Whenever I’m walking down the streets of New York City or roaming around a new country, I never really feel alone, because the perfume I’m wearing is always there to accompany me — and since entering lockdown nearly a year ago, these fragrances that sit atop my dresser have become my time capsules of a pre-pandemic world. I’ve been turning to scent memories from my perfume bottles to remind myself of a life before COVID — and to reinforce hope that normal times will one day resume.
In the middle of doing some long-overdue spring cleaning in my suburban high school bedroom last May, I took a whiff of each of my three favorite perfumes out of a longing to return to the Before Times — aka the days when I’d actually step outside and wear a fragrance every day. It was as though a magnetic force pulled me toward them, feeding an urge deep within to reminisce about pre-COVID travel memories, and I realized just how much power scents have to transport you through time.
How Scent Is Tied To Memories
Science backs the power behind pairing scents with memory, and it’s even been found to be therapeutic for the brain. “Scent is a powerful stimulus, connecting our conscious self with our subconscious memory, hence why fragrance has often been described as ‘the language of dreams,’” says Anne-Claire Walch, PhD, pharmacology expert and founder of alcohol-free fragrance brand Brûmée.
Essentially, when the nose catches a scent, it’s immediately read by the brain’s olfactory bulb, says Geza Schoen, perfumer and founder of Escentric Molecules. Once this reading is passed on to the brain’s limbic system (a group of nerves found in the brain), it goes to the amygdala and the hippocampus, the regions of the brain associated with our emotions and memories — hence why scents can stir up feelings about the past. Overall, scents add an extra layer of passion to the feelings that are attached to our memories, notes Guillaume Flavigny, lead perfumer for fragrance brand The Harmonist.
To conjure up my fondest memories of carefree travel, I’ve been turning to Burberry’s Brit for Her Eau de Parfum, Cartier’s Carat Eau de Parfum, and Versace’s Eros Pour Femme Eau de Parfum — three fragrances that transport me elsewhere even though I’m stuck at home.
March 2018: Milan, Italy
Two years before lockdown, I was wandering the streets of Milan, wearing the floral-scented Versace Eros Pour Femme Eau de Parfum. The choice was intentional — I was in the very city that housed the headquarters of the fashion powerhouse brand, after all. From stepping off the subway station at the Piazza del Duomo (Milan’s version of New York’s Washington Square Park) to standing in awe on the mosaic-clad floors of Milan’s Galleria Vittorio Emanuele — the city’s luxury shopping mall — wearing this perfume transports me right back to those sunny spring days, even if I’m sitting on my couch in sweatpants. The notes of Calabrian bergamot, jasmine infusion, and sandalwood give me visions of newly-bloomed flowers lining the historic Milanese streets and the vaulted Gothic ceilings of the Milan Cathedral.
September 2018: New York City
I stumbled on the Cartier Carat Eau de Parfum by accident on a late September afternoon when I came across a pop-up shop promoting its launch in NYC, and it’s still my go-to scent. It has an overpowering floral aroma that manages to fill a room without being obnoxious, and it stays fresh all day long.
Since that humid fall day in 2018, wearing this fragrance always takes me back to that season when I lived in the Greenwich Village and would ride the A train to my part-time job in the Financial District. I spritz on this perfume whenever I want to feel the New York heat sitting on my bare skin or relive the NYC grind.
March 2019: Berlin, Germany
This Burberry scent entered my beauty routine in January 2017, but I came across it again in a terminal at Berlin’s Tegel airport. Smelling this floral fragrance brings me back to this very Sunday in March when I was sitting in that cramped terminal and listening to fragments of English, Portuguese, and German. It was the last time I was in Europe and on my way back to New York, and one spritz of Brit for Her Eau de Parfum makes me remember the access everyone once had to see the rest of the world — without worrying about getting anyone else sick or getting sick yourself.
Although airport terminals are far from smelling like a combination of pear, lime, almond, and peony, Brit for Her is my go-to flying perfume. Whenever I get the urge to travel, the scent takes me on the roller coaster of emotions that come with embarking on a new adventure.
My fragrances have become a powerful tool for uplifting my spirits amid this public health crisis. Whether your perfume collection also takes you elsewhere or your favorite lip gloss reminds you of a fond pre-pandemic memory, revisit whatever it is that makes this time a little easier. Whatever the fixture may be, your self-care routine has the power to remind you of the Before Times, and to remind you that — one day — normal life will resume.
Herz, R. (2016). The Role of Odor-Evoked Memory in Psychological and Physiological Health. Brain Sciences. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5039451/