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On scent, we've barely scratched the surface

November 04, 2004|Steven Barrie-Anthony | Times Staff Writer

Peek into the fragrant life of Danielle Roska. After waking up to the "fresh air" linen smell she sprays on her sheets, she slips on vanilla-scented slippers and heads to the kitchen, pulls a mug from her lemon-scented dish strainer and steeps a cup of tangerine tea.

Her unnaturally scented day has only just begun.

Roska grabs her strawberry-scented soap and hits the shower, moisturizes with "buttery raspberry body lotion" and finishes up with "mulled cider body cologne." Her car greets her with a fresh cucumber air freshener, and she toils at work with a mint-scented pen.

Back home, she moves between rooms known by plug-in scent as much as purpose: cinnamon stick in the living room, buttercream in the home office, and Macintosh apple in the bedroom. "As I'm getting into bed, I put on cookies and cream foot cream," says Roska, the 27-year-old creator of the 16-month-old retail website

Scented products are increasingly dominating our homes, our cars and our lives.

"Scent is absolutely one of the key driving forces of today," says Marshal Cohen of the market research firm NPD Group. "We're seeing it enter into many businesses. In the apparel and cosmetic industries, in home furnishings, accessories, food, the auto industry.... The scent industry has -- forgive the pun -- not even scratched the surface."

Follow your nose and you'll discover lavender-scented rugs, eucalyptus-scented pillow-covers, jasmine-scented mattress pads and chocolate-scented socks. Who needs a morning cup of java when you can inhale the coffee-scented watch you bought on impulse from Or the Nokia cellphone with the coffee-infused faceplate sitting on your bedside table?

"Everything is going to smell, to the point where there's a conflict of smells," Cohen says. "Smells are going to start fighting each other."

Some would argue that they already have. Scents that soothe one person irritate another, and perfumed products, like secondhand smoke, wind their way into unsuspecting nostrils.

"This is more complex than the tobacco issue ever was," says Betty Bridges, founder of the Fragranced Products Information Network and one of a number of people nationwide who say they get sick when subjected to chemicals found in scented products.

Bridges lives in a world where a sleepover has the potential to turn into a giant smellfest -- if you don't forget your scented PJs. "I Need a Barbecue Man" pajamas are infused with a "tangy barbecue sauce" scent, while "I Need a Handyman" provides a whiff of cedar and "I Need a Lawnmower Man" the odor of fresh-cut grass.

Because scent recipes are considered trade secrets -- and fragrance manufacturers are not required to divulge the ingredients -- Bridges spent eight years trying to isolate the chemical that made her sick. A sympathetic fragrance chemist finally identified the ingredients and helped her solve the riddle.

Enough people have complained about scents to spur organizations such as Kaiser Permanente and Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital to adopt fragrance-free workplace policies. But Bridges and others say that even the good-intentioned have trouble staying scent-free: Many soaps marked "unscented" actually contain fragrances to mask the odor of other ingredients.

"I have a good quality of life, but the logistics of it are difficult," Bridges says. "I had to go to my kids' high school graduation wearing a respirator-type mask. The social isolation is difficult at times."

A few new products hint at the high-tech olfaction to come. Take the 2005 C4, a midsize by French automaker Citroen: "The C4's most exciting feature," writes Automobile Magazine, "is a cartridge that drops into the interior air vent and dispenses perfume...." Then there's Scentstories, a home fragrance machine released in August by Procter & Gamble that retails for $34.99 and "plays" scent cartridges that look like CDs, complete with individual "tracks." (The "album" called "Wandering Barefoot on the Shore" for instance, cycles through such scents as "Under the Palms," "Splashing in the Waves" and "Sailing in the Bay.")

Why has scent become an all-present force in modern life as well as a critical marketing tool? Because, of the five senses, scent is the least controllable (we can hold our breath, but not for long) and the most direct. Because the corridors of memory are lined with smells from the past. Marcel Proust knew this when he shut himself in his cork-lined room and conjured "Remembrance of Things Past" from the aroma of literature's most famous cookie, that tea-soaked madeleine.

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