Health & Grooming

Striking oils

Perfumed body oils are the beauty world’s great untapped trend – yet are arguably the most sensual way to wear scent. Karen Wheeler sniffs out the best.

December 13 2011
Karen Wheeler

Here’s a confession: for someone who writes frequently about fragrance, I very rarely spray it on my own wrists. With one or two notable exceptions, my real passion is for scented body oils, which I much prefer to the alcoholic fug of an eau de toilette. My favourite fragrance in recent years is not a perfume at all but Jo Malone’s now defunct Vitamin E Body Treatment oil – a gloopily luxurious body oil designed primarily as a treatment for dry skin. I was smitten by the comforting confectionery smell (a weirdly addictive blend of caramel and playdough) and the way it mingled seamlessly with the skin and lingered seductively on your clothes. Of the six bottles I’ve managed to acquire via eBay in the past year, only two remain, and I’m already feeling panicked as to what I’ll do when they run out. (Although there is a body balm – £50, 185ml – in Malone’s bestselling Vitamin E line, the fragrance does not smell quite the same as the oil.)

Now, I know that caramel and playdough is not everyone’s idea of olfactory perfection, but it’s a mystery to me why perfumed oils aren’t a much bigger phenomenon. They moisturise the body more effectively than creams, have a better affinity with the skin, and are usually purer: a list of olive, sesame or macadamia oils on the label is so much more appealing than the parabens, phthalates and preservatives that go into the average body cream. This Works Skin Deep Dry Leg Oil (£38, 120ml), which can be used all over the body, was one of the earliest of the genre and has inspired a passionate following. So, too, has Vrai Natural Argan Oil For Hair & Body (€24, 125ml), which features a first-rate citrus scent created by Fragonard, the French perfumery based in Grasse, in the South of France. More recently, there has been a proliferation of organic body oils, but most are skincare rather than fragrance products.

The world of fine perfumery, with a few high-profile exceptions, has been slow to spot the potential of body oils. It’s odd, because industry insiders love them. “It is a very sensual way to fragrance the body, replicating one of the rituals of ancient perfumery,” says Fabienne Mauny, managing director of Diptyque, which recently launched two body oils (more of which later). “We took inspiration from ancient Greece, where they used perfume oils that left the skin with a satiny effect. There is an aspect of anointing yourself, which is very alluring. The oil warms up with the heat of your body and reveals the fragrance over a longer period of time. It is almost as if your body becomes a diffuser.” According to Mark Tranter, fragrance and beauty buyer at Selfridges, “Body oils are a lighter, less intrusive way to wear scent. But it’s a certain kind of customer who appreciates them.”

Once you’ve developed a nose for oils, alcohol-based perfumes can seem shouty, a little bit brash in comparison – like a guest at a party who immediately divulges everything about themselves. Body oils usually contain much lower concentrations of fragrance (four per cent, as opposed to 15 per cent in an eau de toilette) and as a result are quieter and more self-contained, revealing their charms slowly and only to those closest to you.

There is definitely a demand for them – among beauty editors, at least. At the launch of Chanel No 19 Poudré (£61, 50ml eau de parfum) in Paris earlier this year, one of the first questions asked of Chanel’s legendary perfumer Jacques Polge was, “Will it be available as a body oil?” Another beauty editor asked Monsieur Polge if there was any chance of a body-oil version of Coromandel (£160), one of the fragrances from Chanel’s Les Exclusifs range, any time soon. (The answer in both cases was no.) But the message, it seemed to me, is that body oils are the great, untapped trend of luxe perfumery.

Happily, this looks set to change. Last May, Tom Ford launched a body-oil version of his Private Blend fragrance Neroli Portofino (£45, 250ml), as part of a luxe body product range. The scent, a sophisticated citrus featuring a slug of amber to give it warmth and tenacity, is one of Ford’s bestselling fragrances and was felt to lend itself well to an oil format. Lightweight and silky, the oil is deeply moisturising, and has proved such a success that at least one London department store has struggled to keep it in stock. Ford was apparently staying on a friend’s yacht in Portofino when he had the idea for Neroli Portofino, and the received wisdom seems to be that perfumed oils are a summer thing, best suited to bare skin (post-beach, not on it) and either citrus or sunny coconut scents. One of the first perfumed body oils, Bobbi Brown Beach Body Oil (£21, 100ml), features the brand’s sun lotion-inspired fragrance fixed in a base of olive, avocado, sesame and jojoba oils.

Perfumer Lyn Harris, of Miller Harris, prefers more sensual oils and believes that warm, wintry orientals are particularly lovely in oil. She is soon to launch Fleur Oriental Bath & Body Oil (£28, 100ml), a version of her sweetly resinous fragrance. “I’ve always preferred the oil medium: it’s a much purer way of expressing a fragrance,” says Harris, who often wears body oils herself, making them up especially. She is planning to launch a new oil each season, using existing fragrances in her range. Earlier this year she also introduced three single-note body oils based on some of her favourite natural ingredients. Rose Absolute Single Note Oil (£25, 100ml), Mandarin Green Single Note Oil (£15, 100ml) and Sage Dalmatian Single Note Oil (£15, 100ml) are multi-use and can be used directly on the body to condition the skin, as a massage oil or added to the bath. The oils are very delicately scented and, according to the perfumer, they make a good gift because they are not as personal as buying someone a fragrance. “Oils are a great way to experience the clarity and the beauty of a single note,” she says. “The rose, in particular, has been phenomenally successful.”

The Jo Malone London brand, meanwhile, introduced two limited-edition Dry Body Oils (£38, 100ml) for summer, in the bestselling Lime Basil & Mandarin fragrance and English Pear & Freesia. (Incidentally, dry oils leave the skin feeling soft but dry to the touch. They are less greasy than normal oils but also less moisturising, since they tend to sit on the surface of the skin rather than sink into it.) The Jo Malone London products, which combined fine fragrance with the skin-conditioning benefits of olive, kukui and macadamia-seed oils, appealed to both male and female customers and disappeared from most UK counters within three weeks, as opposed to the usual three months for a limited-edition product – and as a limited edition, they are no longer available.

“Interestingly, there are very few [fine fragrance oils] available at the moment, but where luxury brands have done them, they’ve flown off the shelves,” says Annalise Quest, general merchandise manager for beauty at Harrods. She believes there are two reasons for their appeal: “The first is that they are part of the Middle Eastern tradition of fragrance layering, whereby the oil is worn under the [spray] fragrance for greater depth.” Second, Quest has identified a growing trend for skin scents. “Many of the perfumes now coming through are very soft and subtle,” she says. “They’re designed to be experienced at close quarters. You wear them rather than the other way round – and for your own pleasure, rather than that of the people around you.” She cites the recent eponymous fragrances by Bottega Veneta (£42, 30ml edp) and Elie Saab (£38, 30ml edp) as perfect examples. Neither, sadly, is available in oil form, but the point is that body oils are the ultimate manifestation of this trend, reacting with your skin chemistry to produce a perfume that feels like part of you.

“It’s really important to offer the customer different ways to perfume themselves,” says Fabienne Mauny of Diptyque, which introduced a dry oil spray, Satin Oil for Body and Hair (£35, 100ml), earlier this year. Featuring a jasmine-based floral scent (think baby powder with a woody edge) in a base of sweet almond, urucum and avocado oils, it follows on from the success of the Precious Oils for Body and Bath (£40, 125ml) launched in 2009. This delicate unisex fragrance, based on iris root blended with sweet almond, argan and macadamia seed oils, was introduced as part of The Art of Body Care line. “Immediately, we could see a very interested response,” says Mauny. “Customers were seduced both by the scent – the woody smell of the iris is enhanced by the oil – and by the texture of the product.”

So if industry insiders love them so much, why are perfumery brands not rushing to introduce oil versions of their bestselling products? “They are a luxe, niche product and it is a connoisseur customer who understands them,” says Mark Tranter at Selfridges. Lyn Harris agrees: “People think they will be a hassle to apply,” she says, “and they are worried that they are greasy and will ruin their clothes – none of which is true. They are quickly absorbed into your skin and you can get dressed almost immediately.”

Oils, it has to be said, are a slippery field to negotiate, and the market seems to be littered with discontinued products. As one industry insider says, “You really have to ‘explain’ them to the customer. But once they have tried them, they’re addicted.”

All things considered, I predict an oil rush very soon.

See also

Perfume, Body oils