Perfume alchemy for Valentine’s Day

I have loved making fragrances ever since my mother introduced me to the magical world of perfume. One summer she took us to visit a perfumery in Grasse, France, the birthplace of the world’s perfume industry. We took a bus from Cannes and had a long, bumpy ride up the steep hills of southern France. As we got closer the air became thick with perfume and wonderful aromas flew in through the bus windows.

The perfumers showed us the secrets of their trade, and my mum remembers that I was amazed how many petals were needed to make one bottle of perfume. I was transfixed by the whole process. It was alchemy.

I spent every penny in my purse to buy four tiny vials of the most exquisite fragrances that I have ever smelt. The perfumes from Grasse sat on my bedroom windowsill for years, never worn but occasionally opened to enjoy the heavenly scents. Over the years the aromas faded, until one day I returned home from university to find that the precious bottles held only coloured water.

The visit to Grasse sparked an obsession with smell that eventually led to aromatherapy. Floral and citrus oils are my favourite fragrances, although I also love the woods and resins.

Valentine’s Day is full of romance and so also nostalgia. For this Valentine’s I have tried to recreate the fresh, sweet smells of Grasse, which I remember were as beautiful as they were simple.

There are lots of complicated perfume recipes available using various base mixes and perfumer’s alcohol. I prefer to keep things easy. The recipe below uses vodka, which can be substituted for distilled water or flower water (orange or rose) to make an eau de cologne. I chose three of my favourite oils – rose, jasmine and neroli – for a rich floral base, and enhanced with leafy petitgrain and uplifting, citrusy grapefruit.

You will need:

  • 60ml vodka (80% proof)
  • 9 drops rose absolute
  • 2 drops jasmine absolute
  • 4 drops neroli essential oil
  • 2 drops grapefruit essential oil
  • 4 drops petitgrain essential oil

Pour the vodka into a bottle with a spray pump top and add the absolutes and essential oils drop by drop. Fix the bottle top and shake well. The oils will make the vodka cloudy, which is normal. Spray the perfume on neck and wrists, and enjoy.

The fragrance is how I like my perfumes – subtle. If you prefer, increase the strength of the aroma by doubling the amount of drops.

Store the perfume out of direct sunlight or heat and it will keep for a long time or as quickly as you use it!

You can read more about the essentials oils used here: rose, jasmine, neroli, grapefruit and petitgrain.

I buy my essential oils from Neal’s Yard Remedies, where I was trained as an aromatherapist. They also have lots of smelly ideas for Valentine’s Day!

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The oils of the orange tree

Blown in from Neverland on the breeze of children’s laughter, the oils of the orange tree are forever young. They bring warmth, cheer and optimism, their innocence and happiness connects with your inner child.

With spring in the air, trees in blossom and summer on its way, I’ve been living with aromatherapy’s cheeriest and sunniest oils – the oils of the orange tree: sweet orange, petitgrain, neroli and mandarin.

The first three oils hail from the same small evergreen tree (Citrus aurantium var amara or Bigaradia) and are extracted from its fruit (sweet orange), leaves and twigs (petitgrain) and blossom or flowers (neroli). Mandarin is extracted from the fruit of another evergreen (C. reticulata). Both trees are natives of China and India, though their treasures are now distributed worldwide.

As with all essential oils, the orange oils have a variety of uses. I’ve described some of my favourite here. Summary profiles of all four oils, listing actions and uses, are provided at the end of this post. One property the orange oils have in common is their ability to calm nerves, to reduce tension and to uplift moods.

A children’s remedy

Mandarin, and sweet orange, is often referred to as the ‘children’s remedy’. Its scent is sweet and fruity, making it pleasing and comforting to babies and children. Its actions are subtle and gentle, making it very safe to use. A soothing and slightly sedative mandarin-scented bath can be used for babies after six months. It’s best to use the lowest dilutions for babies and children, even when using the gentlest of essential oils. The blend below is a 1% dilution:

  • 10ml full-fat milk
  • 2 drops mandarin oil

Run your baby’s bath, then slosh in the milk and mandarin oil blend, making sure it’s distributed thoroughly in the water. Now bathe your child and let them enjoy the subtle orange-like fragrance to aid a good night’s sleep.

Mothers to be

There are many aromatherapists that specialise in aromatherapy for pregnancy – I am not one of them. And while there are many aromatherapy books on the subject, their advice often varies. With this in mind, and preferring to err on the side of caution, I am guided by these three recommendations:

  1. Don’t use essential oils during the first trimester
  2. Only use one or two essential oils in a blend and always at a 1% dilution (ie 5 ml carrier product to one drop essential oil)
  3. Always ask your medical practitioner (GP or midwife) before using aromatherapy treatments, especially if there is a prior history of miscarriage and/or other medical complications in this or any previous pregnancy

Safety bit out of the way, the orange oils are lovely for mothers to be – in baths, room fragrances or massage. Daily massage the blend below onto your tummy using gentle circular movements:

  • 10ml olive oil
  • 1 drop neroli oil
  • 1 drop mandarin oil

If used everyday from the second trimester this blend is thought to help prevent or minimise stretch marks.

Spring cleaning

I love blending sweet orange and petitgrain, creating a sweet, fruity, citrus, woody aroma. It’s perfect for use during spring cleaning. When doing my laundry I like to use it to scent towels and bed linen. Pour three drops each into your cup of washing powder or onto laundry tablets, allowing the oils to soak into the powder before placing in the drawer or drum of your washing machine. Your laundry will come out with a lovely subtle orangey fragrance.

For a room fragrance, fill a 30ml spray bottle with water and pour in 9 drops each of sweet orange and petitgrain. Shake vigorously and then spray around the room, especially around curtains and carpets to let the fabrics pick up the scent.

The flower of the princess

Finally, my favourite of the orange oils is neroli – typically the most luxuriant and expensive of these essential oils. It was the favoured perfume oil of Anne Marie Orsini, a 17th-century princess of Nerola (Rome, Italy) who famously used it to fragrance her gloves. Its benefits to skin include helping to stimulate new cell growth, minimise scars and stretch marks, reduce thread veins and broken capillaries, and soothe dry or irritated conditions. It’s a wonderful anti-aging and rejuvenating oil. Use on its own in a 5% dilution (unless pregnant) blended in jojoba oil, or in the blend below for nightly facial massage:

  • 30ml jojoba oil
  • 6 drops neroli oil
  • 6 drops rose otto oil
  • 6 drops frankincense oil

Massage a teaspoonful on cleansed and dry skin, avoiding the eye area. After two to three weeks of use you should notice your skin is looking younger, fresher and more radiant.

This post is dedicated to Kim, whose inner child is alive and well.

Profile of sweet orange:

Latin name: Citrus sinensis
Plant family: Rutaceae
Plant type: citrus
Perfume note: top/middle
Botany and origins: a small evergreen tree native to China and India (Citrus aurantium var amara or Bigaradia)
Extraction: cold expression of the fruit peel
Chemical properties/active components: primarily monoterpenes (75%), particularly limonene, which is stimulating, bactericidal, antiseptic and anti-inflammatory
Blends with: lavender, clary sage, frankincense, myrrh, rose, chamomiles, citrus and spice oils
Key actions: antidepressant, antispasmodic, anti-inflammatory, bactericidal, fungicidal, sedative (nervous system) and stimulant (to body tissues and fluid)
Common conditions: cramps, constipation, flatulence; colds and flu, chills; heart palpitations, anxiety, nervousness, insomnia, stress; dry and irritated skin, acne, mature skin, dull and oily complexions
Contraindications: non-irritant, non-sensitising, but may be phototoxic – avoid using 12 hours before exposure to sunlight or sunbeds. Avoid during the first three months of pregnancy.

Profile of petitgrain:

Latin name: Citrus aurantium var amara
Plant family: Rutaceae
Plant type: floral
Perfume note: top
Botany and origins: a small evergreen tree native to China and India (Citrus aurantium var amara or Bigaradia)
Extraction: steam distillation of the leaves and twigs
Chemical properties/active components: primarily esters (55%), particularly linalyl acetate, which is antispasmodic, calming and toning
Blends with: lavender, geranium, rosemary, palmarosa, jasmine and the other orange oils
Key actions: antispasmodic, antiseptic, astringent, bactericidal, uplifts, refreshes, restorative, stabilises
Common conditions: nervous exhaustion, stress, depression, insomnia, irritability, anxiety; tones oily skin and hair, congested complexions, acne, promotes hair growth
Contraindications: non-irritant, non-toxic, non-sensitising – avoid during the first three months of pregnancy.

Profile of neroli:

Latin name: Citrus aurantium var amara
Plant family: Rutaceae
Plant type: floral
Perfume note: top
Botany and origins: a small evergreen tree native to China and India (Citrus aurantium var amara or Bigaradia)
Extraction: steam distillation of the blossom flowers
Chemical properties/active components: primarily alcohols (40%) such as linalool and monoterpenes (35%) such as limonene, which contribute to its bactericidal and antiseptic actions
Blends with: chamomiles, lavender, rose, frankincense, palmarosa, geranium, jasmine, ylang ylang, clary sage, benzoin, myrrh and most other floral and citrus oils
Key actions: antidepressant, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, antispasmodic, astringent, bactericidal, aphrodisiac, sedative
Common conditions: heart palpitations, poor circulation, muscle spasms; nervous tension, anxiety, insomnia, nervous exhaustion, depression, agitation, PMS, shock, stress; red/dry/irritated skin, broken capillaries, thread veins, mature skins, scars, stretch marks
Contraindications: non-irritant, non-sensitising – avoid during the first three months of pregnancy.

Profile of mandarin:

Latin name: Citrus reticulata
Plant family: Rutaceae
Plant type: citrus
Perfume note: top/middle
Botany and origins: a small evergreen tree native to China and India (Citrus reticulata)
Extraction: cold expression of fruit peel
Chemical properties/active components: primarily monoterpenes (90%), particularly limonene which is stimulating, antiseptic and anti-inflammatory
Blends with: the orange oils, citrus oils and spice oils
Key actions: antispasmodic, antiseptic, stimulant (digestion), sedative (nerves), cheering, optimistic and comforting
Common conditions: calms intestinal spasms and upsets, flatulence; insomnia, nervous tension, restlessness; fluid retention, cellulite, stretch marks, acne, oily and congested skins, scars, spots
Contraindications: non-irritant, non-sensitising, non-toxic, non-photosensitising – avoid during the first three months of pregnancy.

Further reading: These profiles are based on my own experience and knowledge of using these essential oils. Other aromatherapy texts will list a wider range of properties and uses. The most comprehensive essential oil profiles that I have read are given by Salvatore Battaglia’s The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy, Second Edition, published by Perfect Potion, 2003, Australia. ISBN:  0-6464-2896-9

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