How the psychology of perfume plays in our lives


For most of us, the scent evokes a deep emotion and meaning. Like a song, it can instantly bring you back to a moment, feeling, or memory of where you were when you first felt it. Your attachment to a scent can be so deep that it becomes part of who you are – a specific scent indicator that is associated with who you are and how you want to be seen, even remembered. And a new scent, like a drastic haircut, often accompanies a big personal change. When I think about my own line of scents, I feel like I’m watching an aromatic soundtrack of my life.



My first scent, at age 15, was Lauren by Ralph Lauren, the go-to scent for young Manhattanites. Then, I had a dramatic moment with Poison de Dior in 1987, during my first year of college. It was strong and overwhelming, which technically could have defined my personality at the time as well. When I transferred from Ithaca College to NYU, my scent also changed: Enter Xeryus by Givenchy. I thought I was trendy, smart and sexy to wear a men’s cologne. (I wasn’t.) My first apartment coincided with a short stint at Annick Goutal Eau in Charlotte. It was light, feminine and pretty. (On a good day, I felt that way too. Early 20s, single, living in Manhattan.)

A 20-year love affair with Prescriptives’ classic Lemon Green Calyx followed, which after the end of a long-term relationship I left for the current two scents that I alternated over the five. recent years: Pacific Lime by Atelier Cologne and Park Avenue South by Bond No. 9. The former is clean, crisp and fresh, with a fruity aroma, just different enough from Calyx to feel distinct. The latter is an enigma to me, as it doesn’t smell like anything I’ve never been exposed to before. It doesn’t smell like it on my skin as it does with a tester. Part of its appeal is its elusiveness. I didn’t have a single reference for it – no memory, no past emotional association.

alix strauss in her late twenties

The Author in his late twenties in 1996, the start of his Calyx Love Affair.



When great moments in life occur, the desire to restart your scent is a normal and healthy response. “There are psychological and neurobiological bases for wanting to change your scent,” says Julie Walsh-Messinger, psychologist and assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Dayton, which focuses on smell, emotion and behavior. social. “Making a mental change empowers us and impacts our emotions. If you’re going through a breakup, the last thing you want to do is feel something that is making you sad. Changing your scent is easy. It helps you deal with your emotions, keeps you away from old memories, and lets you create new ones.

It’s no secret that our sense of smell offers one of the strongest connections to our feelings and memories.

Later in life, when you smell something, you are brought back to a specific time or event – Dawn Goldworm

Like a song, it connects and stimulates a specific, albeit different, part of the brain. “The path of the nose is the shortest and most direct way to activate the limbic system in the brain, which is responsible for creating, reactivating, storing and recalling memories and emotions”, explains Alfredo Fontanini , MD, PhD, Neuroscientist, Professor, and Chairman of the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior at Stony Brook University and Co-Director of its Institute of Neuroscience. “Each scent is associated with different memories and experiences. As you create new memories, the old ones and the emotions tend to fade. When you try a new scent, you are trying a scent that has no associations, so it gives you the opportunity to create new ones and write new memories.


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According to Dawn Goldworm, an olfactory expert who has worked with Lady Gaga and the Olsens, “Everyone is culturally perfumed. For some it’s a sign of their generation, ”she says, adding that scent memories continue to grow and become the largest and highest part of your memory. Novelist Marcel Proust captured this direct, visceral sense / memory connection in his evocation of a tea-soaked madeleine in Volume 1 of Remembrance of Things Past. (Fun fact: taste is primarily perceived by smell.) “Later in life, when you smell something, you are brought back to a specific time or event,” Goldworm explains. “You remember how you feel. If it makes you feel good, keep it. If not, you change it.

Through her work as the co-founder of 12.29, an agency that helps brands differentiate themselves through smell, Goldworm has focused on two main groups of perfume buyers: the faithful and the butterflies. Loyalists like me have stuck to the same scent for years. “They only change when they don’t want to be reminded of the past. It’s an instinctive and stimulating reaction, ”explains Goldworm.

For me, my breakup wasn’t just with one person. I was rather married to Calyx, but I needed something new to help me move forward.

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Butterflies, on the other hand, don’t want to bond or connect with just one scent. Like their lipsticks and handbags, their scents are interchangeable; they wear dozens of them whenever you feel like it. They are carefree, unattached and spontaneous. “Butterflies go for what’s hot, fresh and new. Their scents are maybe only a quarter used because they never finish a scent, ”says Goldworm. “They use perfume as an accessory, as opposed to an identity. They will not change their scent when upsetting events occur, because they have no particular connection with them. Rather than change their scent, they could go on a trip or make new friends.

Thanks to the pandemic, many of us are seeking permanent change. Goldworm suggests a total sweep of any smells that might remind you of that traumatic time. “Throw out all detergents, candles, shampoos, toothpaste, body lotions or perfumes, and bring new ones into your home,” she says.

While that sounds a bit drastic, who doesn’t want a fresh start? The world is different now, and so am I. Recently, Loubidoo, a new fragrance from Christian Louboutin, caught my eye, with its playful cap depicting a cat holding a lipstick. When I look at it, I see a symbol of good fortune, and the scent is intertwined with strawberry and rose. Maybe a smell of optimism hangs in the air.

My all-time favorite scents read like Top 40. While some were successful wonders – as in, I wonder how I thought I could achieve this? – others were timeless classics.

This article originally appeared in the June / July 2021 issue of ELLE magazine.

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