Can you make perfume from flowers?

05 December 2017

Question

How does perfume work? Can I make my own perfume out of flowers as a present?

Answer

Chris Smith put this question from Lauren on Twitter to chemist, Phillip Broadwith, but it also captured the attention of astrophysicist, Matt Middleton, and marine biologist, Kate Feller. 

Phillip - A lot of the chemicals in perfumes do actually come from flowers, particularly Damask roses and things like that, things that are very highly scented. But a commercial perfume will be a mixture of many, many ingredients, and the more expensive perfumes can have hundreds of ingredients. Some of those are fragrance molecules and there'll be some that are very light and they evaporate very easily, and they give you very floral scents.

And then there are some bigger, heavier ones that might stick around a bit longer and give you the more woody or earthy scents. They might even be really horrible if you got them in a high concentration, but  in the small concentrations that you find in perfume they just add to that scent and that’s all part of it. Our sense of smell is insanely complicated and you’re not really smelling individual molecules, you’re smelling an ensemble effect of all the molecules in there.

The other thing that there is in a commercial perfume is that there are things that will either help the molecules to stick to your skin a bit more so that they’re released over time, or to stabilise it when it’s in the bottle so it doesn’t go off. If you make your own, which is perfectly possible, you can extract the scent compounds from the flower’s petals, which is where they’re most concentrated, using either hot water or sometimes oils, or coconut oil, something like that. It’s perfectly possible but what you’ll get a less complex scent and it probably will not last very long, because if you want to try and concentrate it you have to heat it, and then you can destroy some of the molecules where they’ll evaporate and that kind of thing.

Chris - So you might end up smelling but not the way you want to smell in the first place?

Phillip - Yeah. And, obviously, if you pick the wrong flowers there’s a potential hazard if you pick something that’s irritant or if you’re concentrating those things down. So you have to be a bit careful about what you pick but you can definitely do it, and there are recipes online that will give you more detailed instructions.

Chris - It could go wrong - be careful. Matt?

Matt - I’m basing this on an episode of Futurama, so can see where I source a lot of my information from. Isn’t there some horrible thing from a whale which is supposed to provide a base for some of these things - right?

Phillip - Yeah. It’s called “ambergris”. It’s basically whale vomit. It sometimes gets washed up on the beach and people find it and it’s worth a phenomenal amount of money. A couple of kilos and it might worth hundred of thousands of pounds.

Matt - We’re going to the beach now Chris - right?

Phillip - And it really stinks.

Chris - Have you found some?

Phillip - No. I’ve never found it but by all accounts if you get it in the pure form in that kind of concentrate, it really, really reeks. But in small amounts in the perfumes; it’s like musk from Yaks and stuff, they really reek if you get them concentrated.

Chris - Talking of things that whales issue, marine biologists are interested in whale ear wax as well, aren’t they? Because you get ear plugs of wax from certain whales that have rings in them deposited over time, a bit like tree rings. Do you know about this Kate?

Kate - I’ve not heard about this.

Chris - And it’s effectively locking away a chemical profile of what‘s going on in the whale over time. So if you find one of these ear plugs from a whale it may record the whale’s entire lifetime exposure to various things and what it’s hormones are doing at various times written into this plug of earwax.

Kate - That’s supercool. I wonder how much that’s worth?

Chris - It’s worth a fortune to the scientists who want to study it.

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