What’s the best natural or botanical fixative for perfumes oils and fragrances?
When creating or using natural perfume the holy grail of the experience is creating a potion that can last. Yet the process is not intuitive and requires a significant devotion to the trial and error of many substances to learn which will last and which, unfortunately, will fade within a short hour of application. This is the truth about natural fragrances, they do not have the same longevity as their synthetic counterparts – thus care must be taken to compose a blend that allows the wearer to enjoy a longer fragrance.
This is a living article, a list that will be updated as I test out and work out which solutions work with different scent profiles:
Ambrette Seed – Musk, airy, spacious, old. This is often used as a musk substitute as it is one of the few natural ingredients that contain similar chemicals to the originally used Deer Musk glands. While its scent is hard to describe, there’s a subtlety to it, it can be very overwhelming in small amounts, covering the other ingredients in a mix. Almost slightly nutty. In my experiments, this is not a fixative, but it is long-lasting. Many others claim it functions as a fixative, so please conduct your own tests. It does help to round out perfumes. It smells almost similar to civet oil without the fecal notes.
Amyris – Balsalm, resin. Has a smoke-like essence. A lot of places recommend it as an alternative to Sandalwood, though it does not have many similarities and I do not believe it has any reason to be used as a Sandalwood replacement. Amyris has a smoke-like heavy air to it. It is not sweet and it is not soft. While long-lasting, this tends to have a softer scent that does not compete with the perfume similar in effect to frankincense or sandalwood when blended. I find this is really light in its smokey notes, and when blended it fills out the background and becomes subtle.
Angelica Root – Musk, turpentine, coumarin, grass, dirt. Considered a musk alternative, smells a little herbal.
Balsam of Peru/Balsam Fir – Pine, resin, amber, woody, creamy, sour. Considered a possible allergen (what isn’t?). In my experiments, this is a successful fixative for other ingredients, although the slightly harsh character of this may be difficult to blend. It is a sweet ingredient with some harsher almost plastic-like notes.
Benzoin Resin – Cream soda, vanilla, resin, amber. This is reminiscent of an older vanilla, it is not fresh, but it is warm. It reminds some people of an older perfume smell.
Cedar wood – It’s hard to discuss cedarwood as there as so many varieties with completely different scent profiles. I would say that generally, this is not a base note nor a fixative. The scent tends to be of cedar chips, woody, balsam, camphor. Varieties labeled as “cedar wood” can be derived from Junipers, Cypresses,Platycladus, Cupressus, Taiwania, Calocedrus, and Cedar of Lebanon. Many of these are not true cedars, and it can be confusing as to whether someone is referring to the Atlas Cedar, Virginia Cedar or Cypress which all have drastically different scent profiles.
Cistus/Labdanum – Musk, resin, amber. This is frequently used as a base in most amber formulas. It is complex and can easily overpower most fragrances. It is both sweet and dirty, like an animal. It is deep and tenacious. In my experiments, this is a somewhat successful fixative for other ingredients, although the strength of this scent is so powerful on its own other ingredients are eclipsed.
Clary Sage – Nuty, herbal, balsamic. I find this to be very herbal and overwhelms formulas if used with a heavy hand. It is both herbal and nutty with light notes of rose.
Frankincense/Olibanum – Balsamic, warm, resin. The resin and Essential Oil do not have the same properties and do not smell the same. In my experiments, this is a somewhat successful fixative for other ingredients. It is a softer scent and easily masked, while long-lasting it is not strong. Has light citrus notes and can be used to create the illusion of an extended citrus note.
Galbanum – Balsamic, green, wood. One of the strongest ingredients; it quickly overpowers everything. In my experiments, this is not a successful fixative, and perhaps should be instead referred to as a top note. I suspect the form of this (resin/EO) changes its volatility.
Immortelle/Helichrysum – Sweet, floral, herbal. In my experiments, this is not a fixative.
Myrrh – Balsamic, warm, resin. Similar to Frankincense and often used together.
Oakmoss – Wood, dirt, decay, fungus, bark. Main component of Fougère and Chypre style fragrances. Usually diluted to a lower concentration; frequently used with Vetiver. Smells like a walk in the woods. Long-lasting and strong in its profile. It’s generally considered a strong fixative so I’ll assume it is, but it is so strong on its own, and so obvious when in a formula as well as so incredibly complex that it can be difficult to determine if other notes have been extended with its use. Has a great spacious effect in perfumes and strongly helps the projection of other fragrance notes.
Opopanax/Opobalsam – Gum resin, sweet myrrh.
Orris Root Butter/Concrete – Floral, woody, delicate. This is a hard smell to describe. I’ve heard places call it “violet-like” but it does not smell like violets exactly. It’s powdery – in a way it has more of a presence than a smell. It takes up air but is hard to ascribe a concrete smell to. In many of the sources I’ve smelled this has a slight carrot seed scent to it, something musty and the tiniest bit like violet leaf oil. It generally smells better as a dilution. Frequently used as a modifier in perfumes. Can make perfumes take on a “powdery” note. In my experiments, this is a somewhat successful fixative for other ingredients, although it creates a powdery effect and modifies the other ingredients. To have this behave as a “violet” scent it needs to be modified with Cassie absolute as well as other violet mimics. Because of the common use in makeup that either has true Orris or mimics its scent with cheaper synthetics, many associate this with the smell of makeup and therefore, women’s perfume.
Patchouli – Earthy, wood, dark, sweet. Easily overwhelming, very recognizable. Great in small amounts in gourmand additions, can add sophistication to overly sweet perfumes. In my experiments, this is a somewhat successful fixative when it is aged and dark, the light and young version overpowers and smells a little clumsy in fixative concentrations.
Sandalwood – Woody, sweet, balsamic. It is a warm, pleasant smell that can be used on its own, used to modify other ingredients, or to enhance. It tends to be one of the more expensive ingredients at about $100/ounce. In my experiments, this is a somewhat successful fixative for other ingredients. The modification that Sandalwood provides is a creamy roundness that is hard to notice unless you are familiar with it, not a strong scent on its own, it’s easily masked by others. Seems to support holding onto florals rather well.
Storax Balsam/LiquidAmber – Sweet, vanilla, balsam, resin. This is a curious scent that has strong notes of plastic in it. They dissipate in some combinations though not all. This does not easily dilute in alcohol and is one of the ingredients that is easier to blend into oil. With an alcohol mix, there will be precipitate that should be filtered out in the final composition In my experiments, this is a somewhat successful fixative for other ingredients.
Tolu balsam – Musk, amber, resin. Seems to often be confused with Balsam of Peru. I have never used this and have no clue!
Vetiver – Earthy, woody, heavy, forest.
Vanilla – Sweet, warm, slightly woody, deep. The different varieties have subtle differences; some are warmer, some are cooler. I use vanilla as a good base sometimes but frequently find it makes scents too sweet. There are ways to modify it to reduce the sweetness and enhance the warmth but for some, as soon as they get a whiff of vanilla they relegate the fragrance to the gourmand family somewhat unjustly.
Since writing this, I’ve worked with so many more options that have been missed from this list. Tonka bean, Ambergris, among others, will be added soon.
I’ve only recently started dabbling in natural fragrances, so take my question/comment with a grain of salt… It seems from your descriptions that fixatives”-ness” is an associated characteristic of a base note, though stronger in some than in others. Is that an incorrect conclusion to draw? I’m thinking now to use a “low-impact” base fragrance which has strong fixative characteristics, to hold one of my fragrances together longer. I would be quite intrigued in your thoughts! Thanks.
Thank you for your comment, it had gotten stuck in limbo in the new spam system so apologies for the delay.
No, ‘fixativeness’ is not an effect of base notes exactly, but it is commonly spoken about in a way that is interchangeable. Here’s why; the point of a fixative is to last over a period of 4+ hours extending to 8. More volatile items that may have fixing characteristics can help hold a very fleeting note for a little longer, but only so far as its own volatility would allow. So even if a ‘middle note’ has fixing qualities, its effect would not be as prized as a base note would as it simply would not last too long. Not all base notes are fixatives and out of the ones that are, some of them can tend to drown out notes. Consider benzoin, it tends to flatten notes in a blend if a lot of it is added, yes it helps them last, but they may also be flatter.
One reason that sandalwood as a fixative is so popular as a tool in Attars is because it blends into the background and becomes creamy and almost unnoticeable in its effect while anchoring more fleeting floral notes. The sandalwood, when blended, actually becomes far more pleasant and support the perfume structure. Of course, cost is a concern here. This is what I think of when you mention “low-impact” fixatives.
Theres’s other tricks you can utilize outside of the “fixative” concept. For example, if you want to extend citrus notes, you can add Elemi or Frankincense which have their own citrus like notes and create the illusion of extending the citrus through the middle of the perfume experience.
Let me know if you have any questions.