The Psychology Of Wearing Fragrance When No One Can Smell You

Photographed by Caroline Tompkins.
When Loreen Hwang decided to revisit her perfume collection after four fragrance-free weeks in quarantine, the Beverly Hills-based lifestyle influencer reached for her special-occasion scents: the juice that costs $1,000 a bottle, the eau de parfum she can only find in Bahrain, the blend she usually reserves for yearly Oscars parties at the Four Seasons Hotel.
“I was just sitting at home and I was feeling bummed out missing my friends,” she says. “I'm sad for people that I've lost, people who are sick. I wasn’t working out and was watching social [media]. I was like, ‘I need to put myself in a better mood.’” Never mind that Hwang hasn’t gone to a party in months, nor does she plan to in the foreseeable future, or that she’s pairing these rarified scents with her new uniform of sweats and tees as the bottles she used to classify as everyday go-tos gather dust: Her self-isolation scents need super strength and major payoff.
“We don't know how long we're going to be indoors. In the winter, we might get quarantined again. I'm not going to hold onto my best stuff for whenever we can go out,” she says. “I just want to wear it and feel good.”
The Fragrance & Memory Connection
Hwang’s instinct to boost mood through fragrance is something that’s hardwired for all of us, whether we’re conscious of it or not, because no other sensory system is more directly linked to the brain’s processing center for memories and emotion than the olfactory.
Rachel Herz, PhD, a Brown University adjunct professor and neuroscientist who specializes in the psychological science of smell, recognizes fragrance’s power to affect our moods. “Scents have a very special capability of immediately triggering emotion because of where they are processed in the brain,” Dr. Herz explains. “As soon as we smell something, our amygdala, where emotion and emotional memory is processed, is activated before any other part of the brain, so you get an instant initiation of an emotional response.” The catch? That emotional hit only occurs if we’ve formed a prior association between the fragrance and the feeling.
Photo: Courtesy of Loreen Hwang.
As it happens, Hwang’s quarantine favorites aren’t just top choices because they’re expensive. They’re tied to strong emotional memories, too: hanging out with her best friend in the Persian Gulf, which she’d planned to visit last month; the time her mother marched Hwang, then 11, into a Parisian perfumery and let her pick out any scent she wanted in the whole store. “These fragrances remind me of people, and wearing them just makes me feel happier,” she says.
A scent’s power to evoke the aura of beloved people, places, and things that we can’t interact with while sequestered at home may also explain why fragrance sales have held steady despite widespread job loss and financial insecurity amid a global pandemic. “Fine fragrances are still selling and resonating with consumers, especially classic fragrances that remind the consumer of their favorite memories or transport them to another place or time,” says Linda Levy, president of The Fragrance Foundation. “I expect [this] to continue when we move ahead to the next ‘normal.’”
Evidence of fragrance’s elevating effects isn’t limited to anecdotes and market projections — it’s backed by science, too. “Our research has shown that perfume enhances a person's mood,” says Stephen Watkins, a fragrance application scientist and head of health and well-being business support for Givaudan, the world's largest flavor and fragrance company. “By choosing to wear a fragrance, people are tapping into a way to enhance their well-being and self-esteem.”
That’s not all, according to Sally Augustin, PhD, an environmental psychologist who uses sensory experiences to help people accomplish their desired goals. She notes scent-triggered mood boosts can be indirectly linked to physiological improvements, too. “Say smelling a scent puts you in a better mood,” Dr. Augustin says. “We know that when people are in a better mood, their immune system functions more effectively, so this could be a two-step way to influence health.”

Scents have a very special capability of immediately triggering emotion because of where they are processed in the brain.

Rachel Herz, phd
The Comfort Of Smelling Clean
As we navigate the reality of an unrelenting virus compounded by civil unrest, some may even turn to what they perceive as “clean” scents as a form of comfort. “From the earliest times, fragrance has been employed to mask bad odors and 'fend off' illness,” Watkins says. Beginning in Ancient Greece and up until the mid-1800s, the theory of miasma — which suggested unpleasant smells from decaying organic matter could enter the body and cause disease — was generally treated as fact. The idea was so popular that the medical community believed miasma to be the cause of the Black Death, cholera, malaria, and other fatal illnesses.
Judith Gross, vice president of creation & design, branding and marketing fragrances at International Fragrances & Flavors, Inc., also acknowledges the deep-seated connection between fragrance and health. “For centuries, fragrance has served as a medium for mankind to find wellness, and has been believed to hold healing properties,” she says, pointing to ancient Egyptian doctors as the first perfumers, and early priests who grew and distilled botanicals thought to have medicinal value. “Only under Napoleon was there a separation between perfume and medicine.”
Thanks to advancements in hygiene, sterilization, and the field of infectious disease, we know better than to think a scent we perceive as clean — whether it be balsam or freshly-laundered cotton — can do much of anything to actually prevent or combat illness. Still, these ideas may percolate as part of the collective unconscious and drive a pandemic-fueled desire for fragrances that pair with our picture of health.
What will be interesting to see, Watkins notes, is whether these “clean” scents take on a negative association in the future as they become intrinsically associated with this pandemic. “It will depend very much how positive or negative this period has been for individuals,” he says. 
Scent As Routine
Dr. Herz supports the idea that spritzing a new scent selected to be worn only during quarantine is likely to help form a strong sensory memory specific to this time. For some, the association will be a bummer, or worse: “One of the most powerful triggers for PTSD is scent,” she says. If one’s pandemic experience is particularly traumatic, the unique fragrance worn during quarantine could even be triggering to our future selves.

Different scents support different sorts of mental activity.

Sally Augustin, PHD
Even under stressful circumstances, some perfume wearers are intentionally adopting quarantine-specific fragrances to create a sense of order in a chaotic situation. After fifteen years working as a graphic designer for a home-building company (her first job out of college), Sari Sam was laid off last month — right around the time she had planned to request vacation days for a trip to Cambodia.
“I purchase a new scent every year around this time as I prepare for my summer trip. This year, I didn’t want to break the routine,” Sam says. “Now I don’t have a job anymore and putting on fragrance in this whole mess is reminding me of the routine I used to have when I went into the office — and that really helps.” Her new PTO-turned-quarantine scent is a breezy, citrusy number she finds uplifting and believes helps her be more productive. “Everyone needs a little sunshine at this time,” she says.
If spritzing a fragrance triggers positive associations or sparks action, Dr. Augustin is all for it. “Different scents support different sorts of mental activity,” she says. “At this time, when a lot of people probably need some emotional support, or at least something that makes them feel good from an emotional perspective, it's cool to wear scents that you tie to something desirable in your life,” whether that’s a feeling of normality, routine, or motivation.
Will the very scent that motivates Sam now end up pushed to the back of her fragrance collection once the pandemic is over? She thinks otherwise. “This new scent will remind me of this experience, and I’m not going to think of it as a negative,” Sam says. “Before I was laid off, I was working 12 hours a day. Now I’m taking care of myself more, and I know for sure this will tie in with my fragrance. When I use it in the future, it will bring back the memory to focus on myself and my family.”

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