Oil-Based Fragrances vs. Alcohol-Based Fragrances: What is the difference?

I often get asked by potential customers if our perfumes are “oil-based”.  And I find it a very difficult question to answer because of some big misconceptions in the South African Generic Perfume market.

Let me take a step back here and explain where I think it comes from. I have heard many a story about people buying “real” perfume on the side of the road or from hawkers who are nowhere to be seen the next day, the perfume turns out to have absolutely no scent and is pure water or pure alcohol. Customers, quite rightly so,  became weary of buying these perfumes so the clever con-men came up with the saying that it was ‘100% oil based’.

So when customers are asking if the perfumes are oil-based, what they are actually wanting to know is whether the fragrance oils and therefore the perfume is of good quality.

The substances that give a perfume its fragrance are oils (ours are imported straight out of France), think of essential oils like rose, bergamot, neroli, citronella, BUT,  some perfume oils are then diluted in a neutral (fragrance-free) carrier oil. This is ALSO perfume oil, and this is the correct description for an ‘oil-based perfume’. Where the actual fragrance oil is diluted with a neutral carrier oil. However, the preference of almost all commercial brands is to use ALCOHOL as the base that the perfume oil is mixed with.

It is important to know the difference between each type of perfume, namely, Alcohol-based, Oil-based, and Water-based perfumes. They achieve different outcomes and the consumer should test and see which one suits him/her best


So, what are the essential differences?

Oil-Based Perfumes

Perfume oils have an oil base which is a neutral and odourless carrier oil, like fractionated Coconut or Jojoba oil. These perfumes are commonly known as ‘skin scents’ since the fragrance deepens when the body temperature gradually increases. The oil keeps the fragrance close to the skin which allows for a subtle projection, only you and those close to you will experience the natural aromas. The moisturizing aspect of the oils is an added bonus, perfect for dry skin. This type of perfume cannot be sprayed on to the skin, it will come in a bottle with something to dab the perfume onto your skin with


Water-Based Perfumes

Water-based perfumes are typically all natural, made from only 2 ingredients, pure essential oils, and distilled water, for that straight-from-the-earth fragrance. These natural aromas find favour amongst skin-allergy sufferers, clean-beauty devotees, pregnant woman, and environmentalists.


Alcohol-Based Perfumes

The most common commercial branded perfumes are alcohol based (usually ethanol), where the fragrance oils are mixed with the alcohol. The alcohol helps the fragrance molecules evaporate around you, allowing for a stronger projection. Alcohol-based perfumes also highlight certain ingredients at different times, allowing you to experience the different top, middle, and base notes.  Alcohol-based perfumes also offer a vast variety to choose from and with a stronger projection, a spritz of perfume will go a long way.


Solid Perfumes

Solid perfume is also available, but this is a very niche market. Here the perfume comes as a thick waxy substance and you rub into your skin. This would also be moisturizing and also usually sits close to the skin with not much projection.


So when trying to ask whether a perfume is of good quality, the correct questions to be asking would be:

  1. Does your perfume oil come from a reputable company? (Remember that petrol is a very heavily fragranced oil, but no-one wants to smell like that.) In other words, smelling strongly of bad quality smell is not a good thing.
  2. What concentration is your perfume oil diluted to in its carrier substance whether its alcohol or a neutral carrier oil?

The perfume industry has come up with a standard to help people differentiate, by giving names to the different concentrations of perfume oil to total volume, they are:

  • Parfum: 15–40% (typically around 20%)
  • Eau de Parfum (EdP): 10–20% (typically around 15%);
  • Eau de Toilette (EdT): 5–15 (typically around10%);
  • eau de Cologne (EdC): often simply called cologne: 3–8% (typically around 5%)

Knowing the difference is a good place to start when searching for your signature scent.

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