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How olfactory experience of skincare influences the skin
My memories are strongly connected to the sense of smell. The scent of perfume my mom used to use 30 years ago brings me back straight to my childhood, the one of elderberry reminds me of my grandmother’s garden where I used to play during almost every summer vacation. My mind is filled with olfactory memories just like air is filled with odor molecules. They’re both invisible for the eye and yet have a major impact on how I feel.
The sense of smell
No wonder I’ve coded so many memories with the sense of smell. According to the latest research, the human nose can distinguish at least 1 trillion different odors1. Enjoyable as it is, this way of sensing doesn’t only serve the olfactory pleasure. Thanks to the ability of picking up so many different scents we can survive and thrive. Human nose can sense traces of noxious stimuli in the air, saving us from gas poisoning and help us pick the most ripe, delicious fruits in a farmer’s market. Our ability to smell comes from specialized sensory cells, called olfactory sensory neurons, which are found in a small patch of tissue high inside the nose2. These tiny cells, consisting of one odor receptor each3, connect directly to the brain. Scent particles, spreading through the air in the process of diffusion, stimulate these receptors. As scientists explain, „once the neurons detect the molecules, they send messages to your brain, which identifies the smell. There are more smells in the environment than there are receptors, and any given molecule may stimulate a combination of receptors, creating a unique representation in the brain. These representations are registered by the brain as a particular smell.” 4. Thanks to the olfactory sensory neurons we can remember specific smells and attach them to objects, people, situations and create associations and memories.
Fragrance in cosmetics
„Scent-free” is not something that can encourage me to buy a new skincare product. I like the full experience – the smell, the texture, the after-feel. Taking a few deep breaths before applying my favorite, fragrant face cream gets me into the self-care mood, helps to release tension and really focus on getting in touch with my body. But before I get carried away by olfactory experience, I always check what makes my potential new product smell. “Fragrance” is a tricky term on the list of ingredients, making it hard to know exactly what lures the nose. Let me break it down for you. There are two main categories of fragrance:
Synthetic: they are created in the laboratory to replicate the scent of natural fragrances and are made up of chemical compounds comprised of aromatic raw materials; they can be either 100% synthetic or semi-synthetic, meaning a portion of the synthetic ingredients is mixed with the natural ones5
Natural: they are extracted from their natural source including plant derivatives, especially essential oils6
There are few reason why brands want their skincare products smell good:
Unfortunately, despite the increasing demand for clean beauty and natural ingredients, producers still lean towards the synthetic scents because they are cheaper and can last longer in comparison with the natural ones. Win- win? Not necessarily to the consumers. Research shows that despite being attractive to our sense of smell, skincare products enhanced with synthetic
fragrance can contain a range of chemicals including hazardous pollutants without being fully disclosed on the product label and can be harmful to our health7. Artificial fragrances can cause8:
According to the American Academy of Dermatology9, fragrances are considered the leading cause of allergic reactions on the skin, affecting as much as 1% of the population. Despite such high risk brands still use luring and potentially harmful synthetic scents in their formulations and hide them under the name „perfume” or „fragrance” on the ingredients list. It’s all because of the sale-friendly power of aromatherapy.
What is aromatherapy?
Adding fragrance to skincare products to enhance the self-care experience is not a new trend. In fact, it’s one of the oldest olfactory trends in the world. The art of aromatherapy, defined10 as “the therapeutic application or the medicinal use of aromatic substances (essential oils) for holistic healing”, appears with regularity throughout all major civilizations of human history. Ancient Greeks, Egyptians, Chinese and Indians used essential oils for religious rituals, beauty treatments, food flavoring, healing, perfumery and masking bad odors. Ancient specialists incorporated solely natural fragrance into their healing and beautifying rituals. They didn’t have much choice – modern perfumery began in the late XIX century with the first use of synthetic products11. I’d risk the statement that even if they had a choice, they’d have still stick to the natural fragrance options: essential oils. As defined by the International Standards Organization12 an essential oil is a “product obtained from vegetable raw material, either by distillation with water or steam, or from the epicarp of citrus fruits by a mechanical process, or by dry distillation.” According to research, essential oils can have multiple therapeutic effects. They „possess antimicrobial, antiviral, antibiotic, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant properties as well as purported psychogenic effects such as relieving stress, treating depression, and aiding with insomnia.”13 Natural medicine crossed paths with science in the early 1910s, when French chemist René-Maurice Gattefossé used lavender oil to heal a burn on his hand after an explosion in his laboratory.14 Many years and research later, essential oils became a staple ingredient in natural cosmetic product manufacturing, frequently appearing in face creams, serums and lotions.15
Olfactory experience in cosmetics
To enhance the aspect of care in my skincare routine, I put synthetic fragrance aside. Natural, plant- derived, fragrant ingredients not only make my skin look better bu also influence my mood. How? Despite my interest in ancient wisdom, I look for answers in science. Portugal-based contract research firm PhD Trials has found that the environmental space surrounding the skin can influence sensorial response and induce neural activity.16 To simplify, external stimuli including touch, temperature and scent, can create psychological and neurological response, affecting our levels of attractiveness, well-being and comfort. My penchant for taking a few aromatherapeutic deep breaths when applying LAST Skin Repair Serum might be based on pure hedonism but it works wonders for my mood thanks to pure science. Let’s dig a bit deeper and take a look at the science-approved, mood-enhancing ingredients17:
Bergamot fruit oil is used against psychological stress thanks to it’s calming and soothing properties; it can have a positive influence on mood states, parasympathetic nervous system activity and cortisol levels.
Lemongrass essential oil it is used for relaxation, boosting mood and comfort due to its potential anxiolytic effect, crucial in relieving anxiety, stress and irritability.
Myrrh helps center the mind, promote the feeling of being grounded, lift negative mood and calm the spirit; it’s often used during mindfulness, meditation and yoga practices as it can encourage the feeling of spiritual awakening.
Neroli essential oil can have a positive impact on menopausal symptoms, stress, sexual desire, and blood pressure.
Vanilla planifolia extract offers a soothing and sweet aroma that can help relax the mind, relieve the symptoms of anxiety, depression, insomnia and irritability.
Frankincense hydrosol can enhance mood by diminishing feelings of stress, anxiety and negativity while improving concentration, memory and overall feeling of well-being.
How to choose scented skincare products?
If you want to benefit from the healing, aromatherapeutic power of scented skincare, you have to learn how to pick the right one. Due to a regulation loophole, skincare and cosmetic brands are not obliged to reveal the fragrance ingredients used in their products.18 Considered a trade secret, the scent often becomes a hallmark and needs to be protected from the eyes and noses of industry competitors. I understand and respect the idea of keeping a secret but not for the sake of good marketing and sales records. I look for quality and transparency that allows me to decide if I want to apply something on my skin. Here are 3 main rules that help me benefit from scented skincare:
Decode the ingredients list: How can I know if I want to use something, if I can’t be sure what it really is? I can’t, therefore I never buy products that don’t reveal what their fragrance consists of. I look for the names of essential oils to be sure my olfactory experience won’t take its toll on the quality of my skin. In the morning, I love to boost my energy with citric and herbal scents and in the evening I lean towards heavier, wooden, resinous and sweet undertones to help me wind down.
Test it: Despite their multiple benefits for beauty and health, essential oils can cause allergic reactions.19 The most common one is contact dermatitis. It manifests as an itchy, reddish rash and typically appears where the oil has been applied. The reaction may not always be immediate, so it’s better to test a news skincare product on a small skin surface before the first use. To do a skin patch test, simply take a small amount of a new scented skincare product and apply it to your inner elbow. If an allergic reaction won’t occur within 24-48 hours, you’re safe!
Store it properly: Due to the high amounts of antioxidants, plant-based fragrant ingredients can be very sensitive to temperature and light. To avoid loss of quality, I recommended that you keep scented skincare products in a cool, dry place, preferably in a tightly sealed, dark glass bottle.
Safety first, beauty will follow- how to protect the skin
Sun’s out, should I be out?
Temperature of health – the benefits of hot and cold therapy