Perfume: the Good, the Bad, and the Smelly

by Madeleine Hawks

My favorite sign of spring is that things start to smell again. Hello dirt and fresh mulch! Hello tapas restaurant! Hello man who should try a new deodorant!

Whenever I travel to another country, I am reminded of how conservative Americans are about odors.  For example, on a typical metro commute when I was in DC, I rarely smelled anyone around me, or anything at all.  Ever ridden a chicken bus in Guatemala? Or taken a train through Portugal?  Or sat on a crowded bench in Paris?  I don’t think you could say that you simply smelled nothing during that experience.  What are we afraid of here in the US?  Well, allergies, for one.

It’s interesting because we tend to avoid natural odors of food or sweat, and yet “scent sells”.  More and more products are marketed with strong artificial scents.  And there is real reason to be concerned about artificial fragrance.  Not only are fragrances in everything, but they are comprised of pretty dangerous chemicals.  And the worst part is, although these chemicals can harm your body by both inhalation or skin contact (think sperm damage, hormone disruption, asthma, to name a few), fragrance recipes are largely kept secret and unmonitored.

Perfumes are a clear exception to the scentphobia in the US – a departure from our puritanical desire to simply smell scrubbed clean. As a little girl, visiting my Aunt Debbie in New York meant getting a manicure and going to a Broadway play.  I distinctly remember sitting behind women with high fur collars, big hair, and expensive perfume.  I absolutely loved it.  I would lean in close to smell strangers in the velvety chairs in front of me.  I thought it was fabulous.  However, I now know that they were accidentally poisoning the air we were all breathing with their particular cocktail of toxic chemicals.  Sad, but true.

oops…guilty: my personal collection of artificial fragrance

Our culture has expanded this insistence on cleanliness to include scented candles, air fresheners, and room sprays, not to mention all the products that are drenched in artificial fragrance like fabric softener, perfumed body wash, and even scented trash bags. (I smell a good conspiracy theory!)

Stop right there – before you just give up and go inhale all your perfumes in a poorly ventilated room, I have some good news.  You probably know that certain naturally-derived scents have health benefits. For example, lavender is soothing and relaxing. And hey, guess what?  Essential oils, when used appropriately, are safe and far less likely to trigger an allergic reaction than their artificial counterparts.  Plus, practicing aromatherapy can be fun!

So what I’m saying is, mix yourself a nice little cocktail fragrance of your own! And maybe you can slowly start trading out the artificial fragrances for natural ones that won’t give you (or the person sitting next to you) headaches.

First, I highly recommend this QUIZ (I really like quizzes, ok!) because it will get you to the root of your ideal fragrance.  Well, it might.  It told me I was really into fruity scents, which is pretty true (see below). What did you get!??!

  • “Fruity scents with notes of melon, raspberry and apricots combined with flowers like peony, rose or magnolia are the perfect complement to your bubbly personality. Nothing beats a high-energy aerobic workout to keep you looking fit and fabulous in flirty, feminine threads, while steamy, summer heat harks back to a love of all things tropical. Clean, effervescent fragrances exude a sparkle similar to your own personality and are the perfect match for your energetic, healthy lifestyle.”
this is what I hope you imagine my life is actually like based on that description of my fragrance portfolio 

Anyway, once you’ve determined the keystone to your scent portfolio, if you will, you can start browsing the essential oil options at your health store and craft something magical that’s all your own.  Over winter break I made a little face moisturizer that has some grapefruit, bergamot, ylang ylang, and neroli and I used jojoba oil as the carrier.  Because the scents are in oil form, I can use it on my face, as a body lotion, or a few dabs as a perfume.  The possibilities are endless!

my grapefruit/bergamot/ylang ylang/neroli concoction is in the tall blue bottle

This is a great listing of some standard essential oils with descriptions of their properties.  Not only are they great fragrances that you can mix and match, but many of them can also be selected for specific therapeutic properties.  For example, jasmine is calming and romantic, ginger is strengthening, and sweet orange is cheering.

Ok, if you’re ready, here’s a fantastic guide on the wonderful world of DIY perfume.  Smell ya later!

P.S. One time my roommate told me I always smell like Almond Extract.  Have I seriously considered using it as a perfume? Yes. I wish I could link to a sample scent online so you could smell it right now. I pour it into my coffee every morning and wish that it would start bioaccumulating so I could smell just like it at all times.

P.P.S. Tell me your answer’s to Laura’s challenge!  Dish on your beauty routine already!


5 responses to “Perfume: the Good, the Bad, and the Smelly

  1. I got “marine scents”…I do like soft and soothing so I guess that’s a pretty good description!

    Marine, oceanic scents, combining notes of rain, melon, grapes or cucumber with cyclamen, water lily or honeysuckle, reflect your temperamental, artistic nature. Your multifaceted personality is reflected in your love of luxurious fabrics (think silk and cashmere), crisp colours like blue and white, and a penchant for exotic food. Your ideal scent is as multifaceted and distinctive as your own disposition.

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