The Refreshing Appeal of Water-Based Perfumes


Applying perfume often involves a certain choreographed ritual: “You spray it on your pulse points, then wait for the alcohol to evaporate and the notes to develop,” says the Iranian-born fashion designer Behnaz Sarafpour. But that sense of delayed gratification never appealed to her. “I wanted to spritz it on and immediately feel like I was putting my nose in a flower.”

Unable to find a straight-from-the-earth scent that would please in real time, Sarafpour decided to create her own. Last winter, she debuted a pair of natural perfumes — Pure Rose ($85) and Pure Neroli ($85) — made from fresh flower essences, distilled water and nothing else. There’s not a drop of alcohol, preservatives or anything synthetic, which results in a scent that she says, “smells more like real flowers than perfume.”

Water-based scents are something of an anomaly in the fragrance world. Composed mostly of botanical oils, essences and pared-down natural ingredients — as opposed to artificial additives and lab-derived complexes — these less concentrated formulations can be extremely difficult to create. “Water is a very challenging base to use,” says the perfumer Christopher Brosius, whose CB I Hate Perfume line relies on oil and water, two ingredients that “do not easily mix,” he says. “A good deal of very careful preparation and chemistry are necessary to suspend fragrance oil in water and keep it that way.” Yet the advantage, says Brosius, is that the final blend is “far better for the skin and the scent smells exactly as I intend it to the moment it leaves the bottle.”

That authenticity appeals to scent purists, including Carolina Issa, the editor of Tank magazine, who wears Behnaz’s Pure Rose and says it smells like “baskets of rose petals in Tehran’s markets.” The actress Selma Blair, meanwhile, appreciates how the absence of alcohol — which can irritate and dry out skin — allows her to spray more freely. “I use the Behnaz Pure Neroli on everything,” she says. “My hair straight from the shower, my dogs before I kiss them, my son’s pillows before sleep.” It’s impossible to overdo it, she says, since the scent is “not at all overpowering, or perfume-y.”


Others find the fainter trail leaves them emotionally lighter. “I am sensitive to scents because they can transport me and put me in a different mood,” says the fashion designer Gabriela Hearst, who is loyal to Officine Universelle Buly’s Eau Triple Mexican Tuberose (130€, about $153) — a water-based blend of tuberose, vanilla and clove. “I splash it on early in the morning after a shower, and I feel immediately uplifted.”

While such subtle perfumes might be ideal for summer — when you want less on your skin — Sarafpour has found that many clients wear her floral blends year-round. “It’s like grabbing a rose and smelling it,” she says of the appeal — and that “is season-less.”


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