Understanding Fragrance in Personal Care

  • The link between humans and scent is strong, direct and emotional.
  • Fragrances are a major driver in consumer purchase decision-making in an array of product categories.
  • To increase the consumer’s willingness to purchase, the product must provide additional emotional cues beyond basic functionality.
  • Formulation should allow the scent to be among the first sensory cues the consumer experiences with the product.

Perfume use is as old as human history. In fact, the word perfume derives from the Latin per fumem, meaning “through smoke,” since it was customary in antiquity to burn natural salves, herbs and oils to produce incense for religious rituals. The use of perfume has been recorded in ancient Egyptian, Persian, Greek, Carthaginian, Arab and Roman civilizations. Excavations directed by Maria Rosaria Belgiorno from the Italian Archaeological Mission of the National Research Council found an ancient perfume manufacturing site in Pyrgos, Cyprus, dating back to 2000 B.C., among the oldest known perfume factories in human history. The perfume produced included many scents found in today’s fragrances, including rosemary, lavender, bergamot and coriander.1

In addition, research has suggested that humans are able to retain scent recognition as far back as childhood.2 The link between humans and scent is strong, direct and emotional, and the ability of fragrance to alter or modify moods has been widely studied. In fact, some businesses have practiced piping fragrance through their ventilation systems in attempt to achieve an positive effect on employees.

Scientists, too, have long established a neuronal–olfactory relationship between certain scents and colors. The perceived intensity and pleasantness of a scent is often enhanced when accompanied by an “appropriate” color associated with the particular scent.3

However, individuals perceive odors differently due to difficulties describing and communicating scents accurately. Therefore, odor classification and interpretation have been widely studied and debated. Many people use terms such as green, floral, fruity, woody, animal, spicy, sweet, musk and herbal—which are further associated with certain human moods. Citrus and lavender fragrances often illicit a sense of relaxation, while jasmine and peppermint are often associated as being uplifting, energizing and stimulating.4–6

Scent is also one of the key factors in shaping individuals’ conscious and/or unconscious perceptions of the environment. Savvy marketers have long known to create a pleasant service or retailing environment via strategically manipulating ambient conditions such as music, fragrance and color schemes to stimulate a more positive customer response and behavior.7, 8 For instance, a 1995 study indicated that a congruent, ambient scent in a retail environment could lead to more favorable purchase decision-making, an increased amount of time spent shopping, and an extension of variety-seeking behavior.9

A paper published in 2003 suggests that scents can be used to enhance brand memory.10 Hotel chains have been utilizing signature fragrance in their public spaces with a twofold purpose: to provide a pleasant and relaxing environment to help travel weary customers unwind and to create a unique olfactory dimension to solidify its brand recognition. (Additional information is available in “Scent: New Frontiers in Branding,” available on www.GCImagazine.com and in the May 2007 issue of GCI magazine.)

Fragrance in Personal Care

Fragrances are a major driver in consumer purchase decision making in an array of product categories.11 Fragrances often are used in personal care to affect the consumer’s perception of product performance. Most often, they add emotional benefits by implying social or economic prestige associated with use of such a product. (See “1 + 1 = 3” in the September 2009 issue of GCI magazine and available on www.GCImagazine.com.) In 2007, Nicolas Mirzayantz, group president, fragrances, International Flavors & Fragrances, listed the five major emotions associated with fragrance as: feel good, sensualism, addiction, transformation and energy. To increase the consumer’s willingness to purchase, the product must provide additional emotional cues beyond basic functionality. Consumers’ decisions to make product purchases often are based on emotional reasons that transcend their value systems.12

Formulating with Fragrance

When the scent of a product is a key driver in the consumer’s purchasing decision, the formulation and the product design should allow the scent to be among the first sensory cues the consumer experiences with the product. As noted, fragrances produce emotional responses in humans, and product developers must be cognizant of the target audience. A fragrance may lose its original aromatic characteristics when it is incorporated into non-alcoholic formulations such as emulsions. Creating a successful final scent for the finished product involves many complex aromatic chemical interactions. Experienced product formulators know to take factors into account that may affect a change in the original odor character, formulation stability and physicochemical properties of the finished formulation.

A fragrance directly from a perfume bottle or from a hydroalcoholic vehicle will not produce the same smell sensation when it is incorporated into an emulsion. Further, the olfactory result will not be the same after the fragrance in an emulsion is applied onto the skin. It will be affected by the individual’s skin biology—including natural odor, skin microorganisms and skin lipids.

Chemical compatibility and potential interactions/reactions must be considered when introducing fragrances into antimicrobial formulations that contain certain compounds, oxidizing agents and strong acids or bases.13


A multidimensional approach must be taken to successfully design scented products—using compatible components and components that also provide a positive consumer experience. To reach the targeted market, sensory cues—including scent classification, olfactory-visual effect and scent presentation in time (i.e., the distribution and dissipation from the top notes to the base notes)—and user mood must be considered when developing and formulating a product. By sustaining the most preferred note of a fragrance, the consumer’s shopping experience can be enhanced, which can lead to a future purchase and reinforce brand recognition.

This feature is courtesy of Cosmetics & Toiletries (C&T) magazine. The full technical article, including fragrance chemistry and regulatory information, is available in C&T’s November 2009 issue.

Wen Schroeder is the president of Wisconsin-based SEKI Cosmeticals LLC.


  1. P Caffarelli, The perfumes of Aphrodite and the secret of oil, Archaeological discoveries on Cyprus Exhibition, Musei Capitolini, Rome, Mar 14–Sept 2, 2007
  2. WP Goldman and JG Seamon, Very long-term memory of odors: retention of odor-name associations, Amer J of Psych 105 4 549–63
  3. RA Osterbauer, PM Matthews, M Jenkinson, CF Beckmann, PC Hansen and GA Calvert, Color of Scents: Chromatic stimuli modulate odor responses in the human brain, J Neurophysiol 93 3434–3441 (2005)
  4. IFF, Fragrance evaluation techniques for individuals looking to evaluate fragrances, prepared for Colgate Palmolive, Australia (2002)
  5. JS Jellinek, Perfume classification: A new approach, Chapter 15 in The Psychology and Biology of Perfume, Elsevier Science Publishers, Barking, Essex, UK (1991)
  6. H Ehrlichman and L Bastone, The use of odour in the study of emotion, Chapter 10 in Fragrance: The Psychology and Biology of Perfume, Elsevier Science Publishers, Barking, Essex, UK (1992)
  7. LW Turley and JC Chebat, Linking retail strategy, atmospheric design and shopping behavior, J of Marketing Management 18 125 (2002)
  8. LW Turley and DL Bolton, Measuring the affective evaluations of retail service environments, J Professional Services Marketing 19 31 (1999)
  9. DJ Mitchell, BE Kahn and SC Knasko, There’s something in the air: Effects of congruent or incongruent ambient odor on consumer decision-making, J Consumer Research 22 2 229–38 (1995)
  10. M Morrin and S Ratneshwar, Does it make sense to use scents to enhance brand memory? J Marketing Research 40 1 10–25 (2003)
  11. O Wolfe and B Busch, Two cultures meet and create a third: From consumer goods and fine fragrances to new product concepts, Seminar on Fine Fragrances and Fragrances in Consumer Products Using Research and Development and Optimisation, London, E.S.O.M.A.R., Amsterdam (Nov 13–15, 1991)
  12. NA Mirzayantz, Vision for the Future, presentation at GCI magazine’s Fragrance Business 2007, HBA Global Expo, New York (Sept 19, 2007)
  13. TrendWatch 2009, Arylessence (June 20, 2008) www.gcimagazine.com/marketstrends/consumers/20599289.html
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