "The fragrance is an orange floral that is tart, sweet, uplifting, and aromatic. Bergamot blends well with other aromatics, which is why it is so popular in fragrance."
“I love the fruity effect of blackcurrant bud, which boosts juiciness in the top note of a fragrance. It reminds people who know it of the Kir Royal, a celebratory cocktail blending cassis liqueur with champagne," says Benaim.
An aromatic chemical that adds a “sea breeze” or marine-type note to fragrances, calone is a powder that is 100 percent man-made. "Created in the 1960s, it brings a strong note of "pure water", salty ocean air and is also reminiscent of watermelon. It is credited for starting an entire subfamily- the Marines," says perfumer Christine Hassan.
A synthetic aldehyde with a spicy, ambery, musky, floral odor, cashmeran is used to invoke the velvety smell or "feel" of cashmere. “I love the unique woody, musky, and dry mineral effect of Cashmeran, that gives a unique character to the fragrance," says Benaim.
An animalistic secretion from the Castor beaver used to impart a leathery aroma to a fragrance, it is often reproduced synthetically.
The zest of this tree's fruit is used to create citrus fragrance notes. "In perfumery, we use the oil extracted from the lemon peel, which is zesty and juicy, and gives brightness to a fragrance," says perfumer Dana Schmitt. "It adds a sunny sparkle to the top notes and blends harmoniously with everything from other citruses, to fruits, florals, and woods."
Musk produced by a gland at the base of the African civet cat's tail, pure civet is said to have a strong, unpleasant odor, but in small quantities, it is often used to add depth and warmth to a fragrance.
The oil of this herb smells sweet-to-bittersweet, with nuances of amber, hay, and tobacco. “I love working with clary sage for its clean, pastel, genderless versatility," says perfumer Mackenzie Reilly. "There are two different extracts of clary sage: The oil is a bit more aromatic, while the absolute has notes of ambroxan, dried tea leaves, and gives a natural meadow effect.”
A commonly used perfume compound that smells like vanilla, coumarin is usually derived from the tonka bean (see below), but also found in lavender, sweetgrass, and other plants. "Crystalline in form and snow-white in color, coumarin’s presence in fragrances is ubiquitous. The odor profile of this multifaceted material includes sweet fresh hay notes along with blond tobacco and soft, creamy nut-like nuances," says perfumer Gwen Gonzalez. "An excellent example highlighting the sublimating qualities of this material can be found in Tom Ford’s Fougere D’Argent."
Frangipani is a fragrant tropical flower, also known as "West Indian Jasmine."
A gum resin from a tree found in Arabia and Eastern Africa and also known as olibanum, frankincense is one of the oldest materials used for fragrance in recorded history. Produced by small trees (Boswellia genus), it releases a gum-like resin that solidifies into droplets or tears. "The aroma of this material is a softly enveloping balsamic, woody sweetness with citrus, spicy fresh inflections. I love the depth, opulence, and long-lastingness it lends to amber and woody fragrances," says Gonzalez.
A gum resin that imparts a green, plant-like smell, “Galbanum is one of the rare green notes extracted from nature. Galbanum oil immediately brings sophistication to a perfume, thanks to its combination of earthy, floral hyacinth tonalities, and a bitterness evocative of gentian," says perfumer Jean-Christophe Hérault. "It is super-chic, and I strongly believe in its rebirth after years of outdatedness."
Wood from a resinous South American tree, the oil of which used in perfumery, "Guaiac wood oil is a warm, woody note with balsamic notes and a central smoky feature. It also has the rosy notes of tea leaves," says perfumer Jacques Huclier. "Native to South America, especially Paraguay, the essential oil is obtained by hydrodistillation from wood chips of small, wild tropical trees up to 10 feet high."
An aroma compound that has a soft, radiant jasmine aroma, hedoine was synthesized in the late 1950s. "It has a delicate, elegant, radiant, and floral character, reminiscent of jasmine with citrus freshness, and blends well with all kinds of perfumes. "It was used for the first time in 1966 in iconic fragrance, Eau Sauvage by Parfums Christian Dior," says Huclier.
Flowers of the family heliotropium have a strong, sweet vanilla-like fragrance with undertones of almond. "Heliotrope is an herbaceous plant that produces small flowers with white, purple, or blue shades. Since obtaining essential oil from the plant is not possible, perfumers have reproduced its scent with different ingredients," says Huclier.
A chemical compound that smells floral at low concentrations, but fecal at high concentrations. "Used widely in perfumery, indole is often used to bring intrigue and a seductive edge to a scent," says perfumer John Gamba. "It provides an indescribable, underlying animalic note that allures to the primal senses."
Iso E Super
A chemical aroma described as a smooth, woody, amber note with a velvet-like sensation. Used to impart fullness into fragrances. “I love the woody, very diffusive aspect of this IFF molecule," says Benaim.
A flower employed widely in perfumery. jasmine is one of the most expensive perfume ingredients in the world. "Jasmine notes are powerful, green fruity facets reminiscent of honeysuckle. As one of the oldest ingredients found in perfumery, it has been extremely popular throughout the decades," says Gamba.
“Jasmin Sambac is one of the grande dames of perfumery. To me, it smells confident, sexy, feminine, while exuding modernity through its green facet," says perfumer Natasha Côté. "Jasmin Sambac adds richness and naturality to all my creations and is quintessential for my floral bouquets.”
Labdanum comes from the resin of the twigs and branches of a Mediterranean shrub widely found in the south of France, Spain, and North Africa. "The appeal of this material is its complexity and variety depending on the treatment of the plant. It can be described as ambery, leathery, woody, animalic, honey, warm, smokey, balsamic, fruity and overall brings a sophisticated warmth to a fragrance," says perfumer Linda Song.
“Yellow as a sunset over the Tanneron Massif, after a long winter, mimosa is the first flower opening the doors to spring in the south of France," says Jean-Marc Chaillan. "Green, floral, powdery, and honeyed, too, it embellishes any perfume with its beauty.”
Gardenia (tiare) petals macerated in coconut oil, monoi is sometimes called Monoi de Tahiti. "Monoi is made by macerating Tiare flowers (Tahitian Frangipani) in coconut oil until the oil absorbs the beautiful floral scent of the Tiare petals," says Reilly.
French for Lily of the Valley, muguet is one of the three most used florals in perfumery. Unlike jasmine and rose, usually synthetically reproduced. "Muguet is a wildflower growing in the undergrowth, and its scent can’t be captured naturally despite its sublime power," says perfumer Domitille Michalon-Bertier. "I love its green, rosy, and slightly musky scent."
"Musk is an aromatic base note derived from a combination of natural and synthetic sources. Musk notes are alluring, smooth, powdery," says Binder. "Musk is the fragrance that is left behind once the other aromatic notes have disappeared."
Natural musk comes from the glands of the musk deer and is one of the most expensive perfume ingredients. But Illolahia adds that musk "is rarely used today because musk deer are endangered," and that chemists have been refining synthetic alternatives since the late 19th century. "Typically musks add texture to fragrances and give them depth," says Illolahia. "Because they are so long-lasting, musk is often the note that lingers on the skin after all the other notes have disappeared."
A gum resin that is produced from a bush found in Arabia and Eastern Africa. “I love every facet of myrrh, which gives long-lastingness and elegance to both women’s and men’s perfumes. I see it as an addictive woody, licorice-like, and resinous," says perfumer Nelly Hachem-Ruiz.
The white flowers of this tree are used extensively in French perfume production. "It's a végétal scent, hay like, which brings a musky sensuality to perfume," says Michalon-Bertier.
Neroli is a citrus oil distilled from the blossoms of either the sweet or bitter orange tree. The Italian term for neroli is zagara. "I love this ingredient because it takes me to the beach. I use it whenever I want to create a transportive beach moment," says perfumer Patty Hidalgo.
Derived from a lichen that grows on oak trees, oakmoss is prized for its aroma, which is heavy and oriental at first, and then becomes refined and earthy when dried, making it reminiscent of bark, seashore, and foliage. "Thanks to new modern chypre fragrances, oakmoss is having a renaissance moment. Oakmoss Absolute has a mossy, forest-like, and marine algae-like note," says perfumer Nicole Mancini. "Smells like forest bathing to me."
A herb that grows in the Middle East, North Africa, and the Mediterranean, also known as sweet myrrh. The resin produces a scent similar to that of balsam or lavender.
Derived from the iris plant, the rare orris has a flowery, heavy, and woody aroma. “I love orris for its powdery facets, reminiscent of rice powder, for its leathery and woody accents, and for its opulent floralcy," says perfumer Julien Rasquinet. "Orris is utterly timeless, and emerged through every single perfumery period, bringing unique nobility. It is both immediately recognizable and versatile.”
A flowering tree native to China, valued for its delicate fruity apricot aroma. “Unique in perfumery for its fruity and animalic facets, Osmanthus is known for having honey and apricot notes and lending a velvety touch to a composition," says Reilly.
"Oud or agarwood has been revered in Asian, Arabic, and North African cultures for millennia," says Illolahia. "Over the past twenty years, oud has become a phenomenon in Anglo perfumery. Oud essential oil is produced from Aquilaria trees which mostly grow in the rainforests of Southeast Asia. When the trees are infected with a type of fungus, a black resin is produced in the heartwood. This aromatic resin is highly prized and heartwood from infected trees can cost as much as $100,000 per kilo."
Illolahia adds that, due to the cost and supply, "natural oud oil is used sparingly in Anglo perfumes and is generally reserved for niche or luxury fragrances. Of course, perfumers can mimic the scent using other woody and ambery ingredients more abundant in nature but nothing compares to the complexity of high- quality natural oud oil, which has olfactory references to dry woods, ambery resins, and even leather. "
A modern, synthetic note meant to mimic the smell of petrichor, or fresh air right after a thunderstorm. "Ozone has been used for many years but really exploded after the creation of L'eau D'Issey in 1992. Developers like Ray Matts always used large amounts of it in his fragrances as it gave a huge trail," says perfumer Olivier Gillotin.
A bushy shrub originally from Malaysia and India. It has a musty-sweet, spicy aroma. Patchouli is often used as a base note. “Patchouli is a magical ingredient. You can sprinkle it in tiny amounts, and you can overdose it," says perfumer Juliette Karagueuzoglou. "It turns a scent into a chypre, into a fougere, into an amber. Whether you hide it or show it, it does its magic every single time.”
One of the main flower notes used in perfumery, rose is, shockingly, also one of the more expensive perfume ingredients. "Rose is a universal childhood memory, which almost anyone has smelled in a garden and knows; it can also give way to endless reinterpretations," says perfumer Caroline Dumur. "Rose has a unique signature, which immediately brings uniqueness into a fragrance: its presence just can’t be faked.”
Rose de Mai
A real Rose de Mai is a distillation of a Centifolia rose grown in the Grasse area in France. It is an extremely rich, warm, and voluptuous rose odor with a hint of honey. "It gives a strong effect in a perfume even in a very small amount," says Gillotin. "Used in several classical fragrances (like Chanel N°5 or Jean Patou Joy), it is also experienced in luxe, modern fragrances. The fields to produce this beautiful rose near Grasse are limited therefore the quantity available is quite low making it yield a high price."
An oil from the Indian sandal tree, sandalwood is one of the oldest known perfumery ingredients, that is commonly used as a base note. "Sandalwood is an extraordinary wood with a deliciously creamy, milky scent, almost buttery, with the strength of a vertical and dense wood," says Michalon-Bertier. "It brings extra-soul to perfumes, with the sensuous tonalities of sun-kissed skin.
Derived from a plant native to Brazil, tonka bean has an aroma of vanilla, but with strong hints of cinnamon, cloves, and almonds. Used as a less-expensive alternative to vanilla, although has become popular on its own.
Tuberose is a plant with highly perfumed white flowers, resembling those of a lily. "In the Aztec language, it's called 'the flower made of little bones,'" says perfumer Rodrigo Flores-Roux. "There's no household in Mexico where tuberose sprigs aren't set up in vases, perfuming the whole atmosphere like there's no tomorrow."
"Even though this is one of the most broadly loved notes around the world, few people know that it actually comes from the seed pod of an orchid," says perfumer Stephen Nilsen. "These vanilla 'beans' are aged and then extracted to make an infusion or an absolute which is used in flavors and fragrances to impart its unique creamy sweetness. Synthetic sources of the molecule vanillin that characterizes vanilla have allowed us to add this delicious and additive note to fragrances across a broad variety of applications."
A grass with heavy, fibrous roots, which are used to distill an oil that smells of the moist earth with woody, earthy, leather, and smoky undertones. A highly important ingredient in perfumes. "Vetiver is proof that upcycling can give amazing products," says perfumer Claire Liegent. "It is woody and very vibrant as I love, with a mystical smoky side and a lot of strength bringing character and complexity to a perfume.”
An Asian evergreen tree with fragrant flowers, the oil of which is used in expensive floral perfumes. “Ylang ylang has a fruity top like a juicy crunchy pear and a body with an elegant floral softness that gives sensuality to both feminine and masculine fragrances," says Liegent.