Scent Gourmand

sinless pleasure for the perfume glutton

Category: Perfume Knowledge (page 1 of 3)

Fragrance to Help Learning? Makes scents!

A few years ago a wee article I wrote was published in a small institutional journal where I was employed in Tokyo. I wanted to find out if scent had any affect on the cognitive process of learning, so I did a little bit of digging. I had forgotten about this piece until today, while updating my teaching credentials. It’s not available online (unless you count the PDF I uploaded to an academic social network site), and it’s mine to share, so I’ve reproduced it below for your reading (hopefully) pleasure.

I am a self-confessed perfume fanatic. I have so many different bottles of olfactory art works in my home that it takes me a while to count them. Ironically, my passion for perfume developed after I moved to a country that is acknowledged as not having the same level of appreciation for fragrance as do some other nations, such as those of the Middle East. Depending on the scent I am wearing, the situation, and the peculiarities of the individuals who get a whiff of me, my use of perfume has surely been the cause of offense. Despite this, overhearing the whispered comment,「いい匂いですね」[(She) smells good, eh?] has become a common occurrence as I walk around my classrooms. I even get complimented to my face from time to time, which I not only find pleasing, but also interesting, as Japanese is not a language that employs the practice of complimenting as a form of ice-breaking or small talk to the same extent as English.

My interest in fragrance has sent me scavenging the Internet in search for answers to the question of why some people find some smells attractive when others do not, and why this depends so much on the individual, their culture, and even their age. When first introduced to a new scent, the human brain links it to a person, thing, event, or moment. The brain forges a link between the smell and a memory, associating lilies with funerals or chlorine with summer by the pool. The next time that scent is perceived, the link is already there, ready to elicit the emotion or mood associated with the memory the scent evokes. Lilies might be irritating and the smell of chlorine might cause happiness, and yet the reasons are not clear to the person experiencing those feelings.

This is part of the reason why people like and dislike different smells (Dowdey, n.d.). “As humans, we’re not immediately predisposed to respond to a scent and believe that it is good or bad,” says psychology and odor expert Rachel Herz, “When we like or don’t like a smell, that is learned.” This can be seen at the individual level: “Some people may smell a rose and be reminded of their father’s funeral. Others may like the smell of skunk because they have a positive attachment to it from childhood.” Likewise, this is true at the cultural level: In North American, a popular ingredient in candy and gum is wintergreen, but as wintergreen is often used to make medicine in the UK, the odor is less enticing there (Science of Scent, 2005). Finally, preferences are seen also at the generational level: “People born before 1930 love natural smells like grass and horses, while people born later are fond of synthetic smells like Play-Doh and SweeTarts” (Vlahos, 2007).

Marcel Proust was one of the first to write about memory recall as a strong, unconscious reaction to a smell. When someone smells something that triggers a very detailed, visual, and emotional memory of a childhood event they thought they had long forgotten, they are experiencing the “Proust Effect,“ which Chu and Downes assert to be a better cue for memory than the other senses, because odor memory falls off less rapidly than other sensory memory (2000).

But can scent have any impact on learning? Is my いい匂い [good smell] affecting my students’ learning in any way? Right brain function has tremendous potential for things like mass-memory and automatic processing. In most people, however, the pathways between their left and right brains have not been fully constructed, so this potential never fully develops. Science has found that certain scents, used properly, can be highly effective tools in building these neural pathways. Here’s a peek into some of the research on the positive effects of exposure to good smells:

Acute exposure to pleasant fragrances has been shown to facilitate the performance of mathematical tasks (Baron 1990), vigilance tasks (Warm et al. 1991), and word construction and, decoding of written messages (Baron and Bronfen, 1994; Baron and Thomley, 1994). Data gathered from research by Akpinar in 2005 showed that certain essential oil aromas increase students’ attention levels and enhance their memory, generally indicating positive effects on cognitive learning. Although lavender is known for its sedative qualities, Sakamoto (2005) found that “during recess periods after the accumulation of fatigue it can prevent deterioration performance in subsequent work sessions.”

Oliver and Moss (2012) suggest that the pine-like scent of rosemary oil may improve speed and accuracy when performing certain mental tasks. In their research, 20 people were asked to perform subtraction exercises and a task to see how quickly they could process new information before and after being exposed to the scent of rosemary. Participants’ blood levels of rosemary’s main chemical component – of 1, 8-cineole – were measured after the experiment. Results saw a strong correlation between amounts of 1, 8-cineole in the bloodstream and high task scores. Specialists do not fully understand how essences such as rosemary can improve mental ability, but an increasing body of literature shows that positive mood is triggered by scents, and this in turn is linked to an increase in productivity and performance, as well as many other benefits such as stress reduction.

Freeman showed that smell memory is context dependent and can be modified and updated when facing new experiences, implying that our olfactory sense is continuously dynamic (1991). Applying this knowledge to education, Björn Rasch and his colleagues at the University of Lübeck found that smelling the scent of roses while learning a task and then being exposed to the same smell during sleep helps memories to solidify. The section of the brain called the hippocampus is believed to serve as the temporary in-box for memory, where new knowledge or experiences are loaded and stored until they can be filed elsewhere for long-term storage and access.

During sleep, the memories in the hippocampus are reactivated and transferred to the cortex. As one might imagine, a lot of this short-term data never makes it to more permanent storage in the brain, but with scent being used as a trigger, such as in the case above of the roses, a lot more information makes the journey over. Simulating this experience for one’s own benefit is not that straightforward, however. Rasch discovered that timing was crucial for the test to work; the rose smell had to be switched on and off during the night so that the brain would not get used to it, and the smell was only effective during “slow wave” sleep, a sleep stage wherein the hippocampus is most sensitive. Not only this, but the smell trick is useful only for certain types of learning that rely on the hippocampus. It is not useful for remembering the skills needed for playing an instrument or perform a sport, for example (2007).

Certainly, trying to emulate precisely the study above may prove a little tricky, but it will not stop me from sharing the results of Rasch’s research with my students, and getting them to do a little bit of their own experimentation: While studying for a test, students could wear a perfume or essential oil that they really like on their wrist, and smell it periodically while studying. They could then make sure they are wearing that exact scent on test day, or perhaps carry something like a scarf scented with the fragrance, and again smell it periodically during the exam. Perhaps the smell will unlock something in their brain during test time that will allow them to more easily access the information they had previously reviewed?

Based on the work that has been done so far in the field of smell, students may not even have to go that far; simply surrounding themselves with favorable scents while studying may increase their learning efficacy, pushing memories out of short term and into long term storage. There appears to be a lot that teachers could do to help, such as employing room spray or essential oil diffusers where possible.

One would have to take care to use the right type of fragrance, however. Certain types of scent stimulation, like food, can disrupt the accelerated learning functions of our brain. Chemical smells from some air fresheners, perfume, and even some essential oils can also be distracting and could block learning. To avoid the issue of chemical sensitivity, and to be more consistent in using the same odorous materials as studies involving scent have employed, pure essential oil usage would perhaps be the better choice. Aromatherapists tout the use of certain essential oils to provoke specific outcomes.

Research is lacking in the area, but perhaps the popular practice of using scent in this way can no longer be so readily brushed off as pure pseudoscience, despite the fact that a lot off aromatherapy marketing is full of exaggerated and false claims, especially in the area of health. In addition to the scents of rose, rosemary, and lavender mentioned above, peppermint, lemon, jasmine, grapefruit, frankincense, cinnamon, and vetiver are mentioned in aromatherapy literature as having a positive effect on learning and creativity. While more scientific evidence is in the making, why not try these scents in the classroom? At the very least they will produce a more pleasant learning environment for students.

One thing is for sure: As long as students respond as positively as I do to the fumes wafting off my person, I will continue to enjoy wearing my fragrances to class.


Akpinar, B. (2005). Do scents affect people’s moods or work performance? Pakistan Journal of Social Sciences, 3(7), 952-960.

Baron, R.A. (1990). Environmentally Induced Positive Affect: Its Impact on Self-Efficacy, Task Performance, Negotiation, and Conflict. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 20(5), 368-384.

Baron, R.A., & Thomley, J. (1994). A whiff of reality: Positive affect as a potential mediator of the effects of pleasant fragrances on task performance and helping. Environment and Behavior, 26(6), 766-784.

Baron, R.A., & Bronfen, M.M. (2006). A Whiff of Reality: Empirical Evidence Concerning the Effects of Pleasant Fragrances on Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 24(13), 1129-1220.

Chu, S., & Downes, J.J. (2000). Odour-evoked Autobiographical Memories: Psychological Investigations of Proustian Phenomena. Chemical Senses, 25(1), 111-116.

Do scents affect people’s moods or work performance?: Scientific American. (2002, November 11). Scientific American. Retrieved August 18, 2013, from

Dowdey, S. (n.d.). How Smell Works. HowStuffWorks “Science”. Retrieved August 19, 2013, from

Freeman, W.J. (1991). The Physiology of Perception. Scientific American, 264(2), 78-85.

Herz, R.S. (2005). Odor-associative Learning and Emotion: Effects on Perception and Behavior. Chemical Senses, 30((supp 1)), i250-i251. Retrieved August 18, 2013, from

Moss, M., & Oliver, L. (2012). Plasma 1,8-cineole correlates with cognitive performance following exposure to rosemary essential oil aroma. Therapeutic Advances in Psychopharmacology, 2(3), 103-113 .

Rasch, B., Buchel, C., Gais, S., & Born, J. (2007). Odor Cues During Slow-Wave Sleep Prompt Declarative Memory Consolidation. Science, 315(5817), 1426-1429. Retrieved August 18, 2013, from

Sakamoto, R., Minoura, K., Usui, A., Ishizuka, Y., & Kanba, S. (2005). Effectiveness of Aroma on Work Efficiency: Lavender Aroma during Recesses Prevents Deterioration of Work Performance. Chemical Senses, 30(8), 683-691. Retrieved August 19, 2013, from

Science of Scent. (2005, January 5). Brown University. Retrieved August 18, 2013, from

Vlahos, J. (2007, September 9). Scent and Sensibility. The New York Times. Retrieved August 19, 2013, from

Warm, J.S., Dember, W.N., & Parasuraman, R. (1991). Effects of olfactory stimulation on performance and stress in a visual sustained attention task. Journal of the Society of Cosmetic Science, 42, 199-210. Retrieved August 19, 2013, from

Designer, niche, artisan, indie, bespoke… Say what?

Perfume is usually categorized into types based on smell, and there are several ways to categorize those smells. Michael Edwards, for example, has defined 4 groups – florals, woody, fresh, and oriental – and he has subdivided into 14 categories. There is another way to categorize fragrances, though, and that is by the fragrance house type, which is said to dictate the quality, cost, and pricing of a perfume. But not always. And the lines between these distinctions are unclear.


Designer fragrances are created by reputable perfumers or perfume institutions who have been commissioned to create the scent. They are the mainstream brands and are often part of larger fashion houses, crystal makers, or even furniture or luxury hotel companies.  They are the fragrances you will most commonly find in department stores, stores owned by the brand itself, and duty free shops in airports. Designer fragrances permit the average person access to a world of luxury that is otherwise not affordable. I’d splash out on a bottle of Chanel perfume, for example, but I’d need to save up 500 times that for a Chanel bag. Note that alongside designer fragrances, it is easy to find cheaper drugstore fragrances and increasingly higher-end brands (which often translates into “niche”) as well.  I think designer fragrances do have good recipes, but they will use cheaper ingredients and will definitely follow whatever is trending in the mass market


Niche is a word that is thrown around often to designate anything that is not mainstream. The term originally applied to fragrances not found in or different from those of department stores, but that is no longer the case. Indeed, since the niche market has exploded, so-called niche fragrances are as ubiquitous as the Sephora outlets (Ulta, Bluemercury, and other such beauty retailers) in which they are now housed. I believe L’ Artisan Parfumeur was one of if not the first house to be designated as niche, and it’s interesting to me that the brand name contains the term “artisan” and is also much more widely available now. The term niche is ceasing to become meaningful as a descriptor. Still, niche production does tend to be on a much smaller scale, and niche perfume presence in mainstream retail stores is not pervasive by any stretch.


The term indie is often ascribed to brands that are niche but smaller and independently owned. However, these days even many indie companies are fairly large. I feel the term is a clever marketing buzzword that seems to be applied to brands with a very zany, whimsical, alternative feel. A brand I feel represents the indie genre well is Imaginary Authors.


People disagree on the usage of niche and indie, but the term artisan engenders even more debate. Artisan brands create artisan-made products, meaning handmade and in-house as opposed to factory-produced. Artisan is therefore a  subset of indie. But here again, many companies have their perfumes batched and bottled in labs rather than doing it by hand, removing them from the strict definition of artisan. And the artisan label is not a guarantee of quality, as some people might suggest. They do tend, however, to be creative, original, and very personal (to the creator, at least). The lack of mass production means that the quantity may be limited and the products hard to get one’s hands on. Costs for artisan brands are higher. This is due to the need for increased labor and more expensive ingredients and packaging ( since they must be purchased in smaller quantities).


For those who have both the money and the desire for supreme originality, bespoke is now considered the preferred method. To some consumers, a bespoke perfume is the ultimate luxury fragrance. Bespoke perfume takes the world of personalisation to an entirely new level. According to Joanne Lam, “The process offers individuals a chance to not only convert emotions and memories into a unique scent, but also to create new emotions and memories to be associated with the fragrance.” Perfumer at Jean Patou, Thomas Fontaine, said it could cost someone $30,000 to $50,000 to create a personal scent. Famous perfumers that charge such a premium include the likes of Roja Dove, Francis Kurkdjian, Mathilde Laurent (of Cartier), Lyn Harris (of Miller Harris), Blaise Mautin, and Mandy Aftel (of Aftelier Perfumes). Because of the time and effort involved, these perfumers tend not to take on many clients seeking bespoke services. The waiting list can be years long. There are several companies who offer bespoke services as part of their brand, or even as their main service, and not all of them charge pinnacle-of-luxury prices. DYI bespoke fragrance workshops have also become popular, but I wouldn’t expect to create a masterpiece after one experience. It could be a lot of fun, though. Find a list of bespoke services and DYI companies at the bottom of my links page.


This is my own category, though I’m certain others use it, too. Drugstore is a term used by the makeup and skincare social media community to describe not necessarily cheap quality products, but those with cheaper prices that are commonly sold in “drugstore” retailers. Maybeline, Revlon, Bourgois, L’Oréal, CoverGirl, E.L.F. etc. are all drugstore makeup brands, and they are sold in Target, Walgreens, Wal Mart, Rite Aid, Sams Club, Shopper’s Drug Mart, etc. These lie in contrast to designer makeup, like Dior, Giorgio Armani, Tom Ford, Chanel, Estée Lauder, Burberry, YSL, etc., which are sold in department stores and stores run by the brand. Mostly obviously then, perfume sold at drugstores is drugstore perfume. Note, however, that many a designer perfume is also sold at major drugstores, especially perfumes that have been around for a decade or more and are still popular. For the most part, though, drugstore perfume consists of non-designer fare, perhaps some beauty brand perfume (see below), older designer releases, and the “lesser” designer brands and celebrity perfumes. They are sold at very accessible price points.

Beauty Brand

When I use the term beauty brand perfume, I refer to perfumes that are sold, sometimes exclusively, at the global beauty brand branches of the chain that owns them. L’Occitane, the Body Shop, Yves Rocher, Aveda, Bath and Body Works, Lush, Origins, Jurlique, Kiehl’s, and Philosophy come to my mind. I believe that the quality and pricing is similar to those of drugstore perfumes (perhaps a tad higher), but you might find some real gems (Eau des Beaux and from l’Occitane comes to mind, and Kiehl’s musk is classic). I don’t know if anyone else other than me has defined this category or finds it useful.

For things like the FIFI award categories, perfumery classification terminology is important. But ultimately these categories do not matter to consumers, who buy what they like and/or can afford. Sadly, there are status-related and emotional factors that also drive consumer behavior. Someone may not adore their custom-made bespoke scent as much as they say they do; they are more in love with the idea of owning a bespoke fragrance and what they perceive that does for their social status and/or the way they feel as a result.

Pia Long of Volatile Fiction, in addressing types of perfumers,  claims that distinctions represent a semantic nightmare:

“Indie perfumer, self-taught; indie perfumer, not-really-a-perfumer; indie perfumer, ex-industry…

If a self-taught indie perfumer says “I’m a perfumer” to a functional fragrance industry perfumer; they’ll be met with a blank stare. If an industry perfumer says “I’m a perfumer” to a member of the general public, it might evoke romantic scenes of sniffing roses and vanilla pods all day long, when the daily reality for that perfumer could be figuring out a cheap but still attractive scent which doesn’t fall apart in a new type of detergent product.”

What do you think about the way perfumes are categorized in terms of house? Are you swayed in any way by such categorization?

Fragrance concentrations


Below is a list of the 5 main scent concentration formats from strongest to weakest. Note that the percentage breakdown varies from source to source and I would assume also varies from fragrance to fragrance, so the percentage numbers offered here are just a guideline. The base of any perfume is the perfume essence, which is the part that produces the smell. Perfume essence could be a combination of essential oils (cedar wood, lime, sandalwood, etc.), absolutes (jasmine, rose, neroli), animal extracts (musk, ambergris, castoreum), and/or synthetic fragrance (which could be anything). The rest is filler, usually in the form of perfumer’s alcohol, water, and/or carrier oils.

The percentage of pure perfume essence does not always indicate that the quality is higher. There are many essential oils that you wouldn’t want to smell directly in even small amounts. Real musk and ambergris, for example, are very expensive and not pleasant to the nose in their pure form.  Less than a single drop of either can dramatically raise the price of a perfume and indeed probably also the quality of the overall fragrance, but you would want the effect of that single drop, not that tiny amount itself.

1) Parfum / Perfume / Extrait / Extrait de Parfum

Extrait is French for extract, and this is the strongest fragrance available, usually consisting of a 20~30% concentration (though I’ve seen reports of up for 40%) of perfume essence. This means that not only do you need to use less, but also that the fragrance lasts longer, typically for 6 hours or more, depending on factors such as your skin type. It’s interesting to note that extrait does not have the heavy sillage – meaning projection power – that fragrances with more alcohol have. Alcohol diffuses fragrance as it evaporates on skin. This is a better choice for those with sensitive skin, is oiler in consistency, and unsurprisingly is usually the most expensive (and therefore is usually sold in smaller bottles with a stopper; meant to be dabbed on, not sprayed all over).

2) Eau De Parfum (EDP)

This is lighter than pure perfume, usually with 15%~20%  concentration, but still has long-lasting characteristics, up to about 5 hours. It is less expensive than pure perfume and much more common. You shouldn’t have to or want to spray eau de parfum all over your person.

3) Eau De Toilette (EDT)

This is lighter than EDP, with no more than 10% concentration of the essence (though some have as much as 15%). It usually lasts for 2 to 4 hours, and is appropriate for warm temperatures, daytime wear, or for those who simply do not want to be overwhelmed with stronger concentrations. Users can be much more liberal with application from this concentration on.

4) Eau De Cologne (EDC or just COL for cologne)

This is lighter than EDT, often referred to just as cologne, and has a bigger dilution of fragrances with an estimated 5% concentration of perfume essence. The name is the French word for the city of Köln where a particular scent was first made – hence referred to as a water from Cologne. It usually lasts for 2 hours, and originally tended to be very light, fresh, and fruity – containing essential oils such as lemon, bergamot, orange, neroli absolute, lavender, and rosemary. Now the term is used simply to indicate a greater dilution of perfume essence, and like eau fraiche, body spray or splash below, is affordable and often marketed to a younger crowd.

Men’s cologne tends to be of a different dilution than women’s, more like an EDT. Many so-called aftershaves fits into this category, and they are lighter than men’s cologne, usually intended to cool and soothe the skin after shaving. After shave balm is an emulsion-type lotion used to provide scented moisture to freshly shaven skin.

5) Eau Fraiche

This is the most diluted of scent forms with just 1-5% concentration of essential oils. I define Body spray or splash as the same thing, but if you want to put them in a separate category, I’d say it has even less perfume essence, probably around 1%.

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