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"Libraries: The medicine chest of the soul."
Library at Thebes, inscription over the door
In ancient times, perfumes were made from natural ingredients, used not only for pleasure but to heal; today, many commercial perfumes contain synthetic ingredients.
Egyptian Perfumes with Healing Properties
In ancient Egypt, perfumes were made up of aromatic plant ingredients which not only provided a pleasant fragrance but were capable of healing several health problems too, depending on the ingredients; these perfumes were, in fact, an early form of aromatherapy which is used today. One of the most well known Egyptian fragrances was called Kyphi; Kyphi contained the ingredients of plants such as peppermint, myrrh, saffron, cinnamon and juniper.
Egyptian Unguents and Rose Cones
Early perfumes were made from flower petals, tree bark and plant seeds, together with natural resins and gums; ancient Egyptian perfumes were called unguents, essentially a body perfume made from plant material immersed in a fat or oil base. Egyptian women often wore a cone of fresh macerated roses on their heads; body heat allowed the fat to melt and trickle rose-scented oil down their neck and face.
Natural Perfumes of Pompeii
The ancient Romans were also great users of natural perfumes and scents; the Romans were well known for their use of lavender in Roman baths, which were similar to today's “spas.” Archaeologists have discovered various materials and equipment used in making ancient perfumes of Pompeii, which have been preserved underneath the lava and ash of the volcanic eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D; common plants such as rose, jasmine, lily, marjoram, fennel and laurel were used as ingredients in Pompeian perfumes and unguents.
Natural European Perfumes: Marie Antoinette of France
Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, many large European houses had still rooms; still rooms were used to make home-made cosmetics and perfumes from local plant ingredients. The French queen, Marie Antoinette (1755 – 1793) had many natural perfumes and fragrances made for her by her perfumer, Jean-Louis Fargeon; natural ingredients of the perfumes of Marie Antoinette included violet, jonquil, rose, lily and tuberose.
Introduction of Synthetic Ingredients into Perfumes
Towards the end of the 18th century, with the execution of Marie Antoinette and the growth of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, natural plant ingredients for perfumes began to demise; in addition, the intervention of science introduced synthetic ingredients into perfumes. Natural perfumes of the past were soon forgotten in favor of the new, synthetic fragrances.
During the Industrial Revolution of Britain, people left the countryside for work in the big cities; they left behind both their gardens and values of the use of aromatic plant materials. Science persuaded people that synthetic drugs were now the best way to medicate; likewise, synthetic materials and chemicals were gradually introduced into perfumery making, as scientists attempted to “replicate” the fragrances of nature.
Synthetic Ingredients of Perfumes
Many plants and flowers do not naturally produce an essential oil or may only do so in small quantities; for example it takes many thousands of rose petals to produce just one ounce of rose oil. Scientists have being trying to replicate the essence of rose for a long time, but there are many undiscovered constituents of rose yet to be discovered. Consequently, some “natural” perfumes are often adulterated with a synthetic rose fragrance.
In addition, some synthetic perfumes may be created with no resemblance to a natural equivalent; some original synthetic fragrances do not exist in nature. Synthetic perfumes also contain animal products, alcohols, coal tars, petrochemicals and other toxins; although scientists can replicate some natural scents, they can not replicate the natural healing properties of plants.
Natural Versus Synthetic Perfumes
Synthetic perfumes are pleasing aromas but not the healing aromas of the past. Furthermore, the allergic reactions to toxins and chemicals used in synthetic perfumes has only recently become apparent. Although synthetic perfumes may be aromatic fragrances to some, many other people today are once again preferring to use natural perfumes instead of synthetic fragrances.
- Feydeau, Elisabeth de, 2007 A Scented Palace: The Secret History of Marie Antoinette's Perfumer UK: I.B. Taurus & Co. Ltd
- Giordano, Carlo, Casale, Angelandrea, Profumi, Ungenti e Acconciature in Pompei Antica (Perfumes, Ungents and Hairstyles in Pompeii) Roma, Italia: Bardi Editore
- Lawless, Julia 2001 The Aromatherapy Garden UK: Kyle Cathie Ltd
This article was written by Sharon Falsetto and appeared in its original format on Suite101 as The Ingredients of Perfumes
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