THE SCIENCE OF SMELL – The art of buying the right scent


It must have happened to you before. A familiar scent winds its way up you nostrils and instantly transports you back in time. Suddenly, you’re 4 years old, standing in front of a bonfire on the 4th November, enveloped by the intoxicating, musky smoke. Next, the sweet, sticky smell of bubble gum takes you back to the time your friend Alex managed to smuggle some Hubba Bubba into class during middle school, and you sat at the back mischievously chewing away. And then… there’s that scent. The unforgettable, unforgiving and undeniable redolence of your first love. As French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre states: “When we smell another’s body, it is that body that we are breathing in through our mouth and nose, that we possess instantly, as it were in its most secret substance, its own nature. Once inhaled, the smell is the fusion of the other’s body and my own.

A standard day will see us breathe approximately 23,040 times, processing around 438 cubic feet of air. With every breath, our nasal cavities fill and subsequently flood our olfactory centre, triggering an emotional response. So how does it work? The very clever protuberance in the middle of your face, your nose, is responsible for effectively ‘translating’ the various daily scents we encounter into emotions and feelings. The science-y term for this is ‘transduction’. Transduction takes a pinch of sound, light or smell, converts them, and adds a dash of chemical neurotransmitters to elicit an emotional reaction. The olfactory sector of the brain is where the magic happens; it is directly connected to the amygdala (emotions), the hippocampus (memory) as well as other multisensory regions. This is why a certain scent might make you feel a sudden rush of nostalgia, sadness, or perhaps even fear.

With all this knowledge tucked under their belts and up their crisp white sleeves, scientists have been able to get fragrances down to a… well, science. You can’t take an innocent stroll down one of the aisles in Morrisons without being bombarded by laundry detergent brands professing “the best night’s sleep you’ve ever had!” thanks to a new blend of essential lavender oils, or a body wash that will “invigorate and energise you, even on a Monday morning!” due to a splash of peppermint extract (good luck with that one, Radox). Or how about that perfume, perfect for the lady in your life and “guaranteed to turn heads” with its heady mix of fruity plum, dark vanilla and musk?

Do you ever associate a person with a particular fragrance? What we smell like can play some part in shaping our identity, if only for the people around us. But what makes us choose one particular scent over another? The various olfactory groups can be divided into 4 main groups for the purpose of perfumery: Floral, Oriental, Woody and Fresh. Each of these sections has subsections which then slightly overlap. To choose a scent that’s right for you, follow these handy tips.

Always buy your fragrance in the morning

A day’s worth of different scents are bound to get all up in your nose and overwhelm those sensitive sensors. Best to shop for the perfect scent before the smell of coffee and croissants, or your colleagues’ perfumes and colognes assault your nostrils. One company who knows all the ins and outs of the fragrance business is local perfumery Star of India. They lent us some professional advice just in time to help you choose that specific scent for a loved one’s Christmas gift: “When trying many different perfumes, they may all start to smell the same. Most perfume counters have little net bags of coffee beans hidden away. Ask for one if you want. It’s to clear the nostrils during episodes of nose fatigue. The idea is that you take a whiff of coffee and you can go on to the next scent.”

Trust your senses. Literally

If something is telling you that scent is too sickly, or the other is too heavy, you’re unlikely to change your mind once you get home and unbox it. Spray onto one of the shop-provided paper tester sticks from a short distance, ‘shake it like a polaroid picture’ and let it settle for a few minutes before making a firm decision. (Fun fact: these little paper strips are known in French as ‘mouillettes’, which is also their name for the soldiers that you dunk in your runny egg.) Star of India advises us: “When using blotting papers, wait until the fragrance is completely dry before smelling it. Allowing the perfume to dry will give it time for all of the notes to develop.

Use the season as reason

Summer usually calls for a lighter, fresher, fruitier scent, whereas woody, warm scents are perfect for winter. But again, this is all down to your personal sense of smell.

Apply with precision

Science dictates that fragrance should be applied to specific places on your body which are, in increasingly weird order: neck, wrists, ankles, behind the ears and… behind the knees.

Gibraltar favourite perfume has to be Dior and this is for men and women.

Producing the perfect perfume is all in the blending. Think of the end product as one of Beethoven’s symphonies; just as a piece of music is composed of many notes, so is a fragrance. The ‘top notes’ (notes de tete) of a fragrance initially draw you in, or turn you off. Most commonly these include tangy or citrus smells, herbs or light fruits and berries. The ‘middle notes’ (notes de coeur), also known as the heart notes, are the well-rounded scents that linger for longer than the top notes. This can be a combination of aromatic flowers such as rose and jasmine, sometimes infused with spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg or cardamom. Finally, the ‘base notes’ (notes de fond). These are the notes you’re left with once the others have evaporated. The lasting impression. You may recognise some of these tones as cedarwood, sandalwood, vanilla, patchouli or musk.

It’s the job of a master perfumer, also known as a “nose” (no points for creativity there) to carefully select essential oils from the tete, coeur and fond and gently blend them together before mixing with alcohol. In descending order, the fragrance with the highest concentration of essences is: Perfume, Eau de Parfum, Eau de Toilette and Eau de Cologne. Unsurprisingly, this is usually reflected in the size of the bottle, price tag, and the scent’s staying power.

Colognes and Toilettes usually have a concentration of around 5 to 10% essential oils, and are perfect for summer due to their dominant top notes. Because they are of a lower concentration, they can be frequently reapplied. Eau de Parfums are more noticeable for their middle notes. These fragrances are perfect for spraying on top of clothes or hair for a fairly long-lasting scent, thanks to a mix of over 15% oils. (However, be careful with delicate fabrics as they might stain.) Perfumes contain the highest concentration of oils at up to 25%, and therefore only a small amount is needed. They are a beautiful chorus of all 3 notes that are released slowly over time.

Favourite scents vary across countries and cultures. Supposedly, the French favour dark, spicy, statement scents whereas in the Middle East, where fragrant teas are abundant and the air is thick with incense, woody notes are popular. But what about Gibraltar? A small survey of the Rock’s favourite scent (not the wrestler) showed a strong lean towards the Oriental category, which includes smells like musk, amber, cinnamon and Oud. What the Oud is that? I hear you ask. Oud is a sensual, sweet, woody, aromatic oil that is often used as a base note. This makes sense given our proximity to Morocco and our history of Italian settlers, as they too favour this note. If you’d like to get your hands on one of these fragrances, try Jo Malone’sOud & Bergamot’ Cologne or ‘Oud Wood’ Eau de Parfum by Tom Ford.

Delta Airlines is infusing its cabins with a lavender-and-chamomile scent called Calm. ‘The Week’ asked its readers to come up with a better name to match “the ambience of the packed economy cabin.” And with this, I leave you the amusing results.

“Eau the Humanity” – S. Meyer
“Giorgio’s Arm-on-me” – W. Etheredge
“Chanel No. 5 Inches of Legroom” – A. King
“Claustrophobique” – C. Pocali
“Mist Connection” – C. Berkowitz