Although the word “perfume” is likely to conjure up a vision of luxurious glass bottles, the reality is that most of us come across perfumes in much more prosaic ways–whenever we do our laundry, wash dishes or brush our teeth. Functional perfumery, as this branch of fragrance is called, is a vibrant field that affects our daily lives much more than designer brand fragrances. It is often at the forefront of development in fragrance chemistry, exploring ideas that eventually make an impact on fine fragrance. Companies like Tide, Colgate, P&G, and Unilever devote much effort to the research and development of detergents, fabric softeners, soaps, beauty care products and other daily necessities. In developing countries, functional scents are the only commercial perfumes people are likely to encounter in their day-to-day lives. Therefore, while functional perfumery does not have the glamour of its fine perfumery counterpart, it is an important aspect of our fragrance experience.
Noses Behind Functional Scents
For a perfumer, functional perfumery is a challenging area: the tricky product bases, raw material restrictions, intricate IFRA policies, and complex client demands. Add an extremely tight budget and you have an area of perfumery in which it takes a lot of effort to make a winning scent. It is common for fine fragrance perfumers to start out working in functional fragrances and today all perfumery school curricula include functional perfumery as a mandatory subject. Learning to work with functional fragrance restrictions can give an edge to a perfumer. If one is able to make a memorable, strong and diffusive fragrance on a pitifully small budget, then fine fragrance, with its more flexible parameters, can be an exciting transition. There are many legendary perfumers who followed this path. Ernest Beaux, the creator of Chanel No 5 started to work at Rallet in 1898 in the area of soap. Jean-Michel Duriez, the in-house perfumer for Jean Patou, worked for Kao on functional perfumery projects before transitioning to fine fragrance.
Another notable example is Firmenich perfumer Annie Buzantian, whose work on Estée Lauder Pleasures and Giorgio Armani Acqua di Giò Pour Homme has a particularly interesting combination of strong signature and beautiful balance. Sophia Grojsman of Yves Saint Laurent Paris and Lancôme Trésor fame, started out working on scenting depilatory creams, and to this day, she enjoys working on products for the functional division. Luca Turin mentions that the great perfumer Jean Carles, the author of Christian Dior Miss Dior, Carven Ma Griffe and Dana Tabu, was extremely proud of the low price of his formulas and enjoyed working on soaps. An ability to work with functional products can often give a push to the perfumer not only to think in original ways about fine fragrance challenges, but also to try new material combinations that may not be that obvious. Even today, some of the functional scents you encounter might have been created by a famous nose whose work is just as likely to appear under a fancy, luxury label.
Perfume Function: Masking vs Pleasing
The main difference between fine and functional perfumery has to do with the role of scent itself. In fine fragrance, the beautiful scent is the sole raison d’être for the product; in functional perfumery, scent has a more complex role. Not only does it need to mask the often harsh and unpleasant odor of the product base, it also needs to be pleasing. Catching a whiff of unscented hair conditioner with its extremely noxious, sulfuric odor or a harsh and fatty smelling liquid detergent base is enough to make one admire the skill required to create a scent that instead evokes a juicy fruit salad or a shower of flower petals. Not only is the scent of the functional product base unpleasant, the base itself is much more likely to react with the components of the fragrance oil resulting in off-odors, discoloration, and other challenges to the stability of the product.
The first goal of a perfume for a functional product therefore is to mask the product base. The process of masking an unpleasant odor is a fascinating aspect of functional perfumery. The idea is to include an unpleasant odor into the perfume structure, rather than to try covering it up with a stronger scent. For instance, if the product base contains a sour-musty odor, it is a good candidate for experimenting with a classical oriental accord like Guerlain Shalimar. This works well, because Shalimar relies on animalic notes of castoreum and leather to give a rich dimension to its citrusy-vanilla accord. The musty off-odor can likewise be envisioned as an animalic note as part of an oriental base. The addition of a fresh citrusy accord and vanilla can make the off-odor become a part of the final product. In the same vein, fatty odors are masked well by citrus oils because their natural aldehyde components have a fatty scent. Therefore, citrus oil provides an olfactory context in which the fatty off-odor no longer seems as unpleasant. Other interesting example can be found in the formulations of deodorant and anti-perspirant products. Neroli and petitgrain oils (or more likely, their synthetic replacements) are very popular choices, since these materials share the same pungent component as perspiration and allow it to become masked by the bright, green freshness of orange flower.
Scent : New Constraints
Different product functions also require perfumers to think differently in terms of what materials and fragrance structures might suit the final product. When you spray an alcohol based perfume on your skin, your response to it will be based on how the scent melds into your skin, how it lasts throughout the day and simply how the perfume makes you feel as you wear it. However, we have different expectations for a functional product fragrance. Shower gel should smell delicious not only sniffed quickly at the supermarket as you make your selection, but it should also have an appealing, diffusive scent as it is lathered up in the shower. A candle should smell good when unlit as well as to give a good throw while being burned.
Water soluble materials cannot be used in detergents or liquid fabric softeners if the goal is for the scent to remain on the fabric. Yet it is very important for a fabric detergent to have a good, pleasant scent on wet laundry as well as dry. On the other hand, dish washing soaps require complete water solubility. They should smell pleasant as you wash the dishes, but then the fragrance must vanish completely, leaving no trace on the plates. In a sense, dish washing fragrances consist solely of top notes, with no middle or base accords. The opposite is true for home fragrance products–the fragrance needs to retain the same character throughout its evaporation and have a good, strong presence.
Trickle Down, Trickle Up
When someone tells you that your Chanel No 5 smells like hairspray, it may not be an insult; consider that they might have a rather sensitive nose. While I am being only slightly facetious, the trickle down phenomenon has resulted in many famous fragrance signatures being appropriated for functional products in order to lend them a cache of luxury and good quality. Aromatic fougères like Guy Laroche Drakkar Noir still remain popular choices for car air fresheners, while the grapefruit and vetiver notes reminiscent of Terre d’Hermès are starting to appear in masculine body products.
On the other hand, fine fragrance perfumery has come to borrow from functional perfumery as well. While functional perfumery has its own set of limitations, the materials that are valued produce a long lasting, strong effect. At various times, materials that have been used in functional fragrances have made their way into fine fragrances, either because the material was found to be strong and tenacious, or because it produced a certain effect. Thus, Estée Lauder White Linen used a large quantity of the musk, Galaxolide, which until then was mostly reserved for laundry. The effect in a fine fragrance was at once powerful and familiar, conveying a clean, fresh sensation. Lily of the valley and other fresh floral notes have likewise made a transition from functional to fine perfumery, while fruity accords reminiscent of Clairol’s runaway success, Herbal Essences, are now a common feature in fine fragrances, from Donna Karan Be Delicious to Bath & Body Works Mango Mandarin.
Moreover, scents have a very important role in functional perfumery to communicate the product’s performance to the consumer. Functional perfumery relies on heavy market research. While consumer preferences for fine fragrance are quite volatile, the preferences for a scent in a functional product are very strong and difficult to change. In the US, the preferred scent for furniture polish is citrus, for soap citronella is common (such as Ivory), and for shampoo, fruity notes are favored. In India, the woody-herbal scent of red colored Lifebuoy soap is associated with cleanliness. In France, orange blossom is associated with small children, while in the US, it has rather mature and sophisticated associations.
In order to launch a new product, it is not enough that the product is functionally great. The scent is an essential part which will ultimately determine whether a consumer can connect with the product or not. From the consumer perspective, it is a conservative market, but for the perfumers it can be a challenging and innovative discipline.
Photo of lavender scented soap from Grasse, France by VeraKL.