Making Scents: The History of Spa Fragrances

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Karin Hildebrand Lau |

The world of fragrance is not something typically associated with pools and spas. That is, until one considers the work of spa-fragrance manufacturers, who for the past three decades have turned to the artistry and science of the olfactory senses as a way to accentuate the hot water experience. Here, Senior Editor Eric Herman takes a peek into the realm of products designed to make spa water smell like perfume.

Of all the human senses, smell is the most closely associated with memory. Nearly everyone can be transported to pleasant recollections of grandma’s kitchen, the fragrant climes of mountain forests, pungent smell of campfires on the beach or the perfume or cologne worn by spouses or significant others.

More than any other part of the human body, the nose is the organ of déjà vu!

In the pool and spa world, we have our own subset of companies dedicated entirely to the art of fragrances used to enhance the hot water experience. In an industry dominated by the hard technical landscape of hydraulics, water chemistry, structural engineering, electricity and materials science, spa fragrance stands out as an invisible, pure aesthetic.

It’s part of the grand human tradition of beautifying our world and ourselves through the use of fragrance, a pursuit that dates back to the beginning of recorded history. But now, in the modern era, these colorful, yet sublime products offer specific therapeutic benefits as well.


Spa fragrances were originally created to cover the often pungently awful smells associated with chlorine and bromine treatment.

Recalls Angie Pettro, owner of Spazazz, a manufacturer of spa-fragrance products based in Provo, Utah, “Years ago, when we purchased our first hot tub, we immediately experienced the chemical smell. I went down to the local pool and spa retailer and there wasn’t anything available to deal with the odors. At the time, I was working in the floral industry and was already sensitive to the power and importance of fragrance. We formulated a crystal and a liquid that would be compatible with the hot tub environment and had it tested at a number of spa manufacturers.”

According to Micah Knott, national sales manager for Insparation, a spa-fragrance manufacturer located in Moorepark, Calif.: “It started back in the ’70s when spas and hot tubs were becoming popular. One of the big objections to those products was that woof of chlorine. Spa fragrances got their start simply out of the desire to mask those odors.”

Knott is quick to point out that spa fragrances don’t remove the chlorine smell, “but instead mask those odors so you don’t notice them. We use the right kind of formula so they provide a strong and desirable smell. Our products provide that benefit by floating on top of the water as they dissolve. The source of the smell stays right there where your nose is.”

As is true of any chemical used to treat water, spa fragrances are engineered with their impact on chemistry in mind. Today’s products, which come primarily in either liquid or crystal form, are designed to have zero impact on maintenance. Says Knott, “In those early days there were issues with spa fragrance products impacting the spa surfaces and filters. We invested in formulating products that are completely pH neutral. They don’t have any kind of impact at all on the effectiveness of sanitizers or filters. As for total dissolved solids, you’re using such a small amount of product that there’s no measurable impact.

“Let’s put it this way,” he adds, “if the spa fragrance has become an issue, you’ve had water quality problems well ahead of that and should’ve already changed the water. That wasn’t always the case. And even though our formula is marginally more expensive because it’s been engineered for the hot water environment, we’re sticking with it because no one wants to create problems simply because they want their spas to smell good.”

Taking the smell-masking benefit a step further, Pettro adds that her company now offers beads that are designed not to dissolve, but instead float on the water’s surface while the spa isn’t in use. “The smell is a big issue when people lift the spa cover. If you use our Aruba Orange or Fiji Apple beads, you won’t get hit with that chemical odor when you lift up the cover. In that way, we’re helping create a pleasant experience the second you go to use the spa.”


According to fragrance manufacturers, today’s products work both by way of smell and by absorption through the skin.

In terms of the olfactory senses, the psychological power of scent is well-established, says Pettro. “We work very hard at creating fragrances that have different positive effects. In most cases, those are smells we associate with nature. Lavender, for example, has a very relaxing and clean smell. If want a more party atmosphere, you might turn to our strawberry or Champagne fragrances.

“Designing the fragrances is really the fun part of what we do,” she adds. “We’re always talking to people to find out what they like and don’t like, as well as following industry trends. Just a few years ago when the recession hit, I remember driving home from the national show in Las Vegas and saying that we needed to come up with fragrances that were exciting because people really needed to feel good and escape from all the bad news.

“During that time,” she adds, “more and more people were turning to their home environments for recreation. In a sense, happy hour was in the spa and we needed to design fragrances that were bolder.”


Indeed, spa-fragrance manufacturers offer dozens of products designed to impact mood by way of pleasant associations, most of which come with names that can almost make you hungry. “To this day, honey/mango remains one of our most popular scents,” says Pettro. “Even the sound of the name is appealing, and when you smell, it’s just beautiful!”

Both Pettro and Knott are quick to point out, however, that these days, there’s far more to their product lines than simply pleasant smells: “It wasn’t long after we started making fragrances,” recalls Knott, “we started adding moisturizer so that people’s skin wouldn’t get dry after they used their hot tub.”

Today, that concept has been expanded to include a number of additives that provide a variety of therapeutic benefits through the epidermis. “The skin is the largest organ in the human body,” Knott explains. “It’s constantly absorbing chemicals from the environment. By adding vitamins, minerals and extracts we’re able to add another level of health benefits to the hot water experience.

“In our research,” he adds, “we’ve found that the vast majority of people who get into warm water are not only looking to relax, but they’re also seeking therapeutic benefits.”

According to Pettro, “We’ve targeted respiratory therapy, muscle therapy, an energy boost, detox, sports therapy, all addressing specific areas you want to work on. You do soak in the vitamins through your skin as well as breathing them. You can even rub the product directly onto your skin.

“We’ve added to the base of magnesium sulfate with essential oils that are known to provide these various benefits,” she adds. “Magnesium sulfate, or Epson salts as it’s commonly known, has been proven to promote healing of skin tissue and potassium helps balance fluids in our body.”

With that in mind, manufacturers recommend applying their products directly to the skin to enhance the effect. They also suggest adding the products to water right around where you’re sitting. “You can even sprinkle some crystals on the floor of your shower, which will make the shower smell nice and provide respiratory benefits,” adds Pettro.


As manufacturers have moved into the broader realm of aromatherapy, they’ve also opened up new markets in the world of day spas, health clubs, as well as manicures and pedicures.

“Our heart and soul will always be in the pool and spa industry,” says Knott, “but we’re definitely gaining acceptance outside the industry. Spa fragrances are a natural fit in many spa settings.”

“Day spas have been using essential oils for years and years,” adds Pettro, “So it only makes sense that spa fragrances are finding their way into those types of applications. Basically anywhere people get into warm water, our products can enhance the experience with the range of health benefits we’re offering.”

That broadening acceptance represents significant progress from the days when spa fragrances were once considered almost an oddity in the pool and spa world. “When we started,” recalls Pettro, “I’m sure some people thought ‘here comes those witch doctor ladies with their magic potions.’ Since the advent of retailers such as Bath and Body Works, people have come to realize that these products add a dimension of enjoyment and health to the bathing experience.

“These days,” she adds, “more and more men are open to these products. Gone are the days when they come up to our booth and say that they’re just looking for something for their wives. Even though women are still more inclined toward fragrances, turns out men like things to smell nice, too.”

Comments or thoughts on this article? Please e-mail [email protected].

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