psychology of scents


Operating beauty halls filled with hundreds of perfumes can be quite the task but lucky for you, in part 3 of our Psychology of Scents series we’ve curated a collection of our current favourite fragrances and used psychological research to suggest what type of person, or occasion, each is likely to suit.

When selecting a perfume, it is particularly important to consider the ‘notes’ that comprise a fragrance. Top notes are those which you smell immediately after applying the perfume to the skin. As these wear off, the heart notes are revealed. Finally, the base notes are the scents that linger; the ones which will stay with you throughout the day. This is why it is its always a good idea to try a fragrance before you buy it and we suggest that you give these 5 a go!

1. Charlotte Tilbury: Scent of a Dream

RRP: £68 (50ml, also available in 30ml and 100ml

 Top notes: Lemon, Peach, Black Pepper

Heart notes: Jasmine, Frankincense, Tuberose and Violet

Base notes: Fire Tree, Iso E Super, Patchouli and Ambroxan

With the aim to bring joy, love and power to each of its wearers, Scent of a Dream is the perfect day-to-night fragrance. The immediate fruitiness of lemon and peach is inviting and invigorating, to encourage a sense of inner confidence. Floral heart notes of jasmine, frankincense, tuberose and violet develop over the next five hours, to create an elegant and gracious aroma throughout the day. As the evening arises, the rich, warm base notes are activated to portray a seductive power. 

Buy Scent of a Dream here

2. Tom Ford: Rose Prick

 RRP: £218 (50ml, also available in 100ml

 Top notes: Sichuan Pepper, Turmeric

Heart notes: May rose, Turkish Rose, Bulgarian Rose

Base notes: Patchouli, Tonka Bean

A modern twist on the classic floral scent, Tom Ford combines the elegant odour of a trio of roses with spicy notes of pepper and turmeric and a musky base of patchouli and tonka bean to create an elegant fragrance with a sharp yet warm edge. This delicate yet daring combination portrays an individual to be feminine in style and fair but focussed in nature. 

Buy Rose Prick here

3. Jo Loves: White Rose & Lemon Leaves

Jo Loves: White Rose & Lemon Leaves 

 RRP: £70 (50ml, also available in 100ml)

 Top notes: Lemon Peel, Petit Grain, Pink Pepper

Heart notes: White Rose Oil, Geranium Leaves, Muguet, Violet

Base notes: Rose Absolute, Clove Buds, Honey, Amber

 Inspired by the white roses’ ability to “represent love and celebration and bring back some of life’s most treasured and memorable moments”, this fresh and floral fragrance is one to wear on an occasion you want to remember. A classical and calming heart of white rose is balanced between the uplifting lemon peel and subtle sweet honey and clove to create a scent that will endure for years to come.  

Buy White Rose & Lemon Leaves here

4. Jo Malone: Lime Basil & Mandarin

RRP: £69 (50ml, also available in 30ml and 100ml)

 Top notes: Mandarin 

Heart notes: Basil 

Base notes: Amberwood

 Described as “peppery basil and aromatic white thyme bring an unexpected twist to the scent of limes on a Caribbean breeze”, Jo Malone’s Lime Basil and Mandarin is our go-to summer scent. The sweet, zesty scent of lime and mandarin awakens the senses to provide that instant feel-good factor. As it settles on the skin, a herbaceous undertone is revealed to leave a fresh and light finish.

 Buy Lime Basil & Mandarin here

5. Angela Flanders: Xanadu Eau de Parfum

RRP: £79 (50ml) 

 Top notes: Bergamot, Brazilian Orange

Heart notes: Spices, Resins, Woods

Base notes: Patchouli, Rosewood, Cedarwood

 The citrusy scents of bergamot and orange lie on a warm bed of wood and spice to create an enchanting and romantic fragrance. Xanadu Eau de Parfum is a long-lasting unisex perfume, perfect for cosy nights and more formal occasions. 

Buy Xanadu Eau de Parfum here

In part 1 of our psychology of scents series, we revealed that fragrances hold far more significance in our lives we may initially realise. They are inevitably a fundamental aspect of human existence; we have an enormous implicit, as well as explicit, reliance on our sensory experiences in our everyday lives. With this in mind, in part 2 of our series, we asked three fragrance-industry experts: Anne Churchill, a sensory researcher at Givaudan, Suzy Nightingale, senior writer for The Perfume Society and Karen Gilbert, founder of and perfumery teacher at Karen Gilbert 5 questions to help you nail your next fragrance purchase 

psychology scent fragrance
L-R: Suzy Nightingale,Karen Gilbert, Anne Churchill

1. Why are scents so important?

SUZY: We know that we used to rely on our sense of smell for survival, that even though we may no longer use that sense to detect predators, still when we use a fragrance, it directly plugs into our limbic system – that part of our brain linked to instincts and emotions. Using a fragrance is much more than merely smelling clean or fresh – soap does a good job of that. They can immediately remind us of people we’ve loved and lost, of places we’ve travelled, make us feel more powerful or relaxed: and all in an instant! Your reaction to a perfume bypasses logic – you don’t intellectualise your response, it can feel like being punched in the solar plexus.

At the perfume society, we regularly get emails and calls from people desperately trying to track down their beloved grandmother’s favourite fragrance or wanting to find a new perfume to boost their confidence or help them feel less stressed.

During our (pre-COVID-19) How to Improve Your Sense of Smell workshops, we asked people to blind-smell scents and give us their immediate emotional reactions. Some people would smile joyously and laugh as they suddenly recalled a happy memory. Others burst into tears as they felt unsettled but couldn’t think why, or a scent reminded them of a loved one. A scent is an invisible accessory that can say something quite different than your physical appearance. Fragrances are the link between Art and Science, for me. The closest thing we can get to actual alchemy or time travel.

The current pandemic will create a trend for fresh, clean natural fragrances and scents that enhance our sense of safety and wellbeing. 

2. What are the main motivators in fragrance selections?

ANNE: People often pick a scent that reminds them of a positive memory, a relative, any association that brings them back to a joyous time. A lot of the way we feel about scents is through learning and we see this even in infants. If a mother has a preference for a certain scent when pregnant, the baby will respond positively to that scent once born!

It’s worth noting these positive associations are extremely personal and can differ in different cultures depending on the environments you’ve been exposed to. Your brain gets used to smells around you which is why you may no longer smell your favourite perfume, fabric softener or clothes. 

SUZY: We’re noticing an increasing number of people exploring ‘niche’ (smaller, independent and artisanal) houses. People want to smell unique, so we are seeing lots of bespoke blends, and even bigger brands offering personalised services and personality-led quizzes to ‘match’ people to their perfect scent. 

Our own Fragrance Finder computer algorithm at the Perfume Society uses key emotion-based words along with the fragrant ingredients listed, to help guide people to discovering six new fragrances based on a current favourite. Because finding a new fragrance isn’t just about how you want to smell, it’s about how you want to *feel*.  Gendered fragrances are a marketing construct – men and women both happily wore violet and rose and musk and orange blossom for centuries. And now we’ve seen the majority of niche houses move away from ‘men’s’ or ‘women’s’ classifications, even going beyond the ‘unisex’ term and preferring ‘gender-less’ or ‘gender-free’. Guerlain called their Lui fragrance ‘gender fluid’ while Gucci described their Mémoure d’Une Odeur as ‘gender-neutral.’

Karen Gilberts book 'Perfume - The Art and Craft of Fragrance'

3. What factors cause changes in perfume buying habits?

KAREN: My clients are usually looking to create their own fragrances, and this is often related to an occasion. Many people buy a 1-day perfume class as a gift and some have created occasion-specific scents. Wedding scents are really popular as people want something memorable for their special day.

ANNE: People choose different fragrances to mark different occasions but they also tend to choose fragrances to suit their environment and mood. For example, people are drawn to citrus fragrances when they want to feel invigorated and happy. Perfumes can be crafted to place people in various moods. 

In economic downturns we often see a rise of nostalgic and comforting scents, things that remind us of happier, more carefree times or help us feel cosy

4. Does the fragrance industry follow trends?

SUZY: Trends do influence the fragrance industry, just as fashion trends filter through to everything in culture, eventually. One year we might see brightly coloured or blinged-out bottles, the next they may be plain and paired-back. In economic downturns we often see a rise of nostalgic and comforting scents, things that remind us of happier, more carefree times or help us feel cosy – with bottles harking back to ‘retro’ styles, or incorporating touchy-feely elements such as soft, stroke-able textures on the bottles or box packaging.

Last year we saw a rise in so-called ‘solar’ scents – fragrances using orange blossom, neroli and petit grain to evoke sunshine captured in a bottle. I think it’s because of the uncertain political climate – people were looking for an instant shot of happiness in a scent! I think happiness and comfort will be trends for some time to come, the way things are going.

KAREN: If you look back at 20th-century history you can see a direct influence of global trends on the fragrance industry. The big brash scents of the ’80s were followed by more transparent marine scents in the ’90s and the ’00s was the era of the celebrity scent. In recent times we have seen more natural, sustainable and gender-neutral scents that reflect our times. I imagine that the current pandemic will create a trend for fresh, clean natural fragrances and scents that enhance our sense of safety and wellbeing.

5. What advice would give someone choosing a new fragrance?

ANNE: Be aware of your “personal skin smell”, your skin biology affects fragrances so the same perfume will smell differently on different people due to their skin type, pH level etc. Make sure you test your favourite scents on your skin and no one else’s. 

KAREN: Make sure you do research on your favourite fragrances beforehand. Use blogs like  Fragrantica, Bois de Jasmin and Perfume Shrine to guide you but take reviews with a pinch of salt as fragrance selection is a very personal thing. 

SUZY: Try things without looking at the list of ingredients – really give them time to develop on your skin. You need to live with a scent for several hours to truly experience it as the differing molecules evaporate at different rates. We’ve seen sales of our Discovery Boxes rise by an astonishing percentage because people are looking to treat themselves and try new scents they might never have thought about or heard of before. 

I always encourage people to start with a fragrance they know they love and look up the name of the perfumer – these ‘noses’ often have a signature style just as any other artist or maker does – and try some of their other creations. But most of all: be brave! The joy of a scent is they can be washed off if you genuinely dislike them – but oh there’s a world of wonders to discover out there. Life is too short to simply smell ‘nice’. I want everyone to find those scents that make you gasp, that make your eyes roll back in your head with pleasure, that make you crave to wear them and feel instantly better when you do. They’re just waiting for you to find them… 

If like us, you were fascinated by episode 1 of Netflix’s new docuseries [Un}well then you know that scents are incredibly powerful. Scents hold a unique power to instantly transport us back to times of intimacy, joy or even despair. Over time the glass bottles that decorate our dressers can house something much more than the notes describing their contents; they become time capsules that can momentarily awaken emotions deep within our conscience. In our new 3-Part Psychology of Scents series, we’re investigating the scientific importance of scents. 

Scents hold memories.

Although each of our five senses contributes to the recollection and reconstruction of memories, scents are the most significant. A study by Dr Silvia Álava titled ‘Smells and Emotions’ found that people remember 35% of what they smell, but only 5% of what they see – and the majority of participants noted how specific scents reactivated happy memories.

This phenomenon can be otherwise known as the Proustian Memory Effect, the idea that scents evoke more emotional memories than other memory cues (Chu & Downes, 2000) is hardwired into human nature. Fast connections between brain regions are responsible for the processing of scents and retrieval of emotional information, or memories (Eichenbaum & Otto, 1992). For example, products are often more appealing when they are associated with pleasant scents, and so, they will also have a greater positive emotional appeal (Sugiyama et al., 2015). As there is a human tendency to remember highly emotional information, by association, it means the scent alone can trigger accurate recall of product information. But these associations don’t lie with objects alone.

We judge people based on their scent.

The fragrances we choose to wear could also influence other people’s impressions of our personalities. For example, one study had 90 women smell three perfume samples and rate their level of agreement/disagreement on the types of personality traits a hypothetical wearer would display, as well as their subjective liking of the scent. The results were precise; perceptions of a person’s personality differed depending on the composition of the fragrance – much like how visual differences in appearance can influence prejudgements.

In comparison to oriental (citrus) and chypre (herbal, woody) scents, wearers of floral perfumes were associated with those who hold fewer ‘masculine’ traits and are likely to be more inhibited (e.g. less flirtatious, dramatic, fashionable). What’s also interesting is that the more similar two fragrances’ were in scent, the more similar their wearers were in personality. Therefore, there may be more to managing your impression than the simple presence or absence of a fragrance – it’s specifically what you choose to wear that seems to count.

Scents can change how you act.

Sure, these fragrance-based first impressions could help secure a job or find a romantic partner, but they also affect how likely you are to be supported, or help another, in a time of need. Being surrounded by pleasant odours such as roasting coffee, pastries, or perfume can cause strangers to act more prosocially. We see this effect both in busy shopping malls and at pedestrian crossings (Baron, 1997; Guéguen, 2001). As a subtle sniff of a pleasant scent can trigger recollection of associated positive memories or feelings, it helps to lift our moods. This mood change subsequently increases prosocial behaviours, which can be for several reasons. 

Smell good, feel good, do good.

What’s equally important, and perhaps more relevant to day-to-day life, is how we can use fragrance to help ourselves. As the practice of mindfulness teaches, tuning into our senses can be incredibly grounding and ultimately, improve our mental wellbeing. It can be challenging to detach from past and future demands, but being surrounded by pleasant sights, sounds, tastes, touches or smells can make a significant difference when trying to create a moment of peace and relaxation. One study by Field and colleagues showed that after sniffing a lavender-infused cosmetic cleanser, adults became more relaxed, had an improved mood and completed maths calculations faster than before. Therefore, specific fragrances can be particularly useful at calming both the mind and body, improving focus on the present moment. Something as simple as using a lavender-scented fabric softener, or burning a candle in the evening could help to ease anxieties.

With this in mind, it is clear that fragrance has far more power and purpose than merely adding or masking an odour. The perfumes we all choose to wear can share something about who we are or change how we feel about ourselves. In the same way, we might think about what we are wearing; perhaps fragrance should be given more considerable thought; try asking yourself, how does this make me feel, or how do I want to feel.

Stay-tuned next week for Part 2 of the Psychology of Scents Series, when fragrance experts will reveal the key to finding your signature scent!

This post was featured on Links à la Mode fashion roundup by Independent Fashion Bloggers.

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