Breathe in the scent of fresh flowers, pop open the cap of suntan lotion, or catch the smell of your grandmother’s heady mix of hairspray and perfume. The effect is the same, eliciting memories so detailed, it’s like being transported to another moment in time. Because although it’s often unappreciated, scent operates subtly in the subconscious, unlocking memories you didn’t even know you had filed away.

But how does this seemingly rudimentary sense have such power over our minds? It all comes down to biology and chemistry. Once an odour molecule binds to a receptor at the back of your nose, it initiates an electrical signal that travels to the sensory neurons in your brain. Some go even further – the scent molecules in rose, for example, can actually slow the breakdown of beta endorphins, the hormone responsible for making us feel euphoric. So if you’ve ever spritzed yourself with the scent of red roses or can’t stop sniffing when you’re near them, it’s because the scent keeps you in a happy state. While it’s often just a last-minute addition before you leave the house, in fact, it actually has the power to be a mind-altering cocktail that’s anything but simple.

1. Pick a comforting scent

Feeling anxious, jittery or unhappy? Spray yourself with a perfume that smells like a freshly cut garden. “When grasses and green leaves are cut, at least five chemicals containing stress-relieving properties are released. Serenascent, a Australian mixture of three plant-derived aromas, combines three of these chemicals to help reduce the harmful impact of stress on both the nervous and endocrine systems,” explains Reading. Studies also show that lavender is able to decrease blood pressure, heart rate, and skin temperature following inhalation – which is why it’s often used as a night-time aid. The chemical molecules are absorbed into the bloodstream, greatly reducing the salivary chromogranin A (a marker of stress). Both of these chemicals provide degrees of consolation and can help gently calm restless minds. Try a hit of Jo Malone Amber and Lavender Balm oil, £42, in your bath before bed.

But perfume’s power to comfort isn’t just chemical, it’s emotional. A spritz of fragrance can act like a coat of armour. In a survey from Brown University, researchers found that 90% of women felt more positive when wearing a fragrance, while a study by scientists at the Hainan Medical University in China, identified ylang-ylang as a significant confidence booster in women suffering low self-esteem and post-menopausal syndrome. Try a spritz of Molton Brown Ylang Ylang EDT, £45 for 50ml before a big meeting.

Sixth Scents 2

2. Think about energising scents

Citrus smells have long been heralded for their energising effect with studies showing that breathing in fruit notes like orange, lemon and lime for 10 minutes can help boost your mood for up to 30 minutes. “The smell of citrus increases your body’s production of happy hormone serotonin, while reducing levels of the stress hormone norepinephrine, so they perk you up but still keep you feeling calm,” Reading clarifies. It’s the reason so many body washes and shower gels contain the scents of lemon, orange and zesty grapefruit.

Peppermint can also have an invigorating effect on our brain. Cultivated in ancient Japan and China for its therapeutic properties, this herb has been acknowledged to have profound effects on mental alertness. In a study published in the International Journal Of Neuroscience, it was discovered that participants who inhaled peppermint had better cognitive functions like reasoning, problem solving and attention span. “It stimulates the hippocampus area of your brain, which controls mental clarity, so you wake up and pay attention”, says Reading. Try Aveda Peppermint Oil, £15, dabbed on pulse points. 

3. Boost your memory

For centuries, rosemary has been associated with the ability to recall. In Hamlet, Ophelia says to her brother Laertes: “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.” And there is now research to back it up. According to a study from Northumbria University, the herb can increase your ability to remember things by 70%, due to the effect it has on electrical activity in the brain. Researchers from Wheeling Jesuit University in Ohio also found that those who took a whiff of the spice cinnamon improved their working memory due to a reduction in oxidation in the brain. Use Gamila Secret Reviving Rosemary Soap, £22, on the morning of a interview.

4. Consider the scent of attraction

According to the Greek historian Plutarch, Cleopatra scented her ship’s sails to seduce Mark Antony as she travelled up the river to him. Today, daubing perfume on more than our pressure points would be excessive, but as legend tells it, scent had the power to seduce. “There’s a lot of research showing that scent has a role in attraction,” suggests Reading. “Body odour may give clues to the genetic quality, reproductive success and health of a potential mate – a biological process we may be unaware of,” she adds.

That’s why fragrance houses use notes that smell similar to our natural body odours – like salts and musks. Take indole for example, it’s an interesting mood-boosting compound that’s found in all white florals such as Lancôm’es La Vie Est Belle Légère, £57. “They lack colour, so they need a little extra something to attract pollinators,” explains Dove. “When the brain thinks it’s smelling flowers the subconscious is actually smelling sex. This is why white florals are so warm and sensual when used in perfumery,” he adds: There’s never been a better time to pick a mind-altering scent.

Scents of Style