Can 'perfume regression' solve your stress problem? I put it to the test

can fragrance regression be a solution for stress
Can a perfume *really* reduce your stress levels? Getty Images

Social media is awash with recycled trends: the good (the cute and colourful butterfly clips of my childhood) and the bad (skinny jeans). The ever-rapid trend cycle can evoke strong emotions, both positive and negative – the nostalgia connects with us deeply.

Scent is the most powerful time machine of them all: a whiff of Lynx Africa can remind you of your very first crush, and a Charlie body spray is an instant TBT to the drama of the girls' school toilets.

Therapy talk is, dare I say, pretty trendy – TikTokers go deep on boundaries and attachment styles, and trauma could be the word of 2022. ‘Regression’, is what we’re focusing on now – specifically, we’re talking about ‘perfume regression’, and whether scent’s intense throwback powers can have similarly therapeutic effects, like lowering your stress levels and improving your mental wellbeing. Picture this: you sit beside a random person on the bus, and their perfume reminds you of your gran. From there, it takes you back to a time when the only thing on your plate was keeping your Tamagotchi alive – ah, golden.

“Be less stressed” is pretty much a constant goal for all of us. We know stress is bad for our health, but how can we realistically lower it? Stress can hit you with the same unexpectedness as a cloud of cologne mixed with sweat on the tube at rush hour, and while many elements of stress can be totally out of our control, I’m curious as to whether this feel-good fragrance hack could work for me.

So can a nostalgic fragrance really help curb the stresses of adult life? I was determined to find out.

i tried perfume regression to reduce stress
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What is perfume regression?

You may be familiar with the technique of ‘regression therapy’. It’s a treatment used to address a range of issues, including depression, anxiety, and some phobias. It involves focusing on significant past events that may be interfering with your current emotional wellbeing. So ‘perfume regression’ draws on this, except you're bringing fragrance into the mix – no hypnotherapy or psychoanalysis needed.

A study by neuroscientists at Brown University in 2016 found that ‘odour-evoked memory’ can have a significant impact – and even influence – on your psychological and physiological health. The experiment discovered that a fragrance evoking positive memories can increase positive emotions, and help to curb bad moods and reduce stress levels.

Remember how you could track a Hollister store down from a mile away due to its distinct smell? That’s called ‘scent branding’ and it’s a marketing technique they’ve been selling to our noses for decades. Think of perfume regression a bit like that, except you don’t need to buy a £40 polo top that would fit a toddler. Instead, you’re using it to recall distinct memories and feelings. The idea is that it ‘unlocks’ sweeter, more positive memories and the good feelings associated with them.

can fragrance regression be a solution for stress
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Can perfume regression work to reduce stress levels?

If, like me, you naturally crave an old episode of Friends after a bad day – or Lizzie McGuire at the worst of times – then you’ll be familiar with the sense of calm an opening theme tune brings. An old, familiar fragrance can work the same way.

The previously mentioned study found that men and women aged 21-38 that were presented with a familiar scent from their past saw “increased moods of comfort, happiness, and a decrease in anxiety”, compared with when they were presented with a regular fragrance they simply just liked.

The study explains: “Beyond the specificity of memory, nostalgia – reflecting upon one’s personal past – has been shown to have many beneficial psychological consequences.

"Engaging in nostalgic reminiscence increases positive affect, bolsters self-esteem, strengthens the connection between one’s past and present, produces feelings of social connectedness, elevates optimism, and infuses life with meaning”.

All very up my street.

However, this can also work against us. Further research showed that certain smells can actually cause us more stress if linked to a traumatic event of our past. This isn’t ideal, but it definitely proves fragrance and our emotional experiences are undeniably linked, and it requires a level of balance. The study states; “odours are claimed to be more closely connected to affect than other sensory experiences”, which shows you can’t deny the power our noses have over our emotions.

Feelings in a bottle

Some of the most popular fragrances out there have been created to replicate a person or memory of the past. Take PHLUR’s Missing Person, for example. You might already know that the scent went viral on TikTok and clocked up a 200,000 person waiting list – that’s before it even launched in the UK. Sure, the blend of neroli blossom, jasmine and sandalwood all sounds nose-pleasing, but there’s a significant reason behind its creation and why it became so popular.

Chriselle Lim, owner of PHLUR, developed the fragrance after a divorce and was looking to create the smell of something familiar amid life changing events. While fragrance is subjective, this particular scent clearly resonates with a lot of people. One of the reasons it went viral is because it was so emotive – it was making complete strangers cry after just a sniff, and many documented it online.

PHLUR is described as “healing your soul” on the website – a pretty big claim. When I gave it a sniff though, it felt powerful. I imagined a rainy day, where I was cosy inside and wrapped in a cashmere blanket (well, I imagine – cashmere is very much outside of my budget). It didn’t make me cry (am I a soulless monster? We’ll save that one for another day), but I understand the nose-sparking comfort.

We’re taught that fragrances are supposed to make us smell “good” and to make ourselves attractive and display a scent facade of confidence, but instead, this is just one fragrance playing with our emotions. £96 for 50ml to cry might sound bizarre, but it also doesn’t sound too dissimilar to regular old therapy… when you think about it.

Nevertheless, I have continued on my search for an anxiety-alleviating scent moment, especially one that can see me through the winter months where tinsel and baubles are no longer around to take the edge off.

Naturally, this quest took me to the mecca of fragrances: Selfridges. From what I’ve seen of other people experimenting with fragrance regression, many narrow down the scent throwback and emotions to the same thing: their mum. So, here I was in my twenties, wandering around the store in the hopes of finding my mum – talk about a throwback.

Other people who have tried perfume regression have also focused on florals, because it reminds them of the comforting scent of their mother, but I’ve never been a flower-y person. I find them sometimes wishy-washy, sometimes so artificial it’s nausea-inducing. I tried and failed to find a scent that reminded me of a hug that only a mumma bear could provide. But on that hunt, I was surprised by the emotions I felt when I finally breathed in Maison Margiela’s Jazz Club.

It may be surprising to learn that I did not, in fact, grow up in the debaucherous hey-days of jazz. Instead, it’s Jazz Club’s strong notes of tobacco that triggered some memories and emotions. It might not be anyone’s top priority to smell like a chain smoker – we’re not in Mad Men, after all – but the notes certainly reminded me of one person in my life: my grandfather.

It came as a shock to me that I found it comforting, as he died when I was young. We didn’t have a lot in common or have mentally stimulating conversations that might last a lifetime in my memories. Truth be told, I don’t have a vivid memory of him, but I do remember that he smoked, and so does some deeply emotive chamber of my brain, apparently.

Since I took the bottle home with me, I began spritzing it when I needed a sense of comfort. Whether that be a long journey ahead of me, or what I predicted to be a busy day at work. Instinctively, I knew it would help ease the stress of my day. I obviously wasn’t wearing an 80-odd quid fragrance before my adult teeth grew in, but the note itself seemed to transport me enough that it provided the peace I was after.

What makes a ‘good’ smell?

I’ve learned the hard way; you can’t really buy a fragrance for another person. They might like it, but they likely won't adore it unless their nose has personally selected the scent. I can’t stomach the smell of figs, but my friend happily dowses herself in the stuff – these preferences apparently go back to before I was even a fully formed human.

Our sense of smell is the only fully developed sense a foetus has in the womb, according to scent designer Dawn Goldworm. Before you’ve even become a financial burden to your parents, you’re already on the road to discovering your signature scent. Clearly, a good set of priorities.

I came across Goldworm’s Ted talk on the subject of scent, where she explains that “smell and emotion are stored as one memory”, and because of this, “the basis for smells you like and hate for the rest of your life” have already been decided upon by our brains by the time we reach the age of 10-years-old. At that point, the only "sense" that is as equally developed as our sense of smell is emotion. This is why we can assume the two are so closely intertwined.

“When you smell an odour, you automatically link an emotion to it,” she says. “And the scent and the emotion remain forever linked together, floating around our olfactory memory”. Basically, odour = memory. This space is also the largest part of our memory, which is why a fragrance really is so powerful to our emotional wellbeing.

Goldworm goes on to explain: “one whiff, and we’re transported to another place and another time. We can paint an entire picture of where we were. We can even recall, with incredible precision, how we felt at that moment, all from one smell.” It sounds the closest we’re even going to get to a physical time machine, if you ask me.

I’ve never actively thought about a fragrance this way, so it seemed important to delve deep and attempt to retrace my smells of the past, to see if it could bring back those carefree emotions that came along with them.

can fragrance regression be a solution for stress
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Baby's first fragrance

Growing up is a rollercoaster of homework, life-altering crushes, and snotty kids. It’s a period we romanticise as care-free and fun, too. If I get even a whiff of the plastic-y smell of Play-Doh, I’m hurtling back to playgroup.

My first ‘signature scent’ – as much of one as you can have at the age of 10 – came to me immediately when thinking about perfume regression. It was Hilary Duff’s With Love Eau de Parfum. Of course, for the basis of this piece of journalism, I had to get into a fierce eBay bidding war for the fragrance and the body cream. I later graduated to Britney’s Fantasy (obviously), and then Ralph Lauren, which I also had to cop again.

When my body cream arrived, it was of course way past its sell-by date. It smelled a bit funky, but I still couldn’t stop sneaking a sniff. It got so distracting, I actually had to put it under my bed. I got into a habit of inhaling it deeply and staring at a wall, thinking back to they golden era of being 10 years old.

I mean, I rarely wore the stuff – at 10, pocket money was my main source of income – but it still evoked a host of powerful memories. Insignificant childhood moments, and my crush on Chad Michael-Murray, flooded back. My childhood wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, so it was surprising to me that the scent made me feel so happy as an adult. I’m sure there will be some life events that are beyond the calming powers of Hilary’s defunct perfume empire or Maison Margiela’s Jazz Club, but until then, I’ll keep them for huffing on bad work days and hangovers so bad I can’t move from the sofa.

Oh, and if you do ever find a bottle of Hilary Duff’s With Love EDP circa 2006, please hit me up – I’ll give you a good price for it.

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