Revamped Fortnum and Mason perfumery – review

New perfumery at Fortnum & Mason
I’ve spent years in various perfumeries and cosmetic halls; working in them, training people who work in them and shopping in them. The re-vamped cosmetic department at Fortnum & Mason is a uniquely serene and beautiful shopping environment which I urge you to visit for yourself.

The styling is more like that of a luxury hotel lounge, and that’s a compliment as well as the only criticism – it feels like the decor and placing of products has been done to make it a luxurious and attractive setting without enough thought to practicality. There are no scent strips near fragrance testers; stock from the same company can appear in more than once place, it’s not clear whether some ranges have been split into femine and masculine or that’s ‘it’ – and the placing of products is needlessly sparse (I spotted a Guerlain I am running low on but it was the only bottle on the shelf and I did the typical “nobody buys the last bottle” thing that consumers do).

Now, on to the positives. If you have the money to spend on luxury cosmetics and perfumes but do not want to fight for room with a thousand other people pushing past you; if you are desperate for some good advice about make-up and skin care and would like amazing customer service (more like personal shopping), go to the Fortnum’s perfumery. They had me spending money, too, even though I am usually extremely picky about what I buy.

They also stock one of my favourite make-up brands of all time, Cosmetics a la Carte (it became a favourite when they cleverly partnered with London College of Fashion in the 90s and supplied products for the student kits).

I do hope this perfumery thrives (just enough so they can maintain that level of customer service) and that they will carry on buying in great indie perfumes, luxury brands and professional quality cosmetics. The skincare side could do with a little bit of expanding, but I suppose they will need to see what their customers are going for. Many gorgeous luxury toiletries and accessories are also on offer.

The Caron urns – a favourite attraction from the old perfumery – remain, thankfully, and have been joined by some other set pieces worthy of attention. Don’t take my poor phone snapshots as representative; pop in and see for yourself.

Is it time we sniffed out the real human pheromones?

IrresistibleWould you like to spray on a potion that will make you instantly irresistible? Would you like everyone who gets a whiff of you to quiver with lust? Would you like to have an unfair advantage on the pull? Help is here! There are pheromone sprays which will do just that – fragrances and body sprays which will send people wild around you. Everyone knows that androstenone, androstenol, androstadienone, and estratetraenol are human pheromones and adding them to products produces very special effects.

Except, of course, all of the above is probably rubbish.

There are many products on the market which claim to contain human pheromones. More than that – there are research papers, books and scholarly articles talking about putative human pheromones as though they had been identified.

Amazingly, every one of these products, articles, books, papers and claims is based on dodgy science.

There are no real ‘putative human pheromones’, as they are currently presented. However, since we’re mammals, it’s highly likely we do have them.

Very early on in human pheromone studies, something peculiar happened to thwart the research, and we may have been chasing the wrong leads ever since.

Doctor Tristram Wyatt from Department of Zoology, University of Oxford thinks that we should start again. I recently attended his excellent talk at the Royal Society of Chemistry (a version of which you can watch on TED and was written up as a recent Proceedings of the Royal Society B paper) in which he systematically demonstrated that a) it’s likely that we do have pheromones; b) no solid evidence exists for what they might be; c) the research into this area is under-funded and based on dodgy science; d) it would be great if we could start again, as though human beings were a newly discovered species.

Why should we forget everything we think we know and start from scratch?

Because we’re animals, we give off hundreds of odours just by being. Other animals have pheromones and it’s likely that we have them, too. While we don’t have a functioning vomeronasal organ (it does develop in-utero but regresses) this is not a problem as we now know that pheromones are detected by the main olfactory system in many mammals such as sheep. However, smells play a very big role in our lives and especially in sexual selection. The mechanisms for this are still quite fuzzy and hotly contested. We simply don’t understand just how much of human sexual behaviour is influenced by smell and what the pathways and biological processes are. We know that we’re highly influenced by our experiences, emotions and context, and while there have been some studies on the so-called ‘putative human pheromones’ which seem to demonstrate pheromone-like effects, no clear evidence exists to show how they are supposed to work in humans.

It’s clear that human beings give off, and react to odours – but it’s important to realise that not all odours are pheromones, and that we don’t know much about human pheromones at this stage.

Our personal body odour fingerprint has been found to influence mate selection. We seem to prefer the smell of partners whose immune system gene expression differs from our own (with the biological benefit being that if offspring are produced, their immune systems will express genes from both partners and therefore be stronger). Immunotypes from both partners would be incorporated into the offspring. It’s also been shown that women on the oral contraceptive pill can prefer the odour of partners whose immune genes are similar to their own (and subsequently experience a loss of sexual attraction to the partner they chose whilst on the pill when they come off the pill to try to conceive!). I attended a fascinating talk by Professor Craig Roberts about this topic a few years ago and it’s very interesting to think about how our natural body odour affects our fragrance selection – we’re better off wearing scents which we are instinctively drawn to because they are most likely to be the ones which enhance our natural body odour.

According to Dr. Wyatt, “We do seem to be obsessed by body odour – billions of dollars are spent on removing it and putting it back on again.”

There are so-called ‘pheromone parties’ which should really be re-named to major histocompatability complex parties, but that wouldn’t sound nearly as sexy. Participants wear a t-shirt for a while before the party, place it inside a plastic bag, and the bags are given numbers. The t-shirts are sniffed by other partygoers and if they like the smell, a photo of them is taken with the bag and displayed on a screen during the party.

Of course human pheromones could also be at play here, but we genuinely have no clue yet what those might be.

What are pheromones?

Bombyx Mori

  • Pheromones are a chemical signal between members of the same species.
  • They are same across the same species (e.g. all males of the same species, but possibly appearing in different amounts).
  • They are usually a combination of molecules and can be short-range.

The first pheromone was identified in the Bombyx mori silk moth in 1959 by Adolf Butenandt & team. It was named Bombykol after the moth. In Dr. Wyatt’s opinion, the way in which this research was conducted represents a gold standard for pheromone identification and should be followed in other similar studies.

The criteria for identifying a real pheromone should be:

  • To isolate a specific compound or a mixture of compounds (all compounds in the mixture should be necessary)
  • There should be a clearly identifiable response to the pheromone(s) (in the Bombyx mori, scientists observed increased wing fluttering of the male moth in the presence of bombykol)
  • Synthetic compounds should elicit the same response as real pheromones
  • Realistic concentrations must be used in experiments
  • There must be a credible pathway for evolution

We should expect humans to have pheromones because other animals do, too. Pigs, mice; rabbits all have them.

Humans can distinguish between a trillion different smells and though we might not rely on our sense of smell quite as much as some other animals, it’s wrong to think of our sense of smell as insignificant.

So what’s wrong with ‘putative human pheromones’?

There is simply no evidence for them.

The history of putative human pheromones can be traced back to the discovery of ‘copulins’ in monkeys (1970), and the idea of ‘menstrual synchronicity’ which was put forward in 1971 (the menstrual synchronicity thing is not proven, though – and looks like it might not be real). Androsterone and androstenal was discovered and researched in pigs around 1970-1980.

In 1991, a symposium sponsored by the Erox Corporation was held in Paris and many leading scientists were invited to attend. Slotted into the procedings was a paper about ‘putative human pheromones’ which also claimed that humans have a functioning vomeronasal organ: “Effect of putative pheromones on the electrical activity of the human vomeronasal organ and olfactory epithelium”. Erox Corporation had supplied the ‘putative human pheromones’ androstadienone (AND) and estratetraenol (EST) for the study, and had a clear interest in patenting them.

However, the study has no details of how these molecules were extracted, indentified, bioassayed and supposedly shown to be human pheromones.

In 2000, Jacob and McClintock published a paper “Psychological state and mood effects of steroidal chemosignals in women and men” and used the same ‘putative human pheromones’ in their experiments. This gave the putative human pheromone myth credibility.

Since 2000, there have been more than 40 studies (about 4-5 a year) using androstadienone and/or estratetraenol and these studies have been cited hundreds of times.

How is this possible? Aren’t we supposed to be evidence-based? One of the toughest things about researching human pheromones is the identification and extraction of them. So since it’s easy to purchase AND and EST, researchers seem to default to these. The literature has become self-referential which creates a closed loop of evidence. It’s easy to confuse the volume of work with quality, and in this case there is no lack of literature – just a lack of original evidence. In fact, it is now a commonly held assumption that there really are ‘putative human pheromones’, but nobody seems to have looked at the 1991 source critically.

All fields in science also suffer from positive publication bias (where only positive studies are published and negative ones are not). The worst area for this is psychology, at about 90% of the published work being positive. Since the research into human pheromones falls into this field, and since there have been no Bombykol ‘gold standard’ studies, everything we have on the ‘putative human pheromones’ seems to ultimately rest upon the original rather questionable study.

Now what?

According to Dr. Wyatt, we should approach human pheromone study as though we were a newly discovered species. We should look for ways in which to identify and bioassay pheromones – and he thinks that there might be something in how human babies seem to recognise the odour of their mothers. More importantly, when the scent produced by special glands on the areolas of lactating mothers has been collected and presented to babies, they react to the smell by starting to suck even if the scent was not from their own mother. There could be a mammary pheromone at play. Other things we could do is to compare people pre- and post puberty, but the main problem with all of this is how much more complex human research is, and the desperate lack of funding for olfactory research.

It seems that olfactory research has not been thought of as important even though research for our other senses is. Although we are really looking at fields of biology and psychology, this area is under-funded and could do with a boost. Perhaps it isn’t thought of as vital because people with olfactory disorders can still work and survive in society – or perhaps is seen as too frivolous and unnecessary. It doesn’t bode well for stronger studies in this area and Erox corporation will probably carry on doing quite well out of AND and EST.

Further on the topics discussed:

The Smelly Mystery of Human Pheromones TED talk

The search for human pheromones: the lost decades and the necessity of returning to first principles

MHC-correlated odour preferences in humans and the use of oral contraceptives

The Scent of a Man: to attract a woman by wearing scent, a man must first attract himself

Sexing up the human pheromone story: how a corporation started a scientific myth

Pheromones and Animal Behavior

How animals communicate via pheromones

Pheromone parties

Bombykol

Disclaimer & credits

Any mistakes in this text are mine. Getty Images pictures used under their free embed scheme. Sorry about the ads you might see below (this blog is hosted on the free WordPress servers). This post is based on Dr. Tristram Wyatt’s talk at the Royal Society of Chemistry, arranged jointly by the British Society of Perfumers and Society of Cosmetic Scientists.

Stop what you’re doing and give ODOU your support right now!

Let’s not be coy – I want you to help my friend Liam realise his dream of a high-quality magazine, all about our sense of smell. If you are into olfaction, perfumes, or well-designed, intellectual magazines, you should be reading ODOU.

Obviously this encouragement is partially self-serving – I write for ODOU – but so could you if you have something to say on the topic. Liam is always looking for new voices. So writers, poets, photographers – take note, too.

The magazine has been entirely self-funded so far, and Liam is now hoping to take it beyond that; to a more serious project with a wider distribution. Will you help him?

ODOU KICKSTARTER

Long Lost Smell

Long Lost Smell

If you’ve been reading perfume forums, you’ll have seen the word ‘anosmia’ used casually (a little bit like a sad person might use ‘depressed’ or someone with a headache might use ‘migraine’). There are, of course, specific anosmias (many people can’t smell certain synthetic musks, for example). Total anosmia is a complete loss of smell. Being truly nose-blind.

The scary thing is that it can happen to anyone. A head injury, car accident, bad cold – and your nerves could get so damaged you lose your sense of smell permanently (or worse: get parosmia, where all smells are distorted so that food might taste of excrement and common smells like coffee might make you feel sick, so being in public places suddenly becomes pure torture). Smell and taste are part of the same system – when we eat, the majority of what we think of as taste is actually smell. Aromatic compounds are inhaled through our nose and throat. You can get a glimpse of what eating with no sense of smell feels like if you think back to a time when you had a very bad cold. The loss you experienced temporarily was not complete and that was bad enough to make all the food you ate taste bland.

Why don’t we see sniffer dogs like there are seeing-eye dogs? Why aren’t there TV ads for smell disorder charities? Smell has traditionally been treated by society as banal and unimportant. It has been thought of as ‘animal’ – ergo, not civilised. It has been ignored by governments because if a person loses their sense of smell, they can still work (whereas a blind or a deaf person might not be able to without special help).

Most of us are not really conscious of our sense of smell and even in the perfume communities where people have started thinking about smells more actively, we tend to focus on the hedonistic side of the sense – comparing our impressions and trying to work out what our favourite perfume is made of.

You know that smell they add to gas so humans can detect a leak? An anosmic person would not be made any safer by that. You know how you sniff milk before you pour it into a cup of tea? An anosmic person would not be able to tell if it’s off.

When I was a little girl (6 or 7 years old), I was playing in the second floor bedroom of my friend’s house while her mum was supposed to be watching us. For some inexplicable reason she decided to pop to the shops while we were in her care, and accidentally left a pot boiling on the gas stove.

I suspect that I’ve always been hypersensitive to certain sensory stimuli because there have been many times I’ve smelled or noticed something before anyone around me has. This was luckily one of those times. I smelled smoke and told my playmate about it. She didn’t smell anything and didn’t want to take a look. I insisted, and went downstairs. There was smoke billowing from under the kitchen door. I screamed for my friend and we ran out of the house, leaving the front door open. A neighbour called the fire brigade and took us in.

There are people who are anosmic from birth. Someone with this condition would have been trapped on the second floor of that burning house and may not have made it.

It is said that when we fall in love, we really fall for someone’s smell. Our sense of smell is very important in mate selection. When we kiss, we’re smelling each other. Imagine – what would it be like to never to be able to smell your partner? Your children?

Fifth Sense Logo

There have been charities and support for other sensory loss for decades. Fifth Sense, a charity for people with smell and taste disorders was founded in 2012 and is working to raise awareness of the impact that such conditions have on people’s quality of life and support further research in this area.

Obviously I think this is very important work – not just because of my profession, but because I think there needs to be more awareness of this issue, and much more help for those affected.

Fifth Sense is running an awareness campaign, and they have declared 27th of February as Anosmia Awareness Day. Basenotes will be participating on the day, The Perfume Society‘s Scented Letter has featured Louise Woollam who lost her sense of smell following a cold (and the Guardian will be interviewing her on the 28th of February).

Fifth Sense Founder Duncan Boak is delivering a talk at the ‘Body and the City’ symposium at Goldsmiths College on 27th February. His talk, entitled ‘Connecting Through Smell’, will focus on how the sense of smell forms a crucial emotive connection to the world around us.

Volunteers are also delivering Anosmia Awareness Day leaflets to doctors’ surgeries.

What can we do?

Please donate (even a small amount) on the Fifth Sense donation page.

Please tweet, InstaGram and Facebook about the Anosmia Awareness Day and what you would miss most if you lost your sense of smell, using the hashtag #LongLostSmell – some of your posts will appear on the Fifth Sense Storify page.

LongLostSmelltag

Let’s raise awareness of this important issue!

If today smells of roses

…what do roses smell of?

Some roses smell honeyed, some smell green; some even smell like peaches and cream. Oops, I made a rhyme! I suppose I’m in the spirit of Valentine’s Day after I was treated to a lovely bouquet of velvety-red flower shop roses which smell strongly of… phenylethyl acetate. I did what anyone would upon receiving such a gift – buried my nose in and inhaled deeply.

Valentine's bouquet

At first I thought I still had some phenylethyl acetate stuck up my nose from work (I had been working on a hyacinth accord, which is built around other materials but to which I had added a bit of phenylethyl acetate for its honeyed-green ‘flower shop’ note).

Roses are incredibly varied, not just in appearance, but in scent, too. One of the Lush founders once brought in a peach-coloured rose bud from her garden which smelled very strongly of lemons, and asked me to replicate the scent for her. I made an accord she was so happy with she exclaimed: “It smells better than the real thing!” Needless to say I was delighted she was so pleased, and it made me curious about roses as a garden plant – I am not an expert gardener and hadn’t really explored the types of roses available. Since then I’ve pinned dozens of roses from David Austin Roses and other suppliers, and look forward to seeing which ones I might manage not to kill…

The rose used in perfumery is commonly Rosa damascena which I’ve been lucky enough to smell in the field as the rose pickers deftly pluck whole blooms before sunrise. The petals are gathered in large burlap sacks and taken to the distillery where they’re spread in a large room before processing.

Rosa damascena in burlap sacks
A good rose picker can gather fourty kilos of petals a day and it takes four tonnes of roses to produce just one kilo of rose oil, and one tonne to produce a kilo of rose absolute. These figures are direct quotes from the source, and I have seen the process in action – it’s mind-boggling to see what a sea of roses it takes to fill just one small container with rose oil.

Rosa damascena waiting to be processed

Rose oil is the distillation product, with water-soluble parts left in the distillation water (which is sold as rose water). After distilling twice, a white-yellowish, waxy liquid with a heady, honeyed scent is left; precious and potent, so luckily not much of it is needed in a blend for it to have an effect.

Rose absolute is produced by washing the petals with hexane – a complex process which demands several rounds of washing and rinsing. First, a rose concrete is made, which contains everything you can possibly extract from the petals, including the wax. Rose concrete is stored ‘as is’ sometimes, for later processing (it’s better preserved that way). Once the concrete is washed, you’re left with rose wax and rose absolute. Since the yield is so much better with rose absolute production, this material is several magnitudes less costly than rose oil (rose otto). Rose absolute captures the scent of the rose most accurately, though smelling the blooms on the field, the impression was different again; strong geraniol impression in the morning dew. Roses have to be picked as early in the morning as possible to stop the sun’s rays evaporating too much precious oil. The pickers have to work fast and choose the open blooms.

Rosa damascena in bloom Volatile Fiction

If garden roses are of interest, perhaps a visit to the David Austin gardens at Albrighton might be in order – they have 2 acre gardens with over 700 different rose varieties! I’m definitely going to go there before choosing which roses I’ll plant in my garden.

Rose chemistry is fascinating – there are over 300 chemicals in rose oil, some of which are still unknown to science. While it’s really easy to make a rose-like smell from a handful of basic constituents (phenylethyl alcohol, geraniol, citral, rose oxide…), the real oil and absolute add such complexity that nothing comes close. On the other hand, if one were to aim for an accord which replicates the scent of roses in bloom, first you’d have to pick which rose (the lemony ones? Ones which have a hint of banana? Perhaps the ones that smell like wine?) – and then add creative touches to the rose accord to achieve the desired effect.

Compound Interest publishes fun chemistry posters every week and this time they’ve been looking at flowers:

Compound Interest

I adore what they’re doing (I did write an article about how everything is made of chemicals, and how the whole division of ‘synthetic vs. natural’ is peculiar when looking at safety – aesthetics aside, the origin of a chemical has nothing to do with safety).

I hope your Valentine’s Day is fragrant and if any of you have rose gardening tips, do let me know…

Volatile Fiction shortlisted in the 2015 Jasmine Awards

Jasmine Awards 2015
This blog is a great way to write quite freely; to indulge in longer articles and anything I get excited about. I am grateful that you, the readers, keep coming back, even though you’ll never quite know what to expect.

It is fair to say that the likelihood of perfume featuring here is quite high, and this year I am delighted to be in the illustrious company of some of Britain’s best fragrance bloggers on the Jasmine Blogger Award shortlist! Congratulations to everyone who has earned a nomination this year – it is brilliant to see good fragrance writing celebrated in this way, and best of luck to all nominees.

The Fragrance Foundation is uploading the shortlisted articles here, bit by bit, so do check them out (it’s a good opportunity to read articles in the print categories as well).

The award ceremony will be held at the BAFTAs on the 18th of March. I’m looking forward to cheering my friends along again. It’s going to be a really fragrant day – I am going to a BSP lecture about the mechanism of olfaction by Charles Sell that same evening. Look out for a write-up about that here afterwards.