What is the Perfume Project?

This blog is a constantly evolving forum for thoughts on perfume, perfume-making, plants (especially orchids and flora of the Pacific Northwest) and life in general. It started out chronicling the adventures of Olympic Orchids Perfumes, established in July 2010, and has expanded in other directions. A big part of the blog is thinking about the ongoing process of learning and experimentation that leads to new perfumes, the exploration of perfumery materials, the theory and practice of perfume making, the challenges of marketing perfumes and other fragrance products, and random observations on philosophy and society. Spam comments will be marked as such and deleted; any comments that go beyond the boundaries of civil discourse will also be deleted. I am grateful to all of you, the readers, who contribute to the blog by commenting and making this a truly interactive perfume project.

Monday, November 5, 2012


A few days ago I was reading an article in the popular news media about “14 ways your beauty products are damaging your health”. The same old culprits were trotted forth, with little or no evidence that any of them actually were damaging anyone’s health. Every point had a disclaimer saying that the substance in question may or may not damage anyone’s health, because there are no conclusive scientific data. One of the strongest statements had to do with fragrance, which the article suggested would make anyone sick who came in contact with it, and should be avoided at all costs. 

I’m really tired of reading “the sky is falling” lists, so I thought I’d put together a list of positives regarding the potential healthy effects of fragrance.

1. Many fragrant materials are anti-bacterial, antifungal, and/or anti-viral. This has been known for ages, but is generally dismissed nowadays as too low-tech to take seriously. What really strikes me is that ever since I’ve been making perfumes, I haven’t had a single cold, flu, or other respiratory illness despite being constantly surrounded by coughing, sneezing, feverish, sniffling students and colleagues. Can it be that breathing perfume protects against colds and flu? That was the rationale behind pomander balls and other scented amulets that were worn back in the days before scientific microbiology. People probably observed that breathing vapors of resins and spices tended to reduce the incidence of airborne sickness. Spices have always been used, not just to make food taste good, but as preservatives that prevent growth of bacteria responsible for spoilage, probably because people observed that highly spiced foods kept better than bland foods, especially in warm climates. Sometimes anecdotal evidence is correct and people instinctively do what’s good for them. 

2. Pleasant fragrance can improve mood, and a positive mood improves overall health. This is probably the most obvious health benefit of perfume. Some scents just make us feel happy, contented, relaxed, comfortable, enthusiastic, capable, powerful, or exhilarated. The specific scents that do this are different for each person, so it’s worth experimenting to find what fragrances produce positive mood effects. The experimentation itself should be a fun process that improves mood.

3. Pleasant fragrance can counteract negative situations. My most memorable use of fragrance in this context was when I was staying in an airport hotel because I had a ridiculously early flight the next morning. The room smelled so moldy and disgusting that I wouldn’t have been able to sleep unless I’d happened to go out on the street, see some lavender growing in a flower box, and pick a big batch of it to take back to the room. I put it as close to my nose as possible when I went to bed, and managed to sleep soundly until the alarm went off in the dark of the late night/early morning. If fragrance helps you sleep, that’s good, because too little sleep is bad for your health. Being in a stressful situation of any kind is bad, and obnoxious odors are definitely a source of stress. Even if they can’t be eliminated, masking them with something you like seems to help.

4. Fragrance can enhance interpersonal interactions. This is what all the advertising says or implies, and it’s true. The human touch is healing. Anything that involves being close to others in a good way boosts health, so using fragrance to attract others to come close or to enhance close encounters is a good thing.

5. Fragrance is a wonderful placebo. Even if its not physically doing anything obvious, if you think it’s helping you, it is. If you think it’s making you attractive, you probably feel attractive, and that makes you attractive. If the people in medieval Europe thought fragrance was mystically helping prevent the plague, it probably was, or maybe it was just repelling the fleas that carried it. If you wear a fragrance that you think makes you confident, you will be confident. Now I need to find THE fragrance that makes me think I can write a blog post every day come rain or shine. That would be the best placebo ever!

[photos adapted from Wikimedia, painting by Guillaume Seignac ca 1900]


  1. Hi Ellen,

    I'm still looking for the perfect sleeping perfume-potion. Yes, I really do believe that fragrances change our self image and can change how we react to daily stressors. Also, I find I almost feel like a new person with each fragrance I wear and that is confirmed by Fender, the dog. His respect for me seems to change depending on my fragrance. I need to do a test to find out which perfume is the most effective creating an "alpha" impression of me for Fender.


  2. For a while my favorite sleeping potion has been Dev #3, but it used to be Madini Ambre. I only use "sleeping potions" occasionally, when I really want to relax and don't need a "fresh nose" in the morning.

    The ability of fragrance to make us feel like different people (actually different aspects of our own psyche) is one of the things I love about it. You might not want to wear one that signaled to Fender that you're the alpha dog!

  3. I loved this piece! I enjoy fragrance forums, but I'm so sick of the "perfume is toxic/is perfume toxic?/how can I protect myself from toxic perfume" scare threads taht come up over and over and over ... so much of our culture seems to be centered on fear right now, and perfume seems like such a crazy thing to be afraid of.

    1. Thanks, Thalia! Perfume has to be somewhere at the bottom of the list of things we need to be afraid of. I think many people like to find a small, insignificant scapegoat they can pick on instead of worrying about big issues that really could affect our well-being and trying to do something proactive. Fear is a big motivator, and is used far too freely as a way of shaping people's behavior. I also get sick of seeing the "perfume is toxic" articles, so feel compelled to try to counter them whenever I can.