As the perfumed scent of date night this Valentine’s Day still lingers in your heart and mind…and maybe also in your date night dress; you may be contemplating with a smile on your face, just how it is that the special scent of your partner- woman or man, could leave such a lasting impression and so powerfully affect your emotional state. Right!?

Well, I believe in the magic and muse of love. I consider myself a hopeful romantic. So, the answer can not be all about biochemistry and science… And, that said, the art of attraction as far as scent is concerned IS part science. And in fact, there is a $ 4 Billion USD/year industry in the US; $43 Billion USD/ year industry worldwide, that literally capitalizes on the powerful emotional impact of scent in our lives.

In this article, I’ll focus on “Fragrance” and the shroud of mystery around the power, potency, and potentially negative side effects of “ fragrant scent” on our health-environment that I discovered recently at Shiftcon 2018– premiere natural health & wellness forum. But first, let’s take a quick bio look at the scent of smell in our bodies; in our lives.

The Power of Scent

Normally, when we sense our world- see, hear, touch, or taste something; this information goes first to our thalamus relay center, which in turn sends this sense to relevant parts of the brain, like the hippocampus-responsible for memory, or the amygdala- an important center for processing emotions. Now, with the sense of smell (e.g. the scent of a woman or man); it’s different. Scents bypass the thalamus relay center and go straight to the brain’s olfactory bulb— a very ancient part of the brain that drives emotion, motivation, memory; as well, directly connects to the hippocampus, amygdala, and central nervous system. Meaning, smell above all other senses has the power to immediately and intensely trigger memory and intense emotion… with a lasting effect.

Further, humans have at least 1,000 smell receptors to smell our world, opposed to 4 types of light sensors for sight and 4 types of receptors for touch. So, our sense of smell is also 10, 000 times more sensitive and refined than any other sense. And, if the orbito-frontal cortex (judgement center on sensory input) deems the scent linger-worthy, then we store these vivid smell memories for a long time (perhaps a lifetime) in a part of the olfactory bulb called the piriform cortex, the archive of our living legacy memories. Wow! That’s pungent!

And, we already naturally intelligently know this to be true. Again, as you reflect back to your Valentine’s Day adventure, or other memorable events with significant others; like first dates, weddings, anniversaries; can’t you just smell it? Or how about memories of family members passed? Can’t you just smell the scent of your father and his favorite cologne gifted him every Christmas; or grandma, and her favorite rose soap? What about the scent of special places? As anyone well-traveled in the Arab world will attest, people in the Middle East are obsessed with scent. Whether it’s an infusion of incense, like bakhoor and/or a layering of multiple oils and attars (musk, oud, rose, or jasmine); there is a distinct and powerful scent (albeit 100’s of different mixes of musky, earthy, enigmatic, sparkly scent) that characterizes the Middle East…and that lingers. Of course, India, known for her extraordinary array of incense, especially patchouli and sandalwood, is equally distinctive…as are so many other places, I am now beginning to remember back… (another discussion).

As a visual artist/cultural anthropologist/ecologist and someone who loves to travel to different cultures— to experience different places, landscapes, communities, foods, languages, colors, textures, tones, sounds, smells, ways of life… I am highly sensitized to the smell of a place and a people. I love and celebrate scent. And, what I learned from scientists at Shiftcon 2018 about the essence of scents in our home health care products and perfumes… made me pause. This discussion centered on the topic of “fragrance”.

There seems to be a cultural shift happening now in the world of scents… and it makes a lot of sense. Historically, perfume / home cleaning/ personal care companies and brands engage “fragrance houses” to concoct a secret potion that defines the “essence” of their brand. This “fragrance”, according to Amy Ziff (Executive Director of is actually a catch-all ingredient mix of perhaps 5000 different chemicals- most of them synthetic, and sadly some of them toxic to our human biome (our bodies) and our earthly biome (biosphere). If you check the labels on your bottles of perfume and health care products-creams, makeup, shampoos, soaps etc. you will often see the last ingredient, labeled “fragrance”… That “fragrance” can literally mean that your product contains any one (and many) of these 5000, unregulated synthetic chemicals.

How is this possible in the Era of Conscious Living, Eco-Health, and Greater Transparency?

As the fragrance house creatives are literally designing new “fragrances”—creative IP (intellectual property), and remember, this is a $43 Billion USD/ year market; the competition and pursuit for the Holy Grail of differentiating, fresh scents that drive essential human behavior and emotion is fierce. Thus, much secrecy and suspense lingers around the “fragrance houses” and their ingredients. Besides sounding like the perfect “creative cocktail” for a Hollywood suspense-thriller; the fragrance industry smells ripe for investigation and regulation. Indeed, this is the delicate work of organizations, like Made Safe… to “open the komodo” of the fragrance houses, says Amy Ziff; and become much more transparent about the ingredients going into product “fragrance”.

Why is this important? Women’s health organizations, like Voices for the Earth, product reviewers, like Amy Ziff and her team of environmental scientists, including Naturopath MD, Dr. Anne-Marie Fine; as well, health care companies, like Beauty Counter-committed to ingredient transparency and to producing natural products- all claim that “fragrance” in many health care products are potentially, partly responsible for the increase of our body burden of environmental chemicals. The bio-accumulation of environmental chemicals in our bodies (human biome) over time contributes to allergies, endochrin disruption, cancer, mutations, compromised immune systems, hormonal imbalance, increased weight… and other health issues- basically, scary stuff. The good news is that as more home/health care companies and perfume brands become aware of the potential health risks of “fragrance” in their products; it seems that they are beginning to investigate, take notes, and make moves as an industry toward greater advocacy for ingredient disclosure. Beth Donnelley (Women’s Voices for the Earth) excitedly commented at Shiftcon 2018 that a cultural shift is really happening now. It’s an exciting time and the tide is rising for other companies to surf… as major brands, like Proctor and Gamble, begin reviewing their fragrance policies on products, like Olay. It seems to me that it would be an exciting time for major brands; as the LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability) market in the US alone, is already 25%+ and growing; APPS and organizations are beginning to track metadata on brands, and families are shopping more consciously than ever before. So, now I can imagine it is an exciting time to be a home/health care/perfume company with the opportunity to create fresh, new, nature-based products that accommodate increased demand from the rising tide of conscious consumers… and for these companies to lobby for transparency, so they can brag about their nature-based, health-centric products that not only create memorable scents, but also make perfect health & wellness sense for their consumers from whom they want to earn love, loyalty, and trust.

Meanwhile, as I sit out over the cliffs of my favorite Crystal Cove beach and breathe deep the fresh scent of sage accenting the marine air; I reflect back on what Dr. Anne-Marie Fine shared with me in our “fragrance” discussion that some healing treatments for detoxification of mind-body-spirit pollutants prescribed by naturopath doctors in Japan are literally— go out into the pine forest, breathe, be, and walk. Indeed in the end, it seems to me that natural oils, and/or natural essences are the Holy Grails of natural scents that make most naturally intelligent sense. Further, as these nature-based home/health products easily degrade and absorb into the natural environment; they don’t create biosphere body burden of non-biodegradable, synthetic chemicals… that linger and disrupt natural nutrient cycling; as well, the health of other living organisms. Exciting also, is that aromatherapy as a healing art continues to grow in popularity and more women (and men) are waking up to the power and potency of nature’s oils and essences to accent their natural beauty and scent. Thus, it is my prediction that come next Valentine’s Day as the outlying voices crying for “natural fragrance” become the stampede, we will smell more natural rose oil, rosemary perfume, and lavender essence in the air to shape our lasting, love memories forward. And this is a good thing, another way we can live our greater naturally intelligent selves, emitting a new, fresh, sparkling, nature-based fragrance.


  • Catherine Cunningham, PhD

    Mission Possible: Awaken Natural Intelligence in Our World

    Natural Intelligence

    Dr. Catherine Cunningham, PhD is an ecologist, anthropologist, writer, filmmaker, and media host producing films, interactive experiences, and online multimedia for international clients who are focused on positive economic, social, and environmental win-win-win solutions to global conservation and climate change.

    Catherine has travelled, written, photographed, and filmed in 70 countries, producing creative films and music videos in support the UN Global Goals and the human+nature planetary health narrative. Visit Natural to see where her work has premiered internationally. Over 20 years, she has interviewed hundreds of global thought leaders to promote sustainable solutions to climate change and conservation in creative ways. Catherine has written numerous articles on climate change, nature, and regeneration. She’s currently writing two books: “Naturally Intelligent by Design” — a fine art science and culture book for families and “Natural Intelligence”— a guidebook for well-navigating a post COVID-19 world by following nature’s principles. Partnering with Eurovision News and Events, Catherine is also an independent media host— producing content on nature, climate, and regeneration; syndicated globally by EuroVision’s News Direct. She is a regular contributor to Thrive Global and Medium. She currently produces communications for the Prince Albert II Foundation and participates in programming @ the World Economic Forum on Climate Change, Nature, and Biodiversity. As an university educator, Catherine taught undergraduate and masters courses in corporate sustainability communications at Arizona State University; global sustainability at Chapman University; biology, ecology, botany, and environmental science at Denver State College and Front Range College. In 2016, she designed one of the first university courses on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (also online), contributing to youth action on the UN Global Goals. She also created a post-graduate program with UNESCO on the MAB (Man the Biosphere) reserves. Catherine earned her PhD in Ecosystem Science at ETHZ in Switzerland, studying climate impacts on mountain ecosystems. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Cultural Anthropology and International Peace Studies from the University of Notre Dame and a Masters degree from Utah State in Ecology. Catherine speaks fluent English and conversational Italian. She loves creative collaboration, media production, mountaineering, outdoor sports, yoga, wellness, and travel.