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Can The Human Nose Detect the Difference Between Natural and Synthetic Aromas?

Post by Sandy Powell on March 21, 2014

I posted a report on a chronology of how aromas went from all 100% natural to less than 20% natural in about 100 years. It’s intended to be a factual account of how it progressed. This segment is part of a series of blogs expressing my opinions, thoughts and observations about this subject; some of which may be obvious while others are not…
Can The Human Nose Actually Detect the Difference Between Natural and Synthetic Aromas?

This question has been debated, passionately argued, challenged, and ridiculed through countless studies, experiments and unscientific claims for as long as I have been in the industry.

Now, I must admit to a personal bias in favour of natural selection as I have been working directly with pure aromas for more than half of my life. I believe that I can tell the difference most of the time, though I can’t prove it scientifically.

Natural aromas are part of our whole existence and have been that way since humans took their first breath. Literally 1000’s of years of evolution and exposure to nature has been turned upside down in the past 100 years or so to where less than 20% of what the average person in the developed world inhales is natural. As a result, the now monstrous fragrance industry actively touts the notion that not only can we not tell the difference, but that synthetic is better for us and not harmful.

Getting back to the biased part; I have read many studies conducted in the quest to solve this argument, and from my perspective, most that I have found are sponsored by or somehow tied to fragrance companies. I have also noticed, strangely enough, that the results of these studies are inconclusive or favoring the “can’t tell the difference crowd”. It is in their obvious interest to push the agenda of synthetics. I’m no scientist but some of these studies seem to take a weak approach by selecting subjects with little aroma sophistication. Many participants have a self-proclaimed good sense of smell, which I find rather unscientific, not to mention subjective.

Would you value someone’s opinion on the flavor of an exotic expensive wine when they have either consumed very limited samplings or only poor quality? Would you ask someone to assess the taste of a meal prepared by a world renowned chef, when their diet has mainly consisted of processed and fast foods? Maybe there are scientific studies involving people with sophisticated palates and olfactory sensitivities who use natural aromas, I just haven’t found any valid or objective ones yet.

It’s not my intention to pick on the science community about this as some fascinating research in the past several years has been conducted by brilliant scientists. Uncovering mysteries about how our sense of smell functions, the importance to our health and links to some serious illnesses when it degrade or is lost are just some of the discoveries. I do believe the possibility of measuring this difference is a distinct reality; however I am discouraged that as is the pitiful, dark side of science, the funding is supplied by those with big bouquets of money in search of a particular outcome.

At the other end of the debate which has Aromatherapists and natural aroma companies, essential oil brokers etc. proudly proclaiming that YES there is a significant difference, and you can tell the difference because it’s natural; with nary a shred of empirical or scientific data to back up such bold statements. They also have a biased agenda.

As mentioned previously I find myself in this class. Although not scientific, what people like me have in our defense is years of teaching, educating and introducing people to natural aromas with all of the interesting results that go with it. My classrooms and clinical work over the last 20 years or so has been my laboratory. I have directly observed physiological responses in 1000’s of students and customers which are spontaneous and quite remarkable. The feedback from countless people who feel positive changes including the ability to smell with more clarity, enjoyment of nature and an enhanced taste has to be worth some points as well.

Exposure to natural aromas for so long has gifted us with the ability to sense the intangible and subtle physiological effects when inhaling nature’s finest. Oh, the experience of pure rose essential oil wafting its way through your nasal cavity, causing an immediate release of neurochemicals which trigger a cascading and uncontrolled blissful smile complete with little shivers up the spine and curling of the toes… Those who have experienced this know of what I speak!

If only science could capture this cellular interaction, we might have something concrete to work with. I’ve never had a reaction like that to synthetic rose. In fact, until I experienced pure rose oil, I hated the smell as my grandmother overdosed me on synthetic air freshener and hand soap.

Ultimately, it may be difficult to prove conclusively whether we can decipher natural from synthetic as there are many complications challenging both scientific study and individual experience. They include personal beliefs or bias, experience and memories associated with aromas, state of health, drug use, as well as smoking to name but a few. Then there is experience with common odorants and the vast differences in how we perceive pleasant and foul odors, regardless of natural or synthetic source.

Geography is also a factor. If you live in the country and are used to nature, your sense of smell may develop differently from someone who lives in an apartment building in a big city surrounded by pollutants. Thus, levels of aroma sophistication are quite subjective and can’t be adequately measured.

For now I continue to take great pride and pleasure in my life’s work of educating and presenting natural aromas to the world, providing opportunities for people to experience this unquantified effect. It makes every unscientific cell in my body happy.

Sandy Powell


1. Diane Ackerman, Author, "A Natural History of the Senses," Random House,

Inc., New York, copyright 1990.

2. Effect of Environmental Pollutants on Taste and Smell.

Susan S. Schiffman PhD, H. Troy Nagle MD, PhD 1992

3. Beliefs Influence Perception Of Natural & Synthetic Odors

Rachel S. Herz, Ph.D., Brown University VOL.IX NO.2 I ACR

4. Odour Identity - 2002 Gary K. Beauchamp Ph. D

5. Making Sense of Smell – Monell Connection Paper- Spring 2001

6. IFF (International Fragrance Foundation) Sustainability Report 2010

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