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Editor's Note: This article originally was published in the June 2006 issue of Global Cosmetic Industry (GCI) magazine and is being reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.
The power of aroma is stunning. On its most basic level, the sense of smell is an unparalleled way to protect us from the nastier things in life—an elemental “Don’t put that filthy thing in your mouth!” reaction. But the sense also provides a real, physical connection to the brain, and a scent can evoke compelling memories and powerful emotions. Because smells are actual, physical molecules, they produce physical responses—most notably to memories.
According to Horst Rechelbacher in his book Rejuvenation: A Wellness Guide for Women and Men (Harper & Row, 1987), the sense of smell works in three steps—reception, transmission and perception. Reception is fairly self-explanatory; transmission is where the brain interprets the aroma and provides feedback; and perception is the reaction to the aroma. This is the stage in which the brain releases chemical messages that activate hormones and regulate body functions.
The essence of plants and flowers, a molecular gas in which their fragrance lies, stimulates a reaction through sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, which then causes a corresponding psychological reaction. According to Rechelbacher, different aromas produce different psychological and physiological reactions. Essences in their purest form function as natural remedies because they re-establish mental and physical balance.
Rechelbacher states that aromatherapy, the therapeutic use of essential oils, is appropriate for the treatment of physical imbalances. Aromatherapy products are created by distilling plants that are harvested in full bloom to their pure essence, and a true essential oil must be isolated by physical means—distillation. It is only through this process that plant material releases the enzyme-bound essential oil. The idea behind aromatherapy is that the purity and potency of this distilled essence are active as the molecules disperse to create a revitalizing effect.
Aromatherapy is based on the principles of ayurveda, which, although thousands of years old, has garnered growing interest at spas throughout the past decade. Ayurveda is described as harnessing the energies of nature to establish a harmonious relationship between the individual and the environment, and it is this relationship that promotes overall well-being.
Scientists, cosmetic companies and suppliers are hard at work putting aroma to the test—and the results are positive. In addition to supporting the ancient claims of aromatherapy, new benefits for both marketers and consumers have been substantiated.
Research conducted by the University of Manchester, in England, showed that essential oils exhibit a powerful antibacterial action, demonstrating that the oils used in aromatherapy killed methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) bacteria. Staph bacteria are one of the most common causes of skin infections in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The complex mixture of chemical compounds found in essential oils was shown to kill bacteria strains and fungi after two minutes of contact.
Shiseido conducted scent research that is sure to make marketers happy. Based on research in cognitive psychology and social psychology that studies how people show preferences toward repeated visual or auditory stimuli, the company demonstrated that certain types of scents have a characteristic effect of heightening a preference by repeated exposures—regardless if that scent is remembered or not.
This is not Shiseido’s first endeavor to scientifically determine the effects of scent. Previously, the company discovered and studied the sedative and stimulative effects of scents, as well as their activating effects on the sympathetic nervous system. It applied these findings to developing skin care, cosmetics and fragrances.
The company expects its current findings to enable it to develop fragrances that heighten one’s fragrance preference by repeated use on a daily basis and apply these discoveries in developing new products planned for launch this year.
As the understanding of natural fragrances and their effects grows, science is proving that it can maximize delivery. Dow Corning has shown that enhanced fragrance-delivery and odor-control benefits can be obtained with silicones. Through its Experience the Difference program, the company states that formulators can create unique aromatic formulations through the use of these substances.
Silicone as an effective fragrance-delivery system is demonstrated in a clear perfume gel dispersion of a high-molecular-weight silicone surfactant, a powder perfume and a shower gel that contains fragrance beads that melt on the skin to deliver long-lasting fragrance.
It is interesting to note that the idea of what smells good doesn’t really seem to change as technology advances how a fragrance gets to the nose. Lavender exhibits calming, sedating and uplifting properties, and, therefore, has been used historically to treat depression and insomnia. It actually stimulates the production of serotonin, which is depleted during times of stress. According to Fleur Aromatherapy, year by year, lavender proves to be the most popular essential oil. People find that it smells good because it feels good. That’s a trend that never changes.
With contributions from Nancy Jeffries, contributing editor for GCI magazine.