Alcohol and perfume: the whole truth!

Alcohol is often the main ingredient in perfume compositions: but why and what is it used for?

As you may have noticed when studying your perfume label, alcohol is often the main ingredient in your favorite formula. But what is it used for and and where does it really come from? Are there compositions that do not contain alcohol? These are some of the questions that we will answer in this article without taboo to really understand the links between alcohol and perfume.

Alcohol, zoom on the main ingredient of your perfume

What are alcoholic perfumes?

In perfumery there are several types of compositions, including alcoholic perfumes. In this kind of fragrance, we find on the one hand the odorant concentrate, that is to say the formula created from natural and synthetic scented ingredients that will reveal the olfactory pyramid of the juice, as well as the alcohol that acts as a support to the perfuming substance. This ingredient is an ethyl alcohol (also called ethanol) because it is a neutral and odorless material, which will therefore not alter the scents revealed by the odorant concentrate. An alcoholic fragrance is between 70% and 92% alcohol, depending on the type of fragrance chosen (eau de Cologne, eau de toilette, eau de parfum, perfume…).

Often, its presence in the list of ingredients worries, yet alcohol is a very common material in the world of cosmetics for its properties. Indeed, it is miscible in water, stable, colorless and volatile. The formula of alcoholic perfumes is the most widespread in our industry, especially in the West. It is also the most recent since its origin goes back to the XIV century, after the use of oil or fat based supports.

Denatured alcohol, what is that?

The alcohol used in the compositions does not really look like brandy or vodka! This one is most of the time denatured, meaning it is made unfit for consumption. Yes, but why and how? In Europe there is a tax, the excise duty, which is levied on the consumption of alcohol and alcoholic beverages. This tax is paid indirectly by the final consumer since it is charged to the selling price of the product containing alcohol. The denaturing of ethanol allows manufacturers to avoid this excise tax, but also to avoid the illegal detour of products as alcoholic beverages.

Alcohol is denatured in this way: various chemical compounds are added to make it “undrinkable”. These will change its taste (generally making it very bitter), its color and even its smell. Drinking your perfume is therefore strongly discouraged! The denatured alcohol will however keep its properties and will always be an excellent support for the fragrance concentrate. Thus, you will sometimes find the term “ALCOHOL DENAT” or “SD ALCOHOL” (Specially Denatured Alcohol) on the labels of your products. It is also possible to denature the alcohol by adding a denaturing ingredient directly into the composition of the product. We find the mention “ALCOHOL” in the INCI list, but it is denatured.

Where does the alcohol in your perfumes come from?

There are various ways to produce ethyl alcohol, although its final properties remain the same. The first way is to create synthetic ethanol, through synthesis by making it directly in the laboratory. It is also possible to obtain bioethanol, also called agricultural ethanol. Unlike synthetic ethanol, its origin is vegetable. That’s why we generally find this form of alcohol in the so-called natural perfumes. To make it, sugars or starch from various plant sources such as fruits, sugar cane or cereals are fermented. After fermentation, the ethanol obtained is distilled to be purified before being dehydrated to eliminate all its water. It is then denatured. At Carrément Belle, we use a natural alcohol, of vegetable origin created from beet.

Why is there alcohol in perfume?

There are several reasons for the presence of ethyl alcohol in perfume. The first thing is that alcohol will be used as a base to distill the fragrance concentrate. The perfumed substance will thus be diluted in this ethanol, which will not be possible in water for example. In fact, the alcohol acts as a solvent for the aromatic compounds of the other materials in the formula. In this way, the fragrance concentrate will remain on the skin longer without damaging it.

Thanks to its volatility, ethanol will evaporate very quickly to hand over to the fragrant materials that will settle on the skin and diffuse their notes over the hours. It will then reveal a real impression of freshness during the vaporization to finally fade away after a few moments. Another advantage of alcohol, and not the least, is that it allows an excellent conservation of the perfume in time.

Does alcohol-free perfume exist?

Other types of scented compositions

If alcoholic perfumes are the most used today, there are other ways to make fragrances without using alcohol. There are oily fragrances that use oil as a support for the fragrance concentrate. Sweet almond, sesame or wheat germ oil can be used to make this type of composition. However, some odorant compounds are not miscible with oil. It is thus necessary to find soluble substances in this base a little more capricious. Other fragrances can have as a support wax or butters of vegetable or mineral origin. These are greasy perfumes, sometimes called “concretes”. In solid form, they are applied by small touches. Although very rare now, there were perfumes in powder form, whose base was talc. They were very widespread during the Renaissance, to perfume wigs and the face.

The alcohol-free perfume, an ancestral creation

If the alcohol-free perfume is democratized for marketing reasons, it is a form of composition that has existed since the dawn of time. Its origins go back to Antiquity, with the appearance of attar, a non-alcoholic perfume from India and the Middle East. It is made by distilling plants (herbs, ground spices, flowers…) and then adding the essences obtained to a basic essential oil, usually sandalwood, although nowadays it is more often liquid paraffin. Attar is rare in the West. It is widely used in the Middle East, especially by Muslims because it does not contain alcohol, a substance prohibited by Islam.

You now know a little more about the links between perfume and alcohol!

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