Smells of the beach

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Sun, sea and sky… To celebrate the summer, Nez offers you an article originally published in Nez, the olfactory magazine #09. As we scan the horizon, we discover that the coast is awash with nostalgic and addictive smells.

Sea spray, warm sand, sunscreen and tanning oil, inflatables… And not forgetting a little treat to snack on! The sweet smell of the seaside, and summer getaways, is a cocktail of aromas from a whole different world. So, do you prefer doughnuts or candied peanuts? 

The seashore
The gaze drifts towards the horizon and the sound of the surf completes the feeling of having been transported. Your nostrils pick up the resinous aroma of pine trees, then the scent of sand dunes, salty and mineralic… A breath of fresh air. The sand, which you delight in plunging your feet into, having just whipped off your shoes, actually smells of very little. Made up of silica and organic  matter (shells, fragments of bone, etc.), it is a non- volatile mineral. Its ‘beachy’ facet comes from the  marine matter washed in by the tide. At your feet, the seaweed and its green notes are reminiscent of oakmoss, matcha tea, even cooked spinach. Trace amounts of dimethyl sulfide, given off by these marine plants as they break down, make your nostrils feel dilated, a sensation that you typically get by the sea. Breathe in that sea air! What we call ‘ozone’ notes comes from molecules used by seaweed as a means of communication, pheromones called dictyopterenes, which also give fish eggs their scent. Another pheromone exudes an aroma of salmon roe: giffordene. The aldehydes related to this pheromone – which, incidentally, give melon, watermelon and cucumber their aquatic notes – are also present in seaweed. As for the sea, its somewhat fishy aroma hails from the bromophenols which these algae use to protect themselves and which are also found in seafood. 

The beach mat
A bit old-fashioned but light and easy to carry. A straw-like scent, woody and powdery notes of cut hay… Rolled up – usually slightly askew – or unrolled in the blink of an eye, it is woven from raffia fibres and stops sand from sticking to the body when slathered in cream or dripping with water. It tends to retain the olfactory traces of anyone who has rubbed against it! Above all, it has a whiff of dampness, like the smell of a towel that has not properly dried out. It’s a sulphurous, funky cocktail created by various bacteria: dimethyl disulfide, 3-Methylbutan-1-ol, dimethyl trisulfide, 2,4-Dithiapentane and isovaleric acid. 

Candied peanuts, doughnuts, churros
“Doughnuts, get your doughnuts!” You can hear the vendors coming from a mile away, their trays piled high with nostalgic sweet treats filled with jam, apple purée or Nutella. Both churros (known in France as chichis) and doughnuts are made from a soft, sweetened batter, cooked quickly in hot oil… The smell of frying comes from aldehydes formed when fatty acids in the oil, mainly hexanal, heptanal, nonenal and undecanal, break down in the heat. These confections, the basic recipe for which originated in ancient Rome, were later popularised by the Carnival celebrations preceding Lent. How, then, did they come to take over French beaches? Perhaps they crossed the Mediterranean Sea. These inexpensive delicacies are, in fact, traditionally very popular on the beaches of North Africa – which is how they would have spread to the south coast of France. Then there are the peanuts fried in sugar syrup, with their delicious caramelised aroma of maltol. In France, they were originally known as praline, but they are now often called chouchou, a name which came from Belgium. These candies are descendants of the Prasline de Montargis (made with almonds), which was invented in the seventeenth century by the chef to the Count of Plessis-Praslin. French colonists also introduced them to Louisiana. 

Scented oils
Born when tanning was in vogue, they took off thanks to paid leave. Their floral, solar notes are inextricably linked to going on vacation. The carefree, crazy days of 1927. Bodies were set free. Bronzed skin became chic. Spearheading the movement was designer Jean Patou, who created swimsuits for fashionistas and came up with a tanning oil, scented by Henri Alméras. It was the first of its kind. Huile de Chaldée, sold in crystal bottles by Baccarat, contained a hefty dose of benzyl salicylate, a substance found in ylang ylang, frangipani and tiaré or Tahitian gardenia flowers, which have both floral and balsamic notes. The olfactory composition offered white flowers (jasmine, narcissus, orange blossom) balmy notes and an amber base of vanilla and tonka bean. Benzyl salicylate filters UV rays and prevents sunburn. The brown colour of the liquid also enhances a suntan by tinting the skin…  In 1935, exactly a year before paid leave was introduced in France for the first time, Ambre Solaire by L’Oréal appeared, a far cheaper product bound straight for the mass market. Its invention is credited to the brand’s founder, Eugène Schueller, who wanted to protect his skin during regattas. Its rose and jasmine accord is rounded off with the famous benzyl salicylate. The original fragrance, which has been very modestly reworked over the years, was updated in 2016 to give it a fresher, lighter quality. The olfactory dimension of these cosmetics is key. The brand NUXE has even released the oriental, solar, white-flower fragrance of its hair and body oil – Huile Prodigieuse – in the form of a perfume! The celebrated monoï oil rose to fame in Europe in the 1970s, when the island of Tahiti opened up to tourists, served by Faa’a International Airport near Papeete. Full of exotic promise, monoï oil is made by macerating tiaré flowers in coconut oil. The ultimate reward: a delicately sweet sillage. Tahitian monoï oil is the only product of its kind to have earned Appellation of Origin (AO) certification, which it was awarded in 1992.  

Rubber rings and inflatables
Did you know that plastic has no odour? Its molecules are too heavy to reach our nostrils. The aroma we smell comes from traces of monomers used in the manufacturing process. Vinyl chloride residue in PVC gives off a sweet fragrance with a hint of ether. Neoprene, made from polymerised chloroprene, has an aroma that is sharp and far more pungent. Wetsuits made of this material, when not fully dried, develop a damp, sulphurous facet, somewhere between sweat, salt and urine. A million miles away from the often fruity smell of armbands and inflatable boats, which is reminiscent, perhaps, of pineapple. 

Sunscreen
Tell me what your sunscreen lotion smells of, and I’ll tell you where you live! The scent of sun protection does, in fact, differ from one part of the world to another. Brazil is hooked on the Sundown brand, with its chypre-fougère tones and hint of aldehydes. In the US, people sunbathe amid the fresh, aquatic fragrances of cucumber melon or those swathed in gourmand notes (piña colada, caramel, coconut, and so on). More subdued scents – floral, green, citrus – are favoured by the Asian market, which takes inspiration from cosmetic products. Europe has long upheld the tradition of Ambre Solaire, with its spiced white flowers, in particular products from big names, such as L’Oréal and NIVEA. Accords found in pharmacy products are more citrusy and aquatic, and now many even label themselves as ‘fragrance free’. Those reckless enough to skip regular applications of sunscreen lotion on their face and body will only end up having to slather themselves in a specially formulated moisturiser. The famous French cream Biafine, developed in 1971 by the French chemist Wenmaekers to soothe his daughter-in-law’s burn injuries, was first retailed in pharmacies in 1976. A green, refreshing fragrance mixes in with the cream’s fatty notes. Its formula, which is available online – as is required of medicinal products – contains orange essence, which offers an element of cologne, galbanum and petitgrain, giving it a green facet, and a rose-violet-jasmine accord for floral softness. A unique scent, which alone seems to have the power to heal even the reddest of skin. 

Thank you to perfumers Mathilde Bijaoui, Laurie Carrat and Mathieu Nardin of Mane and Alexandra Carlin of Symrise for their olfactive descriptions. 

This article was originally published in Nez, the olfactory magazine #09 – Around the world

Main visual: William Merritt Chase, Au bord de la mer, 1892, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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