Common Perfume Ingredients: A to Z List

Updated 04/06/19
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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 hope you'll enjoy this glossary of frequently used fragrance and aromatherapy ingredients.

Agrumen

An aldehyde (see below) with a characteristic green, musky odor.

Aldehyde

Organic compounds present in many natural materials that can be synthesized artificially, such as the aliphatic aldehydes used to give sparkle to Chanel No 5.

Amber

A heavy, full bodied, powdery, warm fragrance note. Amber oil comes from the Baltic amber tree.

Ambergris

A sperm whale secretion with a sweet, woody odor. Usually reproduced synthetically, as sale of ambergris is illegal in many countries.

Ambrette

The oil obtained from ambrette seeds—which come from hibiscus—has a musk-like odor. Commonly, ambrette is used as a substitute for true musk.

Amyris

A white-flowering bush or tree found in Haiti and South America. Often used as a less-expensive substitute for sandalwood.

Benzoin

A balsamic resin from the Styrax tree.<br/>
Bergamot

The tangy oil that is expressed from the (non-edible) bergamot orange, which is grown primarily in Italy.

Calone

An aromatic chemical that adds a “sea breeze” or marine-type note to fragrances.

Cashmeran

A synthetic aldehyde with a spicy, ambery, musky, floral odor. Used to invoke the velvety smell or "feel" of cashmere.

Castoreum

An animalistic secretion from the Castor beaver used to impart a leathery aroma to a fragrance. Often reproduced synthetically.

Citron

The zest of this tree's fruit is used to create citrus fragrance notes.<br/>
Civet

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.

Clary sage

The oil of this herb smells sweet-to-bittersweet, with nuances of amber, hay, and tobacco.

Coumarin

A commonly used perfume compound that smells like vanilla. Usually derived from the tonka bean (see below), but also found in lavender, sweetgrass, and other plants.

Frangipani

A fragrant tropical flower, also known as "West Indian Jasmine."

Frankincense

A gum resin from a tree found in Arabia and Eastern Africa. Also called Olibanum.

Galbanum

A gum resin that imparts a green, plant-like smell.

Guaiac Wood

Wood from a resinous South American tree, the oil of which used in perfumery.

Hedione

An aroma compound that has a soft, radiant jasmine aroma.

Heliotrope

Flowers of the family heliotropium, which have a strong, sweet vanilla-like fragrance with undertones of almond.

Indole

A chemical compound which smells floral at low concentrations, but fecal at high concentrations. Used widely in perfumery.

Iso E Super

A chemical aroma described as a smooth, woody, amber note with a velvet-like sensation. Used to impart fullness into fragrances.

Jasmine

A flower employed widely in perfumery. Jasmine is one of the most expensive perfume ingredients in the world.

Labdanum

An aromatic gum from the rockrose bush. The sweet woody odor is said to mimic ambergris (see above), and can also be used to impart a leather note.

Monoi

Gardenia (tiare) petals macerated in coconut oil. Sometimes called Monoi de Tahiti.

Muguet

French for Lily of the Valley. One of the three most used florals in perfumery. Unlike jasmine and rose, usually synthetically reproduced.

Musk

Natural musk comes from the glands of the musk deer. But the vast majority of musk produced and sold in the world today is synthetic. This is a good thing, seeing as musk is found in almost every men's fragrance and cologne. Natural musk also one of the most expensive perfume ingredients.

Myrrh

A gum resin produced from a bush found in Arabia and Eastern Africa.

Narciussus

The white flowers of this tree are used extensively in French perfume production.

Neroli

A citrus oil distilled from the blossoms of either the sweet or bitter orange tree. The Italian term for neroli is zagara.

Oakmoss

Derived from a lichen that grows on oak trees. 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.<br/>
Opopanax

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.

Orris

Derived from the iris plant. Has a flowery, heavy and woody aroma. Orris is very rare.

Osmanthus

A flowering tree native to China, valued for its delicate fruity apricot aroma.

Oud (Oudh)

Refers to wood from the Agar tree found mostly in Southeast Asia. The fragrant resin is treasured by perfumers. It is another one of the most expensive perfume ingredients in the world.<br/>
Ozone

A modern, synthetic note meant to mimic the smell of petrichor, or fresh air right after a thunderstorm.

Patchouli

A bushy shrub originally from Malaysia and India. It has a musty-sweet, spicy aroma. Patchouli is often used as a base note.

Rose

One of the main flower notes used in perfumery. Rose is, shockingly, also one of the more expensive perfume ingredients.

Rose de Mai

The traditional name given to Rose Absolute (rose essential oil) produced by solvent and then alcohol extraction.

Sandalwood

An oil from the Indian sandal tree. One of the oldest known perfumery ingredients, commonly used as a base note.

Tonka Bean

Derived from a plant native to Brazil. 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

A plant with highly perfumed white flowers, resembling those of a lily.

Vanilla

Derived from the seed pod of the vanilla orchid. Highly fragrant, popular, and expensive to produce.<br/>
Vetiver

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.

Ylang Ylang

An Asian evergreen tree with fragrant flowers, the oil of which is used in expensive floral perfumes.

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