It’s possible that you’ve been thinking a lot about the plague lately. Maybe you’ve even been reading The Decameron. But have you been wearing perfume? Taking fragrant baths? Huffing lavender? Perhaps even adorning yourself with a piece of perfumed jewelry when you go out for a socially distanced stroll or grocery run? If you do, it might make you feel better.
A quick look backwards. When the plague emerged in Europe in the 1300s, it was believed that contagion could spread through noxious odors (this misapprehension wasn’t specific to the Black Death: the word malaria, for example, comes from the Italian mal aria, or bad air). To protect themselves, people began wearing pomanders, perforated gold or silver pendants containing aromatic herbs, spices, and perfumes, so that they could have a pleasant whiff to sniff at a moment’s notice, thereby blocking any threat that lurked in stinky vapors. (Those terrifying beaks on doctors’s plague masks? Also filled with aromatic herbs.)
The word pomander comes from pomme d’ambre, because early versions were shaped like apples (pommes) and contained ambergris. Some were divided into compartments, each of which could contain a separate herb or dried flower, but over time they became increasingly more fanciful, especially among nobility—studded with gemstones, or fashioned into seashells, animals, and more ominously, skulls.
They continued to be worn well past the Middle Ages: Henry VIII purportedly owned at least 16 pomanders, and his daughter Elizabeth I was frequently depicted with a suitably ornate scent receptacle draped around her neck or waist.
Of course, the notion that delightful scents could ward off disease was wrong. And alas, there is no perfume or essential oil, no matter how magical, that will protect against Covid-19. But it might just protect against the pandemic blues.
Although the word aromatherapy wasn’t coined until 1937, by French chemist René-Maurice Gattefossé, the practice of using scent to calm the mind and soothe the nerves been around for centuries. Frankincense, for example, has long been used in spiritual practices to enhance meditation, and has recently been clinically shown to improve symptoms of anxiety and depression.
“The sense of smell is the most primitive of our senses and is linked to the deepest parts of the brain which govern basic instincts, memories, and emotions,” says Christina Salcedas, Global Director of Education at Aromatherapy Associates. As scent travels through the olfactory network to the limbic system and on to the hypothalamus, she says, “the activity of the nerve signals cause mood change by altering brain chemistry.”
Science has shown that inhaling lemon can boost the release of stimulating hormones; Ylang-ylang essential oil can lower blood pressure; a the scent of lavender has an effect similar to Valium on mice, and sniffing the essential oil at bedtime can increase the depth and quality of sleep in humans.
Hellen Yuan, a certified aromatherapist and founder of HELLEN bath brews, which combine essential oils, flowers, salts and crystals to heavenly effect, lists more of her zen-summoning favorites: “German chamomile is great for calming anger, agitation, and stress,” she says. “Roman chamomile is extremely soothing and relaxing. Clary sage helps with mental fatigue, and cinnamon is super stimulating for when you’re feeling exhausted, weak, and depressed.”
For those of us reading the news and feeling all of the emotions above, she suggests taking a few moments of good-smelling time out whenever we feel overwhelmed. “It’s best to sit straight up on the ground or in a chair,” she says. “Put one to two drops of your desired essential oils into your palm, then rub your hands together. While cupping your hands around your nose, inhale deeply through the nose and exhale through the mouth, repeating three times with your eyes closed.” Voila, serenity now.
The benefits of scent aren’t restricted to essential oils. The Nue Co.’s Functional Fragrance, which is available both as a perfume and as a home spray, was created by famed perfumer Frank Voelkl (the same nose behind Le Labo’s Santal 33) using notes that data shows have real efficacy in reducing stress levels—including palo santo, cedarwood, and musk—and Heretic Parfum’s Douglas Little concocts his botanical fragrances with the aromatherapeutic benefits of their natural ingredients in mind. (In the case of Dirty Grass and Midnight Toker, he takes it up another notch with a hit of CBD).
The general consensus, really, is that any fragrance can give a well-being boost. Whether that’s an Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle or a Whole Foods rose oil, simply the act of smelling or wearing something that makes you feel safe, or sexy, or happy, or just good about yourself has positive effects on the brain.
So even if you’re self-isolating, it’s ok to spritz on perfume as self-care, or to wear a chic modern take on the pomander from KILIAN or Veronique Gabai. After all, when we smell something we love, we take a deep breath. Isn’t that something we all can use right now?