Fragrance, as a beauty category, looks far different than it used to; it's expanded to encapsulate much more than just the classic perfumes and colognes we grew up with. Instead, fragrance has begun to spill over into the worlds of wellness and self-care, tapping the growing popularity of essential oils and aromatherapy to create fragrances with a function: cleanly formulated products that incorporate the benefits of aromatherapy, while still smelling as complex and beautiful as the scents we've been using for years.
Just last month, wellness and supplement brand The Nue Co. launched its very first fragrance: a clean, natural blend of oils aimed to help manage stress in the form of a woody, smoky unisex scent. Its green cardamom, iris, palo santo, and cilantro notes hold alleged mood-boosting aromatherapy benefits, but it doesn't smell like you're dousing yourself in essential oils, and instead just smells like a delicate unisex scent.
Natural beauty brand Osea also launched a functional fragrance last month: Vagus Nerve Oil, a body oil meant to stimulate the vagus nerve, the body's longest cranial nerve that's responsible for regulating stress, rest, and digestion. The formula is a blend of chamomile, jojoba, juniper, and lavender oil, which not only smells heavenly and contains uplifting aromatic benefits, but also supposedly induces a calming effect on the vagus nerve's response mechanism.
With a new year approaching, bringing tons of beauty launches with it, functional fragrances might just be shaping up to become one of 2019's biggest beauty trends. But what is it that makes a fragrance fall into the "functional" category? It all has to do with aromatherapy.
First things first, what exactly is aromatherapy? Amy Galper, co-founder of the New York Institute of Aromatic Studies, explains it as follows:
It's an integrative wellness practice and mind-body experience. As the actual physical molecules of the plant enter our physical body via our bloodstream—either by breathing it into our respiratory system or applying it topically to the skin—the same aromatic molecules also have a great effect on our unconscious mind, which controls all physiological, emotional, and psychological responses. That said, a key—and most profound—benefit of using scent/aroma is to help us mitigate our stress responses and trigger certain neurological responses that can improve our health.
Though Galper speaks of aromatherapy as a means of managing stress, it can have much more profound and powerful effects. "Scent is perhaps one of the most evocative of the senses," says Adora Winquist, co-founder of Adora Therapy and essential oil formulator. "Due to the proximity of the nose to the brain, and specifically the limbic system, which holds and connects memory and emotion, we have the ability to shift our mood in the moment. We can literally shift the trajectory of our emotional response to a more positive, empowering perspective."
The right essential oils or essential oil blends claim to do everything from relax, energize, address pain, improve skin, and support the immune system to balance mood and emotions. "Aromatherapy is a supportive process to re-wire negative patterns by gently clearing old emotions and mental associations and creating new positive affirmations and experience," says Winquist, "Through using scent and intention we can quickly and easily influence our mental-emotional terrain and, therefore, our overall health and well-being."
For a fragrance to offer aromatherapy benefits and be considered functional, Winquist explains, the formula must contain essential oils—and the purer, the better. "A product must be made with essential oils for it to be considered aromatherapy, but even here there is a bit of a rub, as there are varying degrees of quality and efficacy dependent on the purity of the raw materials."
Like with many other product categories in the beauty and wellness sphere, it's important to know where ingredients are being sourced from—even with natural products. Alyson Charles—spiritual teacher, speaker, and shaman—explains that, as someone who regularly works with plant medicines in the form of essential oils, it's crucial to know where and how a plant was sourced—as it can greatly affect its purity and efficacy. She doesn't consider an essential oil true aromatherapy if the oil or scent has been mixed with cheaper oils (a practice that can be used to lower a price point or mass market a product), or is a synthetic version that resembles the scent of the plant.
However, it is important to note that many essential oils are diluted in order to be applied directly to the skin, safely. "For something to be considered aromatherapy, it must be 100 percent pure essential oil, with no additives," says Sarah Kaur, co-founder of essential oils brand Vellum Wellness. "Often time, essential oils are commonly mixed with base oils—for example, almond, grapeseed, or jojoba oil—to make them safe for topical use. This is still considered aromatherapy, as the base is also natural and often cold-pressed, and is a safe way of applying essential oils directly onto the skin."
With all that said, don't expect to reap any benefits from your everyday perfume. "Aromatherapy is a practice of using scent to support and promote well-being. Perfume is really all about art. A perfumer builds an aesthetic scent landscape and tries—like a painter or musician—to evoke feeling and beauty. So, although both are using scents and similar palettes, their intention is very different," says Galper. This is technically the difference between aromatherapy and aromachology, which deals with the psychological—not therapeutic—effects that scent has on the brain.
That, and the fact that most perfumes and colognes are formulated with synthetic fragrances.
Synthetic or artificial fragrances or fragrance oils that don't contain any actual plant matter or any of the benefits found in plant matter are a whole different story. "Synthetic fragrances will give you the same consistent scent, viscosity, and texture every time, yet they'll never be able to communicate with our brain's limbic system the same way natural plant matter does, meaning they won't have the same impact on mood, or the same healing powers for our bodies," says Christina Kaur, co-founder of Vellum Wellness. She points out that if a product's ingredient label contains the words "parfum" or "fragrance," it's a pretty clear indicator that it contains a synthetic.
While Galper mentions that both synthetic and plant-based fragrances can still both have an effect (though, different) on our minds, she points out that synthetics can potentially cause negative results, especially over time, as our bodies process them differently than plant-based naturals:
Repeated use of a synthetic aroma can potentially cause adverse reactions in the mind and body, because aromas, fragrances built entirely on molecules not created by nature, aren't as easily excreted by our bodies and can linger and cause issues that can adversely affect our well-being. Plant molecules, however, are easily recognizable by our bodies—they can be easily processed and excreted, and synergize in a way that benefits our well-being.
Also, as Charles points out, synthetic fragrances can be derived from some pretty nasty ingredients, such as petroleum, carcinogenic benzene derivatives, aldehydes, toluene, allergens, respiratory irritants, neurotoxic chemicals, environmental toxicants, and many other not-so-great chemicals. So, therapeutic benefits aside, functional fragrances and essential oils are a much greener option.
So, should we be buying into the functional fragrance trend? Well, like many anti-stress wellness products—and essential oils in general—they're certainly not a cure-all. But, if there's something we can use to help combat day-to-day stress and boost our moods while also leaving us smelling nice, why not?