Special Feature: Perfume Fixatives
Fighting the flee
‘FIXATIVE’ is an old perfumery term for any natural substance that will hold and ‘fix’ a fragrance for it to last longer on the skin.
This is particularly necessary in alcohol-based perfumes or colognes that are the most fleeting; a fixative is required to anchor the scent by lowering the evaporation rate of the alcohol.
In a perfume, a fixative is the base note ingredient that ensures longevity and is relatively less volatile because it is comprised of heavier and larger aromatic molecules.
At the other end are the top introductory notes, which are the initial impact of a fragrance and predominate for the first few minutes. These are the most volatile and fugitive notes that evaporate first, so that the middle heart note can next be detected by the smelling nose.
Middle notes comprise the main fragrance and personality of the perfume, which can last for several hours.
Eventually, after all other molecules have escaped, the residual smell that is the base fixative note (or dry-down) remains detectable until the perfume has totally evaporated. This whole olfactory dance is determined by the efficacy of the fixative chosen.
Not only does a fixative increase the tenacity; but also it is used to equalise the vapour pressures and thus the volatilities, of the raw materials in a perfume blend.
In a perfume composition, when the evaporation rate of the more volatile materials is slowed down, it causes only gradual changes in the aroma of the perfume as the ingredients in it fade away.
The French have a word for this; Sillage meaning “wake”, (like the trail left by a boat in water) which is the trail of scent left behind by one who wears perfume or the degree to which a perfume’s fragrance lingers in the air when worn.
A little fragrance always clings to the hand that gives you roses
- Ancient Chinese proverb
Animal’s role in early perfumery
In the long, fascinating history of perfumery, when perfumes were made primarily from aromatic botanicals and before aroma chemicals were synthesised, the animal kingdom actually provided the key fixative ingredients.
Animal secretions formed a significant part of the odour profile and were worth their weight in gold; perfumers paid high prices for these difficult-to-acquire animal extracts.
They were usually the secretions from the sex glands of certain animals such as musk from the musk deer, castoreum from beavers and civet from the wild African cat.
The unethical acquisition of animal musk was cruel and exploitative yet it evaded moral scrutiny to remain a perfumery staple. Today this practice should have no role in modern perfumery; sadly this is not always so and we should be aware that many commercial perfumes can also contain animal musk.
The beavers are still recovering
BEAVERS use their castoreum to communicate to each other, mark territory, deter predators, establish colonies and so forth.
It comes from their castor gland (near the anal gland) and is described as ‘viscous, straw to brown in colour, insoluble in water with a heavy, pungent odour’.
Trappers have used it to lure animals since the 1850s and earlier in the 16th Century, the beaver had been hunted to extinction in Scotland.
Due to overhunting for their scent-containing castoreum sacs, the European beaver, also trapped and killed, was at risk of extinction as recently as 13 years ago.
Castoreum is considered so favourably fragrant that certain artificial flavourings such as vanilla, raspberry and strawberry have been made from it for at least 80 years and it is still used thus as a food additive.
In perfumery, raw castoreum was diluted in alcohol and accordingly it evolved into a more pleasant yet intense, musky note with fruity leathery nuances. The strong animal-derived note from the beaver is chemically synthesised today for ethical reasons.
Not so for the poor civet
A number of species of civet, Civettictis civetta of Ethiopia, and Viverra zibetha and Viverricula indica of India, Malaya, Indochina and Indonesia can yield civet oil. Most civet is however produced by civet farms in Africa.
According to Yilma D. Abebe’s Sustainable utilization of the African Civet in Ethiopia, predominantly Muslim farmers in Ethiopia harvest civetone from civets.
Civet cats are rarely bred in captivity so they are captured in the wild and held in tiny cages barely larger than their bodies, where they are kept without release in hot, smoke-filled sheds for up to 15 years.
The grease is extracted by harshly scraping the perineal gland of these caged conscious animals once a week and it has been estimated that some civets experience 400 to 800 scrapings of their anal glands in their lifetimes.
The more stressed a civet cat becomes, the more musk it secretes, so civet farmers profit the most when the animals are in a constant and heightened state of stress. African civets typically produce three to four grams of civet each week.
The underbelly of commercial perfumery
The fresh, thick civet grease hardens and becomes more visible with age, turning from yellowish to dark brown.
Its odour is strong, even putrid as an unadulterated substance, but once refined and diluted for perfumery it becomes pleasantly musky and sweetly aromatic. This is why it is so prized by high-end perfumers who pay exorbitant amounts for this animal product. Despite civet musk being produced artificially since the late 1940s, expensive perfume producers still prefer the use of real civetone. Long ago expensive civet was ‘cut’ with human hair or infant excrement.
Indeed, the unsustainable harvest of ‘natural civetone’ continues despite some websites suggesting that it has stopped with the invention of synthetic civetone.
Even though the African Civet is not threatened, cruel practices have been recorded among civet farmers and wild civets are continually caught to replace those that die of stress in captivity.
Civet is still a vital ingredient in luxury perfumes and is often combined with synthetic leather notes to create a more animalic note.
The original Chanel No5 was formulated around a huge 15 per cent deer musk tincture and 15 per cent civet tincture. Today to recreate that same scent, a complex chemical concoction is necessary to avoid real animal products.
It is pertinent to scrutinise any commercial perfume you may have, to see if ‘civetone’ is listed in the ingredients.
If this is so, the perfume companies should be answerable if they are using civetone derived directly from civets. It would also be morally ethical to insist the perfume company bans using the harvested secretions from the poor animals.
There’s nothing sexy about musk
Civets aren’t the only animals to be farmed for secretions; musk deer suffer similar consequences and are also important to the perfume industry.
Musk is a strong, odorous substance obtained from the gland of male musk deer and is extremely expensive. Musk deer have been killed for their scent-containing pods, to the extent that many populations are nearing extinction. Three to five deer are killed for every one scent-pod collected.
Only the male musk deer secretes musk, however female deer are also killed indiscriminately in the hunt for musk.
The animal substance is dried and the grains are tinctured in alcohol to yield an animalistic, earthy and woody perfume base note and fixative that has been prized for more than a thousand years.
In fact deer musk only becomes pleasant upon extreme dilution. Today the trade quantity of natural musk is controlled by CITES (a multilateral treaty to protect endangered plants and animals) however illegal poaching and trading persists and will do so, as long as there is a market demand.
The story of animal musk in the history of perfume is evocative of mysterious sexual power and intrigue, however the ugly truth about animal musk means an animal must either be tortured or killed, or often both.
Cruelty and suffering have no place in botanical perfumery, especially when we have some excellent plant choices at our disposal to fix and round out a pure perfume.
Mysterious, priceless cough-up from whales
No fixative however was more precious or costly than ambergris from sperm whales.
Actually ambergris (sometimes called amber grease or grey amber) is a solid, waxy and flammable substance with a dull grey or blackish colour that is produced in the digestive system of sperm whales. Freshly produced ambergris has a marine, faecal odour.
Ambergris has been a unique phenomenon for millennia; fossilised evidence of the substance dates back 1.75 million years and it is likely that humans have been using it in perfumery for more than a thousand years.
It has been called the treasure of the sea and floating gold, yet so naturally camouflaged that you wouldn’t recognise it if you tripped over it on a beach.
The sperm whale is the only whale species known to produce ambergris.
It was first thought to be vomit regurgitated by the whale however modern research has confirmed that it is not.
Instead it forms in the lower regions of the animal in the intestines or bowel.
The precise function and mechanism for the production of ambergris is still disputed but it is thought to play some role in protecting the whale from the sharp beaks of the squid, the staple part of the sperm whale diet.
The squid have hard, ‘parrot-like’ beaks that are indigestible to the whale; in response the whale may produce the ambergris as a means of binding together and eliminating these indigestible beaks. Squid beaks are often found inside pieces of ambergris.
Smells like human
Ambergris has been prized for centuries for its peculiar qualities and is best known for its use in the perfume industry as a fixative for fine perfumes. It has also been used in some cultures for medicinal purposes and as an aphrodisiac. In solution, ambergris resembles the scent of pheromones making it a true aphrodisiac, a quality that has only added to the allure and mystery surrounding the product.
Ambergris should not be confused with the different and very expensive “amber” essential oil that is steam distilled from fossilised sap of the Pinus succiniferus. There are many fake amber chemical compositions on the market at affordable prices but they are no comparison to the prized, true oil.
Common hard-core chemical fixatives
THE MODERN perfume industry has largely phased out animal products because they proved too costly, rare or unavailable and often illegally or unethically obtained.
They have mostly been replaced with much cheaper, manufactured materials.
In the late 19th Century many man-made chemicals were introduced to the perfumers’ palette when organic chemists started to understand the structure of molecules and how to synthesise them.
Synthetics gave assured supplies of more familiar molecules while some were new and unknown in nature enabling new fragrances to be created.
One good outcome of this new chemical extravaganza in perfumery was that perfumers could now create enduring fragrances without animal products, but at what insidious cost to our health and wellbeing?
These days, commercial perfumes are mostly constructed around synthetic chemicals with the token inclusion of trace amounts of real plant oils.
The synthetic fixatives include substances of low volatility (diphenylmethane, cyclopentadecanolide, ambroxide, benzyl salicylate) and virtually odourless solvents with very low vapour pressures (benzyl benzoate, diethyl phthalate, triethyl citrate).
The toxins in your perfume
It is likely that to the layperson these convoluted chemical cocktails are unfamiliar, suffice to say, it is enough to know that this list includes formaldehyde, a known carcinogen that acts to preserve and prolong perfume.
We will be familiar with formaldehyde as an industrial constituent used in building materials and in medical laboratories for use as a preservative, steriliser and even embalming fluid.
Commercial perfumery mostly uses synthetic musk because of the exorbitant cost of the real animal substance; synthetic musk is sometimes called white musk.
The chemical musk compounds can be categorised into three types: aromatic nitro musk, polycyclic and macrocyclic. The first two groups are used in manufacturing cosmetics and even detergents, both of which have proven to be carcinogenic in human and environmental samples.
Nearly all perfumes today use a blend of natural-sourced and synthetic molecules that are more readily available and usually much cheaper. The actual cost of the ingredients in an average commercial perfume is often less than the 5 per cent of the shop price because packaging and advertising cost the most.
We are wise to question if these corrosive chemicals, in particular the animal emulating toxins, should be applied to our skin - especially when it has been proven how they can remain in fat cells and are passed onto infants through breast milk. Nor should we ignore the aquatic hazards they represent when leeched into the environment.
The bottom line wins over common sense
Indole is the chemical found naturally in many flowers, particularly the white ones - orange blossom, jasmine and lilies.
It is a powerful chemical with a pronounced faecal odour. Indoles are formed in the plant from a chemical that behaves very much like serotonin that interacts with receptors in our brain to allow us to feel pleasure.
Sexual attracting indole is also present in the coating of human pubic hair, explaining the invisible sex appeal of the human reproductive glands.
It is also the pungent scent of decomposing shrimp and it is interesting to note that mood enhancing LSD is an indole alkaloid.
Indole in synthetic form is often added to perfumes to add naturalness to floral compounds.
A synthetic jasmine base won’t truly smell like jasmine until a small amount of this foul-smelling substance is included. Indole is often used on its own in modern minimalist perfumes to add a jasmine note.
It begs the question; why not just use the real plant extract with the indole biochemically chelated already by the plant itself?
This would seem a much more salubrious solution, however the reason is that synthetics are cheaper and easier to acquire and use as well as having more staying power in perfumes.
The smell of decomposition
Mercaptans are a pungent-smelling but harmless group of gaseous chemicals formed from decomposition.
Powerfully sulphurous, they have been described as having the stench of rotting cabbages or smelly socks.
The gas is an organic substance made of carbon, hydrogen and sulphur. It is found naturally in living organisms, including the human body where it is a waste product of normal metabolism. It is one of the chemicals responsible for the foul smell of bad breath and flatulence.
People who have eaten asparagus can experience the distinctive smell of mercaptan in their urine within 30 minutes of consuming the vegetable, which contains substances that are quickly broken down to methanethiol.
Interestingly, not everyone is able to smell mercaptan in their urine because a genetic mutation in some people means they are immune to the odour.
Mercaptan is often added to natural gas, which is colourless and odourless, to make it easier to detect. The great advantage of mercaptan for industrial purposes is that it can be detected by most people in extremely small quantities, less than one part per million.
This smell that repulses most human noses is actually added to some perfumes to accent some notes like coffee or blackcurrant.
Essence of poop and sweat
Another indole used in perfumery is skatole that occurs naturally in faeces and coal tar.
It is a horrid-smelling chemical that is repulsive even in high dilution, yet combined with other compounds it lends a floral note to perfumes.
This faeces-smelling chemical is found in minute traces in many flowers as well and is responsible for lending them a powerfully erogenous undertone.
It should be noted that in humans, apocrine sweat glands are found only in certain locations of the body - mostly the axillae (armpits), areola and nipples of the breast, perianal region, and some parts of the external genitalia.
These apocrine glands emit sexual-attracting pheromones and would include minute amounts of Skatole.
Long before pheromones were identified, people’s own sweat was often strategically dabbed on the places where one would wear an aphrodisiac perfume.
Napoleon was obviously turned on by this and would request that Josephine not wash before his return.
The essential oil of cumin is sometimes used to emulate the scent note of human sweaty armpits in perfumes, suggesting hot, libidinous odours of sexual favours.
Our animal nature
The human sense of smell is undeniably primitive, base and reflective of our animal nature.
The olfactory protuberance of the human nose has been likened to the genitalia as a sexual organ with similar tissue and sensitivities.
The ancients well understood how the sense of smell was a direct, erotic route to sexual arousal; Virgil’s Aeneid tells how adulterers were punished by removing their noses and thus their sexual proclivities.
Indeed the fragrance industry has never turned up its nose at the riper aspects of human existence; commonly repulsed smells redolent of flesh, rot, manure and reeking human stench have intrigued the perfumer.
Legendary perfumer Jacques Guerlain was recorded as saying that his perfumes should recall the “underside of his mistress.”
No aspect of human corporeality is spared or sacred to the scavenging perfumer constantly seeking aromatic substances to potentise their perfumed potions with sexual magnetism.
This has included odours of the male crotch, female arousal, sweat spiced with sexual intimacy of the “nether regions.”
A certain famous perfume was designed to awaken brutish, bestial lust and was compared to getting one’s member out in public.
Exaggerating our scent aura
BOTANICAL perfumes are not made with animal ingredients or man made chemicals, and have the advantage of blending beautifully and effectively with the skins own mantle of sebum and individual pheromonal scent.
This is contrary to a chemical perfume, which sits like a cloying mask, covering our own unique smell print and also insalubriously entering the dermis to disrupt our finely tuned hormonal activity.
The unadulterated botanical variety seamlessly infuses itself into our personal scent aura that we involuntarily emit already in a radius around us, while augmenting and enhancing it.
The pure plant blend won’t cling, swamp, dominate or supersede our intrinsic pheromonal signature; rather it is astutely exaggerated to more confidently radiate forth, enriching our personality.
A pure plant perfume also serves to create an anti-viral, contagion barrier about our person, to protect against marauding pathogens, while uplifting the mood and spirit in a profoundly psychotherapeutic way; which a synthetic perfume is not empowered to do.
Human fixation with permanence
The commercial perfume industry has come to expect certain levels of persistence with fragrances that the plant world could never offer and these expectations are transferred to the perfume-consuming public.
The fact that natural perfumes differ from synthetic perfumes in their endurance and their sillage can sometimes be a disappointment and a strong influence to those new to perfumes made with botanical aromatic materials.
It is necessary to change our mindset about how long a perfume should last and not frame our choices on mainstream commercial expectations.
The idea that a fragrance should be long-lasting and that it should remain so obvious for the nose to keep smelling it for as long as possible has been indoctrinated into the public psyche by those individuals and companies who sell and have sold animal and chemical fixatives.
The contemporary, environmentally aware and health conscious community are evolving beyond the archaic notion that that a perfume’s value is based on its longevity.
The costs to our wellbeing and that of the planet are not worth the struggle to stultify the natural process of the perfume fade-out.
A botanical fixative will certainly impart a certain amount of endurance and help extend the sillage of a natural perfume, however, in most cases it will not be as effective as a synthetic fixative.
Especially when people assume that a strong odour that keeps going is superior to a natural, more gentle scent that might be considered weak or unexciting.
Ironically, the less the nose is exposed to these strong fragrant molecules, the more naturalised and accepting it becomes to botanical scent molecules.
In fact our entire sense of smell will gradually recover its innate smelling ability and more instinctual nature.
Evolutionary biology of the missing smell
‘Olfactory adaptation’ is when we stop smelling an odour that is still present. It is an old survival adaption, because olfaction needs to be available to smell danger for survival.
Pure plant scent usually prompts us to reach this ‘smell saturation point’ earlier than chemical scent, which often doesn’t activate this natural biological function.
Often a plant perfume will continue to exert its healing activities upon our person long after we have stopped smelling it and others can still detect the scent on us.
It is also worth considering that a large percentage of people suffer from varying levels of anosmia, which an inability to smell the full spectrum of odours around them.
This is often because they have been from very early on, swamped and overwhelmed from the ever-increasing aromatic assault of synthetic perfume ingredients in modern life.
In a natural mechanism of defence, their olfactory systems have become anaesthetised or numbed down to instinctively preserve a vital sensory function.
This is not so for those who have chosen to surround themselves as much as possible with only natural-scented products.
Such people appreciate the healthier aromatic pleasures of natural, botanical perfumes that connect them more immediately with Nature and the intrinsic intelligence of plants.
Fake or real
The difference between the visual beauty of a real flower and an artificial one, or the taste of eating real strawberry ice-cream to a mock-strawberry flavoured one, is a fitting way to compare smelling a laboratory-synthesised, aromatic compound and a pure plant oil: there is no comparison.
The latter possesses all the vitality and inconsistency of nature and like all plants and things of nature, it will eventually lose its strength and die out, unlike the fake scent which could stick around for ever and a day.
Basically synthetics defy the natural laws of nature that is ever-changing and ephemeral in which we humans also belong with the same shifting states.
A botanical perfume that is mindfully constructed can last on the skin for several hours, creating a fragrant symphony of top, middle and base note accords, this will of course depend on individual skin chemistry.
Thank Goddess for the botanical fixatives
The more ephemeral quality and volatile nature of botanical perfume ingredients means it is crucial to understand and incorporate botanical fixatives into perfume compositions to impart a reasonable durability.
The botanical perfumer has an extensive set of pure plant extracts that function admirably as fixative notes that on their own or combined into a base accord can last for days.
Patchouli, vetivert and cypress are just a few essential oils with the ability to linger.
Resinoids - the gummy exudates from some shrubs and trees such as benzoin, labdanum, myrrh, olibanum, storax and tolu balsam - all add to the natural perfumer’s repertoire.
It is actually possible to obtain an animal-like fragrance note directly from the plant world of grasses, leaves, mosses, bark, root and lichen.
The artful blending of pure plant essential oils and extracts can produce an earthy, pheromone-type note and add a depth that woos our dormant animal nature.
Some plants such as angelica produce musky-smelling macrocyclic compounds that could well substitute for animal secretions.
It is very exciting that the development of modern aromatherapy has vastly increased the range of options for the aspiring natural perfumer.
Never before has there been such an amazing array of safe, efficacious botanical materials from which to choose when making a pure plant perfume.
It is reasonable to say that with the abundance of wonderful plant extracts available today, the insalubrious practices of using animal extracts and synthetic perfume chemicals could be completely left behind in the bizarre, odorous halls of history.
We simply have to change our perception and preconceptions about perfume; the nose can certainly adapt and embrace the idea of our natural human biology and its intrinsic connection to the plant world.
The lovely, lascivious labdanum story
Labdanum is an extremely tenacious plant fixative that has a deep, leathery and sweet, balsamic aroma with a faint herbaceous back note and a persistent ambergris-like undertone.
It can be used in perfumery for its excellent fixative value and to impart a rich, suave sweetness and natural nuance.
This resin is extracted from the cistus plant or shrub (Cistus ladanifer) - sometimes called rock rose - and thrives in the Mediterranean, mainly Spain and Greece.
The plant exudes a sticky thick sap, especially in the summer, that is called labdanum oleoresin.
In Corsica, tiny birds have been observed lining their nests with a concerto of aromatic herbs, including Cistus, as protection from parasites.
In ancient times on the island of Crete, goat herders grazed their animals amongst the cistus shrubs and their thighs and beards became sticky with resinous sap.
This left their fur fragrantly aromatic, all mixed in with that goat smell as well and accordingly the goat pelts and the beards were widely sought after for their animal/plant scent and sold at high price. In fact in Egypt, pharaohs plaited the coveted goat beard into their own beards and it became a perfumed symbol of royalty.
Interestingly, the tradition of combing the sticky Labdanum resin from the shrub itself and maybe still the beards and thighs of browsing goats, still occurs in rare family, traditional cases, where they even use the same small rakes made of leather, which are then scraped of the resin for later distillation.
Labdanum absolute is obtained by solvent extraction of the resinous leaves and twigs and there is also a steam-distilled cistus essential oil.
Both labdanum and cistus extractions result in intense, powerful aromas that are typically used in very low percentages and may be used to achieve a botanical animal-like note, reminiscent of leather or musky pagan odours of Pan. Labdanum has been compared to the rare ambergris.
A PURE botanical perfume can smell very different on different people. To truly understand and allow the character of a perfume to unfold, you need to apply it to your skin, rather than merely sniffing from the bottle.
The scent on your skin will be affected by individual body chemistry, diet, skin condition, medication and even stress levels; as it interacts with your unique aroma that is constantly changing, the perfume will evolve over time.
Apply to your body’s pulse points such as the wrist, neck, behind the knees, hips and ears for a lingering aromatic experience. If it is in cologne form, spray into the air and walk under the mist; the vapour will settle on your hair and clothes imbuing your person in a fragrant, more lasting aura.
After a while, you may become unaware yourself of the actual perfume (this is called olfactory saturation point), however other people can still easily detect the scent and its properties are still affecting your psyche and physiology in a positive way.
You may wish to reapply the scent later the day to deepen the experience, unlike a synthetic scent which will sit like a mask on your skin for days.
Download 8-page printable .pdf version with additional pure plant perfume fixatives and Tinderbox's use of fixatives in our perfumes.