Scent is finding its way into our buildings: into our shops, venues, art galleries, workplaces, civic spaces and hotels.
As the nature of our environments alter so come more opportunities to rethink their sensory properties. Retailers are increasingly turning over shop layouts into experimental spaces where brands stage multi-sensory experiences or installations. And you don’t need me to tell you the latest tally of co-working companies or live/work units.
We are increasingly learning how subtle shifts in sensory stimuli can positively alter the way we feel and think in these interior environments. Ambient scent is moving from a behavioural sleight of hand (‘let’s use aroma to keep people in our store for longer or spending more money’) to a more integrated element in how architects and designers heighten our experience of a place.
While the creative side is exciting, there is anxiety around doing ambient scent right. Many organisations coming into this space are asking: am I doing it safely? What are the regulations? Should everyone wear goggles and gloves all the time? Aargh!
This is intended as an introductory aid for practitioners. I spoke with Lisa Hipgrave, CEO of The International Fragrance Association UK (IFRA UK), who in Britain has arguably the most up-to-date information on the safe use of fragrance. IFRA is a membership body which offers tools for organisations on the safe creation, development and enjoyment of fragrance. It sets the gold standard in the industry.
I talked with Lisa about some of the common questions that come up regarding ambient scent - which those in the industry would classify as air fresheners. There are of course other ways of using scent in installations, for example by embedding it in hand-held objects or encapsulated into materials, but in this instance I’m going to focus on ambient.
These tips should be useful for anyone interested in installing scent in museums, hotels, cultural venues, festivals, public spaces and retailers.
IS IT SAFE?
Lizzie: Sometimes organisations are nervous about introducing ambient scent into a building. They’re worried about possible safety issues or being liable for an allergic reaction. Can you put ambient scent into a bit of context?
Lisa: It’s right to use caution. Emerging trends always bring uncertainty, because they’re new. And there is lots of talk at the moment about air pollution - both external from exhaust fumes as well as indoor pollution from things such as wood burners and cooking.
A fragrance is a mixture of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). VOC’s evaporate easily at room temperature. By definition, anything that has a smell contains VOCs. There are hundreds of VOCs all around us in our daily lives. They are released in large quantities by trees, especially pine varieties, and by fruits, especially citrus. Some fragrance ingredients are known dermal sensitisers, like d’limonene . But we will be exposed to much more limonene from peeling a lemon as opposed to using a lemon-scented shower gel. So it’s important to keep things in perspective.
A fragrance allergy isn’t life-threatening in the way of a nut allergy. So we don’t need to be so extreme as to use the language of food allergies. It’s not necessary for a beauty shop to have a sign outside saying ‘scents are used in this building’. Much of this is around the typical behaviours of different spaces. When we go to a department store we expect that people will be spraying scents around; we don’t necessarily expect this from an art installation. Having said that, these conventions are changing.
It’s good to be aware of the shock value of scents, especially if they are dispensed without warning. The mechanism of releasing the scent may be the thing that’s unsettling rather than the smell itself. If someone really believes fragrance triggers a reaction - whether that’s asthma or headaches - the belief itself can be what causes the trigger. You’re expecting something to happen because it does. If you went to a light show you might see a sign saying: ’this show has flashing lights’. To set expectations you might want to say something like ‘this show uses scents to enhance the experience.’
One more point to make is that standard public liability should cover use of fragrance. But go back to your insurance provider to make sure you are covered and whether your insurance is fully comprehensive or limited.
HOW DO WE GET THE RIGHT BRIEF?
Lizzie: I’ve noticed many organisations struggle to write a solid fragrance brief which covers not just the creative scope but technical considerations that are really crucial to making sure the final option is right. What advice can you give?
Lisa: Talk to IFRA UK member perfumers and fragrance houses because they will understand what is in the fragrance, and how materials will work in a public space. It’s not just about safety, but really understanding the product and how it needs to behave. Fragrance houses love being part of the brief early, even co-writing it. Most of them have been working on air fresheners for many decades and have specific application spaces for evaluation purposes so while the context might be new (a scented art installation rather than fragrancing an office) the technological expertise will be there.
Here are some areas to talk through:
Stability - particular applications or bases may affect how stable a fragrance is.
Longevity - for how long does the fragrance need to be installed or perceived? Event-based or long-term installation?
Substantivity - some live events like to use multiple odours and to clear one smell before another is released. The more substantive a fragrance the more time it can take to clear it from the environment.
What temperature is the environment? Fragrance can degrade or perform differently in extreme temperatures.
How is the fragrance being dispensed (eg. diffuser, localised scented objects, in the HVAC system)?
Where is the fragrance being dispensed?
What’s the airflow of the building?
What’s the ventilation? Are there doors and windows - if so are they permanently open? Is there a heating vent above the door?
Are there going to be other competing smells in the area (eg. food)?
Are different odours to be phased (eg. by time of day)? If so perfumers can work out how to engineer an overlap in the middle so the two don’t clash.
What materials are used in the space (eg. wooden floors or carpeted). Some materials can absorb certain odours for example.
WHAT SHOULD THE FRAGRANCE HOUSE PROVIDE?
Lizzie: What information should clients ask from the fragrance to help manage risk?
Lisa: Once the final fragrance has been selected or developed the fragrance house should be able to provide a safety data sheet (SDS) and an IFRA certificate, which can be generated by members and non-members. All the information is open source and all the information is here on our website.
The IFRA certificate will tell you that a formulation is safe to use by application category (whether that is a skin cream or a room diffuser), at a particular dose. This is expressed as a percentage, so for example the fragrance might be safe dosed at 100% concentration, or if at 10% you need to dilute it in your carrier so it doesn’t exceed this.
You’re likely to need to complete a COSHH form and risk assessment to demonstrate safe-handling of the fragrance on-site. This will consider things like whether units are sealed to stop someone walking off with the product, the possibility of skin contact and need to wear gloves to handle, and how much exposure is safe. Again it is worth involving the fragrance house in this stage and asking them to go through the risks and recommendations specific to the fragrance they’ve provided.
I’d caution against buying ingredients from a fragrance house and then DIYing it yourself. It’s important to understand the mixture of materials and how they can change. Certain materials mixed together will have a chemical reaction. Or they might give off heat and condensation, or even affect a particular container material.
HOW DO WE TALK TO CONSERVATION TEAMS?
Lizzie: We’re seeing more use of scent now in venues which traditionally would have been unusual settings for a fragrance, I’m thinking art galleries in particular. Many of them welcome fragrance but often the conservation team rightly want to make sure nothing will cause any issues with precious artworks. It’s important to talk early on with the conservator and make sure they are on-board and happy with regards to any concerns.
Lisa: Ambient scents are not atomised at a droplet size or dose that would affect most materials. However, when you are creating fragrances there are ingredients that can react with or tarnish silver and some, like esters, that can corrode plastic. Some fragrances can discolour or stain fabric if applied directly, which you wouldn’t want happening if you’re dealing with antique silks. If you’re applying scent near unglazed works of visual art you could consider fragrances that are less pervasive or substantive so they are less likely to absorb into the canvas. A conversation with the fragrance house providing the scent is the way to go here as they can check and advise on what sorts of formulations are appropriate.
With thanks to Lisa for sharing her expertise. Please ask if you've got questions that weren't answered by this article and we'll do our best to help. And get in touch if you'd like to discuss an upcoming sensory experience or campaign.
You can see a list of IFRA members here.
Currently the use of ambient scent is classed under IFRA Category 11. At the moment IFRA is undergoing it’s 49th amendment. This is in consultation and will probably result in categories moving and changing. Category 11 products may well be moved into other categories. This should be announced autumn 2019. As soon as this happens I’ll update this article with the latest information.