Jo Lasky Interview by Saponifier Magazine (12/12)

Advice for Creating a Scentsational Line

Scent:  it means so much to each one of us, although we don’t always realize it.  We know we like to use a nice variety in our creations, whether candle, soap, or cosmetics, but we don’t always realize how primal scent is and how it evokes emotion and alters mood.  We find scent important to our customers or friends and family, as well.  A particular scent will bring back a long-forgotten memory, remind us of departed or loved ones far away, or simply make us happy. Because of this, our scent choices will help us as we sell or give gifts.  It is indeed essential in our industry, since most report that consumers are most interested in scent.  Therefore, it behooves us to learn as much about scent as we can.

To help us understand the science and psychology of scent, I turned to Jo Lasky.  She describes herself as a non-professional perfumer, but has taught many in using scent.  Jo is owner of Gardens of Panjora and resides in Santa Clarita, California.  She has a long history in self-study of not only perfumery, but in teaching bath and body to others, making her an ideal teacher for us.

Jo describes her interest in scent since she was a little girl watching her mother prepare for formal affairs they attended as her father was an officer in the Air Force. Her final touch was Joy perfume, but Jo was attracted by all of the bottles she found on her mother’s dresser.  In fact, Jo describes what happened next:  “One night, after my parents had left, I went into their room and decided to “play” with the perfumes. Not being content with just smelling and applying, I decided to mix and blend. The colors were fun, the scents changed, and when my mom came home so did the color of my bottom. Joy and Emeraude may look pretty in their bottles but mix them and add in a little Tabu and results were a costly mistake I have never forgotten.”

Despite her rocky beginning, Jo’s parents encouraged her interest and she continued her experimentation by infusing natural substances such as grass, flowers and herbs.  By her own admission, Jo’s experiments were “horrid,” but didn’t deter her from continuing her self-study, including her observation of scent trends in perfumes, colognes and splashes that followed societal changes.

As time passed and Jo’s children grew up, Jo found herself caring for her aging parents, which caused her to return to her natural roots, looking for essential oils and herbs for assistance.  This led to study and classes in soap, lotions and other products and later, perfumery Yahoo groups.  She, with others, began a class, which led to another, more advanced class, and furthered Jo’s knowledge.  Since then, Jo has continue to not only hone her craft, but also to teach others.

What happens in the body when humans smell an aroma?

“First off the ability to smell is very primal, it is the Olfactory Receptor Neuron (ORN) that functions as sensory cells to pick up and detect all the different odors around us. These are like translators from the “scent” to the brain so that each scent can be identified. When the ORN is stimulated it sends a message to the olfactory bulb, which is the part of the brain that processes the odor information.

What we do know is that the sense of smell is direct into the brain, and does not filter through the hepatic membrane like our other senses do; it is considered to be a primal sense. Smell is also associated with taste and can have a profound effect on emotional responses. Scents are used to increase spending, calm individuals, prompt a particular response. Shopping malls and casinos have long since been pumping scents into the air to promote spending; car dealers have a “new car scent” that can give new life even to an old car. And of course there is the world of aromatherapy where scent is being used in medicinal applications too.

Perhaps this is why when we get a whiff of a certain food it may take us back to a find memory of simple days of youth, a day spent baking with Grandma. Perhaps there is a smell that is tied to an emotional experience and instantly the individual is taken back to a less pleasant experience. These responses happen instantly and are visible in not only emotional responses but can also be seen in physical response, slumped shoulders, facial expression, verbal response, etc. These responses are personal and tied to individual responses based upon an experience that is also tied to sensory information. Most people do not connect their feelings with the odors they smell or that this is sensory imaging is happening to them at the time. It is only when they are exposed to a particular scent that the feelings return, triggered by an odor response that was learned at the time of the experience.

This is an area that is not very well understood but it is gaining in research potential. Sadly the current state of the world and the need to understand and overcome emotional and physiological responses to tragedy is the driving force behind this research. In time this may lead to a better understand of this sense and our ability to predict a response to scent.”

Why do some find certain scents appealing while others find them intolerable?

Jo wasn’t able to comment on the scientific explanation, if one exists, but she did offer her opinion based on her experience.  At the beginning, Jo found herself limited by her personal desire and willingness to try new scents.  As she trained her nose by trying scents and recording observations, she found an emotional response to scent that guided her likes and dislikes.  This caused Jo to believe that our experiences with scents very often guide our preferences, as well.  Patchouli to someone negatively influenced by the 60’s uses may cause one to dislike the scent.  Lemon cleaning products might affect us in a positive manner, causing us to prefer lemon because it smells clean.  While Jo deliberately retrained her brain to accept scents she previously disliked, most of the public does not and thus the aroma impressions remain.  This may explain why some of us react positively to a scent while others react quite negatively to the same scent.

What is the difference between essential oils and fragrance oils?

Where essential oil are concerned, Jo explains that scents derived from natural materials such as leaves and twigs, are referred to as essential oils.  In truth, they can be extracted in several different ways, and each type has its own name.  Nevertheless, for purposes of simplicity, we will use the term, “essential oil” for any extracted oil.  Jo tells us, “In one respect, essential oils are nature’s fragrance oils, they are all built using multiple components or constituents.”  Jo goes on to explain, “Extraction of essential oils from botanical materials has also led to new scents and also the ability to isolate a particular constituent. Some of these extractions are used to make fragrance oils too. They are called isolates and can not only create a fragrance but can also be used to adulterate or to create ‘nature identical’ essential oils. These fractional distillations are also used to make consistent scents for scent related industries. Lavender 40/42 is a prime example; it does not matter where it is purchased it will always smell the same because while it is natural, it is taken apart and put back together to create a consistent scent associated with lavender.”

Fragrance oils, on the other hand, are created with constituents that may or may not be found in nature.  Creating scents was initially taken on by those wishing to cover offensive odors, as well as the human need to create something new and lasting.  They are developed as “. . . fantasy notes, those that we seek but can’t reproduce or those that our mind wishes to create,”  describes Jo.  For example, many of us are quite satisfied with a scent that reminds us of a fresh, juicy pineapple, even though it is made up of isolates that do not involve real pineapples.

Where soap, candles and body products, and so on are concerned, what is your opinion of whether or not we should use essential oils or fragrance oils and when?

“Each are tools to me, they are components and should be well thought out in advance. Safety is my first concern, knowing what is safe to use and in what amounts is my focus when I am formulating.  Cost comes in second I see no purpose in using an expensive essential oil in something that is going to damage the sensitive nature and constituents of a particular essential oil. Marketing is also a factor so if a new scent is sought by a customer then I’m more inclined to find that scent and use it, be it an essential oil or fragrance oil,” notes Jo.

She goes on to state that as a rule, essential oils are not tested for safety and therefore, adulteration is common.  To test an oil’s purity, a gas chromatograph is necessary, but most suppliers do not do the testing, so adulteration goes undetected.  On the other hand, Jo explains regarding fragrance oils, “They have to undergo standards, they have to use safe levels of constituents, their testing has to meet international standards and some are very strict. So to me they are a safer, if not easier to use, product. This testing not only includes skin safety but it also has to meet ecological standards. Just like the nitro musk that never really breaks down and has since been banned, today’s new fragrances have to prove that they cause less harm to the environment. As formulators we should be aware that when it goes into a soap and the soap goes into the shower the fragrance then washes down the drain and into our water supply and then into the ground.”

Jo cautions that other factors are important to consider, as well.  What product will the oil be used in?  An expensive oil, for instance, might better be saved for a leave-on product than a “use and rinse” type of product.  The same is true, she advises, for an oil with healing or aromatherapy properties.  “A realistic assessment of the product and a perceived outcome should be leading the choice. If we make a great soap, use good oils and butters, spend time and money to make it and then find the EO fades or reacts with something else, we have not only wasted the essential oil but perhaps the entire batch of soap.”

Market expectations are equally important considerations.  If products created with essential oils don’t appeal to your customers, then they do no good.  Keeping in mind what actually sells cannot be ignored.

The top ten list of best-selling scents for 2012 is as follows: Readers voted these scents as their best sellers. Whether the scent is E.O. or F.O. is not noted.

  1. Vanilla
  2. Lavender
  3. Lemon
  4. Berry (this includes blackberry, strawberry, and so on)
  5. Mint (all)
  6. Honey
  7. Rose
  8. Oatmeal
  9. Patchouli
  10. 10.  Apple


What is it about these scents that they appeal so much to the public?  

“Comfort, identity perhaps familiarity, and cost, would be my guess. I would also guess that the best sellers are also fragrance oils and not naturals, with perhaps the exception of patchouli and some of the mints. Vanilla and rose are not essential oils; they are absolutes and are extremely expensive. Many people have limited contact with the naturals and their scent memory is far more likely to be associated with the fragrance than the natural material. Lavender has too many different species and is subject to a change of scent depending on location and growing conditions so most lavender is either a modified natural or fragrance oil.

Berry notes are all fragrance, as are the honey, oatmeal, apple, and even lemon. The berry notes do not come from nature. They do not extract so they have to be lab created. The honey does not extract either but becomes a fantasy note so that it can become a sage honey or an orange blossom honey. The underlying note of honey is associated, but the actual scent can vary. All of these scents can be associated with comfort. Apple pie and hot oatmeal on a cold winter day provide us with comfort and a sense of well-being. Lemon is bright and sunny and happy and can evoke those memories with only a whiff. All of these fragrances are known to us, we do not have to reach too far back into our minds to know what they smell like and for the most part the scents are consistent, therefore comforting.”

For the first time since the inception of our survey, lavender was not number one, where it was previously on top by a huge margin. Are you finding lavender to be becoming less popular than it had been in the last several years?

I still have my clients that only want lavender. They want specific lavender and they swear that what I have is the lavender they “used to get.” It’s lavender 40/42 so it is the same as say, a Yankee candle, but to them it is different, more natural and they know it is “really an essential oil.”  I have, however, seen a lot more people attracted to “foody” scents in recent years. This would include vanilla but also sugar notes which also use vanilla in the composition.

Perhaps lavender has not been pushed as much as vanilla in marketing; perhaps (with) the state of our economy, the loss of jobs, the need to find comfort has driven this change. While lavender is calming, it is not as comforting to most people as is vanilla. Also, I think that society is becoming more accepting, if not expecting, to smell new scents and while lavender is limited in its application, vanilla has a wider range of applications and uses.

Are fragrances as trendy as fashions, or less so?

We probably remember old favorites from our youth, and possibly scents our parents and grandparents used.  If we look for those same scents today, we may or may not find them.

“Absolutely!” Jo exclaims. “Scents change every season just like fashion, but they also come back as predictably.”  Popularity of scent families changes and so does packaging, but they cycle in out of fashion.

What advice do you have to offer soap/candle/b&b makers who are putting together an appealing scent line?

“First off, know that it is going to change,” Jo says. “What may sell today may not sell tomorrow. Do testing, lots of testing. Make sure what you like is what not determining what you offer. Expand your taste and choices to cover a broad market. Purchase from a reputable supplier but don’t tie yourself or your products to only one supplier. Things happen and that signature scent may not be available tomorrow. Test, test, test… pay attention to storage of fragrance and product and treat it with respect. Get to know your fragrance so you can build compatible fragrances within the line of products. Offer a wide selection but look at doing seasonal offerings to keep your cost in line. Know going in that self-restraint is going to be a key part in keeping your bottom line in check, we are all addicted.”

It’s likely that we will carry certain staple scents all of the time, but in order to meet market demand, we are wise to pay attention to widely popular scents and adapt them to our lines.  “If you’re smart, you’ll let the big sellers like Glade do the research and marketing for you and just jump on their band wagon. Look at the new laundry soap or hand soap offerings.  This is what your clients are going to look for; it’s what they are seeing on TV, but they are going to demand and expect a better quality from you.”

Where testing is concerned, Jo instructs us to order many samples of a particular scent we’re considering, and to keep notes.  Initially, record your emotional reaction—what feeling the scent evokes.  Later, depending upon the product or products you want to use the scent in, you’ll take notes on each aspect of the scent’s performance until you finally arrive at a decision about which fragrance to settle on.  In the end, you’ll save money over buying several large bottles of a particular scent because the first one didn’t meet your needs.

In building a line, Jo states that we would be smart to include all of the fragrance families—woody, herbaceous, floral, citrus, mint, foods, and so on, not forgetting those for men.  Furthermore, colors and packaging is an essential consideration, not only for visual appeal, but for the protection of your product.

To create a line of products where one product can build upon another requires a thorough knowledge of your scents.  You can then teach your customers, Jo says.  “Individually any of these can smell great but layered and you have a more complex scale of fragrance that performs in product and still offers your client what they want to smell.”  This makes your products more appealing and potentially increases sales.

Finally, if after you follow all of Jo’s advice, “. . . and you still find yourself with more fragrance than you could ever possibly use… you hide the fragrance and receipts and when found say ‘Oh, I’ve had that for so long.’  You have no idea why you bought that particular fragrance but you are sure that you just had to have it… well this and more may be an indication of a more serious problem… fragrance addiction. Yep, it exists and to date there is no known cure.”  I might add that if you think that chat groups will help you with your addiction, you are incredibly mistaken since by and large, they have the same problem you do!

Realistically, however, Jo urges us to use the many resources we have today.  “Magazines like the Saponifier give us an educational and fun way to examine things we might not consider otherwise. All of these things are ready and available; it’s all a journey so you might as well enjoy the process.”

I agree!

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