What Is Behind Perfume's Recent Obsession With Chemistry?

A look at the growing trend of melding science with scent.
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Nomenclature fragrances. Photo: @nati.ko/Instagram

Nomenclature fragrances. Photo: @nati.ko/Instagram

Perfume, like much of the rest of the beauty landscape, is changing. Companies are moving toward smarter marketing and packaging in order to meet the demand for authenticity and more transparent products. They're also moving away from a model that depends heavily on celebrity-endorsed or -inspired fragrances. Paris Hilton may still be churning out fragrances when we meet Armageddon, but it's no longer clear that this what the consumer wants, at least for millennials and the generations that follow. (Sorry, Paris.)

It's in this context that the fragrance industry has experienced a rising trend of chemistry-centric perfumes. The first one I came across was the unisex Molecule 01 by Escentric Molecules, which is somewhat of a polarizing scent in the perfume industry. Consumers tend to either love or hate it, but even its detractors have to admit that it's fairly groundbreaking. The product's innovation stems from its simplicity: Molecule 01 features only a single ingredient, ISO E Super, often used as a base for more complex perfume formulas. It's also regarded for generating pheromone-like effects. Molecule 01 is often said to be undetectable to the wearer, but also to "create an indefinable aura around the wearer," according to the brand's product description. Its ultimate aroma is determined by how the formula itself reacts to the wearer's body chemistry, meaning the end result is a signature scent with unique fragrance fingerprint that can't be replicated on others. (And we all know fashion people place high value on an individualistic approach to perfume.)

Another brand focusing on creating "molecular perfume" — wherein the formula's molecules create a chemical reaction with the wearer's skin — is Nomenclature, founded by Carlos Quintero and Karl Bradl. Quintero and Bradl cite Halston Catalyst and Comme des Garçons Synthetic Series alongside Molecule 01 as the OGs of the molecular scent movement. Additionally, Quintero and Bradl point out that many perfumers actually come from a science background, making this a marriage of convenience. As they describe it, when perfumers develop fragrances they are literally writing out chemical formulas to compound "solutions," but then translating those to notes and accords. Young new brands have begun to highlight this relationship — Nomenclature, for example, was created to "let you experience the turning points of the last 100 years of perfume history in beautiful modern compositions."

The partnership between chemistry and fragrance is especially present in the men's cologne space. Hawthorne, a new men's fragrance company sells only two scents — "Work" and "Play" — that are each tailored to meet the wearer's specific lifestyle and skin chemistry according to an extensive online questionnaire. The brand's co-founder Brian Jeong credits the change in consumer preferences for the uptick in science focused or bespoke fragrance companies. "Consumers want to know what is going into these fragrances that they are applying to their bodies, and the traditional brands typically don't disclose this information," he says. "Fragrance formulas are considered trade secrets." 

He also identifies the main reasons that chemistry has come to the forefront of the industry: "Fragrance houses are investing heavily into creating unique chemical creations… as well as the financial incentive of owning the rights to a new chemical creation in a hit fragrance." A brand like Hawthorne can work with individual customers to make sure that they "get to know each of our customers on a personal and biometric level to make sure we deliver a fragrance they like out of the bottle but grow to love as they wear it on their skin."

William Yin is the CEO of Scent Trunk, a company that offers a similar (yet much more financially accessible) bespoke service. In his view, customers are more interested in these individualized, scientifically backed perfumes, as they tend to place less value on celebrity endorsements, instead favoring "unique scents which align with their preferences or identity." For him, the chemistry association "is another way of saying 'this is for you,' and we're make sure of that by digging into the essence of what makes a perfume a perfume."

That form of hyper-personalization is something that's become more prevalent of late, especially as millennials and Gen Zers have increasingly sought out brands that proffer uniqueness and authenticity. Perfumer Ineke Ruhland, whose eponymous fragrance line includes a citrus perfume grounded in skin-scent interaction called Chemical Bonding, is quick to point out the generational demand for this type of product. "Millennials are more interested in the process behind things, in knowing what is going on beneath the surface," she says. "They've figured out that designers like Ralph Lauren or Giorgio Armani are not in a lab mixing ingredients for their fragrances."

Geza Schoen, founder of Escentric Molecules, notes that consumer fatigue with traditional perfumes has helped spur the general rise of the science-focused perfume. "Do you think it is really exciting for the client to hear for the umpteenth time that there is bergamot, rose or patchouly in fragrance? Marketing is always looking for something new and of course it is much more exciting to talk about an ingredient which is not one of those naturals."

While changing consumer desires are obviously a large part of the rise of the chemistry perfume, the other side of the story is simply an increase in technological advancement and innovation. Ex Nihilo co-founder Benoit Verdier explains that the advent of synthetics — beginning with the first use of lab-produced aldehydes, in Chanel No. 5 — opened the door to "a lot of creative possibilities for the perfumers." He emphasizes that chemistry has become an integral part of perfumery, and that highlighting it "is a smart answer to consumer curiosity as well as a nice marketing opportunity." Even a brand like Ex Nihilo, which focuses on natural materials, aims to "reinvent the classics" with the aid of synthetics available to them through these scientific advances.

As the consumer becomes both increasingly informed and increasingly fickle, it's becoming ever more apparent that perfume brands have to do more in order to carve out a consumer base for their products. So far, personalization, transparency and a scientific approach seems to be a promising route. In other words: Watch out, Fairy Dust by Paris Hilton. Test Tube by Bill Nye might be just around the corner.

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