The sway of flapper fringe that defined a generation of liberated women in the 1920's inspired the creation of Chanel No. 5. Nine decades later the world's best selling perfume now defines the smell of baby products. The Perfume Heretic, who is not a fan of Chanel No. 5 says, "A cheap knockoff of Chanel No. 5 is now the default scent of almost all baby shampoo."
The Perfume Heretic is not alone in her opinion. A page on Facebook is dedicated to the fact that Chanel No. 5 Smells like baby wipes. Conversations on fragrance boards across the web reflect similar observations with regard to baby products that smell like Chanel No. 5. Most opinions are fixed on the powdery notes in the perfume. Is this an example of the trickle down effect (when an expensive luxury product influences the introduction of cheaper versions to the market) or is there something happening on a cultural level that influences what appears to be an unlikely parallel? The answer is yes—to both.
Aromatic ingredients provide a tangible foundation for understanding scent's ability to shape memory, especially when raw materials are identified alongside olfactory descriptors. The universal "manufactured smell of babies" is built on the aroma of perfumed talcum powder, which is applied to skin to absorb wetness and to deodorize. By itself, talcum powder smells neutral and somewhat clay-like. When consumers refer to the smell of powder they are usually referencing ionone molecules found in the root of the Florentine Iris (also known as orris root). Ionones possess a quality of tenacity that resembles the experience one has in the presence dusting powder after it's been applied (when you can see the powder in the air). Ionones derived from orris root smell cool, steely and violet-like.
Historically speaking, perfumes added to talcum powder vary based on function. Rose is commonly added to face powder and luxury dusting powders, adding an element of boudoir to associations with powder. Orange flower, lavender and orris root are ingredients associated with wig powder which was popular with men in the 18th century. When it comes to understanding the relationship humans have with "powder", in all its scented forms, one must examine powder's functional purpose and associated aesthetics. Perfumes added to baby products add a refreshing quality to the experience of diaper changing and bathing, something that makes the unpleasant smells encountered during these rituals tolerable. The smell of baby products are associated with cleanliness, innocence and new life, qualities which are reinforced each time pampering products are applied.
The aromatic palette of "baby powder smell" varies based on culture, climate and rituals associated with new life. For instance, the smell of rose and vanilla are favored in baby products sold in the United States, (rose being a Victorian influence that cast its spell in the New World). Babies in France and Spain are perfumed with products that include the scent of orange blossom, a flower that is common to both countries and part of each country's flavor and fragrance culture. Floralcy aside, powder notes in most baby product formulas are derived from ionones. In this respect the smell of powder is a bridge to "baby smell" cultures.
In an article titled "Ah, There's Nothing Like New Baby Smell" New York Times science reporter Douglas Quenqua asked me to describe the smell of baby products. I offered the following olfactory descriptors; powdery (dry, chalk-like, violet), aldehydic (soapy, fresh, citrus), lactonic (milk-like, creamy), fruity (apple), floral (rose, violet, orange blossom), vanillic (woody, balsamic, sweet), and musky (clean, fresh and sweet). Two types of musk commonly used in baby products are galaxolide and ethylene brassylate. Both musks, with their superhero-like names, support the structure of a fragrance formula and are the last notes to evaporate on skin. They are also featured in most luxury perfume formulas which make them familiar strangers when they migrate from fine fragrance to functional fragrance.
The skin of a baby that has been dusted with powder and massaged with lotion possesses its own scent, which is veiled by the cultural interpretation of "baby smell" in pampering rituals. Delicate bottoms are powdered for comfort. Protective unguents are used to keep baby's skin free from irritation, most notably barrier creams which have the tenacity of Vernix caseosa, the wax-like, milky "human cold cream" which protects the fetus in utero and has a fatted lactonic aroma. New life has an inherent quality of freshness which is why some baby care products have a crisp apple note in the fragrance formula, (double symbolism here as a baby is the fruit of the womb and the apple is the fruit of temptation which led to the existence of the baby in the first place).
If aromatic plants smell extraordinary at first bloom why should human children be any different? Humans and plants are part of the same ecosystem. Can you imagine a baby born without a natural aroma? Author Patrick Süskind did when he created Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, the protagonist in "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. As a foundling, this bastard child of an infanticidal mother possessed a peculiar characteristic that unhinged his caretakers; he lacked a natural aroma. As an adult, Grenouille combined his hyperosmic sense of smell and skill as a perfumer with an inherited proclivity towards murder. He procured the essence of virgins via enfleurage to forge his own identity via perfume. Grenouille was the ultimate narcissist, extracting the essence of others to obtain power and a sense of self. The charade proved destructive.
There is a parallel between the innocence with which one comes into the world and the innocence lost to the pleasure and power of sex. Both mark the start of a new beginning. Nothing traverses these two seemingly contradictory worlds better than perfume. A perfect example is the similarity between Chanel No. 5 and the scent of Johnson and Johnson Baby Shampoo (original formula). Perfumer Yann Vasnier of Givaudan confirms the similarity: "Baby products have used popular fragrances as inspiration and Chanel No. 5 is probably the clearest example. The parts used in Chanel No. 5 that have influenced baby products are: the aldehyde accord, rosy notes, jasmine notes, ionones and methyl ionones (from orris root), balsams, coumarin, vanilla and musks (especially nitro musks* which are commonly used in baby products). The addition of orange flower and salicylates are also used as these shape a softer and cleaner rendition in a baby product formula." *Nitro musks are no longer used in fine fragrance in Europe and have been replaced by polycyclic musks. They are also less commonly used in the United States.
The formula for Chanel No. 5, created by perfumer Ernest Beaux, steered clear of floral bouquets and worshipful soliflore compositions (perfumes inspired by single floral essences) that were typical of perfumery in the first half of the 20th century. This was achieved by several natural and synthetic ingredients in Chanel No. 5's formula, the most well known being an aldehyde accord that included 12-carbon aldehyde 2-methylundecanal (a molecule which appears in the skin of kumquats). Other raw materials in the formula worked in combination to gently sublimate the immediate floralcy of rose and jasmine, including ylang-ylang, a tropical smelling flower that is at once woody, balsamic and creamy. Aldehydes produced the effect that answered Coco Chanel's desire for a fragrance that smelled like freshly scrubbed skin. The feeling of "powder" in this fragrance comes from a touch of ionones. Knowing the olfactory qualities of the aroma chemistry in Chanel No. 5 makes it easy to understand why aspects of the perfume would be co-opted in baby products; baby products are about cleanliness and freshness.
Dressing the skin in a perfume that is reminiscent of the smell of babies allows the wearer to indulge in the ultimate of beginnings; that of new life. When looked at through an archetypal lens what appears to be fetishist on the surface is transformed into something that makes perfect sense. An infant is innocent, fresh and filled with potential. These qualities can be resurrected throughout the life cycle as there are degrees of innocence in life that have nothing to do with sex, (something the fragrance industry should take advantage of).
Those that find aldehydic perfumes bitter and overbearing should steer clear of the Eau de Toilette version of Chanel No. 5 and try the Eau de Parfum and Parfum versions. Chanel No. 5 Eau Premiere is completely devoid of the cold aldehydic slap that offends some noses. The formulaic tinkering by former house perfumer Jacques Polge would probably infuriate Ernest Beaux if he were alive today as Beaux's love of aldehydes comes from personal memories of Russian winters.
The Eau de Parfum version of Chanel No. 5 is a knockout. The base, middle and dry down phases are distinct, and the shift from clean to complex is downright sexy (it takes 8 hours for the full effect at the EDP concentration so the aromatic shifts are like little presents that unwrap themselves on your skin). Ernest Beaux's memories of icy Russian winters are transformed to a tropical paradise in the drydown which smolders of tonka bean, jasmine and ylang ylang. Wear Chanel No. 5 EDP when it's snowing and start your day in the story of the scent. Let serendipity determine where it takes you. You might experience what Liesl Loves Pretty Things did; an olfactory revelation that transcends associations with baby powder.
Powder notes aren't the only aromas that ring the "baby smell" bell in the olfactory minds of perfumistas and consumers; polycyclic musk notes that have replaced nitromusks are ubiquitous. Take a trip to Whole Foods and smell Oriental Musk by Kuumba Made and you'll find it hard not to nose trip on baby memories.
Glass Petal Smoke recommends reading "From Rallet No. 1 to Chanel No. 5". The article appeared in the October 2007 edition of Perfumer and Flavorist and offers interesting insights with regard to the use of aldehydes in perfumery and the work of perfumer Ernest Beau.
Jean-Louis Froment curated "No. 5 Culture Chanel" at Palais de Tokyo in 2013. The exhibition is now online and a "must see" for fans of Chanel No. 5.
Perfumers Françoise Caron and Pierre Bourdon used functional product association to advantage when they re-purposed an aroma used to scent vintage face powder in the formulation of Jean Charles Brosseau's Ombre Rose (L'Original). Consumers instantly recognized something familiar and nostalgic in the powder notes and continue to be drawn to its powdery feminine bouquet. The fragrance, which is quite beautiful, can be found in drugstores and online.
The layered graphic at the start of this post is built around a Chanel No. 5 perfume bottle. It has a hidden image; my goddaughter Francesca. Her head is in the blue portion by the bottle and you can see her eye to the left of the cap, her body is behind the bottle. This is a purposeful design as the "smell of babies" doesn't dominate Chanel No. 5; it's one of countless olfactory aspects.
Woman Blowing Powder off Powder Puff by Gjon Mili. Rights revert back to the artist.
Graphic of Grenouille from Perfume: The Story of a Murderer illustrated by dodochiyu. Rights revert back to the artist.
"L'Oiseau volage" by artist Georges Barbier is from the book The Romance of Perfume by Richard La Gallienne.
Photograph of Chanel: Livre d'Artistes, a by Irma Boom, from the No. 5 Culture Chanel exhibit. The book utilizes embossing instead of ink and is available for purchase online. It is a limited edition.
The layered graphic at the end of this post is built around a Chanel No. 5 perfume bottle and a beautiful image of Gabrielle Chanel from the No. 5 Culture Chanel exhibit. What you don't see is who she's looking at; Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovitch. It's in the "A Love Story" section of the site. The photographer is anonymous. The picture was taken in 1921.