Did you lose your sense of smell during COVID? Did you get it back? How long did it take? Did it come back completely? Or, are there perhaps big or little differences—certain oddities—in the way some things smell to you now?
People in perfumery and other industries that depend on the sense of smell remain vigilant and concerned about maintaining the full quality of their sense of smell, and how to restore it in case of loss. That includes people working in food, wine, and all areas of beauty—cosmetics, color, and personal care—the list is vast.
As a perfume journalist who lost and recovered her sense of smell following a COVID infection, my interest in anosmia (loss of sense of smell) is both personal and professional. During the five or six days I experienced anosmia, in addition to worrying about its potential impact on my professional life, I experienced unexpected and frankly, depressing and weird feelings of social and spatial isolation and disorientation.
Lilies in a bouquet I KNEW were perfuming the entire house seemed like plastic to me. The wiggles of my dog seemed more mechanical than affectionate without her singular muskiness. What could possibly be the interest in drinking this cup of coffee without the sharp bitterness of its taste and aroma? My daughter’s skin, though soft to the touch, was somehow distant from mine without its odor that linked her to me.
Only in their absence did I realize to what extent I depend on the multidimensionality of scent messages to connect me to people, places, and things far more profoundly than their 3-D reality.
However, my absolute joy and relief upon regaining my sense of smell was short-lived, because not long afterwards I began hearing unsettling news from people in the fragrance industry. Specifically, several perfumer (nose) friends told me that even when the sense of smell supposedly returns following COVID, they, their assistants, or evaluators, might sometimes confuse or misinterpret the smell of certain raw materials. Clove, for example, might be unrecognizable, or come across as something entirely different, such as mold or fungus.
Happily, for me, just as I was beginning to wonder if I could ever trust my own sense of smell again, I learned that Urban Scents, a perfume company based in Berlin, had developed a “Smelling Training” kit for detecting anosmia, and retraining the brain to correctly reassociate certain raw materials with their true odors. I leapt at the chance to interview Alexander Urban, owner of Urban Scents, while we were both in Milan during Esxence, an annual niche fragrance trade show.
In this video interview, Mr. Urban presents the Urban Scents “Smelling Training” kit, and talks about how and why he and in-house perfumer Marie Urban le Febvre developed it.
Important things I learned:
It’s not just COVID.
Although anosmia and hyposmia (a diminished sense of smell) have been widely recognized during the COVID pandemic as primary symptoms of a COVID infection, other viral illnesses can also result in anosmia, as can chemotherapy treatments, and bodily traumas such as those resulting from automobile accidents. Indeed, well before the onset of the COVID pandemic, Mr. Urban had begun developing the Urban Scents Smelling Training kit relying on research done by oncologists concerned about anosmia among their chemo patients.
Many more people than I imagined suffer from some degree of anosmia or hyposmia (a reduced ability to smell and to detect odors).
Mr. Urban reports in this video that approximately one in five people in the general population suffers from some degree of anosmia, and among seniors over age 70, the percentage is more than 50%.
The Urban Scents Smelling Training kit uses a protocol that involves twice-daily sniffings over a period of three to four months, during which patients essentially retrain their brains to recognize five ingredients—lemon, rose, eucalyptus, clove, and birch tar—all 100% natural, and sourced in Grasse, France. The inclusion of birch tar, which smells like fire and smoke, addresses the well-known danger of elderly people inadvertently setting fires, often simply because they fail to smell something burning on the stove.
Regarding the effectiveness of the Smelling Training program, Mr. Urban says, “Based on a number of surveys measuring the success of recovery from anosmia or hyposmia, following a 12-week training session, and taking into account the severity and cause of symptoms, between 25 and 60+% of participating patients report that the ‘Smelling Training’ helped them recover some or all of their sense of smell.”
Mr. Urban also says that in comparison to feelings of isolation and depression often experienced by people with anosmia, recovered patients express emotions of relief and joy. Following a few weeks of training, for example, one patient exclaimed, “How wonderful to be able to smell my wife again after having the feeling for many weeks of sharing the bed with a stranger. I have missed her so much!” Another person reported that his wife, who had suffered from anosmia following an accident two months prior, surprised him one day by exclaiming, “Thanks Hans, the food was really good today!”
Personal note: I took a live test during the video interview and was relieved when I recognized all five ingredients—even after Mr. Urban switched them around because I had inadvertently peeked at the labels. So, although I didn’t need to follow the protocol for a full training program, I occasionally pull out my kit and do a blind smelling just to keep a look out on things, and remind myself of how precious is the gift of smell. Happy to say that as of this writing (early October 2022) all five ingredients are coming through loud and clear!
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