The Science of Scent


Debra Brock knows exactly what’s happening up your nose


In perfume, as in life, there’s a thin line between love and hate. A fragrance bursting with notes you love can prove a disappointment if the composition just doesn’t sit well for you. I love them as fruit, but there’s something about peaches and nectarines in fragrance form that make me want to brillo them off within 20 minutes. Sometimes it’s just a question of association. I recently saw a powerful demonstration of this at a fragrance masterclass hosted by The Perfume Shop, where perfumer Penny Williams handed out scented blotters and asked what we made of the smell. Initially, I recoiled, but as I gingerly inhaled a little more, I began to be won over. The room was split 50:50 between the haters and those, like me, who found the scent vaguely pleasant. Then Penny revealed we’d been sniffing a form of acetic acid found in honey.  And also in urine. So our verdicts were all down to whether we associated the smell with bee, or pee.


Our sense of smell is incredibly powerful. So powerful that we can distinguish between about one trillion odours.  Your eyes, by way of comparison, can detect a few million colours, while your ears can pick up a measly half a million different tones. We can literally smell fear or disgust in someone’s sweat. Babies can show a preference for the smells of the food that their mothers ate during pregnancy, and have an in-built preference for the smell of breast milk over formula.  Odours, of course, can provoke a powerful emotional response. This is because the olfactory bulbs, essentially the brain’s smell processors, are part of the limbic system which controls memory and emotion. And so the smell of Coty’s L’Aimant talc instantly transports me back to my Nanna’s bathroom, while the smell of White Musk spirits anyone my age to a 1980’s Body Shop.


I came away from the masterclass with a renewed sense of just how magical and complex the human body is, and wanting to immediately visit a store to smell everything in more detail, especially the scents that Penny described as disrupters – those that were a step change in fragrance history (Chanel No5, Shalimar, Diorissimo, Angel and Jean Paul Gaultier Le Male). A few words of warning, though. The huge array of perfumes on offer (around 1200 are launched every year) can be bewildering, and the advice given to us in the masterclass was to go steady on the sniffing – our nose fatigues quickly – and ask for guidance. Also, the next time you’re sniffing bottles on a fragrance counter, keep in mind that just like yawning, sniffing is contagious. You might just find yourself surrounded by a crowd.




Photo credit: Stuart Heath / Flickr Creative Commons



Debra Brock

Debra Brock is co-founder of and a contributing writer.

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