We all have fragrance notes that we gravitate toward and a go-to Eau de Parfum that is a permanent fixture on our vanity. Fragrance plays a key role in every woman’s beauty routine and we don’t feel quite right without a spritz of something pretty to complete our look. Whether you prefer something floral, fresh, spicy or woody, there is no shortage of fragrance options at your nearest department store, but how often do you stop to think about the laundry list of chemicals that may be lurking in that favourite fragrance of yours?
Being that April is Earth Month, it seemed only fitting that we cast the spotlight on essential oils, Mother Nature’s equivalent to synthetic fragrance. We paid a visit to Province Apothecary and sat down with Master Perfumer Darby Milbrath for a custom perfume blending session to pick her brain on the power of the olfactory sense, the therapeutic effects of essential oils and tips on making the switch to natural perfume.
What is an essential oil?
An essential oil a concentrated, natural oil obtained through distillation (often by using steam) with the characteristic fragrance of the plant or other source from which it is extracted. While distillation is the most common method of extraction, there are other processes, from expression to cold-pressing.
With the popularity of aromatherapy and the surge in natural beauty brands that are cropping up on the market, the interest in essential oils has increased and they are now widely seen. A stroll through the department store almost always includes a stop or two for a whiff or a spritz of a designer fragrance. In the midst of that beautifully intoxicating waft, you likely don’t stop to consider that some 3,000 chemicals are used as fragrances. 95 per cent of the chemicals in most commercial fragrances are synthetic compounds derived from petroleum and natural gas, known as petrochemicals. On average, 80 per cent of fragrance formulations are comprised of these chemicals and in some cases, 100 per cent of a formula can be synthetic.
The components of a perfume
Milbrath likens perfumery to music with “base notes, middle notes and top notes working in harmony; a harmony of the chords.” These three categories of notes are based on the rate of volatility, referring to how quickly they dissolve. Top notes (oils in the citrus family, black spruce and cypress for example) are the quickest to dissolve. Base notes are generally categorized as roots, barks and resins (oils like frankincense and myrrh); middle notes as flowers (oils like neroli and rose otto); and top notes as herbs, citruses and tips of trees.
A session with Milbrath begins by going through dozens of pure, organic and sustainably sourced essential oils to identify your olfactory preferences, creating a “yes” and “no” pile of all three groups of notes. “I enjoy watching people move through the process of custom blending” says Milbrath. “I feel like I am getting to know the person on a different level and I enjoy witnessing that sense of reward that they have just created something on their own.”
The wellness benefits of essential oils
While the end goal is to have a beautiful natural fragrance made up of a complex blend of essential oils, Milbrath, with her background in herbalism is quick to point out that “while all essential oils have unique, beautiful scents, they can also help evoke a mood or memory and if used correctly, can act as therapeutic and curative aids, providing wellness benefits.” They have been used safely by many to provide support in boosting immunity, speeding recovery, balancing hormones, addressing anxiety, enhancing focus, etc. However, caution should be taken before embarking into the world of essential oils. Potential danger can be relative to its level or grade of purity, and in some cases related to the toxicity of specific chemical components of the oil. Many essential oils are designed exclusively for aromatherapy and should not be applied directly to the skin in their undiluted (or as they call it “neat”) form as they can cause irritation or encourage an allergic reaction.
Milbrath’s custom perfume blends are made with essential oils and suspended in a organic jojoba oil carrier oil since it is very gentle and suitable for all skin types. To reap the therapeutic benefits of the essential oils in your perfume, Milbrath recommends “applying your roll-on perfume to your pulse points is not only ideal to help your fragrance react naturally with your body chemistry, but they are the best spots to maximize absorption through the skin into the bloodstream to experience the wellness benefits of the oils.”
As you move through the blending process with Milbrath, she blends your base notes, middle notes and top notes separately, allowing you to assess them along the way to make sure your perfume is on the right track before harmoniously joining them. The session ($160) runs about 60-90min with a 10ml organic oil custom perfume to take home with you. Your recipe is kept on file and can be remade for you at any time.
If blending your own isn’t quite your thing and you prefer to have someone take the guesswork out of it, Province Apothecary’s line includes Parfum Botanique ($46 each) in six different blends designed to Uplift, Inspire, Charm, Awaken, Balance and Empower.
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