Smelling a perfume activates the body's limbic system, the part of the brain that processes feelings, emotions and memory. A recent study has found that smell triggers up to 75% of our daily moods. So it comes as no surprise that perfume is increasingly being used as a wellness tool to modulate emotion and boost mood.
The greatest of all the emotions is arguably romantic love. I can remember clearly the fragrance I wore on the first date of my last relationship, which started in May 2001. It was rose and pear muddled with some hibiscus and musky base notes. Just smelling it can bring flooding back all those feelings of naïve hopefulness I had at the time, a fairly innocent 29-year-old sitting in the London private member's club Home House.
I was freshly blow-dried and freshly manicured and wearing a mint green and pillar box red twinset and matching pleated floral skirt, talking to the man I thought was the man of my dreams. How wrong I was because it led to terribly painful heartache and my heart being shattered into a million little pieces.
And now, the smell of that same fragrance is unbearable because it is so loaded with emotional signifiers from that period, and it makes me very sad. If anything could be the smell of heartbreak, for me, that perfume is it.
I still wear rose fragrances, though, just different ones. Florals, to me, are still a fast track to romance. But these days, rose and florals are the smell of self-love and self-care totemic of my profound familial love for my mother and my platonic love for my friends.
Favourites include modern interpretations of florals such as Escentric 03, whose notes include Freesia, Rose, Hedione (green Jasmine bud), Jasmine and Orris and Escentric 05, which contains deconstructed florals — Freesia, Iris and Jasmine. It's a cliché but rose and florals, to me, embody the wide different varieties of love, from romantic to familial to platonic.
I like to spray my floral perfumes generously — a surfeit of florals is a surfeit of love. An overflowing of love, armfuls of flowers and love, too much to even give, that is all of our potentials. And is thus central to my personality.
But it's not the only emotion, although it may well be the most important. In fact, a five-year study by the University of Geneva and Firmenich — into emotions and perfumes — found that it was, in fact, not only lavender but woody smells that promoted a sense of calm in the brain.
I concur with this finding. As a very socially anxious twentysomething back in the 90s, I was naturally drawn to very dense woody and amberic, resinous perfumes. I used to overdose on them, wrapping my body in olfactive layers of comforting arboreal molecules. I found them protective, comforting, cosseting and soothing. Something profoundly spiritual to cling onto and inhale when my pulse was racing and breathing short and panicky. Like a soul-assuaging talisman, that was my lucky signifier.
Patchouli is often cited as a woody note, as it is a resonant base note in many perfume formulations. So M+ Patchouli can be worn to engender a sense of calm. And what's more, this sophisticated scent is the modern innovation of fractionated patchouli — where all the camphoraceous 'heady' fumes of old-school patchouli oil have been engineered out and what you're left with is a very silky smooth woody note that's as subtle and elegant as can be. Wear this, and you'll feel positively laid back and soporific.
Vetiver is a grass rather than a wood, but it is also known to promote calm. Escentric 03, which contains Vetiver, is also capable of inducing a sense of quiet. Vetiver is known in India as the 'oil of tranquillity' and is renowned for reducing anxiety and promoting mental clarity.
If you want to feel invigorated, conversely, it's been found that citrus notes too have a strong impact on our emotions. A study in 2005 concluded that Lemon oil enhances attention and concentration, and cognitive performance.
In 2018 another study on lemon essential oil found it to have a positive effect on dopamine activities. I used to wear a lot of citruses, especially lemon colognes, to feel clean, dynamic and streamlined — especially in summer or hot climates. It's no surprise that lemon enhances brain power and feel-good hormones like dopamine, and it's almost magical in its ability to stimulate, uplift and rejuvenate.
And other citrus notes — like M+ Mandarin have a similar effect with their sparkling and effervescent allure. Escentric 01 tingles with uplifting lime, and Escentric 02 sparkles with invigorating mandarin, lime and bergamot.
There are plenty of ways to smell good and simultaneously manipulate our emotions. Perhaps one emotion we want to avoid smelling like is fear, and it's true that perfume could, in some respects, be used to mask this smell.
The smell of fear is something hardwired into our ancient fight or flight responses, and it's something that olfactive artist Sissel Tolaas confronted when she did an exhibit in 2006 entitled 'The Fear of Smell — The Smell of Fear' and created scents out of the sweaty secretions of men who suffered from phobias and anxiety (they wore special devices in their armpits to capture the smells).
When I remember my years of anxiety in my twenties, I think of ambers and woods. I think I felt that strong, balsamic vanillas and ambers fortified me at the time, in direct contrast to the pheromones I was probably exuding as a result of my stressed-out state.
I'm glad those days in my life are over, but it taught me a lot about scent, that it can sometimes be a desperate life raft to cloak our real feelings and emanations. Thankfully now I'm 50, things are calmer and happier, and I emit beautiful, full-bodied, sweet and succulent florals wherever I go. It's the least I can do to spread a little love.