The human sense of smell is often underestimated. In the 1920s, a study was conducted suggesting that the number of distinct smells the human nose could detect was approximately 10,000. More recent research indicates that the human olfactory sense can actually detect 1 trillion distinct scents, far exceeding the previous estimate. Another study organized these into 10 categories of basic smells. Understanding these categories can help you choose fragrances for your home or office.
Learning the Language of Fragrances
Describing even basic smells in words has always been a challenge. Perhaps it is because we are capable of detecting so many different scents or because they evoke such a primal reaction in us. The parts of the brain that process olfactory data are close to the memory centers but far away from the language centers, which has sometimes been cited as a reason for the difficulty.
Nevertheless, makers of perfume and fragrances need to have a way to describe them to each other. As in many other industries, they came up with their own jargon. Some of the terms used in perfumery can be esoteric to laypeople. For example, you may not know how to pronounce “chypre,” let alone what it smells like, but perfume makers would know immediately.
Fortunately, the research into the 10 basic smells was conducted by scientists, not perfumiers, so the names of the categories are more descriptive than jargonistic. The main thing you have to understand prior to a discussion of the basic smell categories is that ingredients in fragrances are called notes. A fragrance, even a simple one, usually consists of at least three notes:
- The top notes are what you smell first.
- The middle notes make up the body of the fragrance.
- The bottom notes last the longest.
Each of the 10 categories of basic smells contains thousands of notes that, while different and distinct, have qualities in common with one another.
Explaining the Categories of Basic Smells
The 10 basic categories of smells are analogous to the five distinct tastes that human beings are said to be able to distinguish on the tongue: salty, sour, sweet, bitter, and savory. Because the sense of smell is more complex, there are more categories of smells than of tastes, but just as the different flavors blend together to give us an impression of what we are tasting, so do different chemical scent components in different ratios give us an olfactory profile.
Because not all smells are pleasant, some of the basic categories contain smells that most human beings would prefer to avoid, such as decaying smells or pungent odors. For obvious reasons, these scents are not included in fragrances, so there is no reason to discuss them further.
The notes that you do find in fragrances each fit into one of the following categories.
Citrus fruits, such as lemons or oranges, have a high acid content. This gives them a distinctive sharp aroma. Citrus scents often give the impression of freshness, which is why they are used in so many household cleaners.
The name of each of the categories of basic smells describes the impression that a note gives rather than its actual source. Thus, there are notes included in this category that aren’t actually citrus fruits at all, such as lemongrass.
This is a category for the scents of non-citrus fruits, such as apples, watermelons, pomegranates, mangoes, and so on. Such fruits tend to be less acidic than citruses and often have higher sugar content, so their smells tend to be sweeter without the sharp, tangy quality that citrus scents have. Because this is such a broad category containing so many different notes, there is a wide variety in the scents it contains. Some fruit notes, such as apples, have a light, crisp, airy scent. Others, such as mangoes, are thick, heavy, and syrupy.
The fragrant category is another broad one that contains a wide variety of notes. All floral scents, such as rose, lilac, and jasmine, are included in this category. Despite the fact that each of their aromas is wildly different from one another, each has an identifiable floral quality that distinguishes it from other categories.
Caramel, vanilla, and chocolate are all examples of notes included in the sweet category. Besides their obvious sugary quality, their scents are often described as creamy, rich, and warm.
Eucalyptus, camphor, and peppermint are all examples of notes included in the minty category. Chemicals contained in the leaves of plants such as these give them their distinctive cool, fresh quality. Minty scents have an invigorating quality, and their coolness makes them popular during the warm summer months.
Toasted smells usually have a nutty quality. Popcorn and peanut butter are examples of distinctive notes in this category. Almonds are another example. The way the notes are typically prepared has something to do with the quality of the individual scents. For example, popcorn doesn’t really have a smell until it has been heated sufficiently for the kernel to burst out of its hull.
Woody notes are natural scents, such as spruce, pine, or cedar. In some cases, the scent that you detect is actually the sap of the tree, so these notes are sometimes also referred to as resinous. This category can also include burnt smells like wood smoke.
By definition, chemical scents are synthetic rather than natural. In terms of pleasantness versus unpleasantness, the chemical category is an edge case. Many of the scents it includes are unpleasant to most people, such as gasoline or ammonia. At the same time, this is the smell of many disinfectants, which some people like because they indicate cleanliness. Alcohol is another example of a chemical smell, and some colognes contain notes of strong alcoholic beverages, such as gin, bourbon, or cognac.
Choosing Basic Smells for Home Fragrances
Scents and fragrances are deeply personal. What is pleasant to other people may not be so for you, and vice versa. Your preferences may also change due to external factors such as the change of seasons. We understand that tastes in basic smells vary, which is why we offer a wide range of appealing fragrances for your home or office. Try one of our sample packs to discover fragrances that work for you.