The art of Perfumery can often feel like a game of Whac-A-Mole.  When we feel like we finally got it, ten more confusing things arise.  Perfume chemicals, in particular, can offer an array of confusion and bewilderment. Ionones, Hedione, some Salicylates, all come to mind.  These Aroma-chemicals may smell one way (or like nothing at all) and yet totally transform and create amazement in any perfume they’re found.  But why should Aroma-chemicals hold the Confusion Of The year Award?  Let some Essential Oils play, too! 

I previously wrote a post about Petitgrain, one essential oil that can be confusing when using it in perfumery.  Various grades and origins of the oil can leave a budding perfumer scratching their heads.  Same goes for Ylang Ylang, an essential oil which can be extremely confusing when starting out in perfumery.

I remember back in the early 90’s, when I started working with Aromatherapy and discovering the fascinating world of essential oils.  Ylang Ylang was one of those oils where the experience of taking my first whiff of it was something I could almost call ‘Karmic.’  I ‘recognized’ this scent, but it felt like a past life thing.  The whole experience was odd. I think maybe smelling Blue Tansy was a similar experience for me, though not as powerful.  Back in those days, the most commonly used form of Ylang Ylang was Ylang III.  Some sellers actually offered Ylang Ylang Absolute, but its therapeutic effects were not entirely clear to merit the cost.

Enter Perfumery!  

Many years later, as I moved from Aromatherapy to Natural Perfumery, and then to Perfumery using naturals and synthetic ingredients, I discovered a whole new world of confusion.  Since many of the perfume formulas I was following and learning from were not clear as to which Ylang Ylang they used, I tried and tested (and made mistakes) and read as much as I could.  Eventually, I’d come to learn which Ylang Ylang was which, but it was not an easy journey. So, I figure then that this could be a good post for people starting on the Perfumery craft and trying to figure their way out of the Ylang Confusion.  

House of Sillage high-class perfume

One thing I like to keep in mind when creating a perfume formula is its uses.  Am I striving for a high-class perfume, or something more functional like a bath gel?  Or will the high-class perfume also work as a bath gel?  In perfumery, one can create high class perfumes or less costly ones, but whichever you choose to create will affect what ingredients you want to use.  On the other hand, this also simplifies the work to figure out your formula.

I mentioned the ‘Perfume Brief’ in other posts of mine.  A ‘Perfume Brief’ is something perfume houses work with when a client engages them to create a perfume for them. In a Perfume Brief, they create, on paper, the framework which will then inform the perfumer what kind of perfume they’re seeking.  One important aspect of a Perfume Brief is in which way the scent will be used, such as in high-class perfumery or for other uses, such as clothing detergents, home scenting, shower gels, etc.  

Once you decide what your goal is, that informs what quality of ingredients you will decide to use.  For example, if you’re making a high-class perfume, you’re going to want to use the finest (and more expensive) ingredients.  Let’s say that the scent of roses will be part of your fine perfume’s make-up, then you would want to use high quality Rose absolutes. If you were creating a less expensive formula, the scent of fine roses could easily be recreated by using ingredients such as Geraniol, Citronellol, Phenyl Ethyl Acetate and Phenyl Ethyl Alcohol.

The same applies when working with Ylang Ylang.  Less expensive perfumes would require Ylang versions like ‘Complete’ or ‘III.’  Middle to higher quality perfumes, Ylang ‘Extra,’ while more expensive formulas would call for Ylang ‘Absolute.’  Some Aroma-chemicals could replace Ylang altogether in a less expensive formula, but the various qualities of Ylang Ylang, (as opposed to Rose Absolute), makes it so you can definitely afford to use the real thing, in one quality or another. Still, when working with perfume creation it is important to know ‘why’ one version of an oil is better than another, and why one would fit your formula better than the other.

Steffen Arctander said of Ylang Ylang: “It is so unusual in itself, so simple and yet so complex of odor, so generally popular a fragrance, that it easily finds its own place in perfumery, not merely as a replacement for jasmin, but as an improvement to almost any type of floral fragrance.” (1)  

One of the most common aspects of any Ylang Ylang scent is the hint of a ‘cresylic’ and ‘Indolic’ top notes.  This varies depending on the type and origin of the oil, but it is always noticeable and a staple of the scent.  As with many so-called ‘white flowers,’ one can instinctively detect the cresyl and indole tinges in the scent.  This is important because whatever formula you use Ylang Ylang in, this will help color it.  If you have a few kinds of Ylang Ylang at your disposal, I highly recommend the test strip method to better learn how each Ylang Ylang will smell in dry-down.  The better you understand this oil, the better uses you’ll find for it.

It is important to note that as with many essential oils, Aroma-chemicals are often used to enhance the Ylang Ylang oil in any formula.  Cyclopidene, Benzyl Beanzoate, Paracresyl Acetate, Paracresyl Methyl Ether, Indole, are some of the Aroma-chemicals used to enhance Ylang Ylang in a perfume formula.

Let us look at the various kinds of Ylang Ylang oils available.  The names for each refer to oil quality, which usually comes from the distillation and reconstitution processes.  As the flowers are distilled, the amount of time during the distillation process yields different qualities of the oil.

Ylang Ylang Absolute

This is the highest Ylang Ylang quality (and most expensive) you can choose to use.  Ylang Ylang absolute is produced from an Ylang Ylang Concrete.   The concrete is produced by solvent extraction of the flowers of the Cananga odorata tree. The thick brown wax is then refined by washing, which results in a yellow-green absolute. It is the most realistic extraction of the flower, and has the most refined  notes. The absolute is longer lasting than the other various Ylang Ylang oils and is generally used in only the very finest fragrances.  It is interesting to note that because the first extractors were brought to La Réunion which, at that time, was about to become the world’s leading producer of Ylang Ylang oil, this is why you can often find the oil listed as Ylang Ylang ‘Réunion.’  Comoros is another major traditional Ylang Ylang exporters.

The most distinguishing feature of Ylang Ylang Absolute is the warm spiced balsamic heart.   Unless you’re creating an extremely high-class or expensive formula, this is not a quality of Ylang Ylang you would most likely want to use, as it is costly.

Ylang Ylang Extra 

This is the most commonly used quality of the oil found in the perfumer’s shelf, and is widely considered to be the finest essential oil form of the flower.  Ylang Ylang Extra is used mainly in mid to high-class perfumes of the floral and heavy-Oriental type, but even traces of the oil can do wonders in medium-priced floral bases, as the cost is not as prohibitive as Ylang Ylang ‘Absolute.’  To quote Arctander again, it is a “very powerful, floral and intensely sweet odor and a cresylic and benzoate-like top-note of limited tenacity. The fadeout is more pleasant, soft and sweet, slightly spicy and balsamic-floral. A high-grade “extra” oil resembles the absolute of ylang-ylang in odor type very closely.” (2)  

Ylang Ylang Extra has an elegant, soft heart and a penetrating sweetness, and it works exceedingly well with aldehydes.  There is hardly any floral type where Ylang Ylang “extra” would not fit in. The oil blends excellently with bois de rose (Rosewood), vetiver, amyl salicylate, opopanax, bergamot, hydroxycitronellal, mimosa, cassie, Methyl Ionones, cinnamic alcohol and esters, benzoates, para-cresyl esters (ethers), nerolidol, Peru balsam oil, vertenex HC, etc. and in gardenia, tuberose and jasmine bases, etc.  Personally, this the go-to Ylang Ylang oil for me.  If you can only have one Ylang Ylang at your disposal, this is it.

Ylang Ylang I & II 

Let’s face it, you will never use these, but they are worth mentioning. Ylang Ylang “First” and “Second” are “in-between” qualities. They are used in the “cutting” of the other grades of Ylang Ylang (upgrading or downgrading) and in the production of the so-called Ylang Ylang Complete Oil.

Ylang Ylang III 

Ylang Ylang Oil III is a yellowish oily liquid of sweet-floral and balsamic-woody odor, with a tenacious and very sweet-balsamic undertone. Some will use this oil in place of Cananga Oil, but these are not interchangeable, either in floral type nor in fixative effect. With its tenacity and fair stability, the ylang-ylang III is useful in soap perfumery and as a comparatively low-cost floral material, if cost is a major problem.  I tend to use this form of the oil when making scents for bath gels.  If I make a high-class perfume which uses Ylang Ylang and I want the same formula for a bath gel, I will replace the Ylang Ylang ‘Extra’ with Ylang Ylang III.

Ylang Ylang Complete 

Ylang Ylang Complete is a lesser quality oil made by combining the various other qualities (often I and II) in order to produce a consistent product much in the way Lavender 40/42 creates a Lavender with consistent levels of Linalool.   The method of production means that it lacks the defining characteristics of the finer Ylang Ylang Extra and Absolute. On the positive side, that can make it easier to blend with a wider range of materials.  When making less expensive formulas, this oil can also be an alternative to Ylang Ylang III.

Some perfume houses have also created fractions or synthetic versions of Ylang Ylang, which offer consistency, purity and dependability.  Such is the case with Lisylang Heart, from the perfume house Robertet.

Lisylang Heart (Robertet) 

By fractionating the various chemical constituents of the Ylang Ylang III oil, and then performing a reconstruction based on a very precise formula which omits the worst and enhances the best of the component parts of the Ylang Ylang oil, Lisylang heart offers what one could almost call the ‘Perfect Ylang.’  This in fact makes it a natural oil rather than a chemical. It’s just a ‘manipulated’ sort of Ylang Ylang.  According to Robertet’s description: “Very pure and clean white flowers bouquets with jasmine, Monöi, Frangipani undertones. Spicy Lily and gourmand Coco milk aspects. Lisylang brings power and body to modern white exotic flowers bouquets with its delicate, floral water topnotes and its rich diffusive dry-down.” 

Various perfume houses will also offer their own creations, such as Ylang Ylang Oliffac (IFF) and Ylang Oil Type (Firmenich).

Cananga Oil 

The addition of this oil in your Perfumer’s palette is not to be underestimated, but it can create more confusion since it is from the same origin as the Ylang Ylang Oil yet not quite Ylang Ylang oil. It is also poorer and a bit more ‘leathery’ in scent.  Both oils come from the same plant: Cananga odorata, but Cananga oil is produced in Indonesia through direct water distillation of the the flowers, which are crushed to help facilitate the production of a “complete” oil. The crushing of the flowers causes a severe degradation in the quality of the resulting oil and so cananga finds its place as the cheap cousin of the more refined Ylang Ylang oils.   The initial notes are woody-leathery with a fresh-floral undertone, a characteristic combination. The odor type is much “heavier” than that of Ylang Ylang and it is also more tenacious than the first and second grades of that oil.

Cananga oil is useful in soap perfumery and for the popular “leathery” notes in men’s fragrances where it combines well with castoreum, calamus, birch tar oil rectified, cyclamal, creosol, copaiba oil, isobutyl cinnamate, isoeugenol, labdanum products, guaiacwood oil, nerol, para-cresyl salicylate, oakmoss products, etc. and with fougère bases, violet bases, etc. The superior stability and tenacity of the odor of Cananga oil makes this material interesting for soap perfumes where Ylang Ylang oil is of comparatively little value.

Hopefully, the information above can help you choose which Ylang Ylang oil is best for your formulas. Personally, I mostly use Ylang ‘Extra’ and, as I explained above, Ylang Ylang III when creating a cheaper formula for bath gels.


(1) Arctander, Steffen – Perfume and Flavor Materials of Natural Origin, pg. 668

(2) Arctander, Steffen – Perfume and Flavor Materials of Natural Origin, pg. 670

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