The Science of Scents

by Anne Kasdorf | photography by Shubha Gangal


Body Chemistri owner Heidi Sauhammel shares the health benefits of fragrance, how to create your own signature scent, and what you never knew about patchouli.

It’s the holiday season and the suffocating stench of every bad perfume and cologne is all around you: On your uncle’s lapel, atop a wobbly tower of boxed sets near the drug store checkout, and now in your eyes thanks to an aggressive salesperson at Macy’s. Enter the laboratory of Body Chemistri, your respite from the onslaught of mass-produced department store fragrances. Visit the Andersonville pop-up shop through January 5 to create your very own “eau de-YOU.”

The Histori of Chemistri
Body Chemistri boasts a 30-year history as a Chicago business. Founded as Body and Soul in 1983, current owner Heidi Sauhammel worked in the River North shop as a high school student. She was later drawn back into the business after a career in market analysis for a pharmaceuticals company. “Working a corporate job, I was ready for a change. The shop was closing, and the owner had moved it to her house.” Heidi took over the mail order business until 2000 when she opened up a storefront in Evanston under the current name. After a few years in Lakeview, she returned to a focus on mail order. “I’ve been in school working on my Master’s in Chinese medicine. The pop-up is good for reconnecting [with customers].” She plans to open an official brick and mortar shop that combines the complimentary therapeutic benefits of acupuncture and fragrance in fall 2014.

A Feel Good Store
For now the heart of Body Chemistri is the custom fragrance service. “I’ve had people call it a ‘feel good’ store. I like it when people have an emotional connection to the scents.” In a setting reminiscent of a vintage apothecary, Heidi works with three different fragrance formulas: Absolute, the concentrated oil extracted directly from the plant, Essential Oils, the steam distilled, less costly oil that’s still botanically derived, and Synthetic Oils. “There are still therapeutic benefits to synthetics but absolute holds the life force of the plant,” she points out. Essential oils tend to take the lead when she custom blends fragrances. “They have better staying power,” she explains.

The health benefits of fragrance are varied across plants. “I’m starting to play around with fragrances on acupuncture points. There’s a point (she taps the back of her neck) that’s good for insomnia. You could put lavender there.” She reports that rosemary is good for boosting your memory. Tea tree and citrus oils are anti-microbial. During cold season Heidi recommends putting a drop of lavender on your hand for its antibacterial properties. She also recently made a chest rub for someone with respiratory issues using black pepper, eucalyptus and thyme.

In the Lab
Heidi pulls out a few bottles, and we begin to sample on paper test strips. It would be easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of options, but she keeps us on track. “I zone in on a particular fragrance and see what they like, then narrow it to 3. I choose one to be the heart of the fragrance and build around it,” she explains. “Department store perfume is overly complex and strong. These wear pretty quiet.” She begins pulling out bottles for our custom fragrance. plum blossom and pink pepper. We mellow out the plum with sugar and light musk. How does she know how much of each oil to use? She likens it to cooking. “You know which spices to use a lighter hand with.”

We’ve tried several oils, so she recommends a whiff of coffee beans for a quick break. “After smelling three or so fragrances your nose will start to shut down,” she warns. “The scent of coffee jump-starts your sense of smell.”

Once you’ve put together your perfect combination of scents, Heidi makes it on the spot. Customers have the option of selecting a single note or layering multiple notes. She uses an eyedropper to meticulously blend multiple oils into a vial topped with a roller ball. “These you can easily wear directly on the skin,” she says. Single note vials are $20 and custom fragrance starts at $48. After the custom blended fragrance is created it’s all yours: The components are filed away under your name and only recreated with your permission.

The Fragrance Collection
Body Chemistri’s array of oils is unimaginably diverse. Many of the ones we’re testing read like ingredients in a culinary recipe. “I’m really interested in blending botanicals with perfume essences.”

Black pepper?
“It’s really in right now. It helps you come across as a warmer person!”

Coffee extract?
“It’s a great base note.”

Basil? Lettuce? Fig? There’s talk of a fragrance blending caraway and saffron extract.

Heidi also touts in-house blended collections led by ‘Vixen in Violet,’ a “sultry” mix of black pepper, violet and vetiver. There’s also ‘Holly Go Sexy’ which combines orange blossom and amber and Drunk on Gardenia is a vacation-ready gardenia with a hint of coconut.

So does Heidi have a signature fragrance? “I think it’s good to switch it up. So many people come in here and say, ‘I’ve worn the same thing for 30 years. People say I smell like me!” She mentions the fragrance industry is moving towards encouraging a ‘fragrance wardrobe’ instead of a signature scent.

While she may not swear by any one fragrance, Heidi points out that a big seller is patchouli. She acknowledges a general aversion to the fragrance and says she’s often tasked with altering the scent a bit for the customers who wear it. Would you believe that the oil might actually be in the fragrance currently on your wrist? “There are so many perfumes on the market that use patchouli as a base note,” she explains. Known for its grounding properties--put a bit on when you’re ‘over thinking something’-- it’s actually very popular at Body Chemistri and with Heidi herself. “It took me 10 years to like it. Then I spilled a bottle of it on myself.” After washing her fragrance-laden skirt she discovered a lighter, aged version of the strong scent and became a convert.

Fragrance + Body Care
There’s more than one way to experience custom fragrance at Body Chemistri. Heidi also offers scented hair and body care products made to your specifications. “Our two best-selling products are the shower gel and Vitamin A, D & E lotion. I just made a shampoo with orange blossom and rosemary.” (The latter of which she points out is actually good for your hair, not just your olfactory glands.) After selecting a fragrance and a bottle size, Heidi customizes the unscented product to your specifications. She also directs us to a line of spray bottles known as hydrosols: A byproduct of the steam distillation process that extracts oil from a flower and leaves water delicately scented by the molecules of the plant. “I love these. They’re gentler than the essential oils. You can spray it on your face.” She pulls the bottle of rosewater. “It’s from Bulgaria which has the best quality rose. It’s really expensive, so this is a more affordable way to use it. You can also use it in the kitchen. I’ve put this in frosting or added a spritz to a peppermint tea.”

Gift Guidance
Like any good holiday pop-up shop, Heidi has carefully curated a collection of gifts for the body, home, and the most hard-to-buy-for recipient. “I think it’s really nice to make a fragrance for someone. It think there’s something thoughtful and personal about it.” Want to create a fragrance for the guy in your life? Try Havana. “It’s suede-like.” She also recommends blending oils such as balsam, ginger, cardamom, and fig or sandalwood, forest rain and basil. Combine a custom scented shower gel and Japanese body cloth (the best for getting rid of dead skin cells) for a quick and thoughtful gift for friends or coworkers.

In limited edition stock, she created an oil diffuser using a huge chunk of fir balsam absolute. “I didn’t know what to do with it. I melted it down and aged it in a diluant,” she explains. She then added fir oils to create a wintery room fragrance. Other special gifts include stainless steel oil lamp shadow projectors from Brooklyn-based artist Adam Frank and wine-inspired teas by Vintage TeaWorks.


Visit Body Chemistri’s pop-up shop now through January 5, 5416 N. Clark at Balmoral For more information visit bodychemistri.com.
Photography by Shubha Gangal
Photography by Shubha Gangal
Photography by Shubha Gangal
Photography by Shubha Gangal
Photography by Shubha Gangal
Photography by Shubha Gangal
Photography by Shubha Gangal
Photography by Shubha Gangal
2013-12-23