Raw Materials Mixing the Foul with the Fragrant: The Mystery of Indole

Mixing the Foul with the Fragrant: The Mystery of Indole

05/21/14 06:21:16 (34 comments)

by: Elena Vosnaki

The Foul and the Fragrant is a treatise by French historian Alain Corbin which tackles the sanitation of European cities in the decades that preceded the Industrial Revolution. But its contrasting title neatly falls into place when trying to identify the strange yet compelling allure of a most particular note in perfumery: that of indole, present in both flowers and human feces. If by now your appetite has been suppressed, have no fear. Perfumery is a fine craft which plays upon nuances and scales of perception.

When citrus mixes with sweat a sort of chirality comes to the rescue to cancel each other out, the way an image reflected from a mirror into another mirror gives a distorted quality giving rise to a new apprehension of the object. When indole, naturally present mostly in white flowers, reveals itself in your bottle of perfume, we might recall how when spraying the same perfume in a freshly used toilet the synergy of the fragrance with the ambient smell mixes and sort of becomes a new entity, definitely more floral than fecal. Still, the fascination remains: why would you want to use a fragrance that even vaguely brings to mind #2? The answer is straightforward enough, because some of the best perfumes in existence are indolic.

Indole is an aromatic heterocyclic organic compound which contains a six-membered benzene ring fused to a five-membered nitrogen-containing pyrrole ring (don't worry if you're not great at chemistry, it will all make sense in a second); thus compounds which contain an "indole ring" (sequence of molecules) are accordingly named "indoles."

What does this mean? It smells "weird." But not necessarily of feces or poop, contrary to common perfume-lingo knowledge perpetuated on boards! Organic chemistry on the whole isn't averse to naming names quite literally, especially when it comes to foul-smelling components: Hence we have cadaverine (for cadaver smell), putrescine (for the stench of garbage), skatole (from the Greek σκατό, literally meaning "shit"), or butyric acid (the smell of rancid butter from the Greek βούτυρο/butter). No, the nomenclature of organic chemistry is pretty much to the point, but indole seems an exception. Indeed the name is derived from history instead: it derives from the treatment of indigo dyes.

Pure indole, the one which is indeed present in feces and also in small part present in white flowers (such as, predominantly, jasmine, gardenia, tuberose and orange blossom to a lesser degree; but also in honeysuckle and lilac, technically not white flowers at all) doesn't really smell of poop in isolation.

On the contrary if I were to give it a common reference I'd compare it to the stale yet curiously "fresh" (as in sharp, penetrating, energizing instead of pacifying) scent of mothballs.

It's true that natural jasmine essence, as used in the perfume industry, is dark and narcotic, containing about 2.5% of pure indole. This often gives a "full," lush and intimate —some say naughty—effect in the finished compound ("lady bits" is one way it's referenced), making the jasmine "sexier" or "animalic" as described by perfume enthusiasts, although technically the naughty, horsey effect is more due to paracresol. Try Serge Lutens' A la Nuit, also his Sarrasins (a different treatment of intimate) or Montale Jasmine Full, and you know what I am talking about. Olene by Diptyque is another one which has a dubious intimate ambience (described by someone as "one bad mama jama of a jasmine"), as does the extrait version of Joy by Jean Patou, sublimated in rosy and musky tones as well, and the heart of Bal à Versailles (flanked by naughty civet). Also try Bruno Acampora Jasmin.

However, you don't necessarily have to tread on jasmine to get copious amounts of indole, either. Try a carnation scent as well: Carthusia Fiori di Capri. It can make walking in the park where dog owners routinely walk their dogs a completely novel experience in perception!

Last but not least, many of the modern white floral fragrances purposefully bypass the questionable indolic smell. This is no doubt due to modern sensibilities which champion a totally deodorized and artificially scented self as the hallmark of the civilized individual. Consideration of one's neighbor, one's mate, one's colleague, one's fellow shopper or cinema watcher indicates that you should avoid anything that might offend, even if imperceptibly. And the more uneducated people are on the matter of perfume, the more they're attuned to questionable scents I find. It might have to do with learning to appreciate the foul or with accepting our own mortality alongside the decay of plant life and the evanescent, dying nature of perfume itself. Whatever it is, indolic perfumes are a fascinating journey for the perfume lover and one which truly is a rite of passage.

 

Elena Vosnaki

Elena Vosnaki is a historian and perfume writer from Greece and a Writer for Fragrantica. She is the founder and editor of Perfume Shrine, one of the most respected independent online publications on perfume containing fragrance reviews, industry interviews, essays on raw materials and perfume history, a winner in Fragrantica Blog Awards and a finalist in numerous blog awards contests.

Her writing was recognized at the Fifi Awards for Editorial Excellence in 2009 and she contributes to publications around the world.

 



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odie
odie

Ah, Elena has written a personal article of my love for questionable indole. Beautiful indolic jasmine and the greener lighter lilt of lily-of-the-valley. I also do like creamy somewhat mentholated tuberose and dear gardenia. Yes. The dance of my nostrils with "lady of the night" also known as jasmine, and don't tell some people it smells sweet, they hate it.

But I find indoles to be very tempered in most perfumery and do agree that some citrus indolic notes have a scent akin to slightly sour citrus/fat, if I can describe it like that.
It's all love with me and indoles, people who are uneducated about fragrance just might not like your indole, that's true. Perfumes are subjective and it is wonderful to have a joyous meeting of minds as to what is lovely or offensive. In that sense,indoles are beautiful when not overdone. Thanks Elena!

Apr
22
2016
ShotsK
ShotsK

Informative, thanks for all the good info.

Apr
21
2016
lemonzest
lemonzest

Great article. I definitely appreciate the indolic note of strong white florals. So many people I have loved...and lost...wore white florals (basically all my female relatives). The carnal reek of strong tuberose makes me feel close to them again, like a ghost that leaves a scent. Some blur between spirit and flesh, fragrance induced Versailles time-slip.

Apr
11
2016
lulu169
lulu169

thats why Truth or Dare by Madonna made me immediatly vomit! A poo smell straight in your face
well, poo mixed with strong vanila

Apr
11
2016
SorceressOfTheDark
SorceressOfTheDark

Nicely written, informative article. Bear in mind, however, there are many Journeys in perfumery, and indolic ones are not the only rite of passage. There are so many.
For me, straight florals are a no-wear. I have no intentions of wearing morbidity on my own body, which has nothing to do with accepting my own mortality. Does this make me "uneducated...on the matter of perfume...attuned to questionable scents"? I don't believe so at all. It's simply my preference and always has been for decades.
Perfume lovers are at different levels in their passion. Some want to learn about the distinct nuances and others just want to smell good. They haven't the time, the zeal and fervor that others have to independently dissect perfumery. I would never call them "uneducated" so flippantly.
We all have our likes and dislikes, we all grow as we sniff and learn, hopefully we continue to self-educate in the field of perfumes as it continues to expand into the future from the beautiful base of vintages set before it.

Apr
10
2016
johngreenink
johngreenink

It is interesting to consider indole as a separate component, as you've done in the article here (thanks!) When you smell it in isolation, it is indeed unpleasant, but strangely recognizable. My first recollection is that it is the smell of flowers that have faded or begun to die off, mostly the smell of lilies. So it makes me think of that strange scent you'd find in the house when the lilies have started to die after Easter. Yet, that smell is always there, in minute quantities, in the flowers during their lifetime. It only goes to show how important small doses are!

This reminds me of an interesting point raised about the perfume "Joy" (Patou) - It still seems incredibly strong and indolic to many wearers today, and yet few remember that women's scents had to compete with the stench of cigars, cigarettes, strong coffee and questionable sanitation in the big cities. The more 'raw' components of Joy had a lot of heavy lifting to do!

Apr
10
2016
Angela Agiannidou
Angela Agiannidou

Very informative Elena! Animalic notes, indoles and everything heavily carnal is, if nothing else, also used to ground and give depth to any scent. Some of the best fumes are rich in any kind of indoles. After all, death and decay are all part of life.

Feb
14
2016
OrientalFruityGourmand
OrientalFruityGourmand

Most educational! Thank you very much. Please write more articles like this!!! I really like learning everything I can about perfume.

Feb
14
2016
zoka
zoka

I do nto know is Crataegus monogyna or common Hawthorn flowers rich with indole but I remember around May when wind brings smell of Hawthorn flowers it is something heavenly good but if you go on purpose to stick your nose in Hawthorn flowers you face some very fecal scent. Some other 'white flowers' also are very nice from distance but overpowering if you stick your nose in it.

Feb
14
2016
Peachysugarbuns
Peachysugarbuns

Wow, what a great article! Thank you!

Jan
25
2016
ranchorita
ranchorita

Insightful editorial on this fascinating and difficult accord!

Jan
25
2016
Arlene-Beatrix
Arlene-Beatrix

Oh, I can see now why I have problems with sharp white florals. LOL
But seriously, it's all about intensity. Indoles used in perfumes are in very low concentration. Still, some of them are too much for me. Other people are possibly not as sensitive as me. Anais Anais sold well while I could not stand it on my skin.

Jan
25
2016
gordbrad
gordbrad

smart and clever--and i love reading about both perfume lore and organic chemistry. can i suggest you link 5-6 random or linked articles in this series at the right or bottom sides--as i would love to read them all, but not at once? best!

Jan
25
2016
ken.z008
ken.z008

This is why classic restroom fresheners are sharp floral and bloom when indolic molecules from feces diffuse.

Dec
25
2015
ginawadsworth
ginawadsworth

Really enjoyed this column.

I really like perfumes with the indoles, hence my love for aromatics elixir and Aramis. Many people comment on the moth balls and they are easily some of the most love it/hate perfumes around. I personally think the most recent formulations have subdued this aspect to bring it in line with new perfume laws and to better able to market to the "totally deodorized and artificially scented self". (However I hate Estee where I picked up a distinctly faeces type note. I put it down to the addition of peach and strawberry as I hate fruit in perfumes, now you have enlightened me).

I have never smelt the offensive in either AE or aramis.. However I do is exists, so judicious use of AE is a matter of priority. In fact I seldom wear it to work at all.

When the jasmine season in my local town starts, it can be offensive to some. Jasmine is grown all over the town and when I first started living here I would really want to vomit. However it was not offensive, just so overpowering. Now I cant wait for the Jasmine bloom. I just love it.

I would also comment that geranium/jasmine/orange combinations can give the same effect. Bernard Chant used this extensively.

A really informative column helping perfume lovers understand why some perfumes don't appeal to them, and letting us who like them indulge considerately.

Jan
25
2015
Arbre Amer
Arbre Amer

Great Article. Missed it originally. Article database on fragrantica is not that user friendly really...

The existence of indole can be held responsible for the main difference between Orange Blossom Absolute and Neroli oil that of course originate from the same flower through different extraction methods. Try smelling pure, undiluted orange blossom absolute. Talk about gasoline, burnt rubber galore. It is again the indole combined with other fragrant molecules that results in this curio. However when properly diluted you get a lush, white freshness. Neroli on the other hand is a much sharper, dryer scent with much less volume. That's the impact of indole in a nutshell.

Jan
25
2015
glitteralex
glitteralex

Marvelous! Thank you for this frank and enlightening article.

Jan
25
2015
LorieMarie
LorieMarie

Maybe that's why "my sh*t smells like roses!" If someone is healthy, the smell of their own b.m. is typically inoffensive. Could indole be the reason?

May
24
2014
TopPilot
TopPilot

Indole is in such tiny amounts in feces and what makes poop smell bad and distinctive is sulphur. I cannot detect sulphur in any perfume I've smelled so no, there's no poop. I'll never understand the fascination with poop, indoles and perfume and never will. It seems rather juvenile to me.

May
24
2014
Penny Urn'd
Penny Urn'd

Great article and great reminder that we are not OF nature, we are nature.

May
23
2014
NebraskaLovesScent
NebraskaLovesScent

Great article, Elena!

Now that I've smelled (and love) natural jasmine absolute with all its indoles, I've found fragrances that claim to be "jasmine" but don't have at least a touch of indole smell fake and cloying and unpleasant to me.

May
23
2014
no5forever2
no5forever2

Really enjoyed reading this article. Thank you so much.

May
23
2014
BANGOTIGO
BANGOTIGO

thanks for this review it has given understanding on why sometimes i like the smell of pooh, baby pooh

May
22
2014
christelucas
christelucas

This is one of the best reviews I have read. Very interesting research. It explains certain notes in Evyan White Shoulders and Most Precious.

Very educational review. Thank you.

May
22
2014
reborn
reborn

i love white flowers,but some perfumes when smell indolic to me i am rushing to the toilet to throw up.It makes me very sick.i hate hate hate indolic smell

May
22
2014
Planet_X
Planet_X

Love articles like that! Educational, simple, useful, knowledgeable
Thanks, Elena!

May
22
2014
krmarich
krmarich

I always thought indole was the result of the extraction of the flower. I somehow assumed it was like a mothball remnant. This clarifies the definition perfectly.

I am a big Kouros wearer and never understood the fecal note references. Take lots of carnation, jasmine and marry it with civet and there it is! There is ever a urinal cake thing happening that I was always aware of but overlooked.

I guess I am a nasty kind of man.

What an article! Thanks.

May
21
2014
Tine1world
Tine1world

My own shit makes me want to vomit, but there you go! Indolic> Well Doggy is often referred to as greek? I am confident there exists so many bum addicts on this earth. Seems reasonable that poo pong is relevant too.

Chemistry. Archimedies. You Eleni are truly your cultural ambassador of the classic education.

Eff Ha RisTo Kalaa. Cheers T.

May
21
2014
almarie
almarie

Oh Sh@#! I never knew this indole scent meant what it means! I always wondered why some perfumes have that type of stench to them!

May
21
2014
relle
relle

I never really understood the term "indolic", but this some how clears the air. No pun intended! Thanks for a very interesting read!

May
21
2014
ms. m
ms. m

"Fair is foul and foul is fair.
Hover through the fog and filthy air."

A great reminder - thanks for another most informative article!

May
21
2014
*sophi*
*sophi*

I confess my sin : i adore the indolic jasmine odour...and it loves me back!
I am a LouLou lover ;;A la nuit smells heaven and Nuda is an animalic "beast" on bare skin....

Thanks Elena kai ΠΟΛΥΧΡΟΝΗ !!!

May
21
2014
DarkViolet
DarkViolet

I recenty bought a jasmine soliflore scent during a trip in South Italy (made by a local little industry of soaps and fragrances), and it indeed smells quite indolic, especially in the beginning!
I can't say I am really disturbed by that, although when I wear I am constantly asking myself how other people could perceive it.

On the other hand, it's kind of relieving to know for someone the smell of grapefruit is close to that of b.o./sweat.

May
21
2014
greydove
greydove

I wish I had never learned about indole because I love white flowers and to me, indolic perfumes always smelled more real and natural to me, closer to the actual flower. I gravitated towards them. But once people mentioned the poo smell, I couldn't understand and tried to stretch my brain to detect it... Now that's all I CAN smell from my old favorites! Sometimes its better not to know :(

May
21
2014

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