The word perfume is used today to describe scented mixtures and is derived from the Latin word, “per fumus,” meaning through smoke. The word Perfumery refers to the art of making perfumes. Perfume was further refined by the Romans, the Persians and the Arabs.
Throughout history, people have used perfumes for everything from religious sacraments, healing rituals, to simply masking bad body odor. Today, people generally wear perfume to smell good. Some have a signature scent that they feel defines them, while others choose from a wardrobe of bottles, depending on who they want to be that day.
Scent is an intimate, personal thing, but what many don’t know is that some of the most famous perfume notes—like musk—have unpleasant animal origins.
While the very first perfumes, which originated in ancient Mesopotamia and Indian cultures, were simple mixes of herbs and flowers, perfumers soon started incorporating animal ingredients into the mix for their unique notes and lasting scent. Two of the first animal-based scents were musk and civet—derived from animals.
Like any artform, good perfumery is all about balance—combining the innocent with the sensual, the masculine with the feminine. Just a tiny drop of something funky like civet can elevate a perfume from a basic floral bouquet into something edgy, multilayered and complex. Heavier, musky scents also make excellent base notes—the part of the scent that lingers on skin after the first blast of bergamot or lavender has faded away. Civet and musk notes helped early perfumes last for hours, even days, on skin.
Civet, which lends perfumes a warm, animalistic note, is gathered from the glandular secretions of the civet cat, who uses it to mark territory.
Similarly, musk, a scent found in everything from the cheapest drugstore body spray to the fanciest department store perfume, was originally gathered from a sac near the musk deer’s penis (musk is secreted by male deer when they’re trying to attract a mate).
Soon after musk came castoreum, a secretion removed from the dried castor glands of beavers, who use it to tag and protect their waterfront homes. It has a rich, leathery scent that gives perfumes extra depth. It also tastes like vanilla and has been added as a ‘natural’ flavouring to many prodcuts.
Finally, ambergris, the waxy substance secreted by sperm whales, produces a sweet, marine scent that deepens as it ages.
These distasteful secretions, often gathered near the animal’s genitals, were prized by perfumers for their distinctive, earthy scents that couldn’t be found elsewhere in nature.
Throughout the twentieth century, these ingredients were used by all the major perfume houses, with civet found in iconic perfumes like Chanel No. 5 and castoreum used in YSL’s Opium. As a result, huge numbers of beavers, deer and civet cats were poached, trapped, caged and killed to fuel the perfume industry.
Over the last few decades, thanks to animal rights activists and changing consumer attitudes, most animal-harming ingredients in perfumes have been phased out and replaced by synthetic versions. When the musk deer became endangered, and as consumers started expressing more concern about the animal cruelty involved in perfume creation, perfumers started listening. In 1998, Chanel announced they stopped using real civet in their classic No. 5.
Interestingly, most perfumers actually prefer synthetics because they’re cheap, easy to control. Most importantly, no animals are harmed or killed as part of the process.
In a study done a few years ago, zookeepers sprayed trees with perfumes containing synthetic civet to see if the tigers and cheetahs would notice and interact with the scent. The perfume the cats loved the most? Calvin Klein’s Obsession for Men—proving that synthetic scents are very close to the real thing.
Unfortunatley, a few niche, high-end perfumers still use a tiny amount of the real stuff in their scents, and charge thousands of dollars per ounce for the privilege. There’s a thriving online market for these products. Convinced nothing compares to the authentic scent of civet or ambergris, some perfume obsessives will pay hundreds of dollars for vintage formulations of their favorite scent on eBay, or buy genuine castoreum beaver glands on Etsy.
We hope that as people become more aware, they’ll choose to avoid these products with the thought of animal welfare in mind.
Despite the move away from using animal products in perfumes, a lot of people are very allergic to or dislike the smell of synthetic fragrances. Thankfully, if you wish to stay away from synthetic ingredients as well as animal excretions, there are even more alternatives to choose from, and they’re probably already sitting in your cupboard.
If you own or use essential oils, they can make a great alternative to the synthetic to the mass-produced perfumes. Not only are they great for aromatherapy, they make a great natural perfume – and it can be fun to mix your own custom scent that you know wearing it will have great health benefits for you as well!
Most perfumes are a mixture of fragrance oils in an alcohol base. There are base fragrances, mid-tones and top notes. When you smell a perfume, the top notes are typically the first thing you smell, followed by mid and then base notes.
In making perfume, you select and add them in order from base to top.
Also, the alcohol changes the composition of the oils and as the flavors meld, they change drastically. I found that some mixtures I tried smelled amazing when I first mixed them but changed and I didn’t like them at all after two weeks. At the same time, some that I thought would be terrible reminded me of actual perfumes I loved after a few weeks.
The key is finding the oils and ratios that work for you. I recommend adding a few drops at a time of each one and keeping a journal of how many drops of each are added. Once you find your favorite blend and write it down, it is easy to duplicate.
Base Notes (deep, heavy, earthy scents):
Middle Tones (soothing, balancing):
Top Notes (bright, uplifting):
– Approximately 12-20 drops total of Base Essential Oils like: Cedarwood, Vanilla, Vetiver, Ylang Ylang, Sandlewood, etc
– 1 tsp of homemade vanilla extract (optional)
– 25-30 drops of middle tone oils like Rose, Lavender, Chamomile or Geranium
– 12-15 drops of top note oils like Bergamot, Wild Orange or Neroli
– 4 ounces of alcohol to preserve and meld scents- I used non-GMO spiced rum
1. Mix all oils together in an opaque bottle to get a scent you like. Let this mixture stay in the bottle alone for a few days to let scents meld.
2. Add the alcohol and cap tightly.
3. Shake and put in a cool, dark place for at least a month (preferable). This is optional but helps the alcohol scent fade and the scents of the oils intensify.
IMPORTANT: While you can use the perfume right away, we recommend letting the flavors meld for at least a month before using.
If you have tried making your own perfume blend, tell us about it! We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.