MadSci Network: Biochemistry

Re: What is the chemical structure of perfume?

Date: Tue Mar 23 07:30:40 1999
Posted By: Guch, Ian, Chemistry Teacher, Mt. Vernon High School - Science Department
Area of science: Biochemistry
ID: 920956934.Bc

Bad news:  There's no common way to make perfumes. 

Good news:  Most perfumes are similar in how they are prepared.

Now that I've summarized the answer in two sentences, let's discuss what 
they mean.

Perfumes are basically very complex mixtures of chemicals, designed to have 
pleasing scents, as well as to be stable over time and relatively nontoxic. 
 Depending on the scent you want, you'll need to put different mixtures of 
chemicals into the pot.  

Perfume design is traditionally not a very scientific process.  Basically, 
people come up with an idea for a smell, and then they mix chemicals 
together which, from their own experience, might produce that smell.  When 
they come up with a winning mixture that doesn't produce brain damage in 
rats (or other negative side effects in lab animals), they market it and 
sell for eighty bucks an ounce.

Perfumes basically are three-part mixtures of chemicals.  The first part, 
the fragrance, is the one that we usually think about.  These are generally 
esters, aldehydes, or aromatic organic compounds that occur naturally in 
flowers, fruits, or other things that smell nice.  The second part, the 
solvent, is used to dissolve all the fragrance, and evaporate slowly so 
that the perfume's scent is given off over a period of time, and not all at 
once.  These are usually common solvents such as acetone or ethanol.  The 
third part consists of stabilizers and fillers, which are used to bulk up 
the fragrance and make sure that it doesn't degrade over time.  Depending 
on the compounds being used, these will vary, although in some cases the 
solvent also acts as a preservative and filler.

So, how can you make your own perfume?  Well, I'm not going to tell you 
how to make fragrant chemicals.  Doing organic chemistry is dangerous 
stuff, especially to try at home or if you're not all that experienced with 
it.  There are, however, some ways that you can make perfumes without 
venturing into the lab.

Aromatherapists believe that "essential oils" can restore good health - I 
don't believe this, but I do know that the oils often smell pretty good.  
Find a mix of these you like.  Also, you might want to try using nearly 
pure ethanol (available at the drug store) to extract flower scents:  Soak 
mashed flower petals in ethanol and see if you can't make your own 
essential oils.  Will it work?  I'm not sure - however, flower petals are 
cheap, as is ethanol.  (A word of warning - although the ethanol you buy at 
the chemist's is very nearly pure, don't drink it!  It contains stuff that 
will kill you!)

There are a number of readily-available perfume-making kits out there on 
the market.  I seem to recall that Edmund-Scientific sells one, and I know 
that if you let your mouse do the walking, you can probably find others on 
the internet.

One website that's good at listing perfume-related data is this:
This site is run by a bunch of people who think that the chemicals in 
perfumes can kill you, and that perfumes are poorly tested on people.  
Don't be alarmed when you read this stuff:  Although SOME of the chemicals 
they list are dangerous, very few are dangerous in the quantities found in 
perfumes.  The "data" they present to back their findings are found on 
Material Safety Data Sheets produced by the US government, and these sheets 
are comical in the hazards they list.  (Sterilized, washed sea sand, used 
in chromatography, is listed as being an inhalation hazard, as if you 
didn't know not to breathe sand already).  Take this stuff with a grain of 
salt.  One chemical in particular which is listed to be a hazard is 
limonene - if you're afraid of limonene, then don't eat citrus fruit, 
because you can find it there.  The same goes with many of these other 
chemicals.  Still, some people are indeed susceptible to very trace 
quantities of chemicals in their environment - the site is correct when it 
states that these chemicals can produce terrible effects in a very limited 
number of people.  I've known people with this condition, and their lives 
are very restricted by their allergies.  However, for 99.99% of the people 
out there (and probably you, too), there is very little danger in any of 
these naturally-occuring chemicals.

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