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Natural Perfume Materials: what the terms mean

There are quite a few
methods by which the aromatic principles of natural materials are made
available for use in perfumery and unfortunately some of the terms used are
obscure and others are sometimes mis-used.

The purpose of this
post is to set out the main terms used, together with definitions of widespread
acceptance.  In putting these
together I have relied on two main sources: first Arctander’s Pefume and FlavorMaterials of Natural Origin – written in the 1950s and early 60s but still
regarded by most perfumers as the definitive work.

Second Brian Lawrence who is published regularly in Perfumer & Flavorist Magazine and elsewhere and is, probably,
the definitive modern writer on the subject.

Before we get into the
terms for natural materials, it is perhaps useful to examine what we mean by natural in this context and eliminate
terms used to indicate synthetic materials.  Very few materials are suitable for use in perfumery exactly
as they occur in nature: citrus oils and copaiba balsam are the main exceptions,
requiring no processing beyond pressing the peel or releasing the balsam from
the tree: in the great majority of cases processing is necessary and in some
cases the odorous principles only form during processing (see my post on Bitter Almond Oil for an example of this). 
A material is generally considered to be ‘natural’ when that processing
is primarily physical, rather than chemical, in nature: these things are what
this post is about.
Fragrance Oils are not usually natural
The term Fragrance Oil is widely used to
indicate a blend of materials that may be both natural and synthetic, designed
to replicate a natural odour. 
These are often composed entirely from synthetic ingredients and almost
never with entirely natural ones and as such do not fall within the definition of a natural material.  Occasionally they may be passed off as
natural, sometimes innocently by traders who have themselves been deceived by a
producer, but for the most part they are sold labelled as ‘fragrance oil’ and
are usually cheaper than natural equivalents where these exist.
The main types of
volatile isolates that are obtained commercially are essential oils, concretes,
absolutes, pommades, resinoids, spice/herb oleoresins, extracts, infusions, and
tinctures. The definitions of these, and some other important terms are set out
here and for convenience I’ve started by listing first the three most common
types –
Essential Oil, Concrète and
.  All other types
follow in alphabetical order for ease of reference.

The most common natural materials

Bergamot in cultivation
(courtesy Wikimedia)
Essential Oil: The isolated aromatic portion of a plant that
is borne in that plant within distinctive oil cells. In some exceptional cases
the essential oil is formed during processing. Most essential oils are isolated
by either hydro-distillation (water, steam or both) or cold pressing with some
few being produced by dry (including destructive) distillation.  Water distillation implies direct
contact between the plant material and the boiling water, steam distillation
implies steam being produced separately and blown through the material – in the
combined case the water is heated by injected steam.  Some essential oils are routinely ‘rectified’ after
production – a process that may be entirely physical or may involve the
introduction of synthetic aroma chemicals to standardise the odour.  
Examples include Bergamot, which is routinely rectified to remove bergaptens
(furocoumarins) – this is done by fractional distillation. 
is natural thyme oil that has been corrected by the addition of aroma
chemicals to produce standardised oil chemistry – for most this would no longer
be considered a natural product.
Concrète (often written as concrete
with the same meaning):  an extract
of fresh (cellular) plant material made using a hydrocarbon solvent, commonly
hexane or petroleum ether. It is rich in hydrocarbon soluble material and
devoid of water-soluble components. It is generally a waxy semi-solid, dark colour
material free from the original solvent used in extraction, often containing a
high percentage of largely odourless plant waxes.
Orris root being dried
One important note
here on misuse of this term concerning Orris
, which is frequently called Orris
Concrète, but is more correctly the essential
oil of orris
(the roots of certain species of Iris), which happens to be
solid.  There is also a true Orris Concrète, from which a true Orris Absolute
is made – the latter is a clear, mobile liquid unlike the so-called Orris Concrète or Butter which is
solid at room temperature.
Absolute:  A highly concentrated
alcoholic extract, usually of a concrète, which contains only alcohol soluble
materials. Its primary use is in alcoholic perfumes but normally contains
little or no residual ethanol. 
Absolutes are also sometimes extracted from pommades (sometimes called Absolute
from Pommade
or Absolute from Châssis – the latter term is sometimes used to describe an absolute made by extracting the spent flowers already used in enfleurage). 
An Absolute from Distilation Water
(e.g. Rose Water Absolute) is also sometimes made using the hydrolat left over
from making an essential oil as the starting material.  Sometimes the term Absolute is also
used to mean the alcohol soluble fraction of a resinoid.

Other terms in alphabetical sequence

Copaifera langsdorfii 
Balsam: A natural exudate obtained from a shrub or a tree (either
physiological or pathological). It is characterized by being rich in benzoic
and cinnamic acids and their corresponding esters and is insoluble in water but
completely or almost completely soluble in ethanol.  Balsams may, upon ageing, form resins and so the boundary between these two may be blurred.
CO2 Extract – these include a range of extraction
processes using carbon dioxide as the solvent.  In most cases the solvent used is rendered liquid at much
higher temperatures than normal an so the extract produced is often, more
correctly, referred to as SFEsupercritical fluid extract – and I’ve
said a bit more about it under that heading.
Extract: A concentrate of a dried less volatile aromatic
plant part obtained by solvent extraction with a polar solvent.  In
practice this term is used quite indiscriminately to mean several of the types
of processed material where there result is concentrated – with the solvent
removed.  In flavour work the term
is used even more widely to include emulsions and diluted materials that may be
water soluble (possibly dissolved in water) and of very short shelf-life. To be
meaningful this term really requires further qualification or clarification and
perfumers should approach ‘extracts’ with appropriate caution.
Note that the French
term ‘extrait’ (directly translated
this would be extract) is used in
English to mean something quite specific: An alcoholic extract of a pomade
produced by enfleurage: a tincture of a pomade.   The term is also occasionally hijacked to mean an
alcoholic dilution of any material of
a particular strength or a blended perfume of a particular strength “extrait strength” is sometimes used to
mean much the same as Parfum, that is
an alcoholic perfume with 15-30% aromatic ingredients.
Gum: Can be either a
natural or synthetic material but, strictly, should be used only for
water-soluble materials of very high molecular weight.  In perfumery it can, however, also be
used of resins and turpentines.  Under the strict definition gums are
odourless and therefore of no use in perfumery.
Commiphora myrrha tree one of the primary sources
from which the oleo-gum-resin
myrrh is harvested.
Gum Resin: A natural exudate obtained from a tree or
plant. It is comprised of gums and resins. If the gum resin source also
contains an essential oil, it is called an oleo-gum-resin.  Only partially soluble in alcohol,
hydrocarbons etc. and may be partially soluble in water where the proportion of
gum is significant.
Infusion: A hot extraction of either a plant part or its
exudate with either water or an organic solvent. Infusions are not at all
popular because it is difficult to control their chemical composition.
Isolate: sometimes clarified as natural
, this is prepared material, produced from a precursor of natural
origin, most often an essential oil, by any of a range of physical processes
including fractional distillation or freezing, chromatographic separation and
others.  At one time many perfumery
materials were made this way that today are available much more cheaply as
synthetics.  Natural perfumers may
still take advantage of the fact that many natural isolates continue to be
produced commercially for the flavour industry where the premium on natural
flavours justifies the increased cost of production.
Oleoresin: The natural tree trunk or bark exudate, which
is extremely rich in an essential oil. 
The term is occasionally also used of prepared materials.  In either case they consist of
essential oil and resin. 
Turpentines are oleoresins where the resin portion is acidic.
Pommade:  The product of the
enfleurage fat extraction of fresh flowers. Enfleurage was once much more
widely used than today but is still the most efficient (highest yielding)
method with certain flowers that continue to manufacture perfume in the flower
after it is cut, such as tuberose for example.
Resin Absolute: generally applied to materials obtain
directly from plant raw-materials by extraction with hot alcohol: once the
alcohol has been recovered, what is left is referred to as the Resin
Absolute.  As the product is often
very thick and sticky, the recovered alcohol may be partially replaced by a
high-boiling solvent such as Isopropyl Myristate when it is usually sold as
‘mobilised with N% of XX’.  Notable
exceptions include the extraction product of Oakmoss with hot alcohol, which is
usually called Oakmoss Resin; that of
Orris is likewise called Orris Resin.
Benzoin resin from which Benzoin Resinoid is made
Resinoid:  A solvent extract of a
resin-rich material containing natural exudate or dried plant material with a
hydrocarbon solvent. Resinoids are generally viscous to semi-solid mixtures.
They can be considered as being equivalent to concrètes but made from dead /
dried (non-cellular) materials.
Spice/Herb Oleoresin: A solvent extract of a dried spice or herb,
which is virtually free from the extracting solvent. It is used more-or-less exclusively
by the food and pharmaceutical industries as a replacement for ground spices and
spice tinctures.
Supercritical Fluid

This is an extract made using supercritical carbon dioxide (CO2) or
another suitable supercritical fluid material as the solvent. Supercritical
fluid extraction (SFE) of plant material with solvents like CO2,
propane, butane, or ethylene is increasingly being done. SFE allows the
processing of plant material at low temperatures, hence limiting thermal
degradation, and avoids the use of toxic solvents.  A common downside of SFE is that the resulting material may
not be fully soluble in ethanol and in many cases further extraction with
ethanol to produce, what is in effect an Absolute
from SFE
is conducted – these are sometimes sold as CO2 Select Extract or, more intuitively as Ethanol Soluble SFE.
Tincture: An alcoholic or aqueous alcoholic extract of a
natural raw material in which the solvent is left in the extract as a diluent.
Tinctures are used both in the fragrance and pharmaceutical industries. The
amount of alcohol in the tincture, which ranges from 20-95%, is standardized by
the manufacturer.  See my post on Ambergris for an example of a tincture used in perfumery


2 Comments on “Natural Perfume Materials: what the terms mean”

  • HI thanks for a great blogg, found a lot of very usful information here!
    Im searching for a "natrual" ingredient to use for my perfume mix as I would like to reduce the amount of alcohol in my perfumes and have just started to do my own hydrosols. (reduce the alcohol for several reason, ethic, skin irritation etc)
    I would like to do around: 10% EO + 40% hydrosol + 50% alcohol (96%)
    I know that polysorbate 20 probably can solve the issue but since its classified being a "toxic bad" chemical is there something else I can use to make the water, oil n alcohol to merry each other? preferable organic?

    I also know if you know a place for bying organic alcohol?

    best hope for answer,


  • Chris B


    Hello josefin,
    Sorry I didn't spot your questions earlier. I'm not sure I can help much though as there is no way to reduce the alcohol in a perfume and replace it with water, without also adding both emulsifiers and, if you reduce it by very much, preservatives.

    Polysorbate 20 isn't toxic, which is why it is so extensively used in cosmetics. There are many alternatives but I suspect you wont' like those any better. Really my recommendation, if you want to keep your perfume as natural as possible, would be to stick with ethanol.

    If you want to use organic ethanol you will have to pay duty on it, so it will also be expensive: are you sure you need to do that? It isn't going to be any safer or kinder to your skin than any other kind of ethanol.


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