A self-described perfectionist Kat Snowden’s well-honed senses and passion for natural perfumery has led her to notoriety as a natural perfume educator and scent designer for the MELIS range and other emerging and exciting indie brands. We’re thrilled to have Kat Snowden with us this morning, who’s currently traveling. Welcome, Kat, thanks for being with us.
You’re welcome. Good morning.
Kat, you have been in the natural skin care and perfumery business for more than 15 years now. How did you get into it?
It started, I guess the interest stemmed when I was much younger, hanging out with my favourite auntie who was the hippie auntie, so she was into alternative modalities including meditation and essential oils, which was quite unusual back then. We would stay with her and hang out and we would make our own little blends and make soap balls with lux flakes. And then we would come home and make candles in the garage with dad. They were really ugly candles and we used crayons to colour them, but it was so much fun. And then when I got older, I suffered with quite bad eczema, so I started making natural soap to help with my eczema, and it helped and it was fun, so I just kept making more and more. And then I went on and studied and self-trained and did some courses and kept experimenting and practicing, and here we are now.
You actually see that quite a lot of founders of natural skincare brands and alike where they have actually had issues with their own health and that’s why they’ve started their own businesses. With your eczema, what is it within commercial soap that causes, irritates the skin?
When soap is made, a bi-product of the soap making process is glycerin, so glycerin appears in the soap. Most of the commercial manufacturers take the glycerin out to sell as a skincare ingredient, or to use in creams and moisturisers. Commercial soaps are drying on the skin for that reason.
Prior to launching MELIS and having babies I worked in the wine industry and was very fortunate to spend time with some of the very best winemakers across the globe. Their senses were very acute and refined, their palate and nose had been trained to such sensitivities. I see similar senses in you, your olfactory senses are very sharp. Is this something you’re born with and is innate or is it something you’ve had to develop?
I think it’s probably different for each person, but for me it was definitely something I had to develop. In high school, I had surgery on my nose, and I lost a massive amount of my sense of smell. I couldn’t smell the strength of things anymore, I would make a cream and put some jasmine oil in there and I couldn’t decide if you could smell it or not, so I’d have to ask my friends and family, is it strong enough, do I need to put more or less in there? And then over time I just kept working with the smells and analysing them and spending time getting to know them, and that’s trained my nose and my sense of smell is better than it ever was.
You’ve really had to focus on retraining your senses?
You mentioned before that there’s a little couch that you go to, and you smell and spend time on it. Can you tell me a little bit about that? And is that part of the process?
Yeah, I think so. There’s an ugly green couch in our building that no one else sits on, but I like to take my little scent strips there and just lie down on the couch and spend time smelling them, making notes, just really getting to know each of the individual smells and the accords that I’m working on. I think there’s just something about being in a neutral space, being comfortable, not having emails going off in the background. Just really chilling out and spending time getting to know those smells, and I think that’s really helped me to analyse and to learn the smells really thoroughly.
So you’re connecting with each of them?
Now tell me, why natural?
There’ no need to use animal-based products, there’re so many plants in the world that produce essential oils and they keep finding new ones, new hybrids, new species. There’s so much choice that there’s just no need, in my opinion, to take things from another living creature.
Agree. So natural perfumery is largely driven by a need for you to be cruelty free and also for many, including me, the ability to capture and experience the benefits of the energetic properties of natural materials but it does tend to be more expensive i.e. the ingredients and cost, not necessarily the retail price to the consumer because we have to remain competitive. Can you please share with our listeners why the raw ingredients are so much more expensive?
The natural perfumery ingredients come from plants and the yield can be quite low. So for example, rose petals, they don’t have a lot of oil in them themselves, so they need tonnes and tonnes of rose petals to produce a small amount of essential oil. So that’s reflected in the price, it’s that the amount of material, the amount of labour, how it’s grown, sustainable, organic, all of those factors come into play. Whereas your synthetic ingredients are made in a lab, sometimes they have natural components to them. They might have a portion of essential oils in them, but they’re mostly man made in a lab with individual chemical ingredients, so they are a lot cheaper to produce.
And that’s why a lot of perfumers who aren’t specifically focused on natural tend to prefer synthetic, cost and other factors?
Cost, availability. They can also be more consistent, so from harvest to harvest, there can be slight changes in the way the natural ingredients smell. But for me, I think that’s part of the fun and the challenge, it keeps me on my toes.
Cruelty free and Vegan is important to you?
Yeah. Again, I don’t think we need to take from another living species, so we don’t need to harm animals to get great smelling perfumes or to have functioning skincare products. It’s just not necessary.
Can you give us a little more insight? I know we’ve had discussions and you’ve helped me become aware of some of the things required to extract the scent from animals or the product that they need for the scent. Can you provide some more insight into the specific practices?
Yeah, sure. I guess my favourite example is ambergris that comes from a whale. It comes from when they eat cuttlefish, the cuttlefish can scratch their stomach and then the wound is sealed with the blood and pus and as the wound heals, that breaks away and they expel it out their mouth where it floats around in the ocean being bleached by the sun, and then washes up on shore, and it’s a beautiful perfumery ingredient, the scent is phenomenal. But there are some really close plant-based alternatives that smell just as good, so I prefer to work with those.
To me that sounds like quite a natural process for the animal.
Yeah, I guess that is an example of a more natural way for the ingredient to come from animals. That ingredient is banned, so the fear is that if that ingredient were more commonly used, then whales might be captured and harmed in a way of farming the ambergris to get bulk.
That makes complete sense for its ban and plant-based alternative. Is there another example where animals are harmed?
Castoreum is an example, it comes from beavers, it’s a secretion that they use to grease their fur and to also mark their territory. It can only be taken from the beavers once they’ve been killed. They take their private parts, dry them and then use the castoreum secretion as a perfumery ingredient.
Right. Okay. We feel good about being cruelty free and Vegan. Because I certainly don’t want to see any animals die as a result of scent. I guess that’s one plus about synthetic. Have they mirrored that scent with synthetic fragrance?
They have, but there’s also plant based alternatives that are pretty good options as well.
And actually have all the benefits of the energetic vibration and energetic properties of that material.
Let’s chat about sustainability in perfumery. You and I have agreed that we will only include natural, sustainable farmed ingredients in the MELIS range. Is it becoming easier to access sustainably farmed ingredients?
Definitely. The suppliers are becoming a lot more aware of what the world wants and they’re really coming to the table with that. So there are lots of options available for sustainable ingredients and it’s really great to see the shift towards that. I was at the Australian cosmetic chemists’ conference, maybe two weeks ago, and there was lots of talk about sustainability. There was a couple of lectures on sustainability and what the industry is doing towards being more sustainable for the future, and it’s really fantastic to see.
Is there traceability right back to the farms? Like how in depth is it becoming?
You can trace the ingredient right back to the farm, to the person that grows it and the methods that they use, the employment conditions.
Right, so that’s becoming common practice in natural perfumery?
Yes. For the natural ingredients, the information is definitely becoming a lot more readily available.
Perfumery is becoming so much more accessible. We certainly let our customers know the ingredients in our scents. Why has there traditionally been such a secrecy and mystery around scent?
I think it was very much that inner circle kind of secret society. You picture the middle-aged man in a lab coat and it’s very limiting. You almost had to be a certain type of person to be in that realm. But I think now with people self-educating, with the courses that are available, the readily available materials and ingredients, it’s not so mysterious and unknown anymore. Particularly in Australia, we have so many great native ingredients that I think you can learn so much from, from the Australian plants – you’re not necessarily missing out if you don’t go and learn perfumery in Grasse in France.
Kat, can you give us an insight into your process for creating and formulating a natural scent, and how in can remain unique when we’re so informative about the individual ingredients that go into our scent?
Yes, so the process is super involved. I’ve got probably about, at least a dozen different suppliers that I work with, and on top of that I’m starting to go direct to the source a lot more for my ingredients. So, the same species of Clary Sage from different growers, from different climates, different parts of the world, different processing methods can smell very different. Unless you get a hold of exactly the same Clary Sage that’s in our blends, it’s going to smell different. Also, the methods that I work with, so some oils are solid at room temperature, so how do you go about heating them, melting them down so you can work with them? And to what temperature because that can change the way the ingredients smell as well. There’s lots of ways to be honest and open about your ingredients, but to still protect your intellectual property so that your blend remains unique.
With regards to the blending process, can you please share some natural perfumery 101 for our listeners? The basics.
In my workshops, I like to teach that top, middle, base notes are not super important. It’s a very simple system which I think is super subjective, so we all smell things differently. I might think something is a base note because it’s so potent and long lasting, whereas someone else might smell it and think it doesn’t have as much longevity, so it’s a middle note. Top middle base note is important, but coming up with your own rating system is even more important in my opinion. I’ve ranked all of the ingredients that I work with as to whether they’re a top middle or a base note, according to my own view and opinion. How long the scent lasts for the layers etc..
And then accord is something different. An accord is taking the individual components and making an accord, so for example, I made a woody accord for Motus No 7, so it was taking all the naturals that I wanted, that had woody elements to them and combining them in a way that were my kind of perfect vision of a woody accord for that particular perfume.
For a lot of the MELIS scents, we really focused around the heart note, so, your briefs were so in depth that it was really great to work with, so we often had, Amandi for example, was to be a rose geranium based perfume. So there’s your heart note and you build your accords, your complementing notes around that, and then we’re adding things in that we would call modifiers, so filling gaps in the scent, tying things together, building the layers. And I guess that’s it in a nutshell.
For you, tell me the layers, how many layers? Can there be too many layers? What’s your ideal?
I think, every ingredient in my opinion has to be there for a purpose. I think you can definitely get carried away and put in too many ingredients, so then it just kind of becomes muddy and grey and there’s too much going on. I think a really good skill for a perfumer is knowing when enough is enough and when to stop. It’s very easy to just, you know, a few drops of this and a few drops of that, but sometimes simple is complex.
Agree, less is more, a great philosophy that applies to many crafts…so tell me what are some of your favourite ingredients to work with?
I really love labdanum, which I use as a plant-based alternative to ambergris. I love clary sage. Clary sage is something I never liked before and I think it’s a mature sense, so perhaps as I’ve gotten older I’ve started to like it more, but it has such depth and complexity and so many layers for an individual scent. I often find in the perfume workshop that if someone thinks there’s something missing to their blend, my go to is always clary sage, and I think 99% of the time it just makes that blend pop. It’s just a beautiful ingredient to work with.
Such a cleansing ingredient, energetically, it’s a great cleanser as well. I think clary sage should be in every single perfume ingredient. You did mention Amandi a minute ago, and I know that it’s the same species or different species from four different countries, how many different countries will you go to?
As many as I need to, to find what I want. So, using the four different rose geraniums in Amandi wasn’t about being special or being showy or anything like that. It was about each one having a little bit of a different scent to it, so the geranium that I used in Amandi that comes from Egypt is a bluey-green colour when it comes from the bottle. And it again has a little bit of the green aspect to it. Whereas one of the other rose geraniums has got that real floral, typical rose geranium smell. It’s about, again, building an accord that in my mind is the optimum perfect rose geranium.
Certainly we’ve found the Motus No 4, Motus No 7, is unisex, and a lot of women are loving them. We’re calling it a cologne just so the men don’t get put off by the name parfum, but it’s certainly designed to be unisex. Tell us about some of the key ingredients that are referred to as more masculine versus feminine, and how you balance that when trying to make a unisex blend.
I guess a lot of the more masculine scents are the ones you would expect, so your woodies, your spices, some of the orientals, so it’s about using them in conjunction with some of the other feminine ingredients to get a nice balance. I really hate ‘men’s’ fragrance and ‘women’s’ fragrance because there’s lots of men that love floral feminine fragrances and there are lots of women that love masculine, smoky, woody, animalic fragrances, and they all work really well. One of my really blokey mates came into one of my workshops and made himself a really masculine blend that was full of Rose Geranium and I was totally shocked, and it just worked. There’s no need to pigeonhole the ingredients into men’s or women’s in my mind. I just think if it works for you and you love it then wear it all the time.
Now you’ve been conducting perfume blending classes for years now and no doubt sampled thousands of enthusiast signature blends. What are some favourite ingredients amongst the messes?
Yeah, the clary sage is often a crowd pleaser, it depends on the season and it often depends on whether there’s more guys or girls in the class. The guys lately have been going towards petitgrain a lot, which I think is really cool because it’s an interesting scent on its own. It comes from the leaves of the orange tree, so it’s grain, it’s citrus and it’s a little bit floral. It’s a really fresh, fresh note. That’s been quite popular kind of in the spring time. And then as we get into winter, it gets a bit more of the spices, that warm notes. It’s often changing what people are gravitating towards.
Of course, seasonality is quite a natural influencer of our senses, emotions etc…So this is the MELIS “with intent” podcast and I do ask all of my guests this question. What is your intent on a daily basis professionally and personally?
What is your intent on a daily basis? Professionally and then personally.
I think there’s an element of conscious and subconscious to that. When I started, clean slate and started meeting a lot more makers, there was a definite shift towards supporting local, buying small, knowing that things were made by hand and connecting with those things, so I think that’s a very big part of intent with me and I love to use my handmade ceramics for my breakfast. It feels different if I don’t use that bowl for breakfast.
Another thing that’s become really important to me is switching off and just connecting with myself and being more present in the moment. It’s something I find really hard with running a business, is you’re often expected to be available 24-7. So really intentionally taking time to switch off. It’s pretty nerdy, but I just learned to knit, so my kind of way of chilling out at the moment is knitting. I’m working on a really big blanket and that’s just making me slow down, keeping my hands and my mind busy, but in a really therapeutic slow paced way.
That sounds awesome. I used to knit with my grandmother, but I’ve completely forgotten. Is it something that you do at the nighttime, middle of the day? Morning? When’s your favourite time to knit?
It’s kind of embarrassing to say, but it’s become quite a priority. Sometimes I will sneak off from the workshop for a long lunch break and sit at home in the sun and knit for a while. I quite like to do it in the evenings as well
What’s next Kat? I know you’re loving your perfumery, I think you’re phenomenal at it. What’s next for Kat Snowden?
There’s a few jobs on the go. I’m working a lot more with brands, creating scents for them, so working into other people’s briefs, which is really exciting and pushes my boundaries. I’d like to do a lot more travel, a lot more going to the farms and meeting the growers and building relationships direct with the people that create the ingredients that I work with.
Are we going to see a Kat Snowden signature scent soon?
There’s a whole concept of a range in the works, mostly in my head, but starting to work on some blends, but me being a perfectionist and not having to put a deadline on myself, it could be some time, but it’s going to be really exciting.
Do you have a preference for roll on versus spray, alcohol based versus oil based?
I think it depends on the scents themselves. I really love the feeling of rolling on the perfume oil and the feeling of the oil on my skin. That being said, I have just lost a beautiful organic perfumery alcohol that’s sourced from grapes. It’s from South Australia, so I’m really excited to play around with that and test it with some of the scents within the MELIS range, I think it’s definitely got its place. And it’s about educating consumer, there’s a common misconception that alcohol is drying to the skin, and whilst there are certain types of alcohol that are definitely drying to the skin, they’re not typically the alcohols that we use in perfumery. So it’s about making the right choices and educating everyone as to why we’re making those choices.
And some alcohol based can help with the duration and that can actually also make the scent, for me, some of the scents do smell different, oil versus alcohol based, can you share a little bit of the science and your thoughts around that?
Yeah, sure. The scents, the aroma chemicals are being suspended in the different bases, so they have different chemical constituents or different chemical makeups to them that affects the way that it smells. Some oils, some aromatic ingredients are much better diluted in oils, where some are better diluted in alcohols, and it’s also just a matter of, again, tweaking and playing with your blends to get the optimum for whichever base you’re suspending it into.
For me, I really do try and reiterate and encourage our lovers to really connect and spend that time, there’s nothing more beautiful than pulling out your natural perfume and having a moment and connecting inward because scent is so powerful.
I use Motus No 7 in the studio when I know it’s time to sit down and do my emails that I really don’t want to do. I burn some Palo Santo, I pop on Motus No 7, and then my brain goes, okay, no more messing about it’s time to do your emails. And I get them done, and then go on to the next activity.
Oh Wow. That’s awesome. So you find Motus No 7 is uplifting or it helps you focus or it’s just, it makes you feel good?
All of the above.
Yay. Getting up close and personal and thank you for that insight into what you use, what is your skincare routine like? I’m interested to know.
It’s intense. I have lots of products, my own, lots of other brands that I like to use. I’m a big fan of the double cleanse, so I usually use a balm cleanser and then an oil cleanser, I’m big on face oils, massive fan of just a clean hot funnel to steam my face before and after cleansing, face masks, scrubs, all sorts of things.
Is there a set, you know, twice a day for your double cleanse? Once a week for the mask? Tell us, what’s ideal?
My double cleanse it every day at the end of the day, a mask I like to do once or twice, probably twice a week, I’ll alternate between a hydrating mask and a purifying mask. And then a scrub, I usually use my coffee scrub, probably three to four mornings a week.
You actually did come out quite publicly on your Instagram account last year, and I think it was no more bull. I can’t quite say the word because we’re not allowed that on our podcast, but no bull S-H-I-T, and you admitted to having a semi breakdown. Are you happy to talk a little bit about that Kat?
Yeah, I am. I’m often not a shy person but I kept that really well hidden for a long time and I think it’s so important to have those conversations. Being self employed, working mostly alone in my studio whilst I’m in a building with many other creatives, we’re all head down, bum up doing our own thing and I began to feel quite lonely. I wasn’t seeing my friends or family a lot because I was working all the time. I’d made some bad decisions and opened a shop in the city that didn’t go so well for me. So there was a kind of constant chasing my tail to bounce back from that and it all just really compounded.
I’m not someone who likes to ask for help. I would prefer to pull an all nighter in the studio on my own than to ask someone, you know, a friend who is always offering to help, to ask for an extra pair of hands. I felt like I didn’t want to interrupt other people’s lives and my stuff wasn’t important. So I did spend a lot of time on the floor in the back room of the studio where no one could see me crying, and trying to figure out how on earth do I turn this around. And it just got to a point where I decided that enough was enough, and I had to move on.
And opening up and speaking to people, really just, it lifted the weight off my shoulder and I had people that I didn’t even know messaging me, popping into the studio with gifts saying that they had been in such a similar situation, they currently were or they previously had been, and that my words had touched them. It really blew my mind how many people are suffering the same way silently. We really need to come together and support each other.
I think that’s so true. Was there a rock bottom moment?
There was a rock bottom, but it lasted a while, it probably lasted a good month. I wasn’t eating, I wasn’t sleeping properly, I was super withdrawn. But then I was also really good at at hiding it, just saying the right things to just kind of go under the radar, and I wouldn’t want to leave the house. There was no defining moment, but there was just, you know, I just thought this isn’t you, this isn’t making you happy, like pull yourself up. So a friend recommended I see a counsellor that she had seen who was fantastic, and then I started working with some other people within the creative world to just help pull me back up. Yeah, you just have to talk and you just have to ask for help.
Were you surprised by the response after you posted on social media?
Like I said, it totally blew my mind and I’m not a person who ever airs my dirty laundry on social media or saying dirty laundry doesn’t even sound like the right way to describe it. But I’m not one who kind of shares personal things like that on my personal or my business social media platforms. I just wanted to bring awareness to it, I wanted to start conversations, but I really was shocked at how much just a simple post really touched and connected with so many people.
And there goes the positive of social media I think. So, well done, and congratulations on being brave and showing your vulnerability. I think everybody, I think that’s real, and I think that’s the authenticity that we’re actually seeking on social media. What are the key things that helped you, you said you’ve got some counselling. What are the top three things that really helped you?
Talking, definitely talking. Eating really well. I think the first thing for me that falls apart when I get too busy or I get a bit down is I just eat for convenience, so enjoying my food and eating really nourishing food that fuels my body. And for me, running. Running is a great form of meditation for me. My brain switches off, my body feels good, I’m out in the fresh air and the sunshine. For me it’s talking, food and running.
Followed by knitting,?
Followed by knitting, yeah. Knitting might move up the scale I think.
And so I guess now having had the experience you did last year, would you say that they are a priority over work?
I don’t know if priority is the right word. I love my work, I enjoy it and it allows me to facilitate the lifestyle that I have. Those things have way more equal weighting to work than they used to do. Work used to be number one, foremost important priority, but now the self-care is kind of much more on an equal playing field.
That’s good to hear. Kat, I think we have covered lots of different things. We’ve talked about traditional perfumery, natural perfumery, your personal skincare, your rituals. Is there anything else you’d like to share?
I think we’ve covered it all really well.
Yeah, it’s been great. Thank you so much, Kat. I love working you. I think you’re a phenomenal person. I think you’ve got phenomenal senses, and I really connect with your values. You’re a kind, genuine person. Thank you for giving us a little bit more of yourself. You’ve given so much of yourself in the MELIS perfume range, and I really appreciate the time. Thank you so much.
Thank you. I’ve loved working with you. It’s really pushed my boundaries, and as I’ve said, I think we’re cut from the same cloth, we’re on the same page and I really look forward to working with you for a long time into the future.
Thanks Kat, and I’m sure there’s a lot of people out there listening who have come to your workshops, like me, introduced to you through your workshops and found you to be such a generous spirit, and so I’m saying thank you from them too.
Aw, thank you.
Bye for now.