Last year was, without doubt, the most challenging of my life: lockdown with two kids, redundancy and a short period of homelessness when the rental I was due to move into fell through as I arrived outside with my life in a van. But there was no time to feel sorry for myself. I had a freelance career to launch, starting from scratch after a decade-long stint as Cosmopolitan’s beauty editor. Trips into London to reconnect with my contacts after the long lockdown silence, attending events that would inform my writing, brushing shoulders with editors who might pay actual money for that writing (if I could remember how to hold an adult conversation).
It was during one of those networking days, as I dodged traffic and navigated the people-clogged streets of London, that I realised I'd spent the entire morning with my wrist attached to my nostrils. I was wearing a fragrance called Boy Smells Suede Pony — a cosseting cocktail of the Parma Violets I loved as a child intermingled with the suede jacket I lived in throughout my teens. There was something so supportive and familiar about the sweet, leathery scent that got me through an overwhelming day of smog and social interactions — but why and how?
When I got home I found an academic article on the psychological effects of scent-evoked memory, written by neuroscientist Rachel Herz. It confirmed that smell is more likely to generate a positive sense of nostalgia compared to hearing an old song, say, or looking at a photograph. It's even got a name: aromachology. Experts confirm that scent is the only one of the five senses with a direct line to the three most important areas of the brain — the orbitofrontal cortex, the hippocampus and the amygdala — which are linked to behaviour, memory and emotions. Go figure.
What is perfume regression?
The notion is that perfume has the power to take you back in time and to evoke better, more cheerful memories. Whether you consider yourself spiritual or not, you might've heard of a similar idea: regression therapy. According to expert healer Kim Alexis, this is a relaxing and hypnotic experience whereby individuals are allowed to sense, feel, hear and see situations from another time and place. It's said to help people face mental, emotional and physical issues. The idea of using fragrance to unlock positive reminiscence might not be too dissimilar. Was the increase in nostalgic, drop-a-pin perfumes a coincidence or had fragrance houses got the memo about people needing juices that tug at cherished childhood memories to make us feel good again? A Mind report recently found that coronavirus has had a negative impact on mental health for lots of people in the UK. I couldn't help but think that these notes of bubblegum, fresh snow, home baking and log fires were olfactory crutches for those trying to navigate the unsettling after-effects of a global pandemic.
What are the best nostalgic perfumes?
I decided to self-prescribe perfume regression therapy, reaching for notes I knew would take me back to a younger, more carefree version of myself. Honestly, I can't recommend it enough. Saturdays were kind of a big deal when I was 10 years old. My mum used to 'go round town' and would allow me and my sister to 'go round town' too, on our own. She gave us our £2.50 pocket money and we would head straight to Around-a-Pound, where I'd stock up on notebooks and biros (I caught the writing bug early), then down to the newsagent's for some Hubba Bubba, which I would chew on for the rest of the day until my jaw went stiff. Fast-forward 28 years, though, and I'm not particularly into the idea of smelling like a giant synthetic strawberry.
Luckily for me, the new breed of grown-up gourmand offerings wrap their bubblegum accords in more sophisticated notes, such as the white florals and warm amber in Juliette Has a Gun Lili Fantasy EDP, from £85 for 50ml. If you're not into subtle scents, Bel Rebel Bubble Gum EDP, from £9 for 2ml, takes the theme more literally and even manages to have a powdery facet to it. (Am I imagining that Hubba Bubba had a powdery coating?) Wearing it got me as close as I was going to get to those sugar-spiked mornings of freedom, coins jangling in my pocket and not a care in the world.
I grew up on the coast and have since returned there to raise my own family so it made sense to ground myself in the sea-air scents that have become so popular. Launched in 2021, Lush Salty Body Spray, £30 for 200ml, captures a trip to the water's edge on a sunny day, with warm and spicy oudh oil and honeyed, floral neroli. Lancôme Idôle Aura EDP, from £50 for 25ml, keeps the franchise's hero rose note alive but with a marine-esque opening of crisp sea salt. My favourite, Maison Margiela Replica Beach Walk EDT, from £49 for 30ml, offers more of an exotic escapism with a hit of coconut that reminds me of the sun cream I was smothered in during childhood camping trips to the south of France. (If your summer holiday feels like an age away, I implore you to spray on something coconut-laced.) Other far-flung favourites include Pacifica Indian Coconut Nectar Perfumed Hair & Body Mist, £15 for 177ml, and Floral Street Arizona Bloom EDP, from £24 for 10ml.
I spent most of my childhood being dragged around a soggy forest by my mum. Years later, mid-lockdown and with anxiety consuming me as it did many, I found myself drawn to my local woods. Not smelling my stale house would have been enough but to have it replaced by fresh air and mud and trees proved the ultimate reset. The Nue Co Forest Lungs, from £20 for 10ml, not only captures that distinctive, earthy pine air but also stakes claim to a technology that replicates the phytoncides (airborne chemicals produced by plants) credited with lowering a person's stress hormones during forest bathing (that's walking in the woods to you and me). Whether it's viable or not, I love the idea of spraying on a sensory supplement each morning. Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to find a bottle of my favourite childhood smell: the cement and fresh air trapped in my dad's clothes when he got home from work. However Moncler Pour Femme, from £76 for 60ml, is a whiff of cold air and comes pretty close thanks to a powdery snow accord. It dries down to a wearable, sweet-floral heart and woody base (nothing like a building site but that's probably a good thing).
As Herz points out in her article, odour-evoked memories can also prompt unpleasant emotions. "They can be exceptionally potent triggers in post-traumatic stress disorder," she explains. When I asked my Instagram followers to tell me their negative childhood smells, I was amazed how many repeat offenders there were: Dettol on grazed knees, school changing rooms, burnt hair from cheap straighteners, banana-flavoured antibiotics.
And when I asked them for their positive childhood smells, just reading them made me smile: new school stationery, playground tarmac on a hot day, chlorine from the swimming pool, the cherry-scented spoon that came with Baby All Gone. Then my cousin messaged me to say it was the smell of her mum's fragrance — my gorgeous Aunt Fran who we lost to breast cancer in 2005 (she wore the now discontinued Ralph Lauren Polo Sport). Her answer not only had me in tears but brought me full circle. How strongly fragrance links us to our past and helps us to remember, offers comfort and reminds us that whenever sh*t hits the fan, we can always stop and smell the roses…or the bubblegum, or the autumn leaves, or the fresh snow, or even the new plastic pencil case, if that's what floats your boat.
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