Sensible scents

If you’ve been fortunate to travel in more exotic destinations such as Egypt or Turkey, you may be familiar with perfume oils. There, storeholders in bright and bustling bazaars offer a dazzling array of elaborate tiny bottles containing an unimaginable range of perfume oils from an abundance of different plants.

But just what are those mysterious scented oils made from? What’s their provenance? Are there benefits to applying them as an alternative to modern solvent-based fragrances? Let’s take a look.


Perfume oils are made by taking flowers, woods, spices and other plant parts and distilling them using low heat and pressure. The steam, rich in fragrance oils, is collected over several weeks in a container that typically contains mild sandalwood oil, which acts as a base or fixative. The sandalwood oil binds with the fragrance oil molecules, allowing the scented oils to last much longer than if they were kept alone.

Within the industry, perfume oils are more commonly referred to as “attar oils”. The word attar or ittar that we use today is derived from the Arabic word for scent, which comes from the yet older Persian word atr, meaning fragrance.

Attar oils should not be confused with essential oils, which are obtained by

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