Fragrances are being used to evoke emotions and improve our lives.
It only takes about 3.3 seconds to inhale and exhale, but that short action has a powerful effect on our brain and bodily functions. Our olfactory system, or sense of smell, is directly connected to the limbic system, a part of the brain that governs emotional processing, motivation, fear and pleasure.
That connection, proven by numerous studies that show how we can be influenced by being exposed to certain notes, is increasingly being called upon by perfumers to deliver wellness benefits.
Proponents of aromatherapy – the use of essential oils extracted from plants as therapeutic agents – have been touting the anecdotal evidence of the benefits of the proper scent for a long time (the history of aromatherapy dates back to 4000 BC). Yet aromachology, the scientific study of the influence of odours on human behavior, is relatively new.
With the bulk of research in that area only happening in the past 20 years, the evidence differs on exactly how scent impacts us. Most studies show scent doesn’t work like a drug; it’s more likely to stimulate an individual psychological reaction, so there’s no one smell that appeals, uplifts, seduces or revolts all. “Human responses to odours are based on associative learning; they are not innate, not wired into us,’’ reports neuroscientist and renowned smell expert Rachel Herz, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behaviour at Brown University.
“We associate an odour with the circumstances under which it was first experienced. If the circumstance is good, then we like the odour; if it is bad, we dislike the odour.”
Hertz suggests that mundane smells we’re accustomed to, like the daily scent of coffee, don’t trigger our emotions like those that are a unique marker for a specific past experience. Scent has been proven to be a more effective trigger for those memories than any other sense, acting like a photo or a song.
With the current unsettled global environment, perfumers are increasingly calling upon those emotional nostalgia triggers to transport us through time and space.
Sociologists, psychologists and trend forecasters report an increasing longing for both the olfactory comfort of the familiar, the simple, the homely. It is unsurprisingly then that gourmand notes like warm vanilla,
creamy almond and soft tonka bean have gained marked prominence in both personal and home fragrance. With one study indicating the smell of baked bread makes us kinder to strangers, it might just benefit us all.
As we have spent so much time within familiar four walls recently, being able to be mentally transported outdoors is proving popular. Sunny ‘solar’ notes tinged with wind-blown salt recall a beach escape, while fresh, green scents reminiscent of a bush walk or a grassy expanse are among those in new releases.
Even floral perfumes, the mainstay of the market, are affected. What is key on counters right now? Scents where a single recognisable flower comes to the fore, more like recalling an actual wander through a garden in real life, than a fantastical blend of numerous blooms.
With the catchy label ‘functional fragrance’, a new category is rapidly emerging, implying more specific mood-altering claims.
New York brand The Nue Co. worked with global fragrance house Firmenich and respected perfumer Frank Voelkl on its unisex Functional Fragrance, a blend of green cardamom, iris, palo santo and cilantro said to relieve stress.
The brand says it has used research from the Brain and Behavior Laboratory at the University of Geneva on neurological reactions to certain scent groups to create the scent.
Others, like This Works’ new Stress Check Mood Manager fragrance, commonly feature the likes of neroli and lavender extracts, indicated in some studies in humans and animals to have potential mood-regulation or mood-boosting benefits.
The options in this category are quickly growing, but more conclusive research is needed. Still, many are happy to try new ways to potentially bring about feelings of calm, to quiet an anxious mind, or to energise a tired body regardless.
The fragrance industry as a whole has been slow to embrace the increased consumer desire for transparency in all beauty products. The full disclosure of perfume ingredients has long been avoided under laws that allow brands to protect the ‘trade secret’ nature of their blend.
Despite campaigns suggesting that synthetic and even biotechnological ingredients are sustainable because they avoid the depletion of natural resources – and that they are also claimed to be proven safe for consumers – many are turning to all-natural brands regardless.
Frances Shoemack, creator of fine natural fragrance brand Abel, counters with the fact that the natural ingredients she calls upon are renewable and biodegradable, but admits the lack of clear definitions are confusing for everyone.
“‘Natural’ isn’t a legal definition, which can be frustrating as the word gets used in many different ways,” she says. “We have our own clear definition: every ingredient we use starts its life as a plant.”
Following this definition, she says Abel is one of only a handful of ‘truly natural’ perfume brands.
“In the fragrance industry, less than 95 per cent of ingredients start their life as a plant,” she says. “Most start as fossil fuel, so this definitely makes us different.”
Shoemack started her brand close to a decade ago, working with Australasian master perfumer Isaac Sinclair to create her unique scents. She says that in that time, the related challenges have changed.
“Originally, the battle was people thinking natural is unsophisticated or a hippy hangover,” says Shoemack. “The challenge now is [other] brands implying they are natural now that it’s something consumers desire and are willing to pay for.”
She says that although there is plenty of ‘greenwashing’, there are some exciting developments because of the interest, too. “There’s proper investment into new ways of extracting natural ingredients, and more focus on the entire supply chain. The ‘clean beauty’ movement used to be driven by internal concerns about what you put on your skin, but we’ve really seen the movement transition from ‘me’ to ‘us’ ... emails from customers holding us accountable saying ‘Hey, love your perfume, how do I recycle your bottle?’. The next wave [of perfume trends] is about whether ingredients are biodegradable and renewable, how they are processed, transported to the customer ... the full life cycle.”
Abel’s newest release, Cyan Nori, is a surprising blend of juicy tangerine and white peach with a salty deep-sea dry down. Inspired by the ocean, its hero ingredient is Algae Absolute (Nori), a seaweed grown off the coast of France, and has moisture-enriching amino acid content for skin.