Functional fragrance, wellness scents, dopamine spritzing... call it what you like, but ‘mood-modulating’ perfumes are trending. Here’s why.

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With our sense of smell long known to be directly linked to our brain’s hub for processing emotion, memories and instinct, it’s easy to understand why scents can make you feel things deeply and readily. And that’s created an opportunity for the beauty and wellness industries: what if fragrances could be composed like supplements – natural wellness-boosters to relieve things like stress, anxiety and listlessness, while making you smell delicious in the process? Huge fragrance suppliers have responded by developing ‘functional fragrances’ created not just by perfumers, but neuroscientists and behavioural therapists wielding MRI scanners, EEG imaging and biosensory equipment. And we have found the best ones out there that have been designed to boost and encourage all kinds of moods and emotions. 

We’ve entered an era of ‘neuro-scents’. And as far as wellness practices go, there could hardly be an easier way to modulate your mood.

How does functional fragrance work?

Fans of aromatherapy have long reached for bracing mint or sedative patchouli oils to regulate their moods in times of need, maintaining that certain aromas have the same effect on most of us, even if we’ve never smelled them before. Until relatively recently, though, there was no scientific evidence for this phenomenon, much less an explanation of how it was supposed to work.

Brain-imaging technology has changed this. “It proves that certain aromas change people’s brain-wave patterns (and therefore, moods) in a predictable and near-universal way,” says psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist Dr Mark Moss of Northumbria University. “This suggests we are, to an extent, hard-wired to respond to them.”

Other research shows our brains recognise aromas of plants that could have health benefits, making our response to them not just psychological but physical. For example, the scent of specific wood essential oils (phytoncides) lowers blood pressure and stress hormone levels and may even increase immune cell activity.

Moss also points to animal research that indicates that a molecule like vanillin (in vanilla) acts on opioid receptors and serotonin (a happiness hormone) levels in the brain, explaining why it’s so relaxing - and arousing to many.

What is a functional fragrance (and what is it not)?

So you can say there are scientific suggestions of medication-like, therapeutic effects of perfume, and it is one that a tsunami of new mood-boosting scents and functional fragrances like to hint at. But it’s important to mention, as Moss does, that the research is still very much tentative, and no fragrance brand can, or does, literally claim medicinal powers.

Nor would they want to, says Dr Gabriel Lepousez, a neuroscientist who helped create Edeniste, a collection of ‘active wellbeing essences’ and perfumes. “We don’t want to manipulate emotions or hijack your mind with some psychoactive scent. Our aim is to use fragrance as a modulator; to add a little comfort when nervous or energy when depressed.”

How to use functional fragrance to reap its wellness benefits

Using fragrance as part of a mood-balancing ritual is probably the most realistic route to actual therapeutic benefits. In her book ‘The Source’, neuroscientist Dr Tara Swart-Bieber shows how practices like yoga, meditation, and visualisation are physically and mentally transformative because they rewire neural pathways.

By bringing scent into the routine (think of how incense has been used for centuries to deepen spiritual practice), you may, she says, over time create a ‘scented shortcut’ to the mood state you’re trying to achieve.

So there you go – your next perfume could actually change your life. Here are some suggestions for ones to try.

The 13 best functional fragrances

The one to make you feel comforted: Sol de Janeiro Cheirosa 59 Perfume Mist, £22

The bath and body brand proudly announces its first scent scientifically proven to boost your mood, and judging from the enthusiastic reception of the accompanying body butter, it really does cheer you up. That’s probably due to the high level of creamy and vanilla notes (vanilla orchid, sandalwood and sugared plums) which never fail to put humans in a happy snuggling mood.

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The one to clear your mind: Ilapothecary Beat the Blues EdP, £110

Ilapothecary’s debut eau de parfum has leant on the brand’s aromatherapeutic expertise to create a scent that can lift you out of a fug. A bright, bracing, mind-opening blend of petitgrain, tuberose and rose geranium, it’s described as ‘releasing’ and it certainly makes you want to breathe deeply and let go of what’s weighing you down. Perhaps that’s why Ilapothecary fan Jodie Comer always looks so sparkly.

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The one to boost positivity: Rahua Palo Santo Oil Perfume, £34

Resiny, spicy, intoxicating Palo Santo (‘holy wood’) essential oil is lemony-minty-piney and packed with terpenes, scented compounds with antibacterial, antioxidant and sedative properties. Gives an instant hit of calm and optimism and gets you to think more positively.

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The one to make you feel brave: Vyrao Witchy Woo EdP, £135

From a brand that ‘fuses energetic healing with master perfumery’ (the scents are composed by English perfumer Lyn Harris and the bottles feature ‘energised crystals’), this spiritual frankincense, nutmeg, cinnamon, patchouli, rose and orris concoction inspires courage and creativity.

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This bottles the life-affirming, soul-soothing benefits of a walk the woods, thanks to fragrance molecules of cypress, ho wood and juniper berry prized for their ability to lower blood pressure and relieve stress and grief.

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The one to boost calm: Edeniste Lifeboost Dream Active Essence, £68

White musk and labdanum make for a sweet, evanescent baby-skin scent meant to be worn for oneself rather than to impress others. 35 Per cent of its ingredients “are clinically proven to be relaxing,” says the brand, while its ‘dream accord’ gives a milky sort of comfort.

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The one to make you feel safe: Commodity Milk Expressive EdP, £130

Another milk and vanilla cream scent, with tonka bean, marshmallow and musk, it feels cool and soothing and its visceral mother’s milk associations can induce a feeling of calm and comfort.

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The one to increase libido: This Works Love Sleep Bedroom Pillow Spray, £30

Carefully designed to help you switch off your phone and switch on your libido by boosting calm, confidence and sensuality – you can thank the ylang ylang and patchouli.

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The one to increase focus: The Nue Co Mind Energy, £98

Uses “patented neuroscience technology to increase focus and productivity over a 30-day period.” The cedar, clove and geranium blend smells peppery and zesty, which does tickle and tone the brain.

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The one to make you happier: Estee Lauder Tender Light EdP, £78

Evoking sunlight, this is “scientifically demonstrated to evoke feelings of positivity in those drawn to the scent,” says the company. Think Earl Grey and powdery iris; this understated perfume is refreshing and soothing at once.

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The one to ground you: Cosmoss Sacred Mist EdP, £68

The newly spiritual Kate Moss brings you the scented antidote to a bottle of vodka and five packets of fags in the shape of a scent that “restores balance, improves mood and builds a sense of a special ritual” (?). It has orange blossom, geranium, ylang ylang, oakmoss, clove, sandalwood, and tonka – basically, everything you need to both ground and lift your spirits.

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White sandalwood and musks make for a relaxing milky accord, magnolia stirs sexy thoughts and cassis and mandarin get the juices flowing – this is described as soothing but ‘sexy’ would be another interpretation.

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The calming and energising one: E11even Fragrance Oil, £80

Proving that essential oils were ‘functional’ before ‘functional fragrance was invented, this was a personal blend by makeup artist Amanda Grossman before she launched it as a perfume oil, with the backing of Cat Deeley. Geranium and patchouli oils calm nerves, ground and inspire while citrus and rose energise and uplift – it’s a balancer in an on-the-go rollerball that makes ritualising your fragrance easy.

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