The Danger of Smelling Delicious: Food Fragrances and the Intertwined Effects of Deodorant and Perfume

By Jessica Cushing-Murray

Food-related fragrances are any kind of care product with a scent that mimics the smell of a type of food. While they may seem innocuous, these fragrances can greatly impact health, gender, and the environment. Because these scents are based on food, the process of devising a product formula that transforms the odor from a solid food into a fragrance commodity is intense and chemically tainted. Food-related fragrances are widespread in the fragrance industry with scents ranging from citrus to “chocolate cupcake.” There is an interesting connection between food and fragrance to answer the question of both why and how food-scents became popular in the past few decades. To further explore food-scented fragrance and its relation to gender, I interviewed Cari Casteel, who wrote her PhD dissertation on the role of deodorant, artificial body smells and how they connect with gender. The goal of the interview was to connect her research on deodorant to my research concerning food-scented fragrances, and to examine how each of these similarly and contrastingly affect health, gender, and the environment.

The health benefits or risks caused by products like deodorant and food-related fragrances

Casteel explained that, “when people started wearing deodorants and antiperspirants, they weren’t wearing them every day… because they would cause rashes on your skin, so the habit of using these products… was only about twice a week” (C. Casteel, PhD, June 12, 18). Evidently, deodorant was not beneficial to the body physiologically, as it caused skin reactions for most people, yet they continued to wear it. A probable explanation for the continued use was the psychological health benefit of the product: alleviating people’s worries about their body odor.

Similarly to deodorant, food-scented fragrances are a part of the perfume industry, in which there will always be people with allergic responses to ingredients in these perfumes, lotions, and similar products. However, research specific to food-scented fragrances also found some interesting effects on the body that were positive. Perfumes and lotions with dessert-scents, such as “pumpkin pie” or “chocolate cake” were shown to play a role in increasing feelings of arousal–especially in men. Although these dessert fragrances may seem odd, this evidence demonstrates how these scents may have impacts on the human body that we are currently unaware of. The consequences of these fragrances, as well as deodorants, are constantly changing and being altered. For this reason, it is essential for people to understand that the full physiological effects of these products is unknown, and they should therefore be utilized with extreme caution.

Gender and the history of deodorant and food-scented products

Deodorant was first made for women–just like perfumes and many items in the fragrance industry–and later was marketed for multi-gender usage. However, suggesting that “only women used deodorant” in the earlier days of the product provides an incomplete picture. Casteel noted that, “when there was first commercially available deodorant, mostly they made it for women. But, that’s because nobody was asking the men if they used deodorant. And, it was because women were the ones buying it since that’s what women did back then [as part of their role as homemakers]–go to the drug stores and shop.” This reveals how gender roles and social constructs affected the way deodorant was used and proliferated in the early 1900s. Despite the gap in research on men’s use of early deodorants, Casteel also said that she does not “think that men and women were wearing deodorant for different reasons… they were doing the same thing… everyone is wearing deodorant because they don’t want to smell like body odor.”

Similarly to the concept that men and women utilized deodorant for the same purpose, food-scented fragrances–and fragrance products in general–are also applied to cover up body odor. The main difference in these food-scented perfumes and lotions is the type of food aroma attached to each item. For example, it is primarily women wearing scents like “chocolate” or “cinnamon,” while men are socially expected to smell like the outdoors or more “musky.” On the surface, it seems that food-scented fragrances (citrus, vanilla, strawberry) tend to be marketed far more often to women.. However, within fragrance formulas, the first instance of companies adding vanilla into products was in Old Spice. This connects back to the idea that fragrances are used by both genders to avoid body odor with scents that are commonly thought to smell pleasant.

Environmental consequences of the use and manufacturing of deodorant and food fragrances

The history of deodorant ties in with the history of pollution, and public awareness of the degradation of the ozone layer in the 1970s and 1980s. Casteel explained that it was a time, “when people were using aerosols, and not just for deodorant– but aerosols in general– with accelerants that were destroying parts of the ozone layer.” Therefore, there were environmental consequences to the method used to apply deodorant, but this also happened during a time when the public and officials castigated many companies and industries with aerosol products. Today, after a few decades and many scientific advancements, companies are again using aerosol containers, but this time with chemicals deemed non-harmful to the environment.

In a different sense, while researching food scents I found that there was plenty of evidence of the detrimental impacts that food-scented products have on the environment. By combining natural resources with chemical formulas, the manufacturing of these food scents played a consequential role in altering the environment. When ingredients like vanilla became popular in both food and fragrance companies, there was a greater need for amassing large amounts of natural vanilla– specifically in places where it is cultivated, including Mexico, Madagascar, and other tropical areas near the Indian Ocean. The desire for vanilla influenced not only the global production of the plant, but also led to the proliferation of plants with chemical components that the chemists found could be used to more easily synthesize vanilla.

With health, gender, and environmental concerns being only some of the ways that products like deodorant and perfume can impact you, it is very important to be fully informed before using them. People often disregard labels and ingredients, but with the fragrance industry continually growing, it is even more imperative now to pay attention to what you use on your body and to stay vigilant and up-to-date on the many effects consequences of such products.

Jessica Cushing-Murray is a UCLA Undergraduate Student in Psychobiology. She was a member of the Chemical Entanglements Undergraduate Student Research Group in Spring 2018.

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