December 2012 Teacher's Guide for What’s That Smell? Table of Contents


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December 2012 Teacher's Guide for
What’s That Smell?
Table of Contents

About the Guide 2

Student Questions 3

Answers to Student Questions 4

Anticipation Guide 5

Reading Strategies 6

Background Information 8

Connections to Chemistry Concepts 17

Possible Student Misconceptions 17

Anticipating Student Questions 18

In-class Activities 20

Out-of-class Activities and Projects 20

References 21

Web sites for Additional Information 22

About the Guide

Teacher’s Guide editors William Bleam, Donald McKinney, Ronald Tempest, and Erica K. Jacobsen created the Teacher’s Guide article material. E-mail:

Susan Cooper prepared the anticipation and reading guides.
Patrice Pages, ChemMatters editor, coordinated production and prepared the Microsoft Word and PDF versions of the Teacher’s Guide. E-mail:

Articles from past issues of ChemMatters can be accessed from a CD that is available from the American Chemical Society for $30. The CD contains all ChemMatters issues from February 1983 to April 2008.

The ChemMatters CD includes an Index that covers all issues from February 1983 to April 2008.
The ChemMatters CD can be purchased by calling 1-800-227-5558.
Purchase information can be found online at

Student Questions

    1. What are the advantages of making perfumes synthetically rather than extracting from plants and flowers?

    2. Why don’t perfume manufacturers advertise the fact that 80% of perfumes are made from synthetic elements?

    3. Why might synthetic perfumes be better than those made from natural scents?

    4. In what ways are synthetic perfumes kinder to the environment and to certain animals?

    5. Why might a synthetic perfume be less likely to cause an allergic reaction?

    6. How is the gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer (GCMS) used in perfume research and development?

    7. What two properties must the mix of ingredients in a new synthetic perfume have?

    8. What is the average number of ingredients in any one commercial fragrance?

Answers to Student Questions

  1. What are the advantages of making perfumes synthetically rather than extracting from plants and flowers?

Extracting from plants and flowers is expensive, challenging, risky, and supplies can be damaged by weather or disease. Making perfumes synthetically is faster and cheaper.

  1. Why don’t perfume manufacturers advertise the fact that 80% of perfumes are made from synthetic elements?

Manufacturers do not like to advertise that fact because consumers believe natural is better.

  1. Why might synthetic perfumes be better than those made from natural scents?

Synthetics are always the same while a natural scent depends on where a plant is grown, the weather conditions, and even the time of day.

  1. In what ways are synthetic perfumes kinder to the environment and to certain animals?

Synthetics are kinder to the environment because they do not require the destruction of various plants, some of which may be in short supply. The same is true for natural perfumes that are derived from animals—there is no need to kill or harm an animal when using a synthetic perfume that produces the same odor as a natural perfume based on some animal extract.

  1. Why might a synthetic perfume be less likely to produce an allergic reaction?

A natural scent may contain hundreds of different molecules while a synthetic version contains only one or a handful which reduces the odds of a specific chemical being present that could cause an allergic reaction.

  1. How is the gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer (GCMS) used in perfume research and development?

The GCMS separates out the components of a mixture (GC), and then identifies those components as well determining their amount (MS).

  1. What two properties must the mix of ingredients in a new synthetic perfume have?

The perfume that is produced must be stable and have a long-lasting fragrance.

  1. What is the average number of ingredients in any one commercial fragrance?

The average fragrance has some 60 to 100 ingredients, with some having more than 300.

Anticipation Guide

Anticipation guides help engage students by activating prior knowledge and stimulating student interest before reading. If class time permits, discuss students’ responses to each statement before reading each article. As they read, students should look for evidence supporting or refuting their initial responses.

Directions: Before reading, in the first column, write “A” or “D” indicating your agreement or disagreement with each statement. As you read, compare your opinions with information from the article. In the space under each statement, cite information from the article that supports or refutes your original ideas.




  1. The first synthetic fragrances were developed in the early 1900s.

  1. The average perfume today contains less than 50% synthetic chemicals.

  1. Synthetic fragrances are better for the environment.

  1. Fragrance scientists go to exotic locations to find new scents, then they analyze them to identify the ingredients.

  1. A gas chromatograph mass spectrometer identifies molecules in a sample based on their mass.

  1. Most commercial fragrances have fewer than 50 ingredients.

  1. Smell triggers memory more than any other of our senses.

  1. Our perceptions of scents are influenced by our culture.

  1. Perfume, eau de toilette, cologne, and splash describe different concentrations of fragrances.

  1. Pheromones are processed by the vomeronasal organ, an organ humans have in common with many other mammals.

Reading Strategies

These matrices and organizers are provided to help students locate and analyze information from the articles. Student understanding will be enhanced when they explore and evaluate the information themselves, with input from the teacher if students are struggling. Encourage students to use their own words and avoid copying entire sentences from the articles. The use of bullets helps them do this. If you use these reading strategies to evaluate student performance, you may want to develop a grading rubric such as the one below.






Complete; details provided; demonstrates deep understanding.



Complete; few details provided; demonstrates some understanding.



Incomplete; few details provided; some misconceptions evident.



Very incomplete; no details provided; many misconceptions evident.


Not acceptable

So incomplete that no judgment can be made about student understanding

Teaching Strategies:

  1. Links to Common Core State Standards: Ask students to develop an argument about using synthetic fragrances, mascara, or laundry detergents. In their discussion, they should state their position, providing evidence from the articles to support their position. If there is time, you could extend the assignment and encourage students to use other reliable sources to support their position.

  1. Vocabulary that may be new to students:

    1. Calories

    2. Metabolism

    3. Maillard reaction

    4. Pheromones

    5. Surfactant

    6. Micelle

    7. Enzyme

Directions: As you read, describe the importance of each concept on the left, along with how fragrance scientists use this concept to their advantage.

Use or importance




Mixing chemicals

Personal experience


Background Information

(teacher information)
More on the history of perfumes and fragrances

It is thought that perfumes and fragrances date back thousands of years. The word perfume comes from the Latin per fume, translated as “through smoke”. The oldest of perfumes comes from the burning of incense and aromatic herbs used in religious services. Some of the substances used include aromatic gums, frankincense and myrrh that are gathered from trees. The oldest users of perfumes in a culture were the Egyptians, then the ancient Chinese, Hindus, Israelites, Carthaginians, Arabs, Greeks and Romans. The earliest use of perfume bottles dates back to 1000 BC in Egypt. The Egyptians invented glass and perfume bottles were one of the first common uses for glass. Some manuscripts from the reign of the Egyptian pharaoh, Khufu (circa 2700 BC), record the use of fragrant herbs, choice oils, perfumes and temple incense.

There is also telling of healing salves made of fragrant resins. The most famous Egyptian fragrance, kyphi (which translates to “welcome to the gods”) was said to induce hypnotic states. The city of the sun, Heliopolis, burned resins in the morning, myrrh at noon, and kyphi at sunset to the sun god Ra. Kyphi was used for purposes other than religious. It was used to induce sleep, alleviate anxieties, increase dreaming, eliminate sorrow, treat asthma and act as a general antidote to toxins. Recipes are recorded for mixing and preparing cubes of incense made from a mixture of ground gums and plants with honey. The technique was later adapted by the Babylonians, Romans and Greeks.
The next stage in the use of perfumes and fragrances came with the adoption of the distillation of essential oils and the use of aromatics in the first century AD. The first written description of a still in the Western world is one invented by a woman, Maria Prophetissima. It is described in an Alexandrian text. Her design was used initially to distill essential oils but also proved useful for alcoholic beverages. Distillation of essential oils and the use of aromatics migrated to the Far East. Numerous texts related to aromatherapy were published in China as early as 1100 AD. The 16th C. Chinese text, Materia Meica Pen Ts’ao, discusses 2,000 herbs and 20 essential oils with their supposed effects on various health conditions.

Jumping to Western Europe and America, the 19th century saw some important changes in the world of fragrance. The first synthetic fragrance, coumarin, was produced in 1868 in France. It smells like new-mown hay. Twenty years later, musk, vanilla and violet were synthesized. France also became the leader in re-establishing the therapeutic uses of fragrance. The term, aromatherapy was coined in 1928 by the French chemist, Rene-Maurice Gattefoss. His interest in using essential oils therapeutically was initiated by a laboratory explosion in his family’s perfumery business. His hand was severely burned and he plunged the injured hand into a container of lavender oil. The hand healed quickly. His work in this new field of therapy was the basis for other investigators including the French doctor Jean Valnet and the Austrian biochemist, Marguerite Maury. During World War II, Dr. Valnet used essential oils such as thyme, clove, lemon and chamomile on wounds and burns. He also later found success in treating some psychiatric problems with fragrances (aromatherapy).

More on modern perfume manufacture

A good outline on the modern manufacture of perfume follows:

Diverse manufacturing processes supply the perfumer with the hundreds of ingredients that could potentially enter into a composition. From the first distillation techniques to chemical synthesis, each process is adapted to a type of raw material in the search for its essence.


Only citrus fruits have peels that are rich enough in natural essences to make the expression process worthwhile. After the peel has been removed from the fruit, it is pierced with numerous small holes and pressed mechanically. The resulting liquid is allowed to settle and then filtered through wet paper. This separates the aqueous parts from the essential oils. The cold-press process is particularly well suited to oranges, lemons and other citrus fruits whose bright and fresh odor would not survive a treatment involving heat.


Distillation relies on evaporation to separate the solids from the various, volatile elements present in a blend. A mixture of water and odoriferous plant material is heated. The steam, carrying with it the odoriferous elements of the blend, escapes into the distillation column, where it is chilled and then collected in a florentine flask. After a period of decantation, the water separates from the odoriferous elements which are collected and named "essences".


When a solvent enters in contact with plant material, it absorbs all the odoriferous substances contained in that material. Traditionally this method - called ENFLEURAGE - involved the use of cold fat. The result of this operation was a pomade or an odoriferous oil. Today fat is replaced by volatile solvents (ethanol, methanol, hexane, toluene, butane or carbon dioxide) which are heated. These solvents are then eliminated through evaporation. What is left is a waxy substance called the concrete. Alcohol is added to the concrete and the mixture is heated and then chilled. During this process, plant matter and waxes are removed from the concrete. Once the alcohol is removed through evaporation, all that is left is the absolute.


Enfleurage - the oldest extraction process - involved the use of cold fat . Today it has been almost completely abandoned. It was used to extract the oils from fragile flowers such as orange blossoms, jasmine or tuberose.

The hand-picked petals were deposited in a single layer on a pane of glass called "chassis", that was covered with a film of animal fat.
After 24 or 48 hours ( 72 hours for the tuberose), the spent petals were carefully removed. This process was repeated several times, until the fat was saturated with floral oils. Once the enfleurage process was completed, the fatty pomade - saturated with odors - was scraped off and washed with wine spirits. The resulting substance was an infusion.

When put under pressure at a temperature below 40o C, CO2 enters a supercritical, fluid state. It assumes the properties of a solvent but has the fluidity of a gaseous substance. Thanks to the SOFTACT®, it is now possible to obtain extracts whose quality and purity are without par. Indeed, these extracts do not contain any solvents and have not been processed at the usual high temperatures. This is truly a, SOFT EXTRACTION method. CO2 makes it possible to extract odoriferous substances of low volatility, such as those contained in spices, for example. CO2 produces excellent results with dry raw materials that don't do well with the traditional extraction techniques. CO2 used is recycled during the process.


Once a new molecule has been selected - following one or several years of intensive research - the most sophisticated techniques are applied in an effort to manufacture it on a large scale, while ensuring its purity and stability.

The whole manufacturing process for each of these new molecules can vary in length and complexity, but each of them is the object of an extensive, in-depth study. For instance, to obtain POLYWOOD from pure geraniol, the following steps are necessary : chlorination, distillation, cyclisation, hydrogenation and other esterifications ... a total of six months of various processes that will finally yield the raw material in a state that is usable. The complexity of each chemical reaction as well as the number of successive steps required definitely affect the cost of a raw material and the time needed for manufacturing it. Therefore it is essential to optimize the whole chain of production.


More on the sense of smell
Our sense of smell comes about because of specialized nerves in our nose in a specialized area known as the olfactory bulb. Supposedly we are able to distinguish over 10,000 different odor molecules. Inhaled air through the nose passes over a bony plate that contains millions of olfactory receptor neurons in an epithelial cover. These olfactory nerves have cilia extending out into a mucosal lining that is exposed to the atmosphere. The cilia contain olfactory receptors which are specialized proteins that bind low molecular weight molecules (odorants). Each receptor has a pocket (binding site) that has a particular shape that will match either a specific molecule or a group of structurally similar molecules. Research done by Linda Buck and Richard Axel (joint recipients of the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physiology) suggests some 1,000 genes that encode the olfactory receptors for a particular type of odorant molecule. The interaction of the right molecule with the right receptor causes the receptor to change its shape (called its structural conformation). The conformational change generates an electrical signal that goes to the olfactory bulb and then to the areas of the brain where any one nerve impulse is “interpreted” as a particular smell. Within the olfactory bulb it is thought that groups of olfactory receptors produce spatial patterns of olfactory bulb activity that are characteristic for a given odorant molecule or a blend of odorant molecules. These spatial patterns of activity create the information that leads to the recognition of odor quality and intensity between odors. The information is processed at higher levels of the olfactory system and in the brain to produce the perception of smell.


Buck and Axel studied a type of cell found in the nose called olfactory receptor cells, and a family of proteins called receptor proteins found in those cells. By studying mouse olfactory receptor cells, they found that each such cell contained only one type of receptor protein. In mice there are over 1,000 different kinds of receptor proteins, although humans may possess only about 350. A relatively large part of the genome of any given mammal is devoted to coding for receptor proteins. With so many different kinds of receptor proteins, as much as 3% of a mammal’s gene codes for the proteins involved in odor reception.
Proteins are long chain-like molecules, made by joining together many amino acid molecules. Receptor proteins are found at the surfaces of receptor cells, and the proteins snake in and out of the cell membrane, crossing it seven times. In the process, receptor proteins are twisted and bent into different shapes, creating cavities of different shapes and sizes. Each receptor protein has a different cavity shape. Odorant molecules can dock with these cavities in the receptor proteins. The shape of the cavity of a particular receptor protein is shaped to allow only members of specific families of molecules to dock with it, in the familiar lock-and-key manner of protein-substrate chemistry. This means that each kind of receptor protein responds to only a specific family of compounds. While a human may only have 350 or so different kinds of receptor cells, many odors are made of combinations of substances. Humans can discern as many as 10,000 different odors, that is, 10,000 different combinations of substances. In addition, within a chemical family, different members may not bind to the same receptor protein, allowing additional levels of nuance in the smell that is perceived.

More on specialized smell in fish

Although perfume is of great interest to humans, the function of smell in non-humans is more than just imbibing on pleasant odors. Being able to smell particular chemicals serves a most interesting purpose for salmon—their ability to return to their place of birth several years later to repeat the reproductive cycle. Classic experiments done by Arthur D. Hasler in the 1950s clearly demonstrated that salmon can smell particular chemicals in a stream that are associated with the migration route that the salmon takes after hatching to return to the ocean. If their nostrils are blocked, the salmon are unable to follow a particular stream of water that contains the chemical clues. The memory of those smells serves the salmon several years later when they begin the migration from the sea back to the fresh water stream, a distance of 800 to 900 miles away where they developed in and hatched from eggs. It is not known just exactly how the mature salmon find their way along the coastline (Pacific and Atlantic) to zero in on a particular fresh water river that empties into the ocean. There are ideas that for the ocean portion of the return trip, salmon use some navigational tools in the open water that include day length, the sun’s position and the polarization of the light that results from the angle in the sky, the earth’s magnetic field, water salinity and temperature gradients. Whatever the combination of tools, the salmon are able to find where their natal waters discharge into the ocean.

Young salmon (smolts) are particularly sensitive to the unique chemical odors of their locale when they begin their downstream migration to the sea. Odors that the smolts experience during this time of heightened sensitivity are stored in the brain and become important direction-finding cues years later, when adults attempt to return to their home streams. In one early experiment, salmon that were reared in one stream and then moved to a hatchery during the smolt stage returned to the hatchery, demonstrating the crucial role of imprinting during the transformative period of the fish’s life. Recent work has suggested young salmon may go through several periods of imprinting, including during hatching and while emerging from their gravel nest. (A good reference on studying olfaction in salmon in detail is found at

More on specialized smell in dogs
When it comes to detecting odors, dogs have a very highly developed sense of smell, in part because a larger portion of their brain is designed for neural activity from their nasal passages. A comparison of humans with different dog breeds and their neural capacity is shown below:
Table: Scent-Detecting Cells in People and Dog Breeds

Number of Scent Receptors







Fox Terrier




German Shepherd




Inside the nose, receptor cells are attached to a tissue called the olfactory epithelium. In humans, the olfactory epithelium is rather small, and only covers a small part of the surface of the inside of the nasal cavity near the cavity’s roof. In dogs, however, the olfactory epithelium covers nearly the entire surface of the interior of the nasal cavity. On top of this, a long-snouted tracking dog like a bloodhound or a basset hound may have a considerably larger nasal cavity than a human. All in all, the olfactory epithelium of a dog may have up to fifty times the surface area as that of a human. While a human may have around 3 cm2 of olfactory epithelium, a dog might have up to 150 cm2.

A dog’s wet nose also helps it smell more acutely, as odorants are captured as they dissolve in the moisture. The shape of the interior of a dog’s nasal cavity also allows odors to be trapped inside during inhalation, without being expelled during exhalation. This allows odorants to concentrate inside the dog’s nose for easier detection. When dogs exhale, the spent air exits through the slits in the sides of their noses. The manner in which exhaled air swirls out actually helps usher new odors into the dog’s nose. This also allows the dog to sniff more or less continuously. And they smell stereophonically, that is, they can determine the direction of the odorant molecules depending on which nostril detects the odor. A dramatic result of all of these adaptations is that dogs can smell certain substances at concentration up to 100 million

(1 x 108) times lower than humans can.
A 3-D model of a dog’s nasal passage and neural connections:

The canine nasal airway: (a) Three-dimensional model of the left canine nasal airway, reconstructed from high-resolution MRI scans. (b) The olfactory recess is located in the rear of the nasal cavity and contains scroll-like ethmoturbinates, which are lined with olfactory epithelium. The olfactory (yellowish-brown) and respiratory (pink) regions shown here correspond to the approximate locations of sensory (olfactory) and non-sensory (squamous, transitional and respiratory) epithelium, respectively (Craven et al. 2007). (Source:

Beagles, bloodhounds, and basset hounds have been bred to have especially keen senses of smell, even for dogs. They can be trained to discriminate between various chemical odors, sniffing out land mines, bombs in luggage, drugs at border crossings—and now they are being used in medical diagnosis (cancer in particular). Dogs are trained to detect odors, too faint for humans to smell, that indicate a diabetic patient might be about to go into insulin shock, a condition that results when blood sugar levels drop dangerously low, and can lead to coma and even death. When the dog smells insulin shock on the way, it can alert the patient to take preventive measures, like eating something sweet. If the insulin shock comes while the patient is asleep, a barking dog can be a lifesaver. In the future, dogs may also be used to smell cancers while still too small to be detected by conventional means. Some studies that have been done with what are called sniffer dogs are able to detect some of the chemicals being exhaled by patients with lung cancer. In some well controlled experiments, dogs were able to detect lung cancer from exhaled breath in 71 of 100 test cases and determined that 372 of 400 other patients did not have lung cancer. In addition, the dogs could discern lung cancer from other lung problems such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, even sniffing accurately through the exhaled breath of patients that just smoked a cigarette. The dogs are detecting volatile organic compounds being emitted from cancerous cells in the very early stages, which other medical tests or diagnostic technologies are not able to do. Other studies have shown that urine of cancer patients contain volatiles that are detectable by dogs. The ideal would be to identify the particular marker molecules after which an electronic detector might be developed.

More on Pheromones
Chemical senses are the oldest of senses, shared by all organisms including bacteria. Very recently, it has been determined that several species of bacteria can detect very specific chemicals. Several species of soil bacteria have their own “noses” for detecting airborne ammonia, an important nitrogen source for the bacteria’s protein metabolism. Most animal olfactory systems have a large range of relatively non-specific olfactory receptors, which means that almost any chemical in the rich chemical world of animals will stimulate some olfactory sensory neurons and can potentially evolve into a pheromone. A pheromone is a molecule used for communication between animals of the same species. [The word pheromone comes from the Greek, pherein, to carry or transfer and hormon, to excite or stimulate.] Across the animal kingdom, more interactions are mediated by pheromones than by any other kind of signal. There is a certain commonality between vertebrates and invertebrates in terms of the pheromones produced and in the range of behaviors that pheromones influence.
Insects such as ants use pheromones to direct their “colleagues” to a food source and find their way back to the colony. They also have other pheromones to

  • mark the way to new nest sites during emigration

  • aggregate

  • mark territories

  • recognize nest mates.

Mating activities of moths depend upon the male detecting the odors emitted by the female of the species. Chemical knowledge of this “mating” pheromone or sex attractant has been used to lure male moths into traps to limit reproduction of moths that are destructive to plants, such as the Gypsy moth. But other animals as large as the elephant make use of pheromones, primarily for reproductive purposes (sexual signaling). An interesting note is the fact that the pheromone used by elephants is the same molecule used by 140 species of moth! Yet there is no interaction between the two groups of animals because the receptors and the signals produced are different! Dogs like many other mammals (except humans) respond to pheromones meant to indicate mating readiness and other sexual details. Since we were talking previously about the highly sensitive olfactory system in the dog, it turns out that the dog possesses a special olfactory structure in its nose for detecting pheromones in the mix of chemicals that come through its nasal channels. This structure is called Jacobson’s organ; it is located in the bottom of the dog’s nasal passage. ”The pheromone molecules that the organ detects—and their analysis by the brain—do not get mixed up with odor molecules or their analysis, because the organ has its own nerves leading to a part of the brain devoted entirely to interpreting its signals. It's as if Jacobson's organ had its own dedicated computer server.” (from

Some known pheromone molecular structures are shown here.

Chemical composition of certain pheromones: (1) sex attractant of female of Asiatic silkworm, (2) marking substance of certain bumblebees, (3) aphrodisiac of male of Danaidae butterfly, (4) attractant of female of gypsy moth, (5) component of marking secretion of a rodent (clawed jird), (6a, 6b, 6c) three components of clustering pheromone of Scolytus bark beetle, (7) anxiety pheromone of Lasius ant” (source is

There are defined criteria for a pheromone. “The general size of pheromone molecules is limited to about 5 to 20 carbons and a molecular weight between 80 and 300. This is because below 5 carbons and a molecular weight of 80, very few kinds of molecules can be manufactured and stored by glandular tissue. Above 5 carbons and a molecular weight of 80, the molecular diversity increases rapidly and so does the olfactory efficiency. Once you get above 20 carbons and a molecular weight of 300, the diversity becomes so great and the molecules are so big that they no longer are advantageous. They are also more expensive to make and transport and are less volatile. In general, most sex pheromones are larger than other pheromones. In insects, they have a molecular weight between 200 and 300 and most alarm substances are between 100 and 200. “(Sociobiology: The Abridged Edition, 1980, 114) (from

Besides the category of pheromone associated with sexual signaling, there are alarm pheromones that are released to promote fight and flight reactions in receivers. Many ant species release the same pheromones to repel an opponent and an alarm to recruit fellow ants for assistance in a battle with the invaders. In other animals, alarm pheromones are used to make flesh unpalatable or toxic to a predator. These substances would be released by an injured animal. There are a variety of sea organisms that use this technique.

More on olfactory fatigue
One of the interesting neural responses of our olfactory system is a disappearance of the recognition or registration of a particular smell in the air being inhaled, over a short period of time. The neural receptors for smell eventually stop sending signals to our brain for interpretation of a particular smell. This is known as olfactory fatigue.

“Have you ever noticed a particular scent upon entering a room, and then not noticed it ten minutes later? This is due to olfactory fatigue. The olfactory sense is unique because it relies on mass, not energy to trigger action potentials. Your ears do not "stop" hearing a sound after a certain period of time, nor do your eyes stop seeing something you may be staring at. This is because both the ears and the eyes rely on energy to trigger them, not mass. In the nose, once a molecule has triggered a response, it must be disposed of and this takes time. If a molecule comes along too quickly, there is no place for it on the olfactory hairs, so it cannot be perceived. To avoid olfactory fatigue, rabbits have flaps of skin that open and close within the nostrils. This allows for short, quick sniffs and lets the rabbit "keep in close odor contact with its environment." When we wish to fully perceive a scent, we humans also smell in quick, short sniffs, often moving the source of the smell in front of one nostril then the other. This behavior also prevents odor fatigue.” (Stoddard & Whitfield, 1984) (source:

An interesting trick or technique to counter olfactory fatigue in perfume shoppers is to have containers of coffee beans on the store counter which tend to ‘reset’ olfaction. Anosmia is the permanent loss of the sense of smell, and is different from olfactory fatigue. (Wikipedia,

Connections to Chemistry Concepts

(for correlation to course curriculum)

  1. Organic compound—Any chemical that contains carbon (except carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and metal carbonates) is considered an organic compound. Because of the bonding based on the carbon atom, organic compounds have an almost infinite number of configurations with important “functional” groups attached. This is particularly useful for the perfume-making business as any one perfume can contain from 60 to 300 different molecules, many of them organic. The size of the molecules of organic compounds is wide-ranging. It is thought that a truck tire of synthetic or natural rubber, an organic polymer, is a single molecule!

  2. Pheromone—This category of biological molecule, particularly important in communication between various groups of insects, is organic and has a general size of between 5 and 20 carbons with a molecular weight between 80 and 300. The size and weight limits are related to molecular diversity and olfactory efficiency. Going above these limits reduces the effectiveness of the pheromones which are dependent on gaseous dispersal, hence volatility.

  3. Kinetic molecular theory of gases—Because gas molecules are constantly in motion, volatile substances in perfumes can reach our nose from a source at some distance from us.
  4. Phase change—although a perfume is applied as a liquid, it can only be detected in our noses if the perfume undergoes a phase change from liquid to a gas (evaporation). But to be detected in our nose, the gas has to then go into solution.

Possible Student Misconceptions

(to aid teacher in addressing misconceptions)

  1. Human pheromones have been identified since they are sold for enhancing sexual attraction.” Although pheromones are purportedly available as human pheromones and sold for enhancing sexual attraction in various perfumes, there is no evidence that human pheromones exist or that they enhance sexual attraction as in other animals. Some studies have tried to link the odor of men’s sweaty underwear to women’s sexual responses, but most scientific studies do not find a link. Underarm sweat from male or female when placed on the upper lip of females is found to affect the timing of the menstrual cycle. There are plenty of odors that females respond to, but they are not specific responses as in the case of other animals and insects related to pheromone emissions. A specific human pheromone has yet to be isolated chemically.

  2. We have a limited number of odors that we can detect.” OK, this isn’t really a misconception, but it comes close; it seems as if our olfactory system can detect up to 10,000 different odorants, which seems to be quite extensive!

  3. If we synthesize a molecule that occurs in nature, then it is natural.” For a chemical to be natural, it has to come from some source in nature, either living (plant or animal) or non-living such as that which is extracted from the earth. But to put together (synthesize) a molecule that has the exact same structure as that extracted from natural sources still is synthetic.

Anticipating Student Questions

(answers to questions students might ask in class)

  1. Is smell different than taste? Do fish ‘smell’ food or do they ‘taste’ the food?” Depending on the type of animal, there can be separate locations for taste detection (e.g., taste buds or receptors) and smell detection (e.g., olfactory receptors). In the case of fish, there are olfactory receptors in their nasal passages for the detection of various types of molecules in the water including those that identify the type of water (related to homing instincts in salmon) or the presence of another fish of the same species. So fish smell food. But they are also able to taste with taste buds on their lips and on the roof of their mouths as well as on the gills. They do not have taste buds on their tongue as is true for humans. For humans, we taste as well as smell food with olfactory receptors in the nose and taste buds on the tongue as well as in the back of the throat. The taste buds detect certain “tastes”—salt, sweet, bitter, sour and umami (“deliciousness”). Smell comes in multiple categories creating a complex of “odors”. Sometimes smell and taste work in conjunction with each other to produce a particular “taste”. If your taste buds are blocked, as in a cold, some flavors of food are not detected. Chocolate’s flavor depends on smell as much as taste. If you block out smell, the only components of the chocolate flavor will be sweetness and bitterness (from the taste buds).

  2. What is a musk-based perfume? Can it be synthetic?” A musk-based perfume is one that has the odor of a variety of animals that produce secretions from special glands, musk glands. The perfume can be either synthetic, or its scent can be derived from the musk glands of certain animals, in particular the Asian musk deer. In this day and age, most musk-based perfumes are synthetic, not natural. The primary ingredient is the organic molecule, muscone, a 15-carbon ring with several groups attached. Its molecular weight makes it a less volatile substance than is normally required for perfumes. But that characteristic makes it useful for containing (“trapping”) other more volatile perfume molecules, acting as a reservoir to provide a constant source of odor that is released over time. To be “smelly”, a perfume molecule has to be able to easily evaporate but not all at once! The muscone molecule can be produced through animals, in this case, civet cats that are fed coffee beans. The beans are not digested but are excreted intact, coated with their muscone-like substance called civetone. The beans are then washed of their civetone and the collected wash is used in the preparation of musk-based perfume. A synthetic musk odor is often produced with the molecule called galaxolide, rather than trying to synthesize muscone. It is used in perfumes as well as in soaps, cosmetics and detergents.
  3. Why does the initial odor of a perfume disappear even though the person is still in the room?” The molecules responsible for the odor of the perfume are still in the air and reaching a person’s nose. But the person’s nervous system has reached what is known as olfactory fatigue. If the person who no longer smells the odor were to leave the area of the perfume, then return, that person would again smell the perfume for another period of time before sensory fatigue sets in.

  4. How do the molecules of an odor become a sensation of smell?” When the molecules associated with an odor reach the nerve endings of the olfactory sensors in the nose, they must first go into solution (the mucosa).


This solution bathes cilia that are part of nerve endings (olfactory nerve endings) which are an extension of what is known as the olfactory bulb. Within the olfactory bulb are nerve endings that connect to the cilia-olfactory nerve endings, carrying a nerve impulse to the brain. The stimulation of the nerve endings is accomplished through specialized proteins in the cilia that bind low molecular weight molecules (odorants). The binding of the odorant molecules to the specialized proteins causes a change in the structure of the specialized proteins which in turn sets off an electrical signal that passes into the olfactory bulb and on to the brain for interpretation as a particular smell.
  1. Why are dogs more sensitive to smell than humans?” If you look at the sensory area for smell in a dog’s brain, it is apparent that it is much more extensive than in our brains. It is estimated that a dog has some 20 to 40 times as many receptors as humans. If you test a dog’s ability to smell the particularly odoriferous molecule hydrogen sulfide, it is found that the lowest concentration of hydrogen sulfide in air that is detected is 10-13 % (0.00000000000001%, or 1000 ppt). The lowest concentration of hydrogen sulfide detected by humans is 10-6 % (0.0000001% or 100 ppm). Note that the MSDS for hydrogen sulfide lists the short term exposure limit (10 minutes) at 15 ppm, which means we can’t even detect it at its toxic level—but dogs can.

In-class Activities

(lesson ideas, including labs & demonstrations)

  1. Students could experiment with olfactory fatigue. Here are several Web sites that outline such experiments for investigating olfactory fatigue including and This latter Web site has very good questions for the students to think about with regard to the topic of olfactory fatigue.

Another Web site on olfactory fatigue activity is found at The teacher guide for this activity is found at

  1. Students could synthesize esters which are normally used as flavoring in foods, but for this exercise would simply be the production of pleasantly smelling compounds that they can recognize. Ester synthesis involves the use of concentrated sulfuric acid. But if done in small quantities it presents less of a lab safety issue. Or the teacher can add the acid for the students at the correct step in the procedure. Refer to the following Web site for a complete lab exercise in ester synthesis:
  2. Although this ChemMatters article deals with smell, students could map their tongue for the locations of the principle tastes of salt, bitter, sweet and sour (acidic). Smell is often involved with a particular taste. This exercise would also point out to students the specificity of neural receptors. Most biology lab manuals contain the exercise procedure. A printable outline of the tongue with the locations on the tongue for the different categories of taste is found at A Web site for the lab procedure can be found at You can also actually see the taste buds on the tongue and compare the number for different people. See the following Web site for the simple instructions: Additional background information and discussion about the integral role of smell with taste and touch for the sensations of what some people would call the flavor of foods is found at

Out-of-class Activities and Projects

(student research, class projects)

  1. Instructions for making your own perfume can be found at and A very detailed reference on making your own perfumes is found at

  2. Commercial kits for making both perfumes and cosmetics can be purchased at Edmund Scientific’s Web address:

  3. Students could study the history of the development of and, in the 19th century to the present, the manufacture of perfumes and aromatic oils. A starting Web site would be Another Web site that discusses the one hundred most important perfumes and fragrances is

  4. Students could research the chemistry behind the modern manufacturing of perfumes. A starting reference that utilizes an interview with a perfumer would be


(non-Web-based information sources)

Luebe, M. Perfume. ChemMatters 1992, 10 (1), pp 8–11. This is a very complete description of the various techniques involved in current manufacture of perfumes. There is an introductory history of perfumes as well.

Arrigo, J. The Mystique of Musk. ChemMatters 1991, 9 (2), pp 12–15. This article provides a very detailed history of the chemists who developed synthetic perfumes including musk. Molecular structures are also included.

Kimball, A. Human Pheromones: The Nose Knows. ChemMatters 1997, 15 (2),
pp 8–10. Although the title suggests the article is only about pheromones, the general content is about aromas in general. The suggestion about human pheromones is not supported by scientific evidence to date.
Fruen, L.. Cleopatra’s Perfume Factory and Day Spa. ChemMatters 2004, 22 (3), pp 13–15. This article is a good read concerning the ancient art of making perfumes, ointments and cosmetics by Cleopatra. Included in the article is some of the chemistry behind these products.
Kimbrough, D. How We Smell and Why We Stink. ChemMatters 2011, 19 (4), pp 8–10. This article may appeal to students because it explores those bodily odors that do not qualify as attractive perfumes. It explores the origins of the typical teenager odors!
Vos, S. Sniffing Landmines. ChemMatters 2008. 28 (2), pp 7–9. This article discusses how dogs are able to detect landmines through training to recognize specific volatile chemicals that emanate from the buried explosive device.

Web sites for Additional Information

(Web-based information sources)
More sites on the workings of a gas chromatograph (GC) and mass spectrophotometer

A video on GC can be found at,

and a video on GC and mass spec can be viewed at A complete and clear explanation of a GC and mass spec can be found at

More sites on perfume manufacture
A number of Web sites that detail the history of humankind concocting perfumes and fragrances include:,, and
Additional Web sites that detail the various steps in the manufacture of perfumes are found at and

More sites on a dog’s sense of smell
This is a Nova Web site about dogs and their use in tracking things: It includes an extensive set of references that are Web-accessible.
An academic article from a science journal about investigating the ability of canines to detect cancer is found at
A series of references on dogs about their sense of smell plus training is found at the Web site for Scientific American Frontiers,

More sites on pheromones
Current thinking on human pheromones and the role of odors in human interaction can be found at

Another site that provides a very extensive background on pheromones and their use by various groups of animals is found at

An example of how scientists go about studying and deciphering ant behavior that includes using pheromones is found at A complementary article on studying the behavior of ants, in terms of detecting scents, is found at
A Web site that is all about ants and how they communicate (includes video and drawings of body parts important to the communication) is found at
A college Web site about pheromones might prove useful to students who adopt the topic of pheromones for a research project. The Web site is quite extensive and also readable. The Web address is .
An extensive collection of Web sites from Scientific American dealing with pheromones can be found at

More sites on homing traits of salmon
One site that summarizes current thinking on the ability of salmon to return to their freshwater site of birth is found at
Additional sites that deal with salmon homing instincts are found at (a PhD thesis that discusses the experimental setup for evaluating imprinting on salmon).

For a story about studying the geomagnetic abilities of salmon in homing from ocean to freshwater see

A site that shows the role of amino acids in water that salmon use for homing can be found here:
This site gives a very complete discussion of what is known and not know about how salmon find their way from ocean to their site of birth in an inland freshwater stream:

More sites on using animal sense of smell for medical purposes
This site,, is from one of the major research centers on smell, the Monell organization. Their news information describes the research into detecting cancer through odors in urine using both animals and electronic chemical sensing. In this case the subjects are mice. But dogs are also known to be able to detect cancer in human patients, both from sensing volatile organic compounds emitted by a person as well as sniffing a patient’s urine, depending on the type of cancer.
Another Web site dealing with cancer detection by dogs is found at


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