The Pandemic Era Changed Our Relationship to ‘Signature Scents,’ and That’s Decidedly a Good Thing

A signature scent is like a calling card: It represents a very personal part of the wearer's identity and has the ability to tell their story wordlessly. The reason behind this power is the scent-brain connection. Rachel Herz, PhD, a Brown University adjunct professor and neuroscientist who specializes in the psychological science of smell, says that scent is deeply intertwined with our emotions because it has a direct line to the three crucial areas of the brain: the orbitofrontal cortex, the hippocampus, and the amygdala, which are linked to behavior, memory, and emotions, respectively. This innate connection between scent and emotion may explain why people gatekeep their signature scent with the same ferocity as protecting their grandma's chocolate chip cookie recipe.

So it makes sense that brands are attuned to how seriously consumers take the act of finding their signature scent. In fact, the NPD Group predicts that fragrance will be the top resonating category for beauty buyers in 2023. But with the rise of TikTok and influencers acting as everyone's "big sister and brother," signature scents are losing their individuality and are being taken over by a handful of big players: Le Labo Santal 33, Phlur Missing Person, Maison Francis Kurkdjian Baccarat Rouge 540, and Yves Saint Laurent Libre Intense, to name a few.

The collective obsession with these chosen scents and their luxury price points is likely a result of society's years spent in a less-than-luxurious pandemic. The main problem is that by the time people think they've found their personal fragrance match, these scents have also landed on everyone else's For You Page. And while everyone is happy to share their go-to depuffing eye cream or must-use winter moisturizer—with fragrance, no one wants to smell like everyone else at dinner. Or at least, that used to be the mindset.

"If you look through history, perfume has always been a reflection of the current societal climate," says Herz. Society used to want to be unique, but the current climate is more focused on our need to belong to a community, says Lee Phillips, LCSW, a psychotherapist and certified sex and couples therapist. "That's why we're seeing an influx of people wearing the same outfits and signature scents with comforting and warm notes like florals and bourbon vanilla.”

These notes offer comfort because they're tied to positive memories and have neurological benefits. Vanilla, for example, can set off endorphins in the brain that can lower blood pressure and anxiety, while bourbon (which smells like a combination of vanilla and caramel) enhances relaxation by “enveloping one in a cloud of candy-laden childhood memories," says Dr. Phillips. Similarly, floral notes offer a mood-boosting effect in people because they trigger a trio of "happy chemicals" in the brain, which include serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin, and saturate the brain with "happy oil," he says.

While budgetary constraints used to prevent many people from splurging on fragrance, the pandemic freed up spending money since expenses like dining out and traveling were paused. "We're seeing younger generations have the means to explore and invest in these luxurious scents that were once reserved for thirty-to-forty-something women," explains Suzy Nightingale, fragrance expert, journalist, and co-host of the On the Scent Podcast.

The shift toward community and wanting to feel part of something bigger than ourselves broke down another exclusive layer of the perfume industry: taste theft. The act of stealing someone's signature scent, whether intentional or otherwise, was once considered the ultimate perfume cardinal sin, but not anymore. In the last few years, smelling alike and buying into the same scents has created a sense of togetherness. Plus, no perfume will smell exactly the same on two people. "Your DNA, your skin type, what you ate (up to two weeks previously), the temperature, your hormones—all of these things can drastically alter how a scent smells on you compared to anyone else," explains Nightingale.

What does this mean for the future of signature scents? As Dr. Herz puts it, fragrance trends swing along a pendulum. "We may now be in a gourmand, sweet, same-y, trend, but the popularity of unique signature fragrances will return," she says. "They have certainly not disappeared completely. There has always been a set who wears what they want and wants to make a distinctive statement with their fragrance." As people mature and gain more life (and scent) experience, she notes, they become more comfortable wearing what they like—even if it's not a best seller.

Yes, there will be people who follow fragrance trends, says Dr. Hertz, "But overall, people will continue generally doing what they want with their fragrances because smell is so intertwined with life—from identity, emotions, memories, and routines to the way people build communities and interact with each other."

Our editors independently select these products. Making a purchase through our links may earn Well+Good a commission.

Loading More Posts...