Now at the fragrance counter — the scent of a baby.
Several perfumers have created fragrances that try to capture what consumers think of as new baby smell, that aroma of baby powder and lotion that so readily conjures up memories of happy, peaceful newborn bliss.
That sweet, immediately recognizable scent can have elements of violet, cumarine and musk, says Delphine Jelk, of the fragrance lab and manufacturer Drom. “When you smell it, you smell baby skin.”
It wasn’t an accident that Guerlain’s L’Instant Magic has a hint of that powder smell.
It’s “built around white musk and these notes are very powdery and soft. I am especially fond of these notes because they remind me of my children’s scent and soft skin when they were babies,” says Sylvaine Delacourte, Guerlain creative director of fragrances.
Jelk names Insolence by Guerlain, Flower by Kenzo, Sensi by Armani and a Demeter fragrance actually called Baby Powder — written on the label using the same font and colour combination as Johnson’s Baby Lotion — as perfumes that fit the trend.
“I think it’s the comfort. There’s something reassuring when you smell it, it’s clean and soft,” she says. “I think we like what we remember from our childhood.”
Sensory psychologist Pamela Dalton of the Monell Chemical Senses Center, an independent non-profit research centre, says she’s not surprised the baby scent is so appealing.
“It’s a lighter note so you’ll smell it fairly quickly. It’s part of a complex mixture but it does stand out and probably does remind you of something nurturing, either your experience as a child, parent or even taking care of a baby,” she says.
Smell can be a powerful pointer to memories, and is often associated with places, people and experiences, not source. “If you walk down the street and smell something, you don’t immediately think ‘hot dog.’ You think ‘a baseball game in the summer with my father,’ ” she says.
“The most intense emotional memories seem restricted to things we smell only occasionally but have a pretty potent emotional tie to,” she says.
Camille Goutal, the daughter of late French perfumer Annick Goutal, cherishes the Eau de Camille perfume her mother created for her when she was a young girl.
“She asked me what I would like,” Camille Goutal recalls. “I saw on my right side of my terrace all the flowers and ivy. I said I wanted something that smelled like our garden.”
Decades later, when she smells that blend of honeysuckle, ivy and jasmine, she thinks of her childhood home and what it was like to be an eight-year-old.
Powder defined the baby smell
The scent that has come to define the smell of American babies has been around since 1890, when Johnson’s launched its now iconic powder. At the time — before the days of disposable diapers — it was the only product to keep babies dry, cool and comfortable, says Fred Tewell, group product director at Johnson’s.
“It became ubiquitous and that’s the underpinning of the baby smell in the American psyche.”
In 1942 came the lotion in the pink bottle. “If you open up diapers now, it smells like this. There are baby powder-scented cleaning products and deodorants,” says Tewell.
Even as the baby-fragrance market expands — Johnson’s introduced a cucumber-melon lotion and wash last year, for example — the company makes sure its scents include the signature powder note.
“The way we develop scents is to say, ‘It’s powdery.’ Everything is guided by the powdery note,” Tewell says. “It’s calming, nurturing, not sharp and it doesn’t immediately grab your senses. Instead it wafts.”
The company doesn’t want to lose its olfactory power over the market, which is now flooded with alternative brands, and is reasserting ownership of the powder scent in its ads. Some magazine ads simply feature a baby — not a product — but the pink lotion scent is embedded into the ink.
The pathway that transmits information about odours from the sensory neurons in the nose to the area of the brain that’s the gatekeeper for memories is a short one, says Nathan Urban, an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s department of biological sciences.
This is why, he says, it’s believed scent-cued memories are among the easiest to recall.
Urban’s specialty is the olfactory system of mice but that pathway, he says, is similar across all mammals.
“Our ability to remember smells is really quite remarkable, sometimes after only a single presentation of a smell,” Urban explains.
He says using a baby-powder note in perfume is probably a good call: “It’s an odour that many people associate with a rewarding experience.”
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