One of the first things our brain recognizes are smells, and they have become our way to understand the world even when we can’t do something else. We wouldn’t even be able to appreciate the delicious taste of food if it weren’t for the smell of things – that is why when we catch a cold and have our nose blocked, food tastes like nothing. That’s so, there is an amazing number of smells that we easily recognize and associate with certain feelings, sensations, or places.
- 1 Smelling is not as easy as it sounds
- 2 How do things smell?
- 3 The genetics behind smelling
- 4 Entering the amazing world of smells
- 4.1 Spicy and woody aromas
- 4.2 Sweet and fruity aromas
- 4.3 Fresh and herbal aromas
- 5 Chemical smells
Smelling is not as easy as it sounds
The process of smelling is more much difficult than you could think but is as natural as breathing, so you usually don’t ask yourself how is that we can smell things or how exactly does that work. Similar to other senses, like sight or hearing, smelling is no other than the connection and collaboration between the nose, which is the receptor organ, and our brain, who processes the particles that you inhaled earlier.
In fact, it is not a casualty that we have two nostrils. They are there because they help each other to recognize and detect the difference in the molecules that pass through them, and this allows you to follow a smell trail. When we sniff, we make this way a little bit easier and the particles are better detected. The neurons located inside of our nostrils communicate with each other through electrical messages and send them to the brain, which storages this information and remembers that particular smell.
How do things smell?
Chemistry is the foundation of life, or at least is the foundation of smells. We already talked about neurons detecting these particles that contain smells, and this is exactly how substances of any kind have smells: they irradiate small particles (molecules) that are released into the air.
The more volatile a substance is, the stronger is the smell you perceive. Some objects are non-volatile, which means that they don’t have a smell. These particles of smell travel through the air thanks to a process called diffusion, in which air particles and odor particles move along in all directions and spread out through the air around them.
The genetics behind smelling
When these particles enter our nostrils, they run around and follow a pathway that, interestingly enough, is also connected to the amygdala and hippocampus, which are areas that are related to emotion and memory. This is why smells can often change the way we feel, connect ourselves with other things we know, and even create new memories.
When someone cannot perceive smells, which is called anosmia, they often present a diminution or a noticeable impact on mental health and wellbeing. Now, this is clearly an underrated sense, and it shouldn’t be, since a large part of our genetic material has put a lot of effort into it.
Thus, it is not surprising at all that this sense is one of our first lines of defense against different threats. In fact, some studies suggest that human beings can detect and differentiate up to one trillion different odors, for as awesome as it may sound.
Adding up to this, we have the fact that olfactory receptors are not only located in the nose. Studies have recently shown that we have olfactory receptors all over our body: in muscles, kidneys, liver, lungs, and even our veins. It is thought that these receptors might have a basic function in our body’s normal activity.
Another interesting fact might be that since our olfactory receptors are sensitive chemical receptors that can detect even the slightest of chemical changes, and they have been detected in human sperm, which leads to the conclusion that they detect chemicals produced by the egg and swim towards that direction. With all of this, we mean to say that smelling is an important part of us as functioning beings, in ways that we didn’t even know about.
Entering the amazing world of smells
There is an amazing number of smells that have their own characteristics, so let’s look at the most common ones we can find and what they smell like. In the end, each smell is unique and evokes different sensations, and this is the magic that the different scents and smells that surround us and create new worlds and emotions especially for us.
Spicy and woody aromas
The most exotic and spicy smells that exist in the world have earned the admiration of many, and it is that their touch of intensity and strong taste. If you’re not careful enough, these kinds of fragrances might overwhelm you, but in the right amount, they will give you a delicious, tickling sensation that feels incredible. The woody aromas make you feel warm and happy, so they often are associated with happy times like Christmas.
What do cloves smell like?
Do you ever wonder what Christmas smells like? some say it smells like gingerbread houses and mistletoes, but the truth is that cloves actually sum this emotion quite well. Even though they are an important ingredient in many spicy meals, the woody aroma of cloves is definitely one that creates the perfect combination between sweet and spicy. Cloves have been addressed to have antiseptic and pain-relieving properties, but their most interesting feature is surely their aroma.
The spicy aroma of cloves comes given by the presence of eugenol, which gives cloves a sharp, dry, and strong odor that is a highly recognizable characteristic of cloves. It gives a delicious aroma to any meal and is often used in perfumery since it blends perfectly with bergamot, geranium, ylang-ylang, petitgrain, and jasmine.
What does Nutmeg smell like?
This aroma is closely related to clove aroma, and at one point, you won’t even be able to know if you’re smelling cloves or nutmeg. However, this doesn’t mean that nutmeg doesn’t have a characteristic smell at the beginning. Its woody, spicy and exotic aroma is often used in cooking and is also an important ingredient in ayurvedic products.
Sometimes associated with the aroma of cinnamon, ginger, cola, and clove, nutmeg has a smoky nuance that differentiates it from all of them. It contains eugenol, but in a lesser quantity than the cloves, and is used to obtain vanillin. Nutmeg’s aroma causes relaxation and creates an environment of comfort.
What does cinnamon smell like?
Cinnamon is one of the favorites in oriental cuisine, and it is definitely one of the most delicious and recognizable aromas of them all. The aroma of cinnamon is a mixture between the sweet, the woody, and the spicy flavors that create a characteristic aroma that sometimes is reminiscent of smells like cloves or even Laurel, which belongs to the same family as cinnamon.
The cinnamon is extracted from the Cinnamomum Verum, a tree that can reach up to 15 meters in height, and what we know as cinnamon sticks is just the branches of this tree being left out to dry and that curl themselves to present as a sweet aromatic tube. In the chemistry of cinnamon, we have the presence of eugenol, and cinnamic aldehydes, along with some terpenes as linalool, and glucides, that all blend in together to create the intoxicating and delicious aroma of cinnamon.
What does wormwood smell like?
Wormwood is a well-appreciated ingredient in cooking, and it has a quite characteristic smell. It is strong, bitter, and woody, so it is one of the most used spices for many meals, but it is not often used in perfumery or soap-making. The roots of wormwood have the characteristic and bitter principle of glycosidic nature, called absinthe, and this is a component that helps to repel cabbage flies, slugs, aphids, and fruit worms.
Wormwood’s absinthe is the one that gives it the bitter, overpowering, and strong fragrance, and it is not toxic, even though its aroma might tell you that is better to use this ingredient with caution unless you want to feel overwhelmed and even a bit nauseated with the odor.
What does Cumin smell like?
Cumin is another of the most important spices, especially in Asian culture. The sharp, hot, and kinda bittersweet aroma of cumin is one of the best representations of what a spicy aroma is. Some people describe the odor of cumin as a warm, penetrating, nutty aroma that has some hints of lemon and earthy notes.
However, not all people feel that cumin has a delicious smell, in fact, all the opposite. Some people actually think that cumin smells like sweat, or even worst, like the armpits of someone who has spent quite some days without showering. Even though this characterization is not quite true for everyone, it’s still something to take into account when you’re asking yourself how does the cumin smell like.
What does Pepper smell like?
The perfect company for salt, or a pizza, if you might, pepper has an almost indescribable and extremely characteristic aroma. However, if we had to explain what does the pepper smells like, we could say that it is a spicy, strong, and woodsy aroma.
In the same way that vanilla turns any perfume into a sweet, mild, and delicate fragrance, pepper can turn any fragrance into a sharp, edgy, and spicy perfume. They are almost opposites to themselves, and this is what makes pepper so appreciated not only in cuisine but also in perfumery.
The not-so-cool side of the pepper, and working as a fun fact, is that the chemicals that white pepper contains are just the same ones as the found in pig manure and horse sweat, specifically 3-methylindole and 4-methylphenol.
What does pine smell like?
The sweet, delicious smell of forests is summed up in the aroma of pines we get in our Christmas tree or a car freshener. Pines have a sharp, sweet, and refreshing aroma that is actually characteristic of these kinds of woods. This aroma is capable of transmitting a fresh vibe into any environment, and it is no surprise that this is one of the most requested smells for fresheners or cleaning products.
Now, if we’re to check on what gives the pine trees the delicious smell they have, we most surely have to look at a component we’ve been mentioning throughout the article: terpenes. Terpenes are composed of carbon and hydrogen atoms, and the most common form of terpenes is in the form of small terpenes, also known as monoterpenes.
In this case, the ones that give pines their aroma are pinene, which has a piney odor, and limonene, which gives it a fresh, citrusy aroma. These two are some of the molecules that give their distinctive smell. Pines are often defined as fresh, cold, sharp, slightly minty, and sweet aromas, but it is up to you to decide if this is true.
What does Tobacco smell like?
You might associate the smell of tobacco with the cigarettes that you find in almost every convenience store, and its smoke, but the truth is that tobacco, in its natural form, doesn’t smell any like this. The aroma of tobacco flower is sweet and spicy, but in general, the aroma of tobacco is earthy, dried, and kinda woody aroma that is quite characteristic, but not so known as the odor of cigars.
Even though some people say that tobacco has a sweet aroma, some others say that tobacco is mostly spicy, and it is in this variety that we find the beauty of tobacco. One way or another, the aroma of tobacco is sharp, strong, and earthy, and it is not as disgusting as the aroma of nicotine and other components of cigarettes, as you might think at first sight.
Sweet and fruity aromas
The deliciousness of sweet aromas surrounds all your senses and takes you to a fragrance paradise. They can soothe you and make you feel relaxed, happy, and make you remember the best times you ever had, so it is no surprise that sweet aromas are one of the most valuable scents worldwide. Fruits and tropical smells have this same energy, making you feel happy and calmed at every time.
What does Juniper smell like?
Have you ever smelled gin? If so, you’re actually smelling juniper. If you don’t know what we’re talking about, we could describe the smell of juniper as a sweet, strong, and fresh fragrance, with a bitter touch that makes it ideal for different perfumes. It has a certain smell that can be associated with pines, and this is no surprise since juniper berries are harvested from a small tree belonging to the cypress family.
Juniper is excellent for aromatherapy, helping to treat arthritis, sore muscles, and poor circulation. Besides, it is a common ingredient in perfumery, thanks to the piney, lovely scent they have, which makes it a romantic and delicious aroma. The two chemicals that act in favor of giving juniper the exquisite aroma it has are Pinene, which is common to many conifers and gives them their woody, raspy aroma; and Limonene, which gives juniper a slight citrusy smell that makes it so distinguishable.
What does Clary sage smell like?
This one is a sweet aroma that resembles nuts and has a sage-like scent that is way less bitter than the ones we’re used to. The aroma of clary sage has a gentle, floral scent that is soothing and relaxing, that is sometimes reminiscent of mild rosemary or soft anise. The distinctive aroma is sometimes described as a warm, herbal and tea-like scent, but is also associated with woody, tobacco-like, and bright sensations that also include a fruity note.
As to its chemistry, we can mention linalool, which contributes to the woody or floral notes you can perceive in it, and linalyl acetate that gives it a sweet, fruity, and fresh aroma. In perfumery, clary sage is conceived as an enhancer, that has a strong presence without being too overwhelming, and it blends in quite well with bergamot, frankincense, geranium, jasmine, juniper, lavender, and sandalwood.
What do bananas smell like?
If you ever want a refreshing, sweet, and delicate fruit, you’ll surely think about bananas before anything else. This is one of the most popular fruits in the world, and it is extended worldwide. When it is ripe, it has a sweet, tropical, and delicious aroma that matches its smooth texture.
However, when bananas aren’t ripe, they have a disgusting smell that is mostly described as green, woody, or similar to what an old book would smell like. bananas have a sweet, satiating taste with a smooth, soft texture, it is tropical.
The chemical that gives bananas its characteristical smell is the isoamyl acetate, and this one is, in fact, the chemical used to recreate the banana’s smell in a lab.
What does Vanilla smell like
One of the most recognizable and famous sweet scents is definitely vanilla. The extract of the vanilla tree, or even the synthetic vanillin obtained industrially, has become an important part of many things, from the bakery, the candle, and soap-making, to the perfumery, and it is one of the first things one thinks about when asked for something sweet.
Vanilla creates and encourages tons of different feelings and sensations. With the softness and tenderness of our grandmother baking cookies or the memories from your childhood, vanilla is a delicate fragrance that has earned a place in the top favorites around the world.
One interesting fact about vanilla is that breast milk has a slight odor to vanilla, and this is the reason that most infant formulas have vanilla in it: it is one of the first smells our brains recognize. The sweet, kinda overwhelming, and delicate aroma of vanilla is completely distinctive and delicious.
What does aniseed smell like?
Have you ever smelled licorice? if so, then you already know what aniseed smells like. If you haven’t, then we can describe aniseed’s smell like a delicious, spicy aroma, that has woody nuances and is bitter and sweet at the same time. Even though it is not specifically related to licorice, they both smell pretty the same.
Since licorice is actually a mixture of sugar, gelly, flour, and extract of Glycyrrhiza glabra root, we could say that aniseed has got to have the aroma of some glucose and some starch, besides the known components such as eugenol (which gives it the spicy, clove-like aroma), anethole, estragole, and the monoterpene 1,8-cineole.
What does orange smell like?
The queen of citrus aromas, orange has a sparkling, vibrant, and delicious aroma that you immediately recognize. It is one of the most popular fruits and it has a fresh aroma that feels tropical and relaxing. Orange belongs to the same group of aromas that include lemon, lime, tangerine, and grapefruit. These aromas automatically transport you to the beach, where you feel refreshed and relaxed with just a touch of it.
We’ve already heard about limonene, and it is this chemical that gives all citrus its characteristic smell. This is a hydrocarbon that belongs to the family of cyclic terpenes and is often used as a natural aromatizer alone. However, on the chemical side of this, we find something funny: the different presences of asymmetric carbon, which are linked to 4 different substituents, determine the existence of two optical isomers: R-limonene S-limonene, which curiously have different odors: while R-limonene smells like orange, S-limonene smells like pine.
Fresh and herbal aromas
Some aromas immediately make you feel soothed and relaxed. Even though not all of the soothing aromas are fresh, we could safely say that fresh aromas are one of those aromas that transport you to a whole mood of divine relaxation and well-being. It is one of the most valued sensations, and some aromas give us just that.
What does Rosemary smell like?
Rosemary has a quite characteristic aroma and is a well-known ingredient in the kitchen, but its delicious smell has also been used in perfumery, soap-making, candle-making, and even in the cosmetics industry. Some people describe the aroma of rosemary as a camphorated aroma, but some others describe the aroma of rosemary as a harsh, yet spicy aroma, that feels fresh and exotic. In the end, it is a fresh, woody fragrance, and gives some piney vibes that make it feel like a green aroma.
In the chemical aspect of rosemary, we find that it contains between 1 and 2,5% of essential oil in its leaves, and this essential oil is made of monoterpenes such as 1,8-cineole, alpha-pinene, camphor, alpha-terpineol, camphene, camphene, borneol, bornyl acetate, limonene, linalool, myrcene, and verbenone. Besides, it contains sesquiterpenes such as beta-caryophyllene. All of these chemicals give the rosemary a strong, kinda citrus and fresh aroma that is pretty recognizable.
What does Coriander smell like?
Some people think that coriander and rosemary have similar aromas, but the truth is that these two aren’t as similar as you would think. Coriander is characterized by a warmer, nutty, and spicy aroma. Coriander contains linalool, which is a common chemical that you can find in soaps and other cleaning products and gives it a woody, fresh aroma. Some even say that coriander has a citrus smell, which is another point to add to its freshness premise.
One interesting fact about coriander is that some studies have identified a receptor gene, called OR6A2, which resides on chromosome 11 and is responsible for binding the various aldehyde components to its receptors. The scientists said that people with the OR6A2 receptor gene may detect the aldehydes and linalool present in coriander and associate it with soaps.
In fact, it has been proven that European communities are more likely to have this gene, contrary to the American and Asian communities, which actually use coriander as an important ingredient in their food.
What does thyme smell like?
One of the most valued herbs in Mediterranean cuisine, thyme has a delicious aroma that feels spicy and warming and gives any food an undeniable fresh feeling you won’t want to miss. Some people think it is too sharp and pungent, but this delicious herb, in the right amount, is perfect for creating a warm and lively space wherever you put it.
We could associate the aroma of thyme with the aroma of cloves, camphor, and mint all mixed up together, and it blends in exquisitely with woody ingredients, that help potentiate the freshness of thyme. One of the most famous thymes is, of course, the lemon thyme, which has the exquisiteness of thyme combined with the delicious and fresh aroma of lemon.
What does hyacinth smell like?
In the ancient Greek legends, Hyacinthus was a young man killed accidentally by Apollo, and so hyacinth stands, still to this day, as a remembrance flower.
The aroma of Hyacinth is fresh, clear, and transports you to spring immediately. However, describing exactly what does hyacinth smells like could be more complicated. Some say that they could describe the aroma of hyacinth as a mixture of lilac, old rose, daffodil, wine, chocolate, vanilla, mushroom, honey, and wood. Some also describe it as a combination of grass, bitterness, flowery, citrus leaves, celery, hay, and lavender.
The chemicals behind the particular aroma of hyacinth are benzyl acetate, which is also a component of jasmine, phenylethyl alcohol, which gives it a rose-like smell, and benzyl benzoate, which is balmy; and the aromatic hydrocarbon trimetoxybenzene with a perplexing medicinal, animalic odor.
What does citronella smell like?
Many people use Citronella to repel insects, and it is thanks to its strong aroma which flyes and bugs hate that this is one of the most reliable ones. Some people describe the aroma of citronella as a grassy, floral aroma, and some say is sweet, but most people think that it is a woody, oily aroma that deeply penetrates your nose and is kinda lemon-like.
The main components of citronella are citronellol, citronellal, and geraniol, which give it the strong, citrus-like aroma that repels insects away. Either way, citronella is not as bad as you might think, since it has a sweet, fresh aroma, it’s just too overwhelming.
We’ve already set clear that chemicals are the base of the smells we perceive, and some of the most common have characteristic smells that you might want to know about. For example, we have Dimethyl sulfide, which has a cabbage-like smell that is highly disgusting, even at low concentrations.
Another chemical we have mentioned is isoamyl acetate, also known as banana oil, and which, of course, has a delicious aroma to banana, even though sometimes is also associated with the odor of pears. This chemical is naturally obtained in bananas, but it is also released by a honey bee’s sting apparatus and serves as a pheromone to attract other bees and provoke them to sting.
Generally, in perfumery, we find lots of different chemicals that help the fragrance to stand out. Among these, we find acetone, which has a sharp, strong aroma; ethanol, which has a spicy, heavy aroma; limonene, which has a citrus, fresh aroma; linalool, which has a floral and minty aroma; camphor, which has a strong and sharp acrid odor; and many other, like formaldehyde, methylene chloride, ethyl acetate, and benzyl alcohol.
In the end, chemicals are an important part of our lives. Smelling these chemicals is kinda what makes our lives fun. What is the point of eating a delicious pizza if we weren’t able to taste it or smell it? So, while chemicals are all around us, having a better understanding of what things smell like could make us appreciate it more and, of course, satisfy our endless curiosity about the world that surrounds us.