Perfume - fragrance - forms such a deep, expansive part of who we are, it's difficult to imagine not surrounding ourselves with fragrance. If you're celiac, though, you may have been told to avoid all fragranced items. If you're non-celiac gluten intolerant, it's probably a good idea for you to avoid synthetic fragrances too.
Many synthetic fragrances, or their carriers, are derived from wheat products, and can contain gluten. Lots of personal care, laundry care and home care products contain gluten in sufficient amounts to poison gluten intolerant persons, especially if used on an on-going basis.
I have no research to give you to prove that gluten is absorbed through the skin. I also have none to prove that it isn't. Gluten is absorbed through the mucous membranes, such as those lining the nose and mouth, and this is why airborne gluten causes a reaction in celiac and non-celiac gluten intolerant individuals.
But here's the thing . . . .
Perfume must contact mucous membranes in its liquid or solid form. Gluten is not a volatile substance, and it does not vaporize with the other volatile substances in perfume. That means that if you sniff someone else's perfume (willingly or unwillingly!) you have not been exposed to gluten, but if you apply perfume to your skin or mucous membranes, you may have been exposed.
Clear as mud, right? This is good news: the lady in the checkout line at the grocery store who smells like she dumped on a couple of bottles of perfume won't cause a gluten reaction in you. It does mean that you may not be able to apply your customary perfumes to your skin, though.
If you're like me, you miss your fragrances immensely. I began researching safe, gluten free, natural essences to scent my homemade products, and I have been more than thrilled with the results - well, most of them, anyway!
You will find directions to make a selection of scented products for your own use on the essential oils page. On this page you will learn the basics of making your own fragrances using natural essences, and find a short list of resources to get you started.
What Is Natural Perfumery?
Natural perfumery embraces the vitality of nature by using essences that capture the very life of the plant from which they come. Many ingredients are minimally processed, and all are derived from natural sources.
Essential oils come either directly from the living matter - lemon essential oil is cold-pressed from the rind, and bottled - or indirectly, by being separated through several steps, such as neroli essential oil, which has been separated from the waxy parts of the plants' exudations, and isolated from the less volatile constituents. All three parts can be used to make colognes, and each is well-suited for specific purposes.
Essential oils capture the essence of the plant material, and are volatile and ephemeral. The essential oils tend to be the light, fresh, bright notes, such as the citruses, mints, lighter herbs and spices, and other "green" scents. Essential oils stay discernible on the skin for anywhere from a few minutes to a few days, depending on the essence.
Absolutes the (usually) syrupy residual scented materials, have a more intense and longer lasting presence, and are separated from the waxy parts of the plants' scented material by dissolution in alcohol. Most of the beautiful florals used in fragrances are absolutes, such as rose, jasmine, orange flower, tuberose, and ylang ylang. Absolutes stay discernible on the skin for several hours or even longer.
The waxy parts settle out, being insoluble in the alcohol, and are called concretes (pronounced cone- CRETTS). These are most frequently used by home perfumers in solid perfumes, since they're mostly solid essences already. Most of the heady florals can also be found as concretes, and while they have a subtler scent than the absolutes, they also last longer, usually staying discernible on the skin for days or longer.Carriers
are what the essences are mixed into. Will your fragrance be mixed in alcohol, oil, wax, soap, or another substance? Along with being the substance that "carries" the aromatic materials, the carrier imparts its own characteristics on the blend. For example, oil, when compared with alcohol, tends to suppress the light, fresh notes like citrus and mint. This requires the perfumer to add more of these notes to the blend to compensate for this effect.
So how do you put together a fragrance? The answer depends on lots of factors.
*How much money do you want to invest in scented materials? The more essences you have available, the more complex the fragrance you can build.
*How much time do you want to allow for the blend to develop? The longer it can sit undisturbed in a dark place, the more complex the blend becomes, regardless of the number of ingredients. The process of development is very similar to that of aging wines, with similar results in terms of complexity and new notes developing.
*What carrier will you use? Scented materials develop differently in oil than in alcohol than in wax than in soap.
*How skilled are you at creating balanced blends? Don't worry if you've never done this before now; this is a journey of exploration, which has no endpoint, just a series of aromatic encounters. While you can definitely end up with something you didn't expect, rarely do you end up with something that you can't use for anything. Many attempts at cologne have scented the laundry, the wash water, or the air delightfully, even if I chose not to wear them. Just like it is possible to love a color but not be able to wear it, you may find you love certain scents but don't like they way they smell in your fragrances when you wear them.
All right, but how do you create a blend? Start with . . . a book. Or two. Or three.
I used Mandy Aftel's Essence and Alchemy: A Natural History of Perfume to get me started.
I also recommend Mandy's Scents & Sensibilities: Creating Solid Perfumes for Well-Being and Aroma: The Magic of Essential Oils in Foods and Fragrance.
Mandy is an experienced natural perfumer - one of the first to return to using natural essences after the synthetic revolution in the perfume industry that spanned most of the 20th century.
Compounding a complex fragrance well takes much practice, and many experiments to see what works and what doesn't. Simple blends, however, can go together quite easily.
Go out and buy some blotter paper, watercolor paper, or even white construction paper. Cut a sheet into 1/2-inch by 2-inch strips. Gather the ingredients together that you think you'd like to put together into a cologne - perhaps several ingredients that you really like. Mark the name of one essence on one strip, until you have a strip for each essence you wish to use.
Put a drop or two of the essence on the blotter strip, and put them together under your nose and sniff. Does any one scent stand out? Do any clash? Does it smell pretty good - or pretty awful?
Do this a few times to get familiar with the ingredients and how they work with other essences. There's much more to blending than this, but this method will give you some experience with how scents work together and against each other.
Top, Middle and Base Notes
Aromatic essences are divided roughly into one of these three groups, based entirely on their relative volatility, or if you prefer, their relative ability to remain discernible on the skin or on a blotter. As it happens, most top notes - the most volatile - are the lightest, while the base notes are the heaviest.
Most top (or head) notes are the citruses, herbs, light spices and mints. Most middle (or heart) notes are the florals and most of the rest of the spices. Most of the base notes are the roots, trees, mosses, heavy spices, and animal scents, with no citrus, mint or floral (except for a wood that has a floral aspect to it).
Fragrances blended in alcohol almost always have several top notes, several middle notes, and several base notes. This gives the blend an evolving personality as it ages, while extending the life of the scent on the skin to several hours or even days.
The base notes form the character of the perfume. They determine whether it will be an ambery, spicy, oriental, chypres, or other kind of blend. The choice of middle notes involves primarily which kinds of flowers will be used, along with a few spices, woods and leafy scents. The top notes introduce the blend, giving a hint of what's to come without really revealing anything. They are pretty, light, inviting, playful and volatile. This nature of top notes explains why most perfumers don't build from the top down, but rather from the bottom up. Build the foundation, the part that will outlast all the rest, to determine the character of the whole.
To begin practicing building fragrances, use only a few essences from each category - two or possibly three - so you can observe more easily how they change themselves and each other, and how the blend as a whole changes with each addition, and with aging.
In Essence and Alchemy, Mandy suggests a simple, nine-part cologne that she calls Alchemy, three top notes, three middle notes, and three base notes. My blend follows her lead, and I chose my ingredients for the same reason she chose hers: they are cordial, friendly, and cooperative. Once you get some experience, you can add more unique essences that are harder to work with but which reward you with interesting effects. In the meantime, this happy blend will work on most skins, and the essences will mingle easily and smoothly.
Sandalwood absolute - Although the sandalwood from Mysore is the most beautiful, the Australian sandalwood is a more renewable source at this time, so I recommend Australian sandalwood.
Cassie Absolute - The only floral base note, cassie is soft, gentle and beautiful.
Frankincense Absolute - Frankincense offers a light, almost fruity wood scent that enhances anything you add it to.
Try these three essences on blotter paper, and see if you like them. If you are blending in alcohol, use Everclear if you can get it, denatured perfumery alcohol if you can't. If you can't get either one, try blending in olive, almond or jojoba oil. Use three drops of each in a very small glass jar (use a small baby food jar if necessary - no bigger than that), and blend well. Sniff the blend to immerse yourself in the aroma.
Add the heart notes:
Orange Flower Absolute - This is my favorite essence. Buy it from a respected supplier, so you get a clean absolute, not one that smells of chemicals or bleach. Orange flower should have a heady floral scent with a hint of orange and spice. This sweet-tangy scent will be the primary characteristic of your aromatic blend. Use six drops of orange flower absolute.
Rose - In Essence and Alchemy, Mandy says that everything goes with rose, and rose goes with everything. Rose is sweet, powerful, soothing, and will soften sharp edges and reconcile difficult scents. Rose can fix almost any problem in a fragrance blend. Rose essences come from all over the world, and they each have unique characteristics, but you can't go wrong with any of them. I started out with Russian rose because it was the cheapest, and moved to Bulgarian rose because it was the most beautiful. Any good-quality rose absolute will work in any beginning blend. Use three drops of rose absolute.
Cardamon Absolute - Cardamon absolute imparts a smooth, warm, slightly spicy, nut-like comfort to your heart note. Florals love cardamon, and you already have beautiful florals. Just two or three drops of cardamon will give your heart note a warmth and fullness that make it complete. Add two drops, smell it, then add the third drop if it lacks a bit of fullness.
Finally, add the top notes:
Palmarosa Essential Oil - This cousin to lemongrass adds a slightly rosy, slightly woody note to the welcome note of your blend. Slightly longer lasting than some other top notes, palmarosa eases the transition from top to middle note, and adds a woody, balsamic, floral hint to the top of the perfume. Use three drops of palmarosa if you're blending in alcohol, six or more if you are using oil.
Bergamot Essential Oil - The same essence that flavors and scents Earl Grey tea, bergamot warms your top note with a hint of black tea, and gives an uplifting sunny disposition to your blend. Bergamot especially blends well with orange flower absolute, and adds a depth and fullness to the top note that is frequently missing, even in complex blends. Use six drops bergamot if using alcohol, twelve or more drops if using oil.
Bitter Orange Essential Oil - Bitter orange EO is cold-pressed from the rind of the bitter orange. The citrusy, slightly floral orange is elegant, soft, and complex, neither sweet nor tangy. Bitter orange brings a welcome freshness without seeming overly fruity or juvenile. Use three drops bitter orange essential oil if blending in alcohol, six or more drops if blending in oil.
There you have it. Nine essences, chosen because they play nicely together. This perfume is elegant and refined without seeming snobbish or old-lady. You can wear it immediately, but fragrances develop and change if they are stored in a cool, dry, dark place undisturbed for at least six weeks. You should put away at least some of it so you can experience the change for yourself.
As you experiment with various essences, you will learn how each essence behaves, and how to use each one. Once you become familiar with the easy essences, start introducing more difficult scents one at a time to learn why they are difficult and to learn what they do so you can use them predictably.
Perfumery can be complicated, but you can make fragrancees for yourself without getting too complex or waiting years to become "experienced". Enjoy each blending session, and each result. Things may not turn out the way you planned, but they always turn out the way they are supposed to. You can use the results for other purposes, or as "single" ingredients in future blends. Nothing needs to be wasted.
Don't feel like you have to follow the "rules" listed above; there are no rules. My suggestions are just that: suggestions. Use them, change them, ignore them, as you choose. One of my favorite fragrant blends is all base notes in lotion. I love its scent as it evolves on my skin, and since it's all base notes, it lasts all day and through the night.
Natural Perfumers Guild
Anya's Garden blog
Anya's Garden Natural Perfumery Institute
Natural Perfumers Guild members and suppliers
For most of your perfumery materials in usable sizes and affordable prices, go to
I bought all my perfume ingredients from Liberty Natural Products, except for the alcohol because I can buy that locally. There are lots of other tremendous suppliers out there, but Liberty is a really good place to start. And you may decide to stay.
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