TREND: A Wave of Scent Innovation Fueled by the Pandemic
Fragrance is being developed and applied for wellbeing in dramatically new ways
Back in 2019, one of our key trends was how fragrance was getting a wellness makeover. With a new understanding of scent’s role in our mental and physical health, there was a new wave of functional fragrances and scent-for-wellbeing applications starting to rise.
The pandemic has kicked research into how scent impacts human health–and innovations in how scent can be deployed for wellbeing–into higher gear.
Several forces are at play. Study after study shows how profoundly scent is linked to emotion, and with global depression and anxiety crises, more companies developed–and more people snapped up–fragrance products designed to improve their mental wellbeing in the search for some at-home self-care. As CB Insights reported, if perfume sales were down in 2020, sales of aromatherapy and home fragrance products reached record levels last year. For instance, sales of incense rose during the pandemic, with new products that are a far cry from the ‘70s patchouli fogs: sophisticated creations with natural ingredients and old-world craftsmanship.
As the New York Times brilliantly explores (see below), the most bizarre symptom of Coronavirus (COVID-19), the (often long-term) loss of the sense of smell, has made medical researchers wake up to the importance and complexity of our most neglected sense. After studying this virus symptom, researchers went “from thinking of smell as a ‘bonus sense’ to a dominant one, and ‘from a secondary sense to one of the primary things that influences our life.’” It’s finally leading to a surge in interest in “smell science.”
That science is extraordinarily young. It’s been less than 30 years since the neural receptors that allow us to perceive the sense of smell were even identified (it led to a Nobel Prize). We’ve known that smell is the only sense with a direct path to three important brain areas: the orbitofrontal cortex, associated with awareness; the hippocampus, the memory center; and the amygdala, the emotion or mood center. As the New York Times further points out, what’s fascinating is how recent studies reverse the persistent belief that humans are too sophisticated to be good at smelling. One recent study revealed that our brains can tell the difference between exercise and fear sweat. Another indicates that people, just by sniffing somebody else’s worn t-shirt, can identify whether they have immune systems similar to our own. The pandemic is spurring fascinating new research, including the way that olfaction is tied up with the functioning of our immune systems.
So many new directions (and products) in scent-for wellbeing…
The “Function” of Functional Fragrances Expands
The number of functional wellness fragrances are rising fast, many using neuroscience to engineer scents that can impact different parts of the brain, so they can, for example, tackle stress or boost energy (e.g., Osea or the new brand Vvrao, which reverse–engineers their formulas by identifying ingredients based on the emotions they incite). During the pandemic, functional fragrance leader, The Nue Co. (they just raised another $25 million), released “Forest Lungs,” grounded in the scent-compounds of the forest to create a kind of a forest bathing “anti-stress supplement”–and “Mind Energy” designed to stimulate neural pathways and increase focus and energy. Wellness publication DOSE just applied functional fragrance to fitness: “HIIT Me Up” is designed to energize people for intense workouts while “Smells Like Yoga” is aimed at calming them for the practice. Scents are even being designed to spark creativity or induce dreamy reveries (see below). Israel-based Amkiri has created the first-ever “visual fragrance” by combining temporary tattoos with exhilarating scent–so you can “see” the fragrance.
Scent-Tech Will Take Off
Technologists are starting to use neuroscience and artificial intelligence (AI) to create fragrances and even to connect people to digital worlds. Paco Rabanne’s new “Phantom” fragrance not only used findings from neuroscience to concoct the ingredients, it’s being called the first “connected fragrance” because the bottle embeds a contactless communication Near-Field Communication (NFC) chip, and if you tap the Phantom’s head with your smartphone you enter a “Phantom Universe” with personalized playlists, augmented reality, and interactive games. The big future is scent being deployed in what are called “bio-media” applications, where companies such as Scentscape™ from Hypnos Virtual (more below) are using AI to create what are essentially complex fragrance playlists, that unleash a symphony of emotion-changing olfactory sensations. After all, the metaverse is upon us, and billions will be spent on evermore immersive, fully-sensorial digital worlds.
If scientists comprehensively mapped the visual and auditory systems in humans years ago, the mapping of the universe of scents’ impact on the human brain and body is still in very early days. If aromatherapy is the most ancient of wellness practices, new scientific research and a whole lot of experimentation are going to make its future very different.
This is inspired by the “Mediscent: Fragrance Gets a Wellness Makeover” trend in our 2019 trends report.