Science Says Smelling Coffee Can Make You Just as Alert as Drinking It, So I Wore Coffee Perfume for a Week To See If It Would Help Me Ditch My Morning Cup

Photo: Stocksy/ jamie grill atlas
We’ve all heard the old adage that beauty is pain. But it turns out, there’s a pain far worse than the sting of a wax or the double whammy of the slight physical discomfort that comes with actually getting Botox (and the larger financial pain of getting the bill for said Botox). Giving up coffee—and the energy-boosting caffeine that comes with it—for a whole week to see if a coffee-scented beauty product could serve as a replacement is a kind of pain I didn’t even know existed.

The science behind the experiment

The whole idea for this experiment (which was obviously not mine, FYI) came about to see if there was any truth to the Journal of Environmental Psychology’s 2018 study, which noted that just the scent of coffee mimicked the same effects of alertness and improved performance that you’d typically experience from drinking coffee. In the study, researchers divided a group of business undergrad students into two testing rooms to take an algebra test: one perfumed with a coffee-like scent and the other without. The results showed that participants in the coffee-scented testing room scored “significantly higher” on the test than those without it, supporting the researchers’ proposal that because of the “well-known effects of coffee and caffeine,” the smell of coffee would create a placebo-like effect.

For my own, completely non-scientific study, my daily coffee kick came courtesy of a coffee-scented body scrub and a few fragrances. Full disclosure, I really only made it five days without coffee because there was honestly no way I could make it through brunch without an iced coffee to accompany my ice water and Bellini (the brunch beverage trifecta). It’s also worth noting that unlike the participants in the study, who reportedly believed the scent of coffee would help them to perform better on the test, I went into this fully thinking I would be miserable. But I was only half right, because it was mostly the taste of coffee and the routine of making (or occasionally buying!) it that I missed.

What happened when I swapped my morning coffee for coffee-scented products

Because I apparently love to make my life as difficult as possible, I started this little experiment on a Monday, putting my Nespresso machine aside for a hot shower and the Juara Invigorating Coffee Scrub ($44). I knew I would need the strongest-scented coffee product I had to get through the first day, and this scrub had that rich espresso scent that hits you when you step into a coffee shop. Sumatra coffee beans are behind its addictive scent; and paired with ingredients like glycerin and hydrolyzed jojoba esters, the scrub left my skin feeling super-soft, and it even helped to fade my spray tan more evenly. I wouldn’t say that I felt the same energy going into my day as I do after my usual coffee, but I felt awake and ready to work. As the morning wore on, I noticed I felt a little foggier than usual—and definitely more irritable—but I was somehow spared the caffeine-withdrawal headache that I feared the most.

Day two was infinitely more challenging. Honestly, I look forward to my coffee every morning, and I missed the routine of having my coffee to sip on while I go through emails. I didn’t want to overdo it with the scrub, so I spritzed on Replica’s Coffee Break Eau de Toilette ($160) instead once I was up and moving. This was a much more subtle coffee scent that included soft notes of lavender and spearmint, plus a milk mousse accord (inspired by the milk foam on a cappuccino) and creamy sandalwood. Where the scrub was more like a shot of espresso, this perfume was like a sweeter latte. Even so, I felt a bit tired and a lot cranky until late afternoon when I knew I wouldn’t have to run into anyone enjoying their actual, real-life latte.

Days three, four, and five, were all similar: I alternated between the scrub and the perfume, felt annoyed most of the day, but was otherwise fine. I wasn’t particularly tired or energized, but smelling coffee-like scents definitely wasn’t a replacement for drinking actual coffee.

While I don’t know that I’ll ever entirely give up coffee in the future, overall, the experience wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be. (Something I’m not sure whether to credit to the coffee-scented beauty products or the fact that I typically only have one coffee or cold brew each day.) In terms of the Journal of Environmental Psychology study, I don’t feel that smelling a coffee-scented perfume or body scrub enhanced my performance at work or helped me to feel more alert. But then again, unlike the participants in the scientific study, I never felt confident that it would. What I can say with certainty is I genuinely liked the products that I tried and will continue to use them. So maybe rather than giving up coffee entirely, try a coffee-scented beauty product instead of reaching for that afternoon cup.

Juara Beauty, Invigorating Coffee Scrub — $44.00

As mentioned, the coffee-scented hit that this scrub delivers is intense, and second only to how bright and smooth it leaves your skin after you use it.

Maison Margiela, 'REPLICA' Coffee Break Eau de Toilette — $160.00

This stuff smells as if someone bottled up a fancy cafe experience, and offers a lighter, more luxurious coffee scent that’s among the best that money can buy.

Frank Body, Lip Balm — $13.00

This balm can be used anywhere (elbows, cuticles, dry patches), but the fact that it’s infused with caffeine-rich coffee Arabica seed oil means it will plump your lips while it soothes and hydrates.

Good Chemistry, Coffee Cloud Eau de Parfum — $27.00

Good Chemistry describes this fragrance as “a fluffy hug held fast by dark decadence,” which is not only beautiful copywriting but is also right on the nose. The scent blends coffee with light, floral bergamot, and grounding cedarwood, delivering a warm scent reminiscent of a cup of joe without smelling like you dipped yourself in a Nespresso pod.

Lush, Cup O' Coffee Face and Body Mask — $33.00

This mask takes its mission to “invigorate” very seriously. Not only does the coffee in the formulation stimulate the senses, but the ground-up beans offer a gentle exfoliation sure to leave your skin clear and bright. The blend also includes detoxifying Kaolin clay and moisturizing agave, and is gentle enough to use on both your face and body.

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