What is Fragrance?

Fragrance’ is a term used to refer to aromatic chemical mixtures, created for specific applications to appeal to the human sense of smell. Fragrances are created to influence the smell of an environment, or a product. The influence may be in the form of neutralizing or ‘masking’ a certain odour, or to give off a desired scent. Fragrances today have diverse uses personal care, home care, fabric care, health care, aromatherapy and even religious applications. Such a wide range of applications of fragrance emanates from the fascinating, intricate relationship between the human sense of smell, and the human body and mind. An understanding of this relationship will help us to appreciate the efficacy of fragrance, and why it is an indispensable part of our lives.

Each of our five senses allows us to experience and interact with the world in amazing, countless ways. Combined together, our senses enable us to detect our environment and to respond to it appropriately. Each sense is associated with a part of the body: sight with the eyes, smell with the nose, hearing with the ears, taste with the tongue and touch with the skin. Understanding how each body part functions helps us to appreciate the effect of each associated sensation on the human mind, and on other parts of the body. Jointly, our senses create rich, wholesome and potentially boundless experiences with our world. Being the subject of this discourse, exploring the human sense of smell will help us to appreciate how fragrance shapes our experience of the world.

Our Sense of Smell

On a basic level, our sense of smell enables us to detect chemical substances in the air we breathe. Since the primary function of the nose is for breathing, which involves taking in air into the body, the nose can detect substances that may be harmful for the body, thus prompting a primal response such as coughing or sneezing in order to expel such substances and sustain our lives. The detection of substances in the air, which include fragrances, is done through millions of receptors located in the part of the nose called the olfactory epithelium1, which tells the brain the different smells that it detects, enabling us to distinguish between different kinds of smells1.

Now, as with the rest of our senses, when the brain detects a sensation, it triggers a response. The response can be primal, such as closing one’s eyes to too much light, or learned, such as dancing outside in rainy weather. Primal responses do not vary significantly from person to person, whereas learned responses may vary significantly from one person to another. When the sun scorches the earth, one might decide to take cover in the shade, while another might decide to take a sunbath on the beach. In like manner, our sense of smell can trigger both primal and learned responses, and the latter is the subject of interest throughout much of the fragrance industry.

So how does smell affect the body and the mind?

 The human sense of smell is connected to the part of the brain called the ‘limbic system’. This system is responsible for our memories, emotions, and arousal. This system detects and passes on information to the brain, and controls the release of certain hormones. Hormones are carried into the organs and tissues of the body to exert their functions (Dr. Ananya Mandal, MD)2, and they affect, among others, cognitive function and mood, as well as sexual function, reproductive health and growth. What our sense of smell detects, then, can have an effect on our state of being based on the connections described above. It is worthwhile, then, to understand precisely which hormones are released by the limbic system in response to stimuli detected by the olfactory system. Some of the effects of fragrance on human beings based on the link between the olfactory and limbic systems include:


Memory is an important part of our lives. Without memory, we cannot learn, and thus we would not have the kind of learned responses to stimuli discussed earlier. Whenever we smell something for the first time, the brain remembers it the next time we smell the same thing again. The response to the stimulus is also remembered, thus sometimes it is possible to feel the same emotion in response to a scent, depending on the emotion felt the first time the scent was smelled. Because of this, you may feel the same emotion when you smell the same fragrance again9. Fragrances, then, can summon strong emotional reactions and research has also shown that many of our scent preferences are based purely on emotional associations8. Because of this, a scent that may be considered pleasant by one person may be repulsive to another person due to the differences in emotional associations.

On a primal level, scents also are what enable babies to recognize their mothers, especially in the early stages of infancy just after birth, when the sense of sight will be at a very primary stage of development. When the baby smells the natural scent of its mother, it remembers the scent, and thus enabling the baby to recognize its mother again when she holds it.

Because smells can trigger specific memories, they are sometimes used in memory-recovery therapy. An important research finding at Toronto University found that memories that are triggered by smells tend to be clearer, and have more emotional intensity9. This finding help us to appreciate some of the cultural and religious applications of fragrances, such as the use of specific scents in certain rites and ceremonies in order to link the fragrance with the memory of the occasion. This will enable the subjects to have the kind of mental state or mood that is required for such an occasion, through the application of the same fragrance.


Dreams result from the release of different chemicals during sleep6. Since the limbic system controls emotions, dreams are included in that, being successions of images, ideas, emotions and sensations occurring during our sleep6. The release of such chemicals can be linked to hormones released by the limbic system as triggered by the sense of smell. Research has shown that smelling flowers can result in dreams that have more positive emotional content9 A research study conducted by the University of Heidelberg’s ‘Sleep Disorders Centre’ found statistically significant differences in the reported emotional content of the dreams among groups of people who were exposed to contrasting smells9. The study found that the emotional content of the dreams among the group of participants exposed to the pleasant fragrances of flowers was more positive than that of participants exposed to more ‘unpleasant’ scent of hydrogen sulphide9. This could be the reason for some cultural practices such as keeping flowers and other plants in the bedroom, which release scents that trigger the limbic system to release hormones that influence dreams with positive emotional content. Room fresheners with floral fragrances, therefore, can be used at night for this purpose.

Mental States and Moods

Research has also shown a link between fragrance and mental states such as insomnia, stress, and concentration. Clinical trials at Maryland University have shown that the scents of roses, lavender and vanilla and even coffee can help to reduce stress and insomnia9. Concentration can also be improved through camphoraceous and aromatic scents such as mint, eucalyptus, strawberry and lavender, which have the effect of making the brain more alert9. Because of this belief, some Japanese producers spray such scents in their factories in order to improve productivity and reduce wastage through concentration related errors9.

Consumer Perceptions and Behaviour

A study at a Las Vegas casino found that gamblers gambled more money when a pleasant fragrance was sprayed around the slot machines9. At Chicago University, 84% of shoppers rated the same pairs of new shoes as more attractive when a pleasant aroma was present in the room9, as compared to an aromatically neutral room. This shows that fragrance may have an effect on our perceptions of things, other people, and also affect our moods and behavior. The perceptions of other people and things have been found to be influenced to a degree by the fragrances we perceive while looking at them8. A person rated as ‘average’ in terms of attraction, is likely to be perceived to be attractive if a pleasant fragrance is introduced to the beholder8. This, then, helps us appreciate that fragrances are worn in part to make us attractive to other people, which explains the use of fragrances in personal fashion.


The Rich History of Fragrance

Having established some of the basic effects of scents, we can now explore their application in various contexts through the use of fragrance. In summary, it can be said, that fragrances attempt to influence human experiences through the sense of smell. The next section explores the application of fragrances from a historical perspective, and then continues to modern day uses and applications of fragrance.

Fragrances have been used in different forms and for various purposes throughout history. Today, many fragrances are largely synthetic creations, but historically, fragrances were taken from plant or animal products, as well as essential oils. Spices such as frankincense and myrrh were used by ancient civilizations for various purposes.

Fragrance in Egypt and Ancient Societies

Egypt is considered to have been the cradle of perfumes, with the first record of perfume dating back over 5,000 years to the regions of Egypt and Mesopotamia11. Perfume is said to only have reached the West and Europe around the 12th Century A.D.11.

In that regard, Egypt has had a strong influence over the adoption and use of fragrances in much of the rest of the world. In Ancient Egypt, perfume was used in the form of olive oil and concentrated aromatics11. Perfume was used for personal hygiene, with both men and women having perfumes specific to their genders. Ancient Egyptians used perfume in wide ranging applications, from religious ceremonies, burial preparations13 and personal hygiene. Perfumes were also a status symbol, with exclusive perfumes being worn by the elite members of society.

Fragrances in ancient Egypt were made from essential oils of plants and animals, fused with ointments and balms in order to produce a desired scent. The scents were sometimes combined with alcohol, water, or a combination of both. Egyptian burial practices frequently included the use of perfumes, to prevent the decomposition of corpses and also, to embalm with good smells so as to transform the deceased into a god15.

Historically, perfumes have been used more for religious purposes than for any other use. This is because in ancient Egypt, as well as in other civilizations such as the Roman and Greek, religion was a dominant part of the culture of the society at the time. In ancient Greece, adorning a sweet-smelling fragrance was considered to be pleasing to the gods. In human history, the influence of religion on the lives of civilizations was strong, and began to decline as scientific advancement began to challenge some of the assumptions societies had attributed to supernatural powers.

Scientific advancements and discoveries began to change the face of the fragrance industry as it evolved into more artistic forms, and began to adopt multiple applications.

Evolution into Artistic Forms

“To be honest, I didn’t really understand how involved putting a fragrance together could be – or would be. Once I made the choice to actually do it, I just went for it. I just dove in and have really learned a lot about putting a scent together. It’s kind of exciting”

– Faith Hill (American singer)

Original Bottle Fougere Royale Houbigant 1882

Fougere Royale Houbigant Original bottle, released in 1882. By GuiclanOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Fragrances evolved into a form of art when the Greeks and Romans adopted them, and began to mass-produce fragrances with a consistent quality13. This remains to this era, where art has influenced a lot of aspects in fragrance from the formulas, colour and appearance, as well as packaging. The earliest commercial production of perfumes dates back to around 1190 in Paris, France13, and developed into the multi-billion dollar industry that it is today, influencing pretty much every facet of life from personal care, home care, car care, religious practices, aromatherapy, health care, fashion and art.

Developments in organic chemistry from the 1850s going forward ushered in the era of synthetic scents, where traditional aromas were associated with artificial scents to create innovative fragrances15 such as ‘Fougere Royale’ – a Houbigant brand created by perfumer Paul Parquet and launched in 188216 which contained an artificial synthesis of the principal fragrance of the tonka bean, coumarin.

More artificial creations such as vanillin and musk followed as the second half of the 19th century progressed, and product development in the perfume industry took new forms. Luxury perfumers did not quickly adopt synthetic fragrances as they were considered to be debasements of natural fragrances15.

As the 20th century dawned, more success stories in artificial and synthetic fragrances established the French perfume industry international renown and spurred the lucre of innovative fragrances to other designers, notably Gabrielle Chanel with her famous No 5. This unified the industries of fashion and perfumery. Some of the notable early successes in the ‘evolved’ art of perfumery were brands like Houbigant, Bourjois, Coty and Guerlain.

Synthetic perfumes offer scents that do not occur naturally in the world, and as such, they have become intellectual property to a certain extent.

The Use of Fragrance In Religion

A recent Washington Post report claims that 84% of the world’s population identify with a religious group, and have some form of faith18. This is according to a research done by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, with the largest religious groups consisting of Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Jews, among numerous other traditional and folk religions in Africa, China and Australia. Another study suggests that humans are religious by nature, and have a predisposition to believe in a divine being and in the afterlife10. Below are some quotes by notable people in history, science, art and philosophy on religion and mankind.

The above quotes show that religion has both historical and contemporary significance in cultures around the globe. So why then, does fragrance have such a strong link with religion?

Because the spiritual world is unseen, religious practices tend to symbolize the invisible actions through rites and rituals. In some of these symbolic acts, objects and substances are used in one way or another. These rites and rituals have significance because they are a form of connection between human beings and the invisible spiritual world. Worship experiences, then, such as prayers; sacrifices and meditations are often associated with specific fragrances in order to reproduce the kind of cognitive and emotional state that is desirable for such kind of religious rites, and to evoke memories of such occasions as well.

Historically, oils have had strong religious significance. The rite of anointing, for example, which is a ceremonial conferment of divine office or some divine attribute upon a person, involved smearing oil on the body. In most major Middle-Eastern religions, olive oil has been used for this purpose, and often mixed with fragrant spices such as myrrh, cinnamon and calamus. Olive oil in itself has no pleasant smell, but when other essential oils were added to it, the experience would have positive emotional associations due to the significance of the event associated with the ritual.

Why essential oils? Most religious people would agree that when it comes to matters of divinity, purity is considered very important. In that regard, the oils used for religious purposes often need to be in their purest form. Essential oils were used, then, because the extracts are the essence of the plants they are extracted from, and thus contain the fundamental and most desirable properties of their source plant.

However, anointing oils were not just used to confer divine office or status upon a person. Apart from religious rituals, anointing oils were also used for medicinal and healing purposes, albeit being the conferment of divine, rather than natural, healing. Not only oils were used for religious rites, spices were also used. In Middle Eastern ‘Abrahamic’ religions, some of the fragrant substances used were native to Palestine. Olive oils grow naturally in much of the Middle East, and thus was a popular substance used as anointing oil.

Fragrances are mentioned in several religious texts, and these help us to appreciate specific religious significances of certain fragrances. In ancient Sanskrit texts, which are the fundamental philosophical texts of Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism, a list of 16 items is prescribed for the adornment of every woman. These include perfume and sandalwood paste20. Incense is also used, even today, during worship, and also to add a pleasant scent inside homes.

“If of coriander, smallage, henbane, and hemlock, be made a fume, spirits do presently come together.””

– Cornelius Agrippa (16th century polymath in the Holy Roman Empire) 

In Roman and Greek religions, incense was also used in worship. In Islam, ‘loban’, which is a tree resin, is used while praying in mosques. Worldwide, Muslims used to carry the prayer mat, cap and loban23. The loban was a fragrant burning stick which created the prayer atmosphere wherever one was. The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) advised fumigation of houses with Loban, which also repels insects and mosquitoes23.

In the Bible, fragrant and aromatic substances are mentioned in several places. Sweet incense was used on the Jewish ‘altar of incense’, and was made of substances such as stacte, onycha, galbanum and pure frankincense19. This was for sacred use only and not for personal use, and strict punishment was meted out on anyone who used it for personal use (Exodus 30:37-38). In this regard, the burning of incense was a form of prayers going up to heaven. Fragrances in the Bible, particularly in the Torah, had a specific significance attached to them. A sampling of these is listed below

Fragrance / SubstanceSymbolismReference
CassiaHumility, holinessExodus 30:24
Frankincense & MyrrhIntercession, healing, deliveranceIsaiah 53:5
Lily of the ValleyPurity of heartSong 2:1
SpikenardExtravagant worship, intimacySong 1:12

Table a: Fragrances in the Bible and their Significance24

So, these are some of the many facets, aspects and dimensions of fragrance and how the sense of smell, combined with its link to, and effect on the brain and the body, has important applications in the most transcendental and abstract concepts such as human experiences with the Divine. The symbolism of these has meant that, in worship, the fragrances gave a more powerful expression and greater significance to the activity being performed.

The use of Fragrances Today

Today, fragrances have evolved into an entire multi-billion industry with diversified players, and even more evolved uses. Fragrances are largely marketed today as fashion essentials, with highly niche uses and applications. The following sections discuss how fragrances are used today, and their significance. Fragrance has become a lot about the individual and has become a highly personal essence as the succeeding sections will show.

Social Applications of Fragrance

On an individual level, fragrance makes us smell good. Today, fragrance is applied to make people, places and objects smell good. Hence we have air fresheners to infuse a room with a fragrance, and we also have fragrances for cars and other closed spaces. Fragrances are also now important ingredients in hygiene and personal care. In oral care, mint is used to give a sweet, balmy breath. Fragrances for hair exist, used in shampoo. Fragrances are also used in body moisturizing creams, hand wash, skin oils, nail polish, and even lipstick. Scented jewellery has has also grown in popularity, and scented candles have replaced the burning of incense in some cultures.

Hands spraying perfume atomizer


“Seductiveness is embedded in the history of perfume, that’s why it has lasted across the globe and across millennia.”

– Mandy Aftel (Perfumer)26

Fragrance has a long history with sex and seduction26. The link between fragrance and seduction has two dimensions to it. The first comes from the scientific link between the olfactory sensations and the limbic system described in the beginning, and the second stems from the rise in the use of sexual content in advertising media since the 1980s. Both of these dimensions have played a role in developing the perception of fragrance as something that aids in increasing one’s sexual attractiveness. Both of these dimensions are explained below:

Scientific perspective of fragrance and seduction

The seductive power of fragrance can be linked to pheromones30. These are chemical secretions or excretions, which trigger a social response in other members of the same species. In the animal kingdom, honeybees release pheromones to entice a swarm into an empty beehive. Sexual pheromones also exist in the animal kingdom. Pheromones are like hormones, but they act outside, rather than inside the body, thus affecting the behavior of others. These are hormones, which stimulate sexual appetite. Interestingly, pheromones are triggered by scent. The use of fragrances that trigger the release of pheromones thus attempt to influence sexual desire. As research into pheromones continues to grow, the known and recognized pheromones also continue to grow. While there is a considerable amount of debate over human pheromones, research into pheromones continues to discover more and more. Pheromones are primarily received through olfactory sensors, and studies suggest that they are excreted by several areas of the body including the skin, sweat glands, saliva and urine29. Much of the debate is around the substance called androsterone – a pheromone that seems to give men ‘sex appeal’29. It is said that men release this pheromone through their skin and hair. It is also present in sweat under the armpits of both sexes, which makes the practice of hugging something that can trigger sexual attraction as it brings those armpits closer to the pheromone and gives a desirable effect.

In that regard, it is not surprising to find that pheromones are used today as carriers of some fragrances. A lot of popular perfumes are marketed based on their ability to appeal to the opposite sex, and thus it makes sense to have pheromone-perfume combinations. In fact, some fragrances are explicitly advertised as pheromone fragrances such as Raw Chemistry’s ‘Pheromone Cologne’ – which comes in two variants, for men and for women. The fragrance for men is meant to attract women, and the fragrance for women is to attract men. According to the manufacturer28, the product contains ‘over 50mg of pharmaceutical human grade pheromones’.

The influence of advertising

Professor Tom Reichert of the Department of Advertising and Public Relations in the UGA Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication said that advertisers use sex to attract consumers to buy their products. This is because sex attracts attention, and people are hard-wired to notice sexually relevant information26. In that regard, advertisements with sexual content tend to get noticed more than others. Sexual content has pervaded advertising across different classes of products, from fashion wear and accessories, motor vehicles, men’s tools, alcohol, financial services, and even food! Consumers form impressions about brands, in part due to the images used in their advertising.

The use of advertising to influence perceptions of fragrance as ‘seductive’ is captured in many of the brand names used for modern perfume brands. Historically, perfumes had brand names that were as neutral as possible, an example being No5 by Chanel, which is over a century old. However, after the legendary perfumer passed on, and as the advertising began to take more ‘sexual’ overtones, the Chanel fragrance brands began to take on suggestive names such as ‘Allure’ (launched in 1996), and ‘Chance’ (launched 2002)27. With the passage of time, fragrance brand names in the perfume industry became more and more overt, with names like ‘Guilty’ by Gucci, ‘Pleasures Intense’ by Estee Lauder, ‘Dark Temptation’ by Axe, and to top this list, ‘Pure Aphrodisiaque’ by Agent Provocateur, which also features a highly suggestively shaped bottle31.

The use of such branding and advertising aims to influence or play on the idea of placing personal attractiveness as important in fashion. In that regard, fragrances are largely marketed as tools to make one more personally attractive to the opposite sex, thus fuelling the use of fragrance in seduction.


“To be overcome by the fragrance of flowers is a delectable form of defeat”

– Beverley Nichols

Fragrances are also used today as a means of drawing oneself away temporarily from the distractions of reality and routine, often to enjoy a sense of undisturbed, calm relaxation. In such ‘escapades’, fragrances are used in some form or another. An example is taking a warm shower in a mildly scented shower gel, or a bath in scented, aromatic bath foams.

Quite often, when people smell fragrances, the eyes are closed in order to shut out other senses and enjoy the beautiful moment of smelling a pleasant fragrance. Typically, when our brain detects a desirable sensation through the senses, such as a beautiful sight, a warm feeling on a cold day, or a pleasant smell, we tend to desire to prolong our exposure to that sensation. This, in a way, helps us to rejuvenate and energize our senses, and could explain the demand for long lasting fragrances.


Self Expression

“A good fragrance should have a certain personality that makes people identify the scent with you”

– Shakira (Columbian Singer)

The notion of a ‘signature fragrance’ denotes a fragrance that shows one’s individuality. While one of our basic needs is the need to belong and identify with a particular group of people, we also have a need to show off our uniqueness. In the fashion world, this is particularly so, whereby even within the guidelines of forms of fashion peculiar to a particular culture, individuals still love to be identified through distinct variations. In that regard, fragrances are also used by people to express their uniqueness. Just as many tailor-make shoes, clothes and jewellery, wearing them with pride, fragrance also can be a means of expressing oneself, and one can have different fragrances to wear each day in order to match a mood, occasion or personal feeling.

Popular Culture

Today, celebrities and popular personalities have delved into the world of fragrances as a means of increasing their influence among their fan bases. Popular personalities have wielded such influence over their followers so much that fashion labels have been branded after them, largely in partnership with fashion production companies wishing to cash-in on the popularity of a personality. A 2013 report by the British ‘Daily Mail’ newspaper estimated footballer David Beckham’s shirt and boot sales at one billion British Pound Sterling. With celebrity brands being big business, it is not surprising that celebrities have signed contracts with fragrance companies to associate their names with signature scents.

Faith Hill, an American Singer, actresss and record producer, released a fragrance in 2009 titled ‘Faith Hill Parfums’ – and released a second one a year later. Other notable celebrities with branded fragrances include Sarah Jessica Parker, Maroon 5’s Adam Levine, Britney Spears, Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, Christina Aguilera, Beyonce, Paris Hilton and the late Michael Jackson. Some celebrity fragrances even come with other bundled cosmetics such as shower gel and other branded fashion accessories.

The celebrity fragrance trend is not akin to the USA only. The trend also extends to Australia, with entertainer Kylie Minogue having her own fragrance. Colombian singer and dancer, Shakira, also has an interestingly named fragrance, ‘Dance’ as one of her scents. In Asian countries, this influence is slowly spreading. Sports personality Wasim Akram of Pakistan launched his own fragrance called Wasim Akram 414 in 2016. Portuguese footballer Cristiano Ronaldo also launched a fragrance, and Indonesian actress Nadine Chandrawinata also is the name behind ‘Sea Gipsy’ launched in 2014.

Such celebrities use their influence to sell the brand, and fragrance lovers buy the fragrances more for their memories of the personality, than for the fragrance notes themselves. Celebrities have been used by companies to influence fashion trends, and now celebrities themselves are influencing fashion trends through fragrance. It has become a multi billion-dollar industry and nowadays, people buy fragrances because of their association with a particular brand.

Thus fragrance use has evolved over time, and many of the early applications of fragrance are still applicable today, although the evolution has been more on the manufacturing technology, cultural applications and market dynamics. Fragrances are still used in religion, personal hygiene and home & fabric care, although wider applications continue to develop. It is expected that the fragrance industry will continue to develop with newer innovations, and that fragrance will become more and more indispensable part of human life.



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