The Art of Aroma - Herbal Health

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Wednesday, 19 October 2011

The Art of Aroma

Our sense of smell is one of the most undervalued sense organs compared to our other senses and is by no means comparable to those of wild animals who are proficient masters at detection and hunting. In fact, their very survival depends on their sense of smell unlike humans - small wonder that we even know we have this capacity. However, over the centuries, we have moved away from using our sense of smell as a survival strategy and started using fragrances to enhance our sense of well-being, mood and a range of basic emotions but how this is achieved on a physiological level is still a mystery. Scientists are still eluded by the actual mechanisms, biochemical pathways as well as the nerve and synaptic connections in the brain that trigger these responses, particualrly emotions. There is still a lack of total understanding of the links that exist between the nose (olfactory system) and the brain (limbic system which controls our emotional centres). Of course, the area of the brain responsible for smell is closely aligned to memory and could part explain why an aroma, fragrance or smell can almost instantaneously trigger an early childhood memory.

The History: Fragrances date back to ancient Egyptian civilisation when the earliest perfumes were made. Perfumers and perfumed materials were used for purification, personal adornment, daily hygiene and seduction! It was indeed the Egyptians who developed an extraction process for precious resins, frankincense and myrrh (both of which are still used today in modern Western Herbal Medicine). Perfume reached its zenith in Egypt during the time of Cleopatra and evidence of this rich history is still in existence today in the numerous outlets and shops that sell an extensive range of perfume oils. Many of these stores supply the larger international perfume houses across the world especially France which now dominates the European perfume industry.

However, an association between pleasant smells and good health was widespread so there was considerable overlap between perfumery and healing. This knowledge and skill was further enhanced through ancient Greek and Roman civilisations with much of it being principally used for religious ceremonies. From the 9th Century, there was extensive trade between Byzantium and Venice bringing perfumes into Europe. There was much trade also with Arabia bringing perfumes from Bagdad to muslim Spain. The great Persian physician and philosopher Avicenna (Abu Ali Sina) or Ibn Sina (980 -1037) discovered the process of distillation, heavily influencing the art of perfumery in Arabia. Ingredients were used from China, India and Africa producing perfumes on a large scale (they had been using distillation since before the 9th Century). The Arabs brought a highly developed perfume culture to Europe which flourished with the influx of aromatic spices, fragrant ointments, musks, essences and perfume oils.

Traditionally, the musks were derived from animal sources especailly from deer but since determining the chemical formula of the aromatic ingredient in it, synthetic versions were possible which not only prevented animals being used (and abused) for this purpose but it was possible to mass produce it for large scale distribution as a perfume ingredient.

The introduction of alcohol (also produced by the distillation process) in the 13th Century expanded the perfume trade into mainland Europe, particularly France, Germany & Hungary which perpetuated the alignment of fragrances with royalty and nobility. Names such as Guerlain, Fougere, Eau de Cologne and Hungary Water have very long histories in the perfume business, some of which continue to this day in some form or another.Newer perfume houses such as Coco Chanel, Coty, Dior, Estee Lauder, Nina Ricci, Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent, Paco Rabanne, Revlon and many others continue to be big names in the fashion and perfume industries.

Creating Perfumes: The art of aroma and creating perfumes is not easy. It takes an expert (known as the ‘nose’) , a true artist with many years of in-depth training and experience in the industry to compose a fragrance. Their abilty to distinguish between each of the thousands of ingredients (alone or in combination) is truly remarkable! There are 8 themes (accords or families) upon which a perfume is based and this is just one such classification system:

Floral eg. rose, lemon (citrus), jasmine, lavender, neroli

Chypre eg. patchouli, vetiver, bergamot

Oriental (masculine) eg. ginger, patchouli, bay oil, sandalwood

Oriental (feminine) eg. vanilla, amber

Woody eg. pine, cedarwood, sandalwood, oakmoss

Aromatic eg. frankincense, myrrh, musk, cinnamon

Hesperide (masculine) eg. lemon, orange, citronella

Hesperide (feminine) eg. citrus blend, neroli, lime, bergamot

All (cosmetic) perfumes have top, middle and base notes:

Top-provides the first scent impression of a fragrance once it has been applied to the skin. They are usually lighter, more volatile aromas that readily evaporate. The scents don’t last for long (usually 5-30minutes)

Middle-sometimes referred to as 'heart notes’, they make up the body of the fragrance. They make take up to 10-30minutes to fully develop on the skin. They are usually the notes that classify the family (eg. floral, chypre, oriental etc…)

Base-these are the heavier fragrances (of larger molecular weight) and last the longest on the skin. They are slow to evaporate and are fixatives and so give the fragrance a long-lasting effect/holding power that can linger for hours. Common ones are musks, woods, vanilla and patchouli amongst others….
The price of a perfume depends on the quantity of perfume oil that it contains compared to the solvent used to dilute it (solvent being light-grade alcohol and/or water). Perfume oils are the most concentrated and therefore the most expensive. They can only really be bought from specialist stores/outlets but getting a good grade of oil very much depends on the brand, the reputation of the company as well as the source (origin), type of extraction process and storage conditions for importing/exporting. In Europe however, the Eau de Toilette and Eau de Parfum are the most popular and widely available product:

Perfume Oil (15-30% perfume oil - in oil rather than alcohol or water)

Parfum/Perfume (15-25% perfume oil - sometimes referred to as extract or extrait)

Soie de Parfum (15-18% perfume oil)

Eau de Parfum (8-15% perfume oil)

Eau de Toilette (4-10% perfume oil)

Eau de Cologne (2-5% perfume oil)

Eau Fraiche (usually 3% or less perfume oil)

Health Benefits of Perfumes: Whilst scientific evidence on the mechanisms that bring about postive changes in the body upon olfactory triggers and stimulation is insufficient, it is without doubt that perfumes and fragrances greatly influence mood, memory, emotions, anxiety, stress, arousal, sustained attention to problem solving, sexual attraction, the immune defences, hormonal (endocrine) system and the ability to communicate by smell without knowing it:

mood benefits-nerve links to our sense of smell mean that fragrances have a significantly measurable effect on mood states.
These include a beneficial effect on:





Fragrances also enhance:





As a consequence of notable research evidence in this area, many toiletries & proprietary products regularly perfume their products to influence consumer choice.

hygiene-although difficult to prove scientifically, it is more likely that a perfumed cleaning product, hygiene product or simply a fragrant environment will result in a more frequent hygiene routine (which is always good!).

pain relief-the pain pathways (detection & sensory) is a complex and highly subjective process. Interfering with the sensation of pain can be achieved through use of pleasant smelling odours and fragrances which trigger other nerve pathways associated with natural painkillers/ analgesics (known as opioids). Another hypothesis suggests that because smells/fragrances influence moods and memory, it is possible for the power of association to be utilised to deflect the sensation of pain towards these other pathways.

stress relief-a significant biological relationship between positive mood states and health is now emerging. Aromatherapy has long been known to exert a positive influence on stress effects but more recently, other benefits have been discussed eg. benefits on the cardiovascular system, immunity, positive mood states, reducing blood pressure, reducing muscle tension, reducing headaches, increasing skin barrier function and reduce startle reflex. The fact that all these are linked to the stress response may have something to do with such beneficial influences of fragrances.

work performance-we all know that we are more productive in a pleasant-smelling environment. Recent studies have shown that periodic administration of pleasant fragrances during a sustained attention task improves performance. Fragrances such as muguet, peppermint, jasmine and lavender are among the many that have been studied. It is suggested that improvement in performance is due to the facilitation of nerve pathways that are stimulated in visual detection tasks or enhancement of the allocation of attention resources to visual detection.

sexuality-manufacturers of fragrances continue to pursue the enhancement of sexuality through their products both overtly and subtly. The study of pheromones and their role in human attraction and animal behaviour is significant, being more established in animals than in humans. Immitating and reproducing pheromone-like fragrances to promote this notion of sexual atttraction is the ultimating manufacturing challenge and marketing drive for perfume-makers. There is ample evidence of human neuroendocrine responses to pheromone-like substances even though the mechanisms for processing such substances remains controversial. Further work is needed to demonstrate the link between feelings and behaviours such as mood, reduction in negative moods, effecting psychological state, increasing courtship display patterns in social settings and imparting feelings of confidence and attractiveness.

Without our intricate knowledge of plants and their constituents gained through a rich history of culture, art, tradition and trade, we will not be enjoying the many benefits that perfume products offer, not least of which is the promotion and enhancement of mood, well-being and balance. We owe a great deal of this to the numerous perfumers who were genuine masters of creation and incredibly talented artists of their generation.

For more information:

International Fragrance Association:

Fragrance Foundation UK:

Aromatherapy Council:

For Aromatic Waters:

For Essential Oils by Robert Tisserand:

Recommended Book: The Perfume Handbook by Nigel Groom (1992) Published by Chapman & Hall. ISBN 0 412 46320 2 Includes an A-Z of perfume ingredients plus receipes! Cost up to £50

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