What Is a Functional Fragrance?

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When Nette launched its new Pear Jam scent at Sephora this week, it was more than just a bright, fruit-floral spring fragrance—it focused on functionality.

While the term “functional fragrance” may still be a bit undefined, Nette’s founder and CEO Carol Han Pyle says that, to her, a functional fragrance is one that is science-backed to have specific benefits to the wearer. 

“I’ve always loved the term ‘functional luxury’ and I think if a brand dedicates the time and resources to making sure that their fragrances have actual data behind them, that is the ultimate luxury—a gorgeous, complex fragrance made with the absolute best ingredients by the top perfumers working today that will also make you feel happier, more confident, more relaxed.”

While Pyle says she thinks “every brand is likely different and there aren’t a lot of brands making scientifically backed functional fragrances right now,” at Nette, the goal is to create fragrances to make the community “feel.” 

“For Pear Jam, I knew that I wanted to focus on joy and happiness, feeling uplifted,” she explains. “So that was a huge part of the initial brief. Then, we worked with our fragrance house’s internal department that focuses solely on the science of scent in relation to human emotion. There is an in-house team of data scientists, neuroscientists, perfumers, etc., that are constantly testing and researching both ingredients and formulations.”

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How Does a Functional Fragrance Connect to the Mind and Mood?

Likewise, for Pacifica’s new full “functional fragrance” line—three plant-based fragrances and face and body mists—it’s all about the neuroscience.

“Functional fragrances are wellness tools that are designed to positively affect your mind and mood—and those who smell you, too,” says Pacifica Beauty CEO and founder, Brook Harvey-Taylor, who is also an aromatherapist. “At Pacifica, we call our functional fragrances Aromapower, which represents the combination of aromatherapy and classic perfuming.”

Besides smelling “incredible,” Harvey-Taylor says the new Pacifica scents also have functional benefits. “We use ingredients backed by neuroscience, shown to elicit a positive experience. We also use natural ingredients in our blends because they work with your body’s own chemistry to add to what’s already you—expect your scent to smell differently on you than it does on a friend. We believe that scent can allow us to transcend time and space, bringing us back to memories and places while inspiring us forward.”

To that end, the brand has made a very fine-tuned formula with a time-tested history: “We have partnered with a perfume house that we have worked with for the last 28 years to create these blends. We are using a set of ingredients that have been clinically studied using the instrumental measurements, as well as a self-evaluation to characterize the psycho-emotional state of the subject when smelling the specific odors. We use these scents in our natural grain alcohol perfumes as well as our water-based hair and body mists.”

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Over at DedCool—which, besides spray-on fragrance, offers everything from laundry detergent to car fresheners—founder Carina Chaz considers all of her fragrance formulations to be “highly functional, containing a proprietary organic blend of 21 mood-boosting plant extracts that have anti-inflammatory properties to support well-being.”

She also doesn’t think the definition of a functional fragrance is a “one-size-fits-all” solution. “There are many ways fragrance can be functional, this can mean formulation, but it can also mean scent profile. But consumers can understand that fragrance and scent profiles have the power to boost and elevate moods.”



What Makes a Functional Fragrance “Personal?”

In a move that’s beyond a mist, Harvey-Taylor says the products also offer a very personal connection. “Scent can enhance our lives and our experiences. There is an abundance of clinical evidence that shows how scent can play an important role in our mood and even be used as a tool to reset triggers and lessen stress. I lost my sense of smell when I got COVID a year and a half ago and I found it incredibly depressing; I had to start thinking about perfuming in a very psychological way. I had to really pull apart the balance of notes in creating formulas. This transported me towards a new way of viewing perfuming and re-rethinking the science behind our sense of smell. I became totally obsessed with adding clinically studied natural materials into our perfumes to scientifically benefit people’s well-being.”

But, Harvey-Taylor stresses it is also important to remember scent is a lot more than science.

“Scent is a powerful connector. I believe it can connect us in ways we can’t even understand to our past, to others, and to memories. 

My view is that we as a culture are constantly moving into different phases—we vacillate between the whimsical and the stripped down. Big sociopolitical events can lead us into phases of maximalism. We want to be moved, we want to feel things, we want to experience life to the fullest. Scent is a part of that. I think our culture feels this way right now, and Aromapower is a response to that. We’re overwhelmed, we’re overjoyed, and we all want to live our best lives. Experiential scent allows us to take perfume to that next step.”

Pyle also adds that she looks at functional fragrances as being something that can help get you through the day. That they can be such an amazing tool for boosting your mood throughout your day. I have specific fragrances in our collection that I pull out depending on what I need. If I’m about to go into an important meeting and need a boost of confidence, I’m spraying Thé Vanille ($120). And if I just need a lift out of the doldrums, I reach for Pear Jam.”

What Is the Difference Between Functional Fragrance and Aromatherapy?

While everyone interviewed for this article stressed that functional fragrance is “fluid,” biochemist Dr. Anna Persaud, CEO of aromatherapy-based brand This Works, says there is a “big difference” between a scent that smells great and an aroma that has been found to affect the central (CNS) or peripheral nervous system (PNS) under clinical conditions.

“At This Works, assessing the impact of an aroma would involve a robust scientific protocol such as the use of functional MRI brain imaging, EEG measurements and actigraphy,” she explains. “We first started using the term ‘functional fragrance’ back in 2017 inspired by our research collaboration with Prof G Badre and his team of neuroscientists.”

Today, the brand still uses the term “functional fragrance” in many of the ranges, including Deep Sleep ($33) (a fragrance that has undergone multiple sleep trials of more than 900 subjects to validate its efficacy in helping people achieve better sleep quality), Perfect Body ($54), and Morning Expert ($23). “But we only use this term if the fragrance has been assessed clinically and compared to a placebo or a baseline reading,” says Dr. Persaud. “We define functional fragrance as having an additional physiological effect upon the body, typically through interactions with the limbic system, which in turn can stimulate the sympathetic (fight or flight) or parasympathetic (rest and digest) systems. The stimulation of these two systems can be via the brain or peripheral nervous system (PNS). The PNS includes all the nervous system outside of the brain and spinal cord. By stimulating or depressing these neuro systems, the fragrance and touch can help to elicit a mood change such as preparing the mind for rest or sleep or activating areas of the brain associated with executive function, decision making, focus or reward.”



Plus, she stresses underpinning all of this is good quality empirical evidence, conducted independently to validate the assertion made.

“Consumers should check the data and studies behind the functional fragrance claims, looking for those that have valid and robust scientific data behind them. It is also worth remembering that as the area of the brain that interprets aroma and the area linked to memory are close together, we will often have a strong emotional reaction to a fragrance that reminds us of a good, or bad, experience. Since this familiar fragrance has a direct impact on the brain, it could also be considered functional and applicable to anything, but a true functional fragrance will have a physiological function or psychological function outside of this emotional memory recall through olfactory stimulation.”

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