The Laboratory Effect: How Modern Perfumery Has Shaped Our Sense of Smell, Part I

This will be the first post in a series of posts that examine the effect that modern perfumery has had on our sense of smell. From cosmetics to household products, fragrance has a defining role. Everything has some “fragrance” added to it. While the smell of a floor cleaner may not have any impact on how effectively it cleans, it does define the product in some fashion. And more than that, it defines a particular scent for us. When we use a lemon-scented soap or lavender-scented laundry detergent or ylang ylang scented shampoo, we come to know the smell of lemon or lavender or ylang ylang via that product. Unconsciously, throughout our lives, we are conditioned by fragrances that completely surround and pervade us–and we have no idea how significantly it has altered our ability to perceive nature’s wondrous aromatics.

This is what I call the “laboratory effect”. The fragrances that are in our hair products and soaps and almost everything we use are completely synthetic (read: laboratory creations). But for those who have no special interest in natural essential oils, there is no discovery of the true aroma of lemon, or lavender, or ylang ylang. There is just this chemical fabrication that we become used to, that we even begin to enjoy. Why else would someone buy air freshener for their cars or homes? Why else would we use fragrant hair products without the slightest concern for the aromatics used to fragrance them? However, I must assert that the only reason anyone finds these synthetic aromas to be remotely pleasurable is because of limited exposure and unconscious conditioning.

The laboratory effect. We walk through malls and are bombarded with the overpowering smell of edgy perfumes that feel like fizz in our nostrils long before we even reach the transparent counters where they are sold. We casually open magazines in waiting rooms and smell the perfume samples without a second thought. My question is, does anyone notice that almost all of these perfumes smell the same? Has anyone spent significant time in a shopping plaza and smelled the different perfumes being offered? The colognes, the eau de perfumes, the ladies scents, the men’s scents, the “musk” perfumes, the “rose” perfumes? I find hardly any aromatic variation in any of them. They all smell the same to me. Flat, one-dimensional, bubbly, alcoholic, and filled with an unnatural sharpness that makes me pull my face away in pure reflex. These perfumes are like drones. What you smell is what you get, now, and hours later, and then hours later.

The first real sign of the laboratory effect is when someone who is unconsciously and innocently accustomed to synthetic aromas smells a natural aromatic and finds it to be weak, lacking projection, and lacking tenacity. People expect natural aromatics to last as long as synthetic aromatics, and they expect natural aromatics to have that same overpowering strength of scent that someone could smell from quite a distance. While this is certainly the reality surrounding modern perfumery, it is not true of natural aromatics–and that is important to understand.

Some of the more common questions I am asked is surrounding deer musk. I recently sold someone a sandalwood musk infusion and they told me they could not smell the musk and asked me how it could be made stronger. I am often asked how sandalwood musk infusions can be created, with what ratios, at what strength. Almost always, the question comes about how to make it stronger so that it will project more. But the question is based on an inaccurate paradigm with unfair expectations. People are used to the smell of “musk” in the form of muscone, as it is used in modern perfumery, and as it is used in Middle Eastern perfumes. Based on this, individuals seek the true aromatic–deer musk. When they find it, they have hopes that it will fulfill what their noses are conditioned to smelling–and it always fails. The truth about deer musk is that it is a subtle aromatic, and one has to develop a nose for it in order to really know it in the context of a sandalwood infusion. You must de-condition your nose. This is why my recommendation is to have plain sandalwood in a sample vial alongside a sandalwood musk infusion. Compare the two diligently until your nose recognizes the musk without a question. While it is not overpowering or edgy like muscone, deer musk is unmistakable and plain as day, and a profoundly deep, sensual, and lively aroma. Moreover, it is a fixative rather than a perfume–and this is something I will explore in Part II.

I also recently sold someone a bottle of Turkish Rose Otto and Bulgarian Rose Otto–both top quality. The reply I received was that the oils smelled like “bug spray” had “green notes” and did not last all day on the skin like another rose fragrance that this person had. I had to point out that rose oils often have green notes and that rose is a middle-to-tope note in perfumery–it evaporates quickly compared to sandalwood or oak moss. It is not an oil that is going to last all day on anyone’s skin. It was clear to me that this person was accustomed to a synthetic rose fragrance and was looking for the natural aromatic to match this. She was repulsed by the smell of the natural aromatic because she had never really smelled a natural steam-distilled rose before.

We are now so conditioned by modern aroma chemicals that the natural beauty, depth, subtlety, and complexity of natural aromatics is completely foreign and unsatisfactory to us. Natural aromatics are a world unto themselves and are worthy of serious exploration. More than that, one must develop a new sense of smell–one based on nature rather than laboratories. One must remember that the power of an aromatic is not in its ability to project, but in its actual scent.

3 thoughts on “The Laboratory Effect: How Modern Perfumery Has Shaped Our Sense of Smell, Part I

  1. Without saying it directly you’ve pointed out the Natural vs.Synthetics “Cold War” going on very clearly… I myself have worn an essential or absolute “neat” and whether it’s Jasmine, Lavender or heaven forbid Oud people will react so negatively to the “real thing”; so sad but true.
    Thank You for a wonderful article.

  2. Congratulations: Finally, you have written another article, and I welcome that!
    Your observation is very correct: at shopping malls one´s nose, one´s sense of scent are assaulted by the myriads of arificial scents from “lifestyle” products (shampoos and floor detergents smelling of apples or pine…). These scents are, at least to me, horrible, way too strong, way too sweet…. one should sue the companies who make and sell those products!
    They undermine our innate sense of smell, as you described.
    The only way out is to avoid those products weherever possible, and re-learn what natural things (fruits, woods, earth etc.) smell like. It is a task of de-programming and a journey of (re-)discovery.
    Just my two cents,
    Thomas S.

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