Every day we apply chemicals to our bodies in the form of perfumes, colognes, deodorants and moisturisers, producing a concoction of pleasant scents that can be quite unique. It is well-known that perfumes and other fragrances can be potent and persistent, lingering on clothes and skin for hours if not days. Furthermore, these aromatic mixtures lend themselves to being easily transferred from one person to another through physical contact.
As the field of forensic science advances, investigators are looking for different ways in which they can identify suspects and connect individuals, and perfume may be an ideal target. What if the fragrance worn by an individual could be identified on a chemical level and used to link that person to a particular person or place? Simona Gherghel and fellow researchers at University College London have aimed to achieve this using analytical chemistry techniques.
Different perfumes and colognes are composed of a variety of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which provide the products with their powerful and characteristic scents. Compounds commonly detected in such products include linalool, limonene, coumarin, geraniol and eugenol, often in varying quantities and mixed with an assortment of other components. Once applied, these fragrances are absorbed by clothing and skin and can be readily transferred to fabrics and other surfaces.
Using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS), a well-established analytical technique frequently utilised in forensic enquiries, the team analysed fragrances in a number of scenarios to investigate the extent to which chemical components could be transferred between surfaces and what circumstances might affect this transfer.
The research focused on a number of factors relevant to the use of fragrances as a potential form of trace evidence in forensic enquiries, specifically the method of transfer and the time between application of the fragrance and contact with another surface. Experiments involved contact between swatches of fragranced and fragrance-free fabrics, examining transfer of compounds when the fabrics were in contact with no friction, and forcefully rubbed together over periods of time ranging from 1 minute to 60 minutes. After controlled contact, swabs were collected from the fabrics and subjected to GC-MS analysis. Unsurprisingly, extended contact time led to an increase in transferred components. This may have the potential to indicate how long a victim and offender were in physical contact, whether it be fleetingly or for a prolonged period of time, the latter being more likely in the case of an assault.
This research also investigated the effects of time passed between application of a fragrance product and contact between two surfaces on the transfer and persistence of VOCs. Contact between a fragranced piece of fabric and a fragrance-free swatch was investigated at a number of time points ranging from contact occurring 5 minutes after fragrance use and to 7 days after use. As was expected, the number of chemical compounds transferred between the fabric swatches decreased with time, with larger-sized, less volatile molecules persisting for longer. When only 5 minutes had passed before contact occurred, an average of 24 volatile components were transferred from the perfumed fabric. However after 6 hours only 12 components were detected, and this decreased to only 6 components after 7 days. Although this shows that certain transferred chemical compounds can persist for days, there is a discernible decrease in their presence which ultimately makes the sample less detectable and less unique, as a smaller mixture of chemicals are available for identification and comparison.
Although this is the first published work demonstrating the transfer of fragrance between garments in a forensic setting, the possibility of identifying perfumes based on their chemical composition for forensic purposes has been previously examined by experts at Staffordshire University in the UK. Led by PhD student Alison Davidson, the team has been compiling chemical profiles of popular perfumes and colognes with the hope of distinguishing between brands of difference fragrances and ultimately using this information to aid criminal investigations.
The ability to identify perfumes and establish physical contact between two individuals based on VOCs could be of particular use in the investigation of sexual assaults and other violent crimes in which the victim and offender were in close contact. For instance, the contact between a victim’s perfumed clothing and the clothing of the offender could cause the transfer of volatile organic compounds to the offender’s clothing (or vice versa). Later analysis of a suspect’s clothing may then result in the identification of chemical compounds originating from the victim’s perfume, indicating physical contact and thus potentially supporting an accusation.
Although the research conducted has supported the possibility of utilising transferred VOCs in perfume and possible affecting factors to aid legal investigations, it is vital to consider that a greater range of variables must be taken into account if such analyses were to be utilised in real life scenarios. The degree of activity by the victim and offender and the time passed between the offense and forensic analysis must be considered, as should how unique the mixture of chemical components detected really is. Furthermore, if the transfer of perfume between fabrics can occur so easily, there is a distinct possibility that such a transfer could occur in entirely innocent circumstances, highlighting the importance of such analysis only being utilised alongside alternative sources of evidence.
The concept of studying the chemical composition of perfumes and fragrances to aid legal investigations is very much in its infancy, but with further research this technique may have the potential to offer investigators an additional tool to sniff out suspects.
S. Gherghel, et al., Analysis of transferred fragrance and its forensic implications, Sci. Justice (2016), http://dx.doi.org/ 10.1016/j.scijus.2016.08.004