Using Perfumers’ Skills to Learn to Smell

Chrissi Kelly lost her sense of smell after a particularly aggressive cold.

And when she realized her sense of smell affected everything from her enjoyment of a cup of tea to a hug from her husband, she became a self-described “student of her own disease” — anosmia.

Using what little sense of smell she still had, Kelly began a nose training regimen. She used essential oils to perform blind smell tests—placing the oils in jars with labels on the bottom, mixing them up and trying to identify each scent.

After making some progress with her own program, Kelly enlisted the help of the people who know scents best: perfumers. She attended a week-long workshop with perfumers looking to refine their noses and learned the techniques used by the best in the business.

She was astonished at how much her nose could learn.

“I thought, ‘I’ll try anything,’” she explained. “I went in expecting nothing and came out gobstopped.”

She brought her techniques and smell training exercises to Philadelphia’s Monell Chemical Senses Center last month to a great success. At the Center, which which specializes in the science of taste and smell, a small group of anosmiacs created their own smell tests, with some struggling, but others were pleasantly surprised by  their before unrecognized abilities.

Some 6 million people in the U.S. suffer from anosmia, which affects them emotionally as much as physically.

Dr. Leslie Stein, Science Communications Director at Monell, shared that Chanel No. 5 gives her a sense of love and affection because her mother used it during Stein’s childhood. Anosmics, she pointed out, lose easy access to those valuable emotional memories.

With smell training, many are hoping to get it back. While odors might never smell exactly the same, regaining even limited sense of smell can dramatically improve the quality of life’s most meaningful experiences, Kelly said.

— Joan Heider for The Fragrance Foundation

Photos courtesy of Paola Nogueras/Monell Center