Functional Fragrance
Image by Lolame from Pixabay

This fall, Addison Rae did what many celebrities and influencers have done before and launched a perfume line. The three perfumes have a slight twist from other celeb launches, however; her Happy AF, Chill AF, and Hyped AF are on trend not just for their slangy names but also because they tout ingredients that promise to “boost your mood.”

Rae is not the only one to think fragrance consumers are after more than just smelling good. In 2019, the beauty supplement company The Nue Co launched its Functional Fragrance, a blend of palo santo, violet, and cardamom that promises to reduce stress, followed by Forest Lungs in 2020 and Mind Energy in 2021, which aim to produce some of the same health benefits associated with forest bathing and boost focus, respectively. Since 2016, natural perfume brand Heretic has incorporated wellness into its storytelling, including its September launch Dirty Hinoki, described as a “grounding” scent inspired by hinoki’s potential ability to alleviate depression.

The growing slate of mood-boosting fragrances represents not just a demand for a wide array of “wellness” products, with everything from bath bombs to oat milk promising such effects, but also consumers’ changing relationship to perfume. “Perfume for the longest time was really the attainable luxury end of a luxury brand,” says Douglas Little, founder of and perfumer for Heretic. “And now I really think that that ideology for a certain group of people has faded, and the idea that the fragrance is made from better materials and it also, by the way, can help you relax, I think this is really the next wave of what we’re seeing in personal wellness.”

The market for wellness products is in of itself nothing new, says Céline Manetta, senior consumer science manager at International Flavors & Fragrances, Inc. (IFF). But what’s changed in recent years, and especially with the COVID-19 pandemic, is the acceleration of demand for new products that address all aspects of life. “It’s really 24/7 wellness. It’s a continuous search for positive emotion,” Manetta says. Fragrance is just the tip of the iceberg; an April 2021 report from consulting company, McKinsey, estimates the global wellness market to be worth more than $1.5 trillion, with 42 percent of consumers in their survey reporting wellness to be a top priority.

Enter Aromachology

That opens up an opportunity for fragrance developers like IFF to further their research into aromachology, the study of aromas on human behavior and emotion (aromatherapy, though similar, focuses exclusively on the use of natural essential oils for therapeutic purposes). This spring, IFF launched its Science of Wellness program to create scents that can purportedly aid in relaxation or boost energy. In recent years, Givaudan has developed new wellness-oriented technologies like DreamScentz, which uses fragrance aimed at enhancing sleep. Studies outside the fragrance world have also investigated fragrance’s health benefits, with studies finding for example that linalool, found in lavender essential oil, may ease anxiety.

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Givaudan’s launches and other developments give perfumers a new palette of wellness ingredients to incorporate into their formulas. An eau de parfum can feature dozens of ingredients, however, with up to 80 percent of a given formulation composed of alcohol. What matters though, according to Juliette Karagueuzoglou, senior perfumer at IFF who has made fragrances for the likes of Yves Saint Laurent and L’Artisan Parfumeur, is not the quantity of a wellness ingredient, but that you register its smell. “What is important is that, since you can smell it, since it is noticeable olfactively, you have the effect, because the impact is the smell on your brain,” she says.

Manetta emphasizes though that regardless of any potential benefits, perfume is not a cure-all. “In perfumery, we are more talking about positive emotions, instead of anti-anxiety or anti-stress claims, because we are not drugs, we are not medicine.”

A Search for Medical Alternatives

But the fact that they are not drugs is specifically what makes “functional fragrance,” or any wellness-oriented product, appealing to some. “Modern medicine has been wonderful and life saving, but there are real gaps there still. And so, in general, people look for other things that they can do themselves,” says psychologist Traci Stein, PhD, MPH. A beauty product like perfume that can be picked up for $40 without insurance or doctor intervention offers an attractive way to fill that gap at a time when four in 10 U.S. adults report they are struggling with symptoms of anxiety or depression. “I think people like having products that promise very quick results, and that don’t require a doctor to step in and prescribe something,” says Dr. Stein, who has written about the benefits of aromatherapy, but is cautious to label aromatherapy’s benefits as “proven,” as research is not yet definitive.

However, consumers are not always aware of the limitations of aroma compounds, and “somebody who’s going to seek out these [wellness] fragrances, who does have a real problem, may erroneously believe that they’re likely to have a bigger effect,” Dr. Stein says.

Behind the Claims

The often vague language used to describe the science behind these fragrances can also cause confusion for a nonexpert. Addison Rae’s fragrances contain “ingredients that have scored well on emotional responses,” but it’s hard to parse out the scientific meaning of that on its surface. According to Lori Mariano, managing partner at Hampton Beauty, which partnered with Addison Rae to develop the scents, this information came from their collaboration with the research and development team at fragrance company, Symrise: “[They] work[ed] with neuroscience experts to track and validate emotional responses based on brain activity upon smelling individual proprietary ingredients used in the fragrance formulations.”

On the other hand, sometimes a claim is specific, but the research behind it appears to come from the company itself. For example, “research conducted by The Nue Co” found a whopping 96 percent of its Functional Fragrance customers felt “instantly calmer” after using the product. When research on a product isn’t conducted by an independent party, it can present a conflict of interest, notes Dr. Stein. [We’ve reached out to The Nue Co about their methodology and will update this article when we hear back.]

“These things are pleasurable, and it feels like we’re taking good care of ourselves,” Dr. Stein adds. “And there’s nothing wrong with that. I think companies are aware though, that there’s a lot of money to be made by being aware of people’s desires to have control over their care and to feel better right away.”

And it’s not just perfume: Beauty products as a whole are now promising a more holistic experience that is less about looking attractive and more about feeling good. In the case of perfume, that’s a marked shift from how the product has been marketed in recent years. “I would say it’s going back to the origins of perfume, linking the perfume to wellbeing and other roles that are far from the sexy, social role that we are used to bringing to the perfume,” Manetta says.

Fragrance has always sold a fantasy, and the fantasy of feeling good may certainly be more appealing than that of trying to fit a narrow beauty ideal. But, as with pretty much any product in the wellness industrial complex, the functional fragrance category is susceptible to overpromising.


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