C&EN: Stop and smell the volatile organic compounds

In this video from C&EN, Judith Lavelle talks about volatile organic compounds – molecules responsible for many fragrances. Volatile organic compounds are carbon containing chemicals with a low boiling point and a high vapor pressure at room temperature. This means at room temperature and warmer, they evaporate into the air.

While many flowers smell pretty to us (thanks to the VOCs), they’re produced to help attract pollinators. VOCs evaporate from the flower and waft into the air, tempting bees and other animals to come investigate.

VOCs can also be used by plants to communicate among themselves. For example some plants release VOCs when cut (or chewed), when neighbouring plants detect these VOCs they may activate their defenses, like increasing production of bitter chemicals.

Not all VOCs smell nice. Titan arum produces dimethyl trisulfide, which smells like rotting flesh – giving it the nickname corpse flower. The scent tricks bees and beetles into thinking it’s a carcass, which increases its chances of reproducing.

Even the nasty smelling dimethyl trisulfide has benefitted humans. The compound is often used on fly traps to help bait them.

In skin care, VOCs are often used as fragrances, preservatives, penetration enhancers, or active ingredients.

One study even found that synthetic sandalwood VOCs, Sandalore and Brahmanol, could be “smelled” by the skin and sped up wound healing!