Skip to 0 minutes and 6 secondsThe art of creating perfumes dates back to Egyptian times. Perfumes were used to cover up unpleasant odours coming from unwashed bodies. In the 17th century, during the plague, doctors treating plague victims covered their mouths and noses with leather pouches containing pungent cloves, cinnamon, and spices, which they thought would protect them from disease. So, many naturally occurring materials have been used to make perfumes - ambergris, one of the most valuable raw materials in perfumery is produced in the intestines of sperm whales, while musk is secreted by the musk deer. So, using these natural materials, how do we create perfumes? And why was Chanel No 5 such a landmark fragrance? This video helps us to find out.

Skip to 0 minutes and 52 secondsPerfumers use names like composers use when writing music. For example, individual ingredients contribute notes to the overall composition and the notes are divided into head notes, heart notes, and base notes. The head notes, are often the more volatile materials, lower boiling components, that give the initial impact; the heart notes form the bulk of the perfume; and finally the base notes are higher boiling components that fix the more volatile components. When creating a perfume you need to get the right balance of head, heart, and base notes - the base notes should ensure that the head notes are not immediately lost. Head notes of natural perfumes often come from citrus oils, herbs and green foliage.

Skip to 1 minute and 37 secondsWhile heart notes are typically flower oils, including rose, geranium, lily and violet. Finally, the base notes are classically woody, musk and amber materials. Today, perfumes are manufactured more and more frequently with synthetic chemicals rather than natural oils. Less concentrated forms of perfume are also becoming more popular. This decreases the cost of the fragrances, leading to more widespread and frequent, often daily, use. A landmark example of a perfume is Chanel Number 5. In 1921, for the first time, Mademoiselle Chanel used volatile low-boiling aliphatic aldehydes, including 2-methylundecanal, as the head notes alongside natural oils including jasmine. The success inspired other perfumery houses to experiment with synthetic materials and the modern age of perfumery was born.

The notes of perfumes and the potential dangers of scented products

Extensive use of air-fresheners and body sprays, mixed with the decreased airflow of increasingly insulated homes, and the closing of windows in colder months, results in a heavily fragranced atmosphere. The regulation of perfumed chemicals inside of these products is strict but, once outside of the bottles, these chemicals have the possibility of reacting in the air, resulting in quite a nasty mix.

Studies undertaken by scientists at the National Centre for Atmospheric Science at the University of York have been used to test the air quality inside a selection of homes to determine the most abundant fragrance compounds, as well as any toxic molecules, resulting from the use of fragranced products. During the study, the levels of 'volatile organic compounds' (also known as VOCs) were measured. VOCs are organic compounds that can easily turn into gases or vapours.

It became clear that limonene (a compound extracted from the rinds of oranges, giving a citrus scent, which is looked at in greater detail further along in the week) was the most abundant compound, especially in the houses that used the most cleaning products and scented candles; in some cases, reaching over 30 ppbv (parts per billion by volume) – some of the highest levels the scientists had ever recorded.

Limonene itself, is not a major cause for concern (it is even used in food flavouring) but, back in York, it was determined that for every two molecules of limonene that are exposed to ozone – a compound found in air – one molecule of methanal (or formaldehyde) can be produced; with results confirming the correlation between limonene and methanal values.


Links have been found between methanal and cancer and, in 2011, methanal was listed as a human carcinogen; therefore, the presence of methanal in our homes could be quite worrying.

While the easy solution to this problem would be to open windows and doors, another answer could be found using houseplants. A further study undertaken at York showed that houseplants do not have a significant effect on the levels of limonene present in the air in our homes, but that methanal levels are reduced in their presence. This suggests that house-plants might help to absorb the toxic methanal produced by fragranced products.

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Exploring Everyday Chemistry

University of York