Thursday, September 23, 2010

The difference between Aromatherapy and Natural Perfume

There's been a debate withon the natural perfume community lately, as to what the difference is between Natural or Botanical Perfumery and Aromatherapy.

Conventional Perfumery has been poo pooing Aromatherapy ever since it started to become popular in the 1980's. But then Conventional Perfumery poo poos Natural Perfumery too, so I don't really see how their opinion matters either which way here.

Aromatherapy is the art of useing essential oils to create a certain therapeutic effect, both emotionally and physically. As I wrote in my previous blogpost, essential oils have been used for centuries, both in perfumery and for medicinal purposes.
All scents have an effect on our emotions and hence our bodies, be they natural or artificial.
Our sense of smell is directly linked to the emotional part of our brain, which in turn has a direct biochemical effect on our body, raising or dropping levels of hormones and other biochemicals depending on the scent.

Musky scents arouse us, sweet and foody scents make us salivate and increase stomach aci, citrus scents and mints make us feel awake and refreshed, regardless of their origin!

So from that point of view, ALL perfumes are a form of Aromatic- Therapy.

 To get back to the nitty gritty though, modern Aromatherapy defines itself by the use of individual or combinations of pure and natural essential oils, either by diffusion or application to the body in form of massage oils & suchlike. And the focus is initially mainly on the effect of said oils, rather than the actual smell itself.

Natural or Botanical Perfumery in contrast, focuses primarily on the smell created by combining different natural materials.
The pallette of Natural Perfumery is also much larger than the that used in most schools of Aromatherapy, drawing not only on essential oils, but also a wide variety of absolutes, extracts, resins, herbal, fruit and other infusions and basically, anything natural that has a pleasant scent!

I should probably mention here that, much as I love Aromatherapy, use it on a daily basis and am incredibly grateful that it's has introduced millions of people to the benefits of useing essential oils,  I am a bit critical of a lot of the stuff touted in aromatherapy courses.
I started working with essential oils before Aromatherapy had hit the big popularity stakes, and have viewed it's evolution at first with great joy, then with growing annoyance.
Essential oils are wonderful things, and their effects can be amazing...
But a lot of the the textbooks have stolen their information wholesale from each other, and most of it is simply cribbed directly from much older books on herbal medicine. And this simply doesn't work.
An essential oil is the volatile part of a plant made available by distillation. The plant itself in many cases contains many other chemicals that may or may not be important in it's physical effect on the body.
On top of that, there is a huge difference in the way your body aborbs things, and drinking a tea made from a herb (which is the way most herbal medicines are taken) is a very different thing to having the dilted oil from the same plant rubbed onto your skin during massage.

This becomes very obvious when you read the warnings about when which oils are safe for use during pregnancy. They are, for the main part, pure fiction, and merely the result of essential oil traders trying to cover their sue-able butts.
Arnica, for instance, is toxic if drunk as a tea...but makes a fantastic bruise and varicose vein salve when applied to the legs externally!

Unluckily, as I mentioned above, the text books all quote each other, and somehow this new school of thought with the many faulty text books has managed to wrangle it's way into higher education, so you can now become a "certified" aromatherapist....

Enough of the side rave though, getting back to perfumery, and the question of whether a natural perfume can be an "Aromatherapy Perfume".

Like all of these natural terms, there is no official definition.

For myself, I define it this way:

Most of the perfumes I make are essentially Aromatherapy Perfumes, because when I am designing a perfume, I usually have the effect I want it to have formeost in my mind. I have always used Scent primary to create a certain atmosphere, or as a direct kind of scent therapy.
"Love Potion" for instance was designed for a friend in need of that very thing!
And the ingredients in it are all ones that have an aphrodisiac, stimulating effect on the body and on the emotions. It contains things like Jasmine absolute and Coriander and Cardamon essential oil, all of which you can find listed in aromatherapy textbooks as aphrodisiac and stimulating to the senses....
What makes it a great perfume, is the way they are combined. The balance of each ingredient, and the way they all play together in the blend!


  1. Ambrosia, I'm so glad you wrote about the
    clap-trap which does the rounds of aromatherapy texts. I no longer defer to any of them in my own work these days.
    And on to 'therapy'...
    I know from experiencing your perfumes, that aesthetically they are sophisticated, evocatively wrought fragrances.
    My quiet yearning for one or the other on a cetain day - depending upon mood and mind - tells me there is a healing and life-enhancing dimension to them which can be called therapeutic.
    This is when I know I'm wearing a work of art.
    It's the same response we have to music and other artforms.
    I like it!

  2. I enjoyed lying in this field reading this blog post :)

  3. It seems to occur whenever the big players start putting their noses into things. Hype sells product, whatever that product might be.

  4. As one also into AT before it got traction, would agree with a lot you said about it....

    Things usually go awry, when the marketers start bending or hyping things...

    As far as Natural Perfumery, I see no reason why an Artisan Natural Perfume cannot be created from AT type essential oils...There is room in the AT palette for a classical type of perfume to be blended...You do have to understand the Base-Middle-Top concept, and the assumed AT limit on number of Aromatics involved...

    You will not have the range of the NP Palette, because a large number of those essences are not deemed acceptable to AT tenets...

    Gary W. Bourbonais

  5. Gary, that's only true if you accept that supposed limit in the first place. Realistically, Aromatherapy is a loosely bunched collection of opinions. Not a science.
    (Waves to Robert Tisserand experts here who is one of the few I really respect!)
    Personally though, I have found that one of the biggest mistakes beginner perfumers make is trying to combine too many different ingredients. The more you add, the more there is a propensity for the whole thing to go muddy!
    As I wrote in a previous blogpost about composing with natural ingredients, the thing that most beginners miss, is that each oil or absolute is already a complete perfume in itself. So realistically you don't need as many ingredients to make a beautiful scent as you do if you are working with conventional perfumery buidling blocks. Which is why so many traditional recipes are far far shorter than modern day synthetic ones.
    Brings up the next question: Is it still aromatherapy if you go outside the conventional AT pallette? And what is that anyway? There are new essential oils being added every day...
    I have a whole shelf full of Australian essential oils...and there is no way ANYONE can claim that these are classical AT oils...they have only been available for a few years and do not have any kind of historical use known.

    By my definition they are AT oils as they are natural, and have an effect on the human Mind and body....
    They sure as hell aren't classical perfume ingredients either....

    From my perspective the whole concept is one of intent, and whether or not the perfumer has the aromatherapy and herbal knowledge to be able to choose and create a natural perfume which will have a specific effect on the wearer as well as perfumery training to enable them to then make it into a pleasing, balanced and lasting perfume...(which is what you are also saying with the concept of top middle and base note?)

  6. Hi!

    Glad to see buds posting in this thread of Ambrosia's, and for the lively discourse on the yahoo group. Guess what I just dug out? A 10-page paper I wrote on this subject in 2004! It was on an old site I host, and a bit obscure to find, so I just posted it as part of my CV on the AGNPI site.