From the moment we wake up--possibly on sheets washed in detergent scented to convince us they were freshly dried in the sun--we are bombarded with a dizzying smorgasbord of smells.
Our toothpastes, shampoos, bath soaps, water softeners, baby powders, mouthwashes, shaving creams, underarm deodorants, shower gels, hair sprays, hand lotions and other cosmetics nearly always carry distinctive fragrances . . . not to mention all the perfumes, colognes and after-shaves we then pour on. Even dental floss is likely to reek of cinnamon or peppermint.
Cabbage Patch Kids now come in scented and unscented versions. Barbie, not to be outdone, arrives with her own tiny vial of perfume.
Newspaper advertising sections feature scratch-'n'-sniff patches so humans can sample the odor of bacon-flavored dog food. "Aromatherapy" products--in which odor is a strong selling point--promise more tranquil baths or more invigorating showers--with research claims to back them up.
Magazines dotted with fragrance strips resemble portable perfume stores. Highly scented lingerie shops remind some of French brothels.
And even garbage smells fresher lately since lemon-scented trash bags hit the market. If your nose is already on tilt just thinking about the daily odorama it encounters, consider that the saturation point for smells may not be reached yet.
In our immediate future, experts say, will be perfumed lamp shades, paneling and furniture (scented to invoke olfactory memories of a mountain retreat or beachside villa), plastic bottles that smell like what's inside (a ploy to deter consumers from opening bottles to smell the contents) and, perhaps, entire buildings scented via air-conditioning ducts.
In the wake of this scenting of America, research and concern are mounting.
Some enthusiasts speculate that mood-altering smells will become the "Muzak of the '90s," improving lives by reducing stress, heightening alertness and productivity, deepening relaxation, inducing sleep and more.
On the other hand, allergists, dermatologists and environmental experts caution that some people may be adversely affected by increased fragrance use, and that indoor air in most buildings is already polluted enough.
In any case, the wooing of the nose is on.
According to Annette Green, vice president of the Fragrance Research Fund (which awards perfume industry-funded research grants to scientists studying the psychological and physiological effects of scents), "the whole area is really just breaking loose."
According to Yale's William Cain, a fellow of the John B. Pierce Foundation and a professor of environmental health and psychology, we are in a transition zone between using fragrances for personal aesthetics and expecting functional benefits from them.
"We've known from time immemorial that fragrances also influence how we feel, whether it's to make us feel energized, relaxed or sexy," Cain says. ". . . But there's so much research and background that needs to be understood before these (mood-altering fragrances) can be brought
out in terms of commercial products."
Even with minimal scientific research, though, large-scale applications are being tested.
"I think we're going to be in the same situation (as Muzak)," predicts Tony Leardi, director of applications for Tagasako International, a leading-edge fragrance firm in Rockleigh, N.J. With Japan's Shimizu Construction (which Leardi says is the world's third largest construction company), Tagasako is developing a technology for computer-controlled pumping of scent into buildings via air-conditioning ducts.
Probing Its Effects
This year, two pilot projects--a rest station and a retirement home--opened in Japan to test the notion that such a system would have a positive effect on people, much as pleasant lighting and certain colors do.
In the meantime, dozens of researchers in universities around the United States are conducting experiments to see whether, if properly employed, smell really can affect lives for the better.
In Green's view, preliminary results are encouraging. More conservative researchers believe it is too soon to tell, but they say the field is clearly worth investigating and the possibilities are endless.
"Some of the questions we've been asked are, 'Can you reduce aggression on the subways of New York with odors?' . . . (And) a truck manufacturer called me to see if there's an odor they can spray in the truck to keep drivers more alert," says Susan Schiffman, a clinical psychologist on the staff of Duke University Medical Center.
Like Smelling Salts
Schiffman believes that getting fragrances to achieve these and other objectives is well within the realm of possibility.
"Smelling salts for years have been known to keep people alert because they stimulate the trigeminal nerve. You know how, if you smell ammonia, you kind of perk up?"