Monday, August 11, 2014

Solar Notes in your Perfume: Luminous, warm and dazzling

"And God said, 'Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate the day from the night...' "
 ~Genesis 1:14

There's no denying that solar power, apart from a theological and cosmic issue, is a potent anti-depressant. But apart from the feeling the rays impart on our Vitamin D-deprived skin sucking them up hungrily and our soul reaching up to feed upon its welcoming embrace, is there anything being triggered in the olfactory nerve of our brains, making us euphoric by the smells recalling summer?

The Doric Temple of Athena Lindia, dating from about 300 BC in Lindos, 

Island of Rhodes, Greece. Photo by Kenny Barker via pinterest

Solar notes are a perfumery trope which has been going for a long time, historically speaking, if we track perfumery's record, but which has been slow to be acknowledged in common fragrance marketing parlance. It probably took Narciso for Her to first admit that the term "solar notes" ("solar musk" specifically in NR) seemed incomprehensible to the average perfume lover, yet it managed to display the feeling of brightness experienced rather well. The name Sunessence, attached to the products by Thierry Mugler, such as in Alien Sunessence, is brilliant in capturing all the desirability of the constantly evolving battery of our small astro-system. Fahrenheit 32 and Escale aux Marquises, both by Dior, even predispose us for the sunny disposition by their very presentation.

In truth, the reconstitution of floral notes which are hard or impossible to extract, such as gardenia, or which have been long associated with the balmy ambience of the tropical climates such as tiare and frangipani, no less so the lush ylang-ylang famously grown in the Comores islands, are full of molecules called salicylates which produce—exactly—this heated, sun-lit atmosphere which can warm the cockles of the harshest heart. The harvest/recolt edition of Amarige Ylang de Comores is but one of them, Mayotte (or Mahora in its previous incarnation by Guerlain) is another one. L de Lolita Lempicka, which proudly wears its solar notes on its sleeve, marries the warm notes of flowers, among them immortelle with its sunny ambience of the garrigue, with a salty sea-kissed skin hint, deepening the impression of a scorching sun where people drink out of ceramics and cut nets with daggers kept in their pockets.

La Plage de Calvi by Roger Broders (1930) via Vintage ad browser 

But the connection between the very real and realistic appreciation of the fragrant molecules in the actual flowers (sometimes unknown in their real form to natives and dwellers of northern climes) often perishes in effect compared to the omnipotent mental association between the scent of sun products and our evocation of summery pleasures. Many Europeans equate Ambre Solaire (and not the more American standard Coppertone with its coconut aroma) with summer vacations by the sea.

The secret lies in the use of benzyl salicylate, a blender with supremely floralizing capabilities which was initially used in sun products as a radiation-blocking substance, a now obsolete sunscreen. But the brand connection between product and scent necessitated that the ingredient be kept even after chem laboratories came up with much more effective sunscreens, a phenomenon of scent and product bond that is quiet, frequent and powerful. The effect of the floral note of Ambre Solaire was beloved for the added reason that benzyl salicylate was also favored throughout the best part of the early 20th century perfumery, giving its decisive tone in such classics as L'Air du Temps, Fidji, Norell or Je Reviens, adding a silky powdery sheen that could be felt more than smelled. The pairing with spicy particles also contributed in the creation of carnation accords, so beloved in the first couple of decades of the 20th century.

Nevertheless, the lineage goes even further back with the use of amyl salicylate as a fixative and a modifier in late 19th century mythical compositions, such as Piver's Le Trefle Incarnat (1898). The clover note (trefle is French for "clover") is related to coumarin (indeed coumarin is often referenced as the at once warm, sweetish and fresh note of "new mown hay") and was routinely used to render orchid notes; interestingly it's naturally found in black tea and rum, which smell nothing like orchids! Today isoamyl salicylate is used as a food additive giving a strawberry-like aroma, which convinces me, as if I needed further prompt, that smells are related in patterns that do not necessarily leap to the eye.

This sweetish note was used in one of the pioneering "sun fragrances" of the 1990s, Dior Bronze, ushering a genre of fresh, smooth, warmish and decidedly hedonistic scents to be used both as a sunbathing accompaniment (containing no photosensitizes in the formula) as well as an evocation of the joys of the beach when not worn at the beach, but extending its welcome. The rest was history and a modern best-selling trend. What is also most interesting is that salicylates play a big part in your favorite deodorant, fabric softener, shampoo or hair spray! Like the hen and the egg question, which came first, i.e. the love for solar notes in perfumes which helped the beachy and warm sunny fragrances kick in or the familiarization through the use of those core molecules in functional products, is a hard nut to crack.

Lily perfumes, so Easter-like in their white splendor with their red stamens, have benefited by a splattering of solar notes, too, to render their bright, waxy smell through, while giving the impression that they're being warmed by the sun and splattered by sea spray in some garden where the nights are clear and you can count the stars with ease. Lys Soleia by Guerlain or Vanille Galante by Hermes are two examples of lilies which take on powerfully vanillic and ylang facets which however manage not to evoke the pleasures of the mouth, but of the sensual abandon of one's whole body. Donna Karan Gold adds an ambery slice, much like the musky L de Lempicka does, to round things and broadcast its message even further, just like good ol' god Helios would have, melting poor Icarus's waxen-glued wings …


  1. And after reading this post I am now truly positive you need to get your hands on LUSH Vanillary. For me it is the scent of vanillic lilies on the cold pacific coast on a bright sunny day. Vanille Galante achieves this effect to a degree but Vanillary amps up.

  2. it's interesting reading this, because i have never liked the smell of sunscreens or tanning oils of any kind...though i understand the way in which chemistry uses salicylates in perfume creation to underscore a component or to create certain floral notes by referencing other scents, it is not my favorite category of perfume components. i know they are in many things, but i tend not to care for them if they are prominent...i actively dislike hairspray smells, laundry additive scents, sunscreen scents, and most shampoo fragrances, etc. so to me, the scents that call to mind sun and sand and salt winds are things like fig perfumes; "L" by lolita lempicka, as you mentioned; "dune"; some of the lily perfumes, like "lys mediterranee" or "gold"; strong tuberose scents like "carnal flower" and "fracas"; and perhaps oddly, "l'air du desert marocain". i don't care for overtly "tropical" scents, with their coconut anchors. i wonder if some of these preferences have their origin in the fact that my pleasant memories of beaches and heat are all connected with the mediterranean or with north africa, whilst my unpleasant ones are of being repeatedly burnt to a crisp on various east coast of america beaches...

  3. annemarie11:31

    Sunscreens these days smell to me entirely artificial with no relation to anything other than chemicals from a lab. People of my kids' generation - at least where we live, where sun awareness is huge - have never smelled tropical or coconut scented sunscreens. This makes me wonder if from now on the connection has been broken, and the market for perfumes that reference sun products is based on nostalgia alone, and will diminish as the years pass.

    Perfumes that reference the warmth of the sun are different. Azuree is a good example. To me it's like dry herbs and hot stones, and the leather sandals you are wearing as you walk the track down to the beach.

  4. J,

    Vanillary here I come!!! (You have created a huge lemming)

  5. NFS,

    that's exceedingly interesting because you're highlighting indeed some fragrances that I believe use salicylates (CF does for one). The tie ith sunscreen lotions I think pertains only to the Euro version, the Haaian Tropics and Coppertone ones are much more coconut-scented. But I do onder about all the rest, because many of those products also use musks. (I attribute my love on musks on the hairsprays I recall from chidlhood). Could it be it?
    At any rate, your comment makes me think!! Thank you for that. :-)

  6. AMC,

    that's an excellent point and one I hadn't thought of, to be honest. Indeed generations to come might be impervious to the suntan oil/lotion connection because SPF 70 doesn't smell of much apart from the chemical screening agents. True!!

    I love your description of Azuree. Dune is like that too, to me.

  7. Miss Heliotrope08:36

    Here in Australia there's high-level SPF sunblock with a coconut scent still - I bought a coconut scent (Coqui Coqui) to wear with it. I found more recently a sunblock (always as high SPF as allowed here, it's Australia, we've killer sun plus hardcore regulations regarding labeling of sun screen) with a mild citrus-ish scent (& it was clear).

    Living in Melbourne, with ancestorally Irish/Scots skin - besides a face cream with 15+ for half the year (or if am outside more than 1 hour), I have months of not going out without sunblock at all - & it's one of the most annoying things to get either unscented (ha) or something that at least blends...

  8. C,

    Anglosaxons and cultures influenced by them go for coconut for some reason. *confused look shrugging shoulders* I suppose being in much further up north (or further up south) latitudes they embrace the exotic in its easiest and surest sign: coconut. (Picture a shipwrecked man in an isolated island in the ocean and what do you see in your mind? Coconut trees…) Maybe? I don't know.
    Locally coconut is popular thanks to Coppertone. But floral blends with solar notes are equally popular, if not more so.

    Your clear and citrusy scented sunscreen sounds good! Trust the Aussies with coming out with a good sunscreen. I know that Oz is especially diligent ith the sun and as should be. Personally I sympathize with anyone that has trouble finding the perfect sunscreen; I have tried almost everything and there's always a drawback. Stickiness, white cast, budging with the sweat on the forehead, non photostable so you'd have to constantly re-apply, sensitizing….you name it!

    Living in a sunny climate I too wear sunscreen every single day, come autumn, come winter, no matter although thankfully not of Irish skin extraction (though still sensitive and light-hued). Of course that changes with the seasons: a local CC cream with SPF20 for the cooler season is more than enough. But for summer in the beach or when out for a long time I have to use the totally matte LRP sun allergies cream-gel SPF50+. For the city though I have found that Shiseido Compact SPF30+ is very good because -hurray!- it's sweat-proof and applies dry, a very important consideration. I think it's available internationally and you can match to your skin tone as it comes in many shades.


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