By Ata-Owaji Victor
pgrading from obnoxious, watery spray pump body mists and changing-room-clearing body aerosols is undoubtedly an honoured rite of passage for most women.
Whether the move towards an elegantly housed glass perfume was catalysed by a milestone birthday or your very first paycheque, the perfumes that define our teenage years are a clear marker of the trends and pop culture of the time.
As with all things nostalgic, the conversation about our go-to scents during our coming-of-age period has now become commonplace alongside the clothes, TV shows and makeup from the ’90s, early aughts and mid-Noughties.
However, although they begin to re-emerge in fresh new iterations of their cult classic predecessors – much like the 2021 street style update on the staple UGG boot or the still-up-for-debate resurgence of Crocs – we are unlikely to ever see Britney Spears’ Fantasy collection reign triumphant.
Although these scents held rank in our teenage beauty arsenals, distinguishing the different notes between a bottle of CK One, Tommy Girl, or even Vera Wang’s coveted Princess, might not have been the main inspiration behind why these scents became so beloved. That being said, the forging of those initial scent connections is one that follows us throughout our lives.
‘Scents are a very personal thing; they can bring back memories from childhood, the scent of a grandparent, parent or loved one, a sense of place or time and something that is steeped in history.’
According to Dr Simon Jackson, pharmacognosist and co-founder of Modern Botany, our chosen scents from younger years play a significant deciding factor on our perfume choices in later years due to our scent memory.
“Scents are a very personal thing; they can bring back memories from childhood, the scent of a grandparent, parent or loved one, a sense of place or time and something that is steeped in history.”
This intrinsic connection between scent and memory means that even when opting for a new perfume based on its notes, you’re likely to unconsciously land on a “grown-up” version of your favourite teenage saccharine spritz.
“My scent journey started with a sandalwood aftershave that I used to get from The Body Shop. There was something about the woody scent that really captured me,” Jackson tells The Stack.
“When I was about 30, I found an old bottle of the exact scent in a bathroom cupboard when I was visiting my parents. I hadn’t worn it for years, but decided to splash some on after shaving before meeting up with an old school friend, who pointed out how it’s a scent they always associate with me ”
This scent connection with sandalwood is one that has been a continuous factor throughout his life says the pharmacognosist, who explained that during the Nineties and Noughties, he opted for Santos by Cartier – “a rather expensive scent that my relatives used to pick up in duty-free” – and more recently Monocle x Comme des Garçons, both of which contain the same sandalwood bouquet.”
Heightened teenage senses
Isabelle Lewenhaupt, CEO of Swedish skincare and fragrance brand Björk & Berries, agrees that, much like our all-time favourite songs, scent memories play a significant and invaluable part in growing up.
“Our sensory experiences are often stronger when we are younger,” she says. “A certain scent can evoke memories of our youth and can instantly transport us back to that exact feeling of freedom, heartbreak or even sitting in your grandmother’s lap when you were little.”
During our teenage years, the combination of a heightened sensory experience alongside newfound freedom to cultivate our own identity has an unparalleled impact on our scent memory. We grow into our noses just as we grow into scents and continue to find new fragrances.
Lewenhaupt believes that as we now have access to a seemingly infinite number of perfume ranges due to an increase in niche brands, we have the opportunity to make far more personal scent choices rather than the changing room recommendations we staked our decisions on before.
Although finding your signature scent can be a journey of exploration, we still tend to stick to the traditional scent spectrum found in most of our teen fragrance favourites, according to Lewenhaupt.
‘Due to an increase in niche brands, we now have the opportunity to make far more personal scent choices rather than the changing-room recommendations we staked our decisions on before.’
“We become more liberal about trying new things with age,” she adds, as our scent exploration generally happens in layers to make our own blended fragrances, which ultimately still draws from our beloved built-in scent libraries.
While our scent preference may rely heavily on both memory and scent exposure in order to develop, Jackson notes that our chosen scent path can also be informed by bodily needs.
“Herbalists, Ayurvedic practitioners and traditional Chinese practitioners all have a common belief that you are drawn to the herb and aromatic scents your body needs,” he says.
This is one of the driving thoughts behind the process of ‘Forest Bathing’, a practice that originated in Japan which, Jackson explains, is like “having a bath to rejuvenate you, but instead it’s a walk in the forest that does the rejuvenation”.
The co-founder of Modern Botany credits the rejuvenation to “phytoncides, which you are exposed to during the bathing. These phytoncides found “in all woody smells, trees and forests in general, are a natural antibacterial that is said to be good for your wellbeing.”
Research into the practice even suggests that exposure can help reduce stress, boost the immune system as well as improve overall feelings of happiness. Equally, says Jackson “as a scientist, who has been drawn to Sandalwood throughout my life, I now know that it contains a chemical called Alpha–Santalol” – which is also a known anti-bacterial and deodoriser.
“I have found that factoring this into Modern Botany’s products has been crucial, for allowing people to expose themselves to beneficial essential oils and phytoncides at home.”
After a more than tumultuous year, we are all undoubtedly, craving comfort and connection that scent memories can create. According to Jackson, “Olfactory receptors allow us to be transported back in time” and to the moments and people that these familiar perfume notes represent. Even if your current perfume only subconsciously has one or two comparative notes, you might find yourself reaching for these scents now more than ever.
“Odours and fragrances can even play an important role in determining your mood”, he adds.
Factoring in a quick spritz of your favourite scent seems to have a more overarching positive effect than just a return to pre-2020 beauty protocols.
Demand for personalised scents
Scent memories may be responsible for the familiarity within current cult fragrances, however, as Lewenhaupt explains, the demand for more personalised beauty alongside the increase in perfume options, may lead to the rite of “popstar-branded perfume” no longer being the norm.
From Molecule 01, which skyrocketed to notoriety in 2006 as the first magical see-through scent famous for smelling a little different on everyone, to its younger cousin Glossier’s You, which founder Emily Weiss described as a fragrance that “lets more of you into its equation”, it is now clear that the quest for personalised beauty has begun to disrupt the previous perfume order.
By creating something universally flattering, brands have cultivated a new go-to for Gen Zs, millennials and even their parents; perfumes that draw on the individual’s own scent to round out. Scents like these, created for nobody and everybody, means especially for teenagers now, that initial scent-memory connection will be just a little harder to sniff out.
Seven scents to move on to in 2021
If you were a CK ONE girl through and through, try Byredo Sundazed. The crisp top notes of mandarin orange and Californian lemon are an exact match for the bold bang of the Calvin Klein classic but the interesting mix of jasmine and cotton candy throughout the base and heart notes make this a scent for today.
For an equally sweet, yet mature alternative to the bejewelled, bubblegum pink Britney Spears’ Fantasy, try the sleek yet just as fruity Burberry Her Intense.
Tommy Girl drew its inspiration from the timeless fashion collection released alongside it, a fragrance created “for the women in all of us”. Guerlain’s Jicky Extrait is sure to be the perfect luxe scent for the women those girls became.
Vera Wang’s Princess with amber, musk, and vanilla base notes may still take up prime real estate on your dresser but we implore you to try Aerin’s Chic Amber Musk – just for size.
The Body Shop’s classic White Musk is and was the stuff of milestone birthday and Oxford Street shopping trip dreams. If you’re still in the mood for a slightly soapy scent, try Björk and Berries’ Fjällsjö.
If you’re looking for a refillable alternative to 2010's beloved Prada Candy – and one that Rihanna is said to favour – try By Kilian’s Love, Don’t Be Shy, it’s got “fully out of my student overdraft after graduating zillennial treat” written all over it.
If you are missing the popstar mist of Jlo Glow, now might be the time to try out Diptyque’s L'Eau de Neroli Eau de Cologne.
We all hanker after our first scents and the memories they evoke, even though today’s perfumes may be more universally appealing.
By Ata-Owaji Victor