• Scentsory Question Time at the Royal Society of Chemistry - report

      The British Society of Perfumers celebrates its 50th anniversary this year and their calendar of events is full of interesting items. I attended "Scentsory Question Time", modelled on the popular BBC Question Time format, on the 10th of January 2013.



      The panel (left to right):


      • Lisa Hipgrave - IFRA UK
      • Steve Pearce - CEO, Omega Ingredients
      • Penny Williams - Orchadia
      • Grant Osborne - Basenotes
      • Ruth Mastenbroek - Ruth Mastenbroek Perfumes
      • Will Andrews - Fine Fragrance Design Team, P&G Prestige
      • Chaired by John Bailey, BSP President (not pictured)


      The event was held at the Royal Society of Chemistry and open to the general public. Many members of the BSP were present and the topic seemed to have attracted people from a range of backgrounds, judging by the questions from the audience.

      The sense of smell remains the least understood of the 5 senses and the evening was mainly presented as an opportunity to delve deeper into its mysteries. Some questions had been gathered in advance via the BSP's LinkedIn page and audience participation was encouraged throughout the evening. Later on the discussion turned to perfumery and the industry itself.

      Scent, memory and attraction

      After an initial introduction to the topic by John Bailey, he asked the panel why it is that smells evoke unusually strong reactions and memories. Will Andrews explained that our sense of smell hasn't really changed throughout our evolution and is still linked to the reptilian limbic system. Our reaction to smells is very primal and immediate. If there is a smell that has left a bad memory, it will always have that association for you.

      Penny Williams added that although we are born with somewhat of a blank canvas as far as scent associations go, the mother's diet during pregnancy affects our scent preferences. Steve Pearce commented that vanilla is so popular because it reminds us of the flavour of our mothers' milk. Penny also pointed out that our smell has primarily developed to detect differences in our environment.

      The discussion inevitably turned into whether it's possible to design a scent to attract the opposite sex.

      Lisa Hipgrave mentioned some interesting immunology studies that have shown correlation between scent preferences and types of immunity genes expressed in the individual, leading us to seek out a partner whose own smell we find most appealing. It is therefore better for us to seek fragrances which gently enhance our natural odour fingerprint - if we're on the pull, that is.

      Grant Osborne mentioned the long-running Which scents do women dig... -thread on Basenotes and how it's very clear from the answers is that there is no conclusive answer. Scent and sexuality relate so much to personal body odour, memories and preferences that scour as you might for the most given answers in that thread, the one you go with could still be the wrong choice for you.

      Steve Pearce reminded us that research into human pheromones hasn't really produced anything concrete and usable by the industry yet, and had they truly been harnessed, "we'd all be millionaires by now", so he encouraged us to remain sceptical when encountering allegedly pheromone-enhanced perfumes.

      Will Andrews made us all consider how the "scent landscape" of recent years differs from that of even ten years ago and how this might influence perfume trends and how much and what kind of perfume people wear when they go out. Going to a bar used to involve getting covered in cigarette smoke and now, in the absence of it, there's a whole new fug of sweaty bodies and spilled booze.

      Indie, mainstream and IFRA

      It was a really fascinating evening, especially when the indie perfumer Ruth Mastenbroek and Will Andrews from P&G were pitted against each other to discuss mainstream versus indie perfumery. Both gave convincing arguments but Grant Osborne's quip: "Mainstream is like the X factor and niche is like an indie band in a bar. There is room for both in this world." summed it up very nicely.

      It's lovely to be able to explore increasingly unusual compositions, occasionally drench oneself in an indulgent blend of expensive ingredients or find a perfume that is reminiscent of vintage themes, but equally, some of the widely available mainstream perfumes might be just the thing on a different day. There may be many perfume collecting purists who shun anything classed as mainstream but most perfume enthusiasts embrace scents in many guises. The sheer variety and the increased consumer interest can only be good for business, both indie and mainstream.

      When Lisa Hiprgrave was asked: "Can IFRA truly monitor what the indie perfumers are up to?", her response was a very safe statement of how IFRA members must adhere to their code of practice, but completely avoided the actual point of the question. If an indie perfumer isn't an IFRA member, then what? Membership isn't compulsory.

      There is a good reason IFRA is keen to be seen as an all-encompassing organisation within the industry. If it's not, perfume safety matters might suddenly end up solely in the hands of governments. Would that be a bad thing? Isn't an industry-run organisation regulating itself rather like the fox guarding the hens?

      Unfortunately, the issue of perfume safety is more complex than that, largely due to the traditional secrecy and competitive nature of the industry. NGOs, consumer groups and EU regulators are now keen to make perfumes "completely safe" and as much as perfumistas may protest, the industry's efforts to halt this process may seem like closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.

      Depending on your view on the matter, the International Fragrance Association (IFRA) is either a suspicious entity, out to kill perfumery, or a well-meaning but ultimately somewhat flawed attempt by the industry to keep perfumery off the hands of overzealous government regulators who aren't subject matter experts and would demand 100% "allergen free fragrance" (which would lead to kissing goodbye to all natural ingredients for starters).

      IFRA's approach, according to Hipgrave, is to reduce the allergens to a save level, at which they are no longer capable of inducing an allergic reaction. As to why we can't simply provide warning labels for perfumes, Hipgrave pointed out that allergies develop over time so one wouldn't necessarily be aware of it until one day there'd be a problem.

      Due of the traditional secrecy of the industry, concepts like safety and honesty were not the first ones to come to mind when consumers started getting more interested in what actually goes into their perfumes. The media-fuelled cosmetic ingredient scares have not helped. The fact that some of the old fashioned perfumery ingredients did sometimes have adverse effects (nitro musks; bergaptene in bergamot oil), and the fact that perfume sales copy has always been somewhat fictitious, hasn't made it easy to convince consumers that All Is Well And Perfectly Safe in the world of perfumery.

      It's easy to construct conspiracy theories about IFRA and about how the very companies who finance it are in the business of marketing allergen-free alternatives. However, it is important to realise how costly it is to bring a new synthetic material to the market and how any such new material will never be able to replace a natural material. If it was chemically too close to the restricted ingredient, it would be likely cause similar problems to the substance that had been restricted in the first place, Penny Williams pointed out.

      Add to this, the general public's common misconception that safety is a binary condition (it's not), and it is easy to see how people would have grown increasingly confused and mistrustful from the diet of mixed messages they've being fed.

      In a perverse way, the rise of small independent perfume brands may lead to alarm bells going off in the EU, and to subsequent laws about perfume which aren't based on industry recommendations. These laws would inevitably be stricter than what the industry set itself. So it may actually be in the best interest of the whole industry for small manufacturers to follow IFRA's recommendations.

      Ruth Mastenbroek pointed out that a shift in industry insider attitudes is needed, "to change our view of each other from competitors to allies".

      Perfume and the internet

      One of the last questions of the evening was: "How is the internet changing the perfume industry?"

      "It has brought together a lot of people with a similar passion. It's been a relief for many to be able to hang out in likeminded company and not be that perfume weirdo," replied Grant Osborne.

      Will Andrews wistfully added "if only we could smell through the internet! Many of Grant's contributors are extraordinarily eloquent but there is really nothing quite like being able to smell the perfume."

      According to Osborne, this is also why sampling is so important for online perfume retailers unless they wish to rely on the custom of people already familiar with their selection. Online communities like Basenotes have enabled people to arrange their own swaps and decants, enabling smaller brands to get off the ground and get a lot of free exposure.

      Lisa Hipgrave pointed out that although it is not possible to smell the perfume online, the medium is allowing people to develop their perfume vocabulary, "so now there are a lot more people who might understand and agree on what a "light green" fragrance is, for example." Penny Williams agreed: "There's a growing number of people who don't need pictures or advertisements to understand a fragrance."

      Hipgrave was lukewarm about the idea of decanting perfumes into generic containers and selling or swapping them that way: "In the same way an e-reader de-personalises the book, decanting perfumes might end up de-personalising perfumes. The book cover and the bottle are an important part of the experience."

      When the panel was asked: "Is perfume an art or a science", every participant replied in one voice: "Both." It was the only unanimous answer of the evening.

      The Scentsory Question Time was a lively, informative discussion and could have probably gone on all night and well into the next day. I only hope that similar events will be added to the calendar in the future. Most of the events arranged by the BSP are open to the general public and the current president, John Bailey, is very keen to make the society's 50th anniversary a memorable one. He is also producing a commemorative book for the occasion, which you can read more about on the BSP website.



      About the author

      Pia Long is a perfumery student, freelance writer, cosmetics industry professional and bit of a geek. She lives in Surrey with her husband and approximately five thousand books. Pia blogs at http://www.volatilefiction.co.uk, tweets as @Nukapai and writes the Study Notes column about her perfumery studies for Basenotes
      About the author Pia Long
      Author AvatarPia Long is a perfumer, freelance writer and an experienced cosmetics industry professional. Originally from Finland, she qualified from London College of Fashion in 1996 and has spent the last 20 years in the UK. While working for Lush Cosmetics, Pia created some of their best-selling product perfumes, including HQ "the smell of a Lush shop in a bottle." She is a regular contributor to Basenotes and her own blog can be found at http://www.volatilefiction.co.uk.

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      Comments 6 Comments
      1. lpp's Avatar
        lpp -
        Thank you all concerned, good article.
        p.s. I'm allergic to strawberries & avoid them like the plague!
      1. Nukapai's Avatar
        Nukapai -
        Thank you lpp! Sorry to hear about your strawberry allergy but at least they are easier to avoid than some other foods would be. I think the perfume allergen point made by Hipgrave was that allergies can develop over time, so you could happily be using a perfume for years and then one day get anaphylaxis. I just don't think it's right that the kinds of allergies we're probably looking at with perfume are not usually that serious and as horrible as dermatitis etc. is, it's not the same as going into anaphylactic shock from a hair colour you thought was safe because you've used it all your life. I can't help but think that perfumes are over-regulated now and will become even more so, but it's the industry's own fault for having been so slow to catch on.
      1. lpp's Avatar
        lpp -
        Thank you, it was an interesting read.
        Beth Chatto says we should wear gloves when gardening to prevent allergies developing!
        Nobody banned strawberries yet, they affect loads of people, - I'm just dyed in the wool pro-choice!
        But with sympathy for the Industry having to negotiate the hazards of regulation!
        Been wearing the old Caleche with oakmoss a lot since the early 1970's & fingers crossed, no problems yet!
        Trouble with allergies seems that they are so unpredictable - one of my dogs is allergic to rice!
        But do we really need to legislate against every possible eventuality?
      1. iivanita's Avatar
        iivanita -
        ......IFRA should take care then of all allergies in the world then, i know many more from food and air ( weed periods)then perfumes!!.......they did not take into cost benefit analysis our state of happiness when we smell natural perfumes! So these explanations sound pathetic (esp the part where they frighten small niche houses lol)

        When it comes to food additives regulation the explanation goes like this: 0.05% wont do you any harm, but if i drink 1000 l of that thing over 3 years is that safe too? And eat few more things over the same period with that same additive , let alone over 10- 15 period of time? Wouldn't t i develop allergy ?......i would like to know that answer...there they don't seem so united .......and worried! And i am really worried about that!
      1. Persolaise's Avatar
        Persolaise -
        Oh dear... so many thought-provoking statements, so little time. I could spend ages responding to some of the issues raised by your article, but in the interests of preserving my sanity - and saving myself some time - I think I'd better just say, 'Thank you for a wonderfully concise, objective and balanced write up.'
      1. Nukapai's Avatar
        Nukapai -
        Thank you, Persolaise It was one of those sessions that probably raised more questions than it answered (and that's saying something, considering all the questions that were answered). Perhaps we'll get the opportunity for a follow-up but the kinds of debates that would ensue might be better suited to the pub.