Scents with superpowers

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In this age of personal development and the pursuit of equilibrium, it’s no longer enough to simply smell good – you also have to feel good. Which is why the fragrance industry is taking a keen interest in aromachology, the study of how odours influence our state of mind. On the occasion of the World Mental Health Day, we offer you an article originally published in Nez, The Olfactory Magazine – #06 – Body and Mind.

The question flashes up on your smartphone screen, “How are you feeling?”, and you have three answers to choose from: “Great”, “OK” or “Not good”. The app then measures your heart rate to gauge your stress level, and asks what you’re planning to do next: work, exercise, or to go to sleep. Now the app’s unique algorithm can work out the composition for a customised mood fragrance. The special app was developed by Japanese company Shiseido, designed to work with BliScent, the world’s first smart aroma diffuser. Six scents housed in cartridges within the device can generate over 3,000 blends. The algorithm decides which one is best suited to the user’s activity and mood at a given moment, and releases it. Soon to arrive on the market, BliScent is one of the latest inventions from Shiseido, which has a long-standing interest in aromachology – the study of how odours affect the psyche.
The science of aromachology is based on the observation that odours can trigger the same psychological response in different individuals, beyond their personal experiences, tastes and cultural biases. Aromachology attempts to understand how the human mind can be reached via our sense of smell – the olfactory system in fact offering a direct access to the limbic system, the seat of the emotions in our brains. Albeit, since time immemorial we have known, from firsthand experience, that smells influence our state of mind. Aromatherapy – the use of essential oils for therapeutic purposes – has already shown us that certain plants (such as lemon or peppermint) have stimulating effects, while others (like camomile and lavender) are relaxing. Aromachology – a term first employed in the US in 1982 by The Fragrance Foundation and derived from the words “aroma” and “psychology” – has for the last three decades been exploring the links between odours and a broader spectrum of feelings, from relaxation to happiness and self-confidence.
The birth of aromachology is both a factor in, and product of, the perfume industry’s shifting viewpoint on its own products, including essential oils, synthetic molecules and compositions. From the 1980s onwards, a new breed of research initiatives began to get underway. These included study centres devoted to examining the physiological phenomena induced by fragrance and developing protocols for assessing them (like the one established by Shiseido in Tokyo in 1984), joint projects with researchers (such as Givaudan’s work on smells and emotions which began in 1985), and universities (Firmenich collaborates with Geneva University, Symrise with Tours University), neuroscience programmes (Symrise began theirs in the early 2000s) and in-house departments with unprecedented ambitions. 


Mapping the emotions
In 1982, IFF, the US fragrance and flavour corporation, established an Aroma Science arm within its R&D department. Its aim was to formalise and objectify the links between its essences and the emotions they induce in consumers. This new unit provided the impetus for another ambitious project: to map all IFF’s natural and synthetic ingredients according to the emotions they evoke. Testers were asked to plot each smell on a circular diagram based on two axes, positive/negative emotions and +/– activation. The 1980s was the age of mood mapping, an approach which soon broadened to encompass multi-sensory characterisation, used to establish what colours, textures and attributes people spontaneously associated with a particular ingredient. The resulting database, ScentEmotions, was used by Jean-Claude Delville and Rodrigo Flores-Roux to create Clinique’s Happy in 1997. “Even today, in blind tests, it is still perceived to be a fragrance that evokes joy,” says Arnaud Montet, director of IFF’s Consumer Science department. “Mood mapping and ScentEmotions are powerful tools, developed with real strategic intent, even though they only rely on declarative data. Every new ingredient added to the palette of IFF’s perfumers is tested all over the world. We’ve been running this programme continuously for years, and that’s the great strength of it, the fact that it’s done systematically.”
These tools have played an important role in bringing the emotional potential of smell into IFF’s corporate culture. Now, every perfumer who works for the company is taught about it and encouraged to use it. A few years ago, when IFF was given a brief to nd “the scent of happiness”, it was only natural for Dominique Ropion, Anne Flipo and Olivier Polge to use a selection of “happy” ingredients as a basis to begin their creation of a certain La Vie est belle

Ingredients under the microscope
The era of self-report surveys seems to be waning, even though some of the tools it has given rise to are still valid. The fragrance industry is now focusing its efforts on obtaining and processing data that is more objective than comments from consumers, with two aims in mind: rstly, to determine and measure the action of ingredients, and secondly, to test the effect of accords or compositions produced by combining them.
Thibaut Madre is director of innovation at Takasago, the Japanese flavour and fragrance manufacturer. “Our role as designers involves combining different raw materials” he explains. “And we know, for every single one of them, whether they have an energising or relaxing eect, and to what extent.” Since 1981, to assess how individuals react to a given smell, Takasago has been using electroencephalography (EEG), which records the brain’s electrical activity through sensors on the surface of the scalp. “Our perfumers have access to all this data,” says Madre, “which helps them predict what the effect of a formula they’re working on will be. We usually check the results once the composition is finalised, because the theory does not always match reality.” Takasago – one of the pioneers of aromachology in the fragrance industry – has used this expertise to work on many products that claim to have energising or relaxing properties, from scents such as Relaxing Fragrance (1997) and Zen (2007) from Shiseido, to bodycare products like Lancôme’s Hydra Zen range and Johnson’s Original Bedtime lotion.
In common with the majority of its competitors, Takasago has other measurements to back up its EEG data, including cardiac activity, body temperature, blood flow, and pupil dilation. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI) has been used for some time to observe the brain’s activity with unprecedented accuracy, especially the primary zones such as the limbic structures, which are “invisible” to EEG. Only very few fragrance houses have access to this technology to date because it is very costly and mainly reserved for the medical sphere. Thanks to their partnership with a rm specialising in consumer neuroscience, IFF is currently using FMRI to study the exclusive ingredients made by its LMR branch, dedicated to naturals. In the case of raw materials, the effects of which may already be well-known, generic claims simply don’t cut it.
“The idea is to show that we can make better products than other rms: not just a relaxing lavender, but the best relaxing lavender of all – the one designed by IFF-LMR!” says Arnaud Montet. IFF-LMR general manager Bertrand de Préville adds: “By comparing our products with traditional essential oils, we can see exactly how they function. We corroborate these results with existing knowledge in the eld so we understand which molecules are involved in the way such-and-such an ingredient acts.” This data can then be used to pinpoint the best extraction method and to specify a potential renement protocol. Molecular distillation is one way of concentrating some of the molecules that are naturally present in an ingredient. 

The tests of tomorrow
One of the major contributions of aromachology is to give perfumers a head start, by identifying which palette of ingredients or which framework to select for a given project. Another great benet is how it can validate new products during development. In 2017, Symrise oÈcialised its Gen-Isys (for Generative Neuro-Implicit System) programme, designed to provide a global overview of consumers’ perceptions of a fragrance and the concept behind it. It works by simultaneously examining their conscious and subconscious reactions. A typical test session lasts 15 minutes, with the participant seated in a chair facing two computer screens and a group of cameras. They are handed a perfume on a blotter and various devices then harvest information about how the subject reacts. A software package prompts them to make implicit associations, while an EEG helmet identities which areas of the brain are being activated. Meanwhile, the cameras capture eye movements and facial expressions. The exclusive Gen-Isys algorithm then cross-references all the data and ascertains what the consumer really thought of the fragrance, and whether they are likely to buy it, or even become a repeat customer. Symrise, recounts Patricia Arnostti, director of its Consumer and Market Insights department, recently worked on creating a “joyful” perfume. “We assessed the proposals developed by our perfumers using traditional [self-report] consumer tests: ten of them were considered joyful – they t the brief, in other words,” she recounts. “We then analysed the same proposals using Gen-Isys. It turned out that only two were really perceived as being joyful. And those are the ones we eventually presented to the client.” Although nowadays the overwhelming majority of fragrances are tested and retested before being put on the market (and there is the odd commercial flop, nevertheless), it’s conceivable that these evaluation tools could one day replace – or at least supplement – the declarative methods currently employed in the industry. 

Making life better through scent
If smells can be curative, the challenge facing the fragrance industry is to understand where we feel hurt, or in other words to design products that meet an actual need. From its earliest days, aromachology encouraged marketing teams to come up with new concepts based on consumer expectations. Shiseido’s Relaxing Fragrance is a case in point. One of the first scents to claim aromachological benefits, it was launched in Japan in 1997 against a backdrop of social turmoil that saw a peak in suicides. The woody green floral, which is no longer in production, was sparked by the observation that the Japanese were in dire need of some repose. After fragrances, Shiseido expanded its research and gained interest in body care products: “We soon realised that, when you’re making a personal care product, the fragrance itself can be thought of as an active ingredient because it has properties that benet both mind and body,” explains Nathalie Broussard, Shiseido’s director of scientific communication. “We noted that some perfumes, by neutralising the effects of stress, indirectly lead to an improvement in parameters relating to the skin. We also found that certain notes balanced sebum production, and we’ve even shown that a grapefruit note has a slimming effect, since it stimulates the metabolism and its ability to burn fat.”
From cellulite to stress, our day-to-day lives often serve as the starting point for these new products. Givaudan recently conducted a large-scale study on sleep, resulting in DreamScentz, a patented technology that should allow its perfumers to blend scents to enhance the quality of our slumber. From pillow mists and night creams to fabric softeners, the potential applications are many and varied. Among them are the Oria diuser’s fragrance capsules, which promise to help you fall asleep quicker (and sleep better) thanks to scents that both EEG and home-use tests have shown to be effective. “We’ve created a demand,” remarks Hervé Fretay, director of Natural Ingredients for perfumery at Givaudan. “When we showed our customers DreamScentz for the first time, they didn’t really see how it could be of any use to them. Now they come to us, because the question of sleep has become a huge issue in society. No matter how old you are, or what social class you’re from, we’re all affected.” And the same goes for stress, which has led some companies, including IFF and Takasago, to turn their attention to ‘mindfulness’ and how to use aroma in reaching this mental state, which has become so popular with the trend for meditation. 

An end to the reign of beauty?
After decades of being presented by a hedonistic rhetoric, perfume seemed until recently to be limited to its aesthetic dimension. And what more would anyone expect? Yet perfume is gradually evolving into a product that claims to have the power to deliver something other than pleasure alone. Back in 1987, the launch of Clarins’ Eau dynamisante prefigured this change and it’s been substantiated more recently with fragrances like Yves Rocher’s Énergie and Relaxation hitting the shelves in 2016. But is this new, or simply perfume revisiting its roots? After all, as IFF’s Bertrand de Préville points out, “In days gone by, perfume had a therapeutic aspect to it”. For him, reconnecting with this tradition of wellbeing could help the industry attract new customers who might otherwise be put off – millennials, for instance, who “aren’t all that interested in perfume per se and are looking for it to offer genuine benefits”, or the Chinese, “who are pretty uninterested in the mere pleasurable aspect of a fragrance”.
It would appear that this new vision is gradually becoming mainstream. There has been a slow but noticeable shift in mass-market perfumery in terms of the products on offer and the accompanying rhetoric, with concepts and a lexicon now commonly drawn from the realm of emotions and wellbeing. Even within the niche market there are new brands wielding manifesto-like declarations about the effects that their fragrances have on our emotions, while the aesthetic dimension – their olfactory form – playing second fiddle. Nathalie Vinciguerra, who founded Anima Vinci in 2017, has been contemplating the idea since L’Oréal made its strategic shift in the 1990s when she worked for the company as a group leader. “I remember we were trying to come up with interesting angles for a different narrative about perfumes,” she recalls. “The Japanese had a head start at the time, we knew that they were diffusing nice aromas in the subway and in shops to make people feel good. That’s what encouraged me to read all I could, not just about aromachology but also about the fundamental sciences, Chinese medicine and Ayurveda.” Twenty years on – after working on Biotherm’s Eau vitaminée, among other things – Vinciguerra drew on her knowledge to design her own perfumes, from Wood of Life, which “reinforces the spiritual bond”, to Lime Spirit whose main ingredient “acts as a stimulating tonic for the mind and body”.
The fact that there is an appetite for these scents today reflects how far the industry has come over the last 30 or so years. Until recently, the idea that aromas could do us good might have seemed far-fetched. We mustn’t forget that research in the field of odour is still at a very early stage. In 2004, US scientists Richard Axel and Linda B. Buck were awarded the Nobel Prize for their 1991 discovery of the olfactory receptor gene family and the organisation of the olfactory system, marking a new era of research into the subject.
Hirac Gurden, director of neuroscience research at the French national scientific research centre, the CNRS, member of an olfaction research group and also the Nez collective, sheds further light on our olfactory system: “We know that it is linked both to our limbic system – the seat of memory and the emotions – and to areas responsible for communicating with the body. All these regions of the brain are activated simultaneously when we breathe in an odour, although it is difficult to pinpoint which circuits are involved in any one reaction. Aromachology used in depression, for example, has produced good results. We’ve seen that some odours can reduce heart rate in the short term and act quickly on our wellbeing. But we also see a long-term impact on emotions, without knowing exactly how that works.” The connections between smells, the mind and the body have still to divulge their many secrets. 

This article was originally published in Nez, The Olfactory Magazine – #06 – Body and Mind.

Main image:  George Dunlop Leslie, Roses (c 1880), Hamburger Kunsthalle, Germany, Wikimedia Commons.

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