Scent & Self-Care
Like many people, I find the current political landscape a landmine of triggers. Ranging from rampant and state-sanctioned misogyny to widespread economic and environmental anxiety, there’s a lot to be concerned about. In the face of this, my love for perfume sometimes feels like utter frivolity, a pointless exercise in vanity, in ephemeral comfort and beauty in a world that seems to vanish even as we look at it. But maybe that’s part of why I find perfume, and the thousand little rituals of beauty and small delight that accompany it, so necessary. If we don’t make time for the small pleasures left us, for luxuries cheaply bought, for beauty however fleeting, what are we fighting for in the end?
I think about the women who raised me: working-class women who stared down gang leaders to get to work, who fed entire families on a tin of fish and loaf of bread, who made the home a place of resistance. I think of their rituals in the morning. My mother’s treasured bottle of Chanel No. 5, bought by my father for her birthday and preserved for years, each honey-hued drop applied sparingly, deliberately to meet and match only the essential pulse-points, with a reverence and care that made her stand straighter in her red heels. It was part of the glamour she took on like armor to face the day. There is resistance in that. There is something redemptive about it.
With that in mind, I’ve been thinking about how I use perfume for self-care. As someone who deals with mental illness, and dissociation due to PTSD in particular, I find the ritual of its application, as well as its direct, sensory impact, grounding on days when I’m at risk of being overwhelmed. There are numerous ways I’ve built on that, developing some techniques to enrich and strengthen my self-care routine, helping me face the world. Here are a few of them.
1. Learn the ingredients
This may seem a little strange, but I promise it yields the best results. We’ll go about it in much the same way one creates a Patronus: think of a happy memory, or place, a memory that instantly lifts your mood. Somewhere you’ve felt safe, or empowered, or an object or thing that brings you joy, however small. These are often fleeting impressions, feeling especially ephemeral when you’re in a depressed or anxious state. The trick then, is to hone in on one sensory detail, especially one tied to scent.
It could be the memory of the mint tea your grandfather used to drink in the mornings, or the softness and scent of your cat’s head when you cuddle her. Each of those scents has a set of ingredients or chemicals, traces of which you can track down in popular fragrances. An example of this is when I think of the rose jam a friend of mine used to make, and the memories of summer afternoons spent with her, the scent of it rising up, mingling with the fresh air, the confidences, the joy of her company.
A little research on sites like Fragrantica tells me that that distinctive scent — rich and slightly bitter rose but sweeter, coalesced into a honeyed, fruity smell with the thickness of jam — are thanks to the chemical compounds known as damascones. With that knowledge, a little further searching shows me a range of perfumes, From Lush’s aptly named “Rose Jam” to Frederic Malle’s substantially more luxurious “Portrait of a Lady,” containing this compound and its accompanying, wine-like sweetness, and with it, a shortcut to a memory that instantly soothes and delights me.
When I tried Dior’s Ambre Nuit for the first time, I instantly thought of the scent of my cat’s fur, its plush, comforting warmth. That’s the ambroxan singing through a peppery-rose top. As for Robert Piguet’s Chai, I instantly think of my grandmother brewing elachi tea, thanks to the perfume’s rich cardamom note.
Use a site like Fragrantica’s search by note function to discover new perfumes, and pay attention to the ingredients that have special meaning to you. It’s the best way to narrow down a search that can sometimes feel overwhelming, and lend a mindful and deliberate purpose to finding a perfume that will bring you joy. Even this step, in its care and intentionality, helps calm rising anxiety and root me in my own bodily experience.
This is fairly straightforward stuff, and I believe most of us are familiar with at least some of the basic principles of aromatherapy. With recent scientific research supporting the claim that lavender is naturally soothing, there are a wide range of oils that can be used to stimulate different moods in order to self-soothe, focus, energize, or ground, depending on your needs.
I swear by Lush’s Twilight body and room spray at bedtime. As someone who struggles with insomnia, this is no small claim. It’s a (relatively) affordable spray considering the genuine quality of its ingredients, which include lavender essential oil, as well as tonka, to produce a scent that makes the most of the relaxing properties of lavender with the milky sweetness of tonka, bringing to mind cups of warm milk and honey. Even if it doesn’t fully succeed in helping me fall asleep, the act of lying down, closing my eyes and breathing in its scent, does wonders for the anxiety that insomnia can often cause in the small hours.
Aside from more soothing scents, I also use whiffs of oils like rosemary or peppermint to stimulate and energize me when I need to corral my thoughts and concentrate on work, or the sensuous depth of sandalwood to bring me back to an awareness of my body when I’m struggling with dissociation or dysphoria. Always be sure to check with a healthcare provider that oils are safe for you to use, and remember to mix them with a carrier oil if you are going to apply them to your skin.
By ritualizing self-care actions, particularly ones rooted in the senses, I have a blueprint of action that I don’t need to think about (especially useful when I’m struggling to concentrate because of anxiety or racing thoughts), and that eases my brain and body into the moment, slowing me down enough to re-enter my body in a way that soothes and grounds me. Scent and perfume lend themselves particularly well to ritual.
I start after I’ve bathed or showered by lighting a scented candle, and then applying a (usually scentless – though you can layer scents too if you like) richly moisturizing cream or body oil. I’m a huge fan of the Nuxe Huile Prodigieuse, which is delicately scented while still allowing my perfume to come into its own, and follow that by applying my chosen perfume to my pulse points, including behind my knees, and at the nape of my neck. I will also scent my clothes by misting the air slightly and stepping through it once I’m dressed.
As someone who also practices aspects of intentional magick, I will sometimes also use a dropper or rollerball perfume or perfume oil to draw a sigil for protection or luck on my skin, and I am reminded of my intention every time I catch a whiff of the fragrance. Though certainly not for everyone, the result is not only the effect of whichever fragrances I’ve chosen (whether they’re meant to energize, imbue me with confidence, or relax me), but also a sense of being surrounded by things I find beautiful, even if they’re invisible. It allows me to affect my environment in a way that contains and soothes me, and this sense of ownership over my space is incredibly therapeutic.
I hope these ideas all help to introduce some ways of thinking more mindfully about perfume, and its capacity to enrich our self-care rituals. Perfume can be a powerful, sensory tool with incredible therapeutic potential. Human beings have used it to mark and revere some of the most important aspects of life: from anointing wedding couples with scented oils, to marking births and deaths with incense and flowers. There is something primal and instinctive in using it to bridge the gap between our physical and psychological selves, bringing us a sense of wholeness and continuity that can often feel increasingly fractured in the face of all the stressors inherent in contemporary life. Whether you wear Chanel No.5 (and only Chanel No. 5) to bed, or apply a little rosemary oil before your next exam, I hope these tips bring you healing and happiness.
Mishka Hoosen is a writer, creative director, and neophyte perfumer living and working in Cape Town, South Africa. Their obsessions range from folk songs about murder to folk tales (involving murder.) Their first novel, Call it a difficult night, was published by Deep South Books in 2015, and their poetry about girlhood, violence, and hotels is currently being compiled into a collection for publication.