Perfume Ingredients: Ylang Ylang

  • By Jean Peters-Do
Bringing an idea to fruition

Sitting outside on the morning of the new moon, my mind swirls with loosely connected thoughts. My body is uneasy; there are some stressful situations in my life that have me unsettled. Just like Dumbledore pulling a memory from his mind to put into the pensieve, I tease out of that tempest a whisp of a thought about writing this post, unwinding it from the swirl of thoughts. For a moment I relax into my surroundings. Suddenly, instead of that tight, boxed-in sensation, it feels as though the cotton stuffing in my ears is gone and I become aware of the sounds all around me. So many birds singing along with their insistent hatchlings in every tree, and cicadas buzzing their appreciation for the heat. The breeze passing through the trees is a gentle soughing sound (isn’t that a fantastic word) and the sound itself is echoed in the sensation over my skin. Taking a deep breath, I come fully into my body and feel the appreciation of that wind, that life force prana both inside and out. Now I can compose. June 17, 2023.

I can’t remember the first time I smelled ylang ylang, but I had an instant affinity for its strange and compelling scent. Perhaps it was when we lived in the Keys when I also became aware of the exotic fruits of the tropics. Forty years ago coconut, mango, lychee, jackfruit and dates were so much more exciting than apples, peaches, and grapes! In the same way, jasmine rivaled roses and frangipani challenged honeysuckle in the ‘most appealing flower’ contests taking place among the assets of smell memories I was collecting.

Then along came ylang ylang who surpassed them all. Every time I try to rank them, it comes out on top as my favorite little sweetheart of all the flowers. It’s undeniably sunny, fresh and innocent in its own exotic way. It’s juicy! For certain I fell in love with it in the mid 1990’s and started to use it for my mood; it uplifted me more than any other essential oils I tried.

Ylang ylang is described as “sweet, floral, fruity” but for me it triggers many adjectives, including oily and RIPE. Browsing the web I find a lot of the biochemistry of odor and flavor chemicals is accessible. It’s been many years since I was in chem lab but turns out there is a good reason why “ripe” would be an adjective that comes to mind: ylang has both ripe fruit (isoamyl acetate) and other banana odor molecules. Medical school entrance requirements include 2 semesters of organic chemistry and labs, and as I write this it occurs to me that I recognize in ylang the odors of esters, phenols, acetone/acetates, and many other chemicals we sampled and created in chemistry class. Not many students enjoyed all those smells, but I did.

The ripe fruit odor from isoamyl acetate is evolutionarily very, very important. It is what signals creatures that it is time to eat the fruit. To my nose ylang ylang is boozy– think fermented bananas. This is also an appealing smell: humans love fermented fruits and sugars, and animals in the wild are known to enjoy tying on a good buzz with fermented fruit and honey. The smell of fermenting fruit signals concentrated sugars and play time.

There are many alcohol and ester constituents in ylang, plus the usual terpenes and chemicals with long names – too many to choose from and all to love. Some of these other components contribute to a “sticky” smell, which is like the not-tart part of the taste of a strawberry Starburst. It’s faintly resinous; this is the balsamic character that others describe.

If you want to give it a try, take different ylang ylang samples and compare them, and also smell them along with bananas, fingernail polish remover, very ripe peaches or mangoes, and yeast dough to see if you can detect common notes. What other things do you smell in ylang? 

Ylang Ylang’s benefits

One last adjective: medicinal. There is a hint of rain in the air, the heat index at sunset is still at 100 degrees here in south Austin. Opening the bottle of extra, the first note that hits is phenolic. I have used medical phenol in clinic over the years, it is peculiar and penetrating. Fenugreek has a pleasant phenolic smell.

Ylang ylang grows in the tropics. It spread from the Philippines to Indonesia and beyond. It has been used as a tea and in other preparations for a variety of ailments in traditional medicine, from aches and pains, to respiratory and GI symptoms, to skin conditions and mood. Tons of it is grown and used in the food and cosmetic industry these days because of its fragrant superpowers. Even if you have never smelled it out of the bottle for aromatherapy or other fragrance uses, chances are you have nevertheless used it in one form or another in food or cosmetics – that’s how ubiquitous it has become. There is ongoing research looking at it for modern medicinal uses, too. It has dozens of chemicals that might be used to fight viruses, bacteria, fungi, inflammation and it’s being studied for effects against cancer.

A common use in aromatherapy is for relaxation and balancing the mood. Is there any evidence for this? I came across one study that shows a positive effect on lowering blood pressure and reducing nervousness in men(1). When I first used it with my acupuncture patients in the late 1990s for stress management, I found it to be soothing me, too. And without fail when I open my bottles of ylang ylang in the perfume studio my eyes close and time stops; pleasure floods from inside to out, like a reflex. Yes, I do love being a natural perfumer!

What is Ylang Ylang Complete?

Ylang ylang steam distilled essential oil is unique from most EOs in that it is sold in several grades, usually as Extra, I, II, and III and Complete. Producers are now making it available as an absolute and CO2 extract. Rather than try to explain this myself, let me refer you to Adam of Hermitage Oils who has done a marvelous job of pulling back the curtain to reveal how the fractions are produced.

In brief, the Extra is the first useful part of a steam distillation and is the “best” portion of the aromatics. Complete is a blend of the various fractions. The absolute is truest to the whole flower, as is true for all absolutes; and CO2 extraction is the removal of all remaining solvents in an absolute, leaving just the flower essences.

Most interesting to me in Adam’s article is the fact that the very first part of the steam distillation yields unpleasant smelling oils, and it is tossed. Another fact: the sign that the flower is ripe enough to pick are “red, spotty rings” at the base of the flower. It takes 2 – 3 weeks for the flower to fill out and mature, to develop the full milieu of phytochemicals.

Suggestions in the shop

My collection is designed to inspire you, spark your creativity, and offer you choices of gift items based on themes of color and other associations.

How much I enjoyed making these perfumes that include ylang ylang: Topaz, Onyx, Pinks, and Emerald. Topaz is made with ylang ylang complete, my favorite of the ylangs, with lis-ylang and benzyl acetate (natural isolates from ylang ylang) boosting the exotic fruit and juicy qualities of ylang ylang to the top. Onyx has ylang extra to partner with neroli. Pinks and Emerald have lisylang, which is a more sheer fraction of ylang, the perfect light touch needed for Pinks’ spicy dianthus and Emerald’s grassy green notes.

Do you use ylang ylang for auromatherapy, body care, or perfume? What memories and feelings does it evoke for you? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

1 Blood pressure and heart rate 2013 

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