How does fragrance work?

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When we smell a certain fragrance, it can instantly evoke memories – from childhood, holidays or a loved one. That’s because certain scents trigger certain reactions within the body, making us feel relaxed, energetic or sleepy. Some studies show that our sense of smell influences around 75% of our daily emotions, mood and desires.

Humans have been drawn to appealing scents for centuries. In ancient Egypt, essential oils such as frankincense and myrrh were used for ceremonial and beautification purposes. In ancient Greece, wearing a sweet-smelling fragrance was considered pleasing to the gods. But because perfume was expensive, only royalty, clergy and the wealthy used it.

Perfume spread in popularity throughout the Mediaeval and Victorian periods. A breakthrough occurred in Mediaeval Italy, when liquid perfume was created. After a brief dip in popularity in repressed Victorian England, synthetic scent compounds were discovered in the late 1800s and the modern perfume industry was born.

Fragrances are generally created by layering scents according to how volatile they are – i.e. how easily they evaporate:

  • Top notes, the ones you smell first in a scent, evaporate very quickly. Citrus and ginger are common top notes.
     
  • Middle or heart notes form the main body of the perfume. For middle notes, scents such as rose, cinnamon, lavender and calamus are favourites.
     
  • Base notes are fixatives – they hold and blend the other ingredients and stay on the skin the longest. The most popular base note ingredients include frankincense, myrrh and labdanum.