QuestionWhy do new things smell so good?
Hopes&Fears answers questions from our readers and friends, with the help of people who know what they're talking about. Today, we're curious about scents.
From new cars to new clothes, even new books, the smell of new things tends to be a pleasant experience. But why? What is it about these freshly minted items that makes their aroma so appealing?
Head of the Laboratory of Neuro-genetics and Behavior at Rockefeller University
Only because we have learned that those smells are associated with new things, and we as a society in the US really like new things. So if the ‘new car smell’ was actually something we thought was disgusting, like skunk, we would all eventually learn to [dis]like this ‘new car smell.’ Objectively, the ‘new car smell’ is not pleasant—it is the smell of the carpeting and plastic interiors giving off their solvents. This smell goes away eventually as these solvents evaporate. I bet if you find someone who has not yet learned to like the smell, maybe a country where car ownership is less common and asked them what it smelled like, I doubt they would say “it smells so good!”
Much of what we as a society consider a ‘good smell’ is learned. And a lot of it depends on the context. So we really don’t like the smell of skunk, but the same exact molecule in coffee (Skatole) smells really good to us because we associate coffee with warm social moments and a boost of energy. Another example is a musky ingredient called Civet that perfumers use. It adds a beautiful depth when mixed into a perfume, but by itself smells like the big cat house at a zoo that needs to be cleaned.
Founder and President of Scenterprises, a custom perfume and scent company
New things smell good because the fragrance has been trapped and hasn’t been exposed to air. When things are still new, the fragrance molecules are trapped. In regards to new car smell, the new leather hasn’t been sat on, hasn’t been exposed to air. Over time fragrances dissipate, it all depends on how the fragrance is stored or kept, exposure to light or different climates can dissipate scents.
Smells that remind you of your past are always compelling, smells from childhood for instance. Some people love the smell of human odor, it's a very sensual smell and it triggers an emotional and physical reaction.
COVER ILLUSTRATION: Sergii Rodionov