Chemistry flash – coumarin

In this second installment of Chemistry Flash series I would like to introduce you to chemical compound known as coumarin. It’s an organic molecule of C9H6O2 formulae and belongs to the class of benzopyrone. In its pure state it forms colorless crystals that melt at 71°C. It’s density is slightly lower comparing to water (0.935 g/cm3). It’s popular to many plants. By the way, it’s insoluble in water.

Coumarin can be found in highest amounts in tonka beans – the substance takes its name from French word coumarou, which means tonka bean. In smaller amounts it’s present in vanilla grass, sweet woodruf, sweet grass, mullein and cassia cinnamon.

This aroma chemical has a sweet smell which is often compared to the smell of new-mown hay. Believe it or not but coumarin is present in perfumery since 1882. First perfume that contained coumarin in its composition was Fougère Royale from the perfume house of Houbigant. It originally contained a whopping amount of 10% of coumarin in finished creation. Use of coumarin in perfume gave birth to new olfactory family known as fougère.

Synthetic coumarin obtained in laboratories with many sophisticated methods can posess a tobacco-like aroma but it can also evoke caramely undertones. Diluted in perfumer’s alcohol it can project in a hazelnut, powdery almond way. Isn’t it surprising how just one perfume ingredient can be perceived in so many different ways? Sometimes coumarin works as an addition to pipe tobaccos and some alcoholic drinks to enhance their aroma. I never had a chance to smell pure coumarin essence or its diluted form, I asked my professor if we had it in our university labs, but we don’t.

According to IFRA (Internation Fragrance Association) files coumarin is a restricted ingredient. I don’t know exactly how those restrictions are working but if we classify perfume as deodorants/antiperspirants the amount of coumarin can’t exceed 0,13%, in case of treating perfume as hydroalcoholics for shaved skin the amount rises to 0,5%.

Some perfume feauturing coumarin (noticeable or not) are:

  • Guerlain Jicky, Samsara, Tonka Imperiale
  • Chanel Coco, Bois des Iles
  • Annick Goutal Nuit Etoilee
  • Perris Monte Carlo line-up (will be reviewed soon)

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27 thoughts on “Chemistry flash – coumarin

  1. shellyw says:

    Thanks you for informative article. I had heard once that it is used in medicine? What would its use be there?

    • lucasai says:

      You’re welcome Shelly!
      In medicine? The only info I’ve found is that coumarin can’t be for internal use because it can affect your organs.
      I didn’t find a confirmation but I think it can be used for body exterior, probably with antiseptic properties.

  2. Barbara says:

    Shelly, I believe you’re confusing coumarin with Coumadin, which is an anticoagulant drug.

    Great informative article!

  3. Kevin says:

    Very cool post!

  4. Undina says:

    Hmm… Judging by the fact that I like all of the perfumes you’ve mentioned (but the last one about which I think I’ve never heard before) I like coumarin.

    Interesting post, thank you, Lucas.

    On the “organizational” note, I would suggest you adding at least one tag “coumarin” to the post. And for future posts try using the important for the content words in the URL: you’ve spent all that time researching and creating an article, there is no good reason not to help SE to index it properly so it’ll appear in future searches.

    • lucasai says:

      Good. Perris Monte Carlo is a new line. It’s already available in Poland and I got samples courtesy of Quality Missala. Will review them all soon.
      Thanks for your tips. Could you say it once again but a little simplier? I’m not sure I understood well.

      • Undina says:

        I see that you got the idea about tagging.
        As to the URL, for this article it says (the variable part): “chemistry-flash-2/”. From the search engine’s perspective it would have been better to have something like “chemistry-flash-coumarin/”. It’s too late to make a change for this post but going forward make sure your URLs reflect the subject.

  5. laniersmith says:

    Oh how exciting to see a new installment of Chemistry Flash! I can tell from the perfumes you listed that I too love coumarin. Oh heaven …

  6. Thanks for the lesson Lucas. I am so dense that I thought coumarin was an herb! Keep these lessons coming please!

  7. hajusuuri says:

    Thanks for introducing coumarin, Lucas! Like the first poster above, I thought it also had medicinal properties, thinking it was an anti-coagulant. Of the perfumes you listed, I have tried all except Samsara and Perris Monte Carlo. I must like coumarin as the only one I didn’t care for at all was Jicky or maybe I have to try it again.

    Great post!

    • lucasai says:

      See, just one “d” instead of “m” and everything changes. Now you know the difference between those two.
      So you also haven’t tried Perris Monte Carlo. I seriously need to take care of them and introduce all 5 to you.
      Glad you liked it

  8. So interesting! Thanks, Lucas! Btw, have you seen Victoria’s posts on coumarin and tonka beans on Bois de Jasmin?

    http://boisdejasmin.com/2012/12/viennese-vanilla-crescents-with-tonka-bean-recipe.html

    I think tonka beans are toxic to eat because of the coumarin, but the amount you would have to eat would be obscene — like a lot things in this world!

  9. Naheed says:

    Thank you for this post Lucasai! How interesting it is to see the proportions of Carbon,Hydrogen and Oxygen and in result, formations of different chemicals.

  10. […] and ‘Know it Better’ series of articles dissecting compounds like aldehydes or coumarin.  A clean, clear, easy navigable site that has a wealth of research there for the taking. A good […]

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