Sara Singh Remember in your mother's day how women were loyal to the same scent year after year? Today we're more likely to spritz around. "Relying on just one fragrance can be as limiting as owning one pair of jeans," says Linda Song, perfumer for Givaudan. (Flash to your closet—you've probably got your work-appropriate denim, your night-out pair and your comfy weekend blues.) "Fragrance can be a transformative tool, uplifting your mood and helping you feel sexier or more sophisticated."
Its impact starts in your gray matter. "Unlike other senses, smell bypasses the cortex and goes straight to the emotional part of the brain," explains neurologist and psychiatrist Alan Hirsch, MD, director of the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago. When you detect a scent, olfactory neurons send a message to the brain's limbic system, which controls memory, behavior and emotions. That's why when you smell the cologne your first boyfriend wore, you may feel like you're back at prom on a warm spring night.
Whether you want to tune into your romantic side, feel more energized at work or get away from it all, you can harness the power of perfume to enter the right frame of mind. So what are you in the mood for today?
You want to feel…like you just stepped out of the shower
Look for: Barely-there notes that smell soapy and powdery on the skin. "When we think of clean, we usually think of laundry fresh from the dryer, or even the way a baby smells," says Song. To capture these aromas, Original Scent founder Nicole Winnaman recommends "sheer nudes," which have musky notes. Turns out, the association between musk and cleanliness can be traced back to childhood; many baby products, including Johnson & Johnson's baby powder and shampoo, contain musk. If your perfume practically disappears in minutes, you've found a winner: "You should have to really smell your skin to detect it," says Winnaman. "The fragrance shouldn't be wearing you."
Scents to sample: Boss Jour Pour Femme ($78; hugoboss.com) and Beyoncé Rise ($44; at Walgreens).
Next Page: You want to feel…cocooned at home [ pagebreak ]You want to feel…cocooned at home
Look for: Gourmand fragrances that balance deliciously sweet notes (like vanilla, caramel or peach) with spices to warm and soothe. Scents in this group evoke some of our favorite mouth-watering treats; they offer instant comfort because they remind us of happy family celebrations, says Winnaman, whose Cozy Canvas collection contains hints of orange, cinnamon and vanilla. To keep sweet scents from smelling too cloying, look for blends with spicy or woodsy notes like cinnamon and cedar. "Adding some spice makes the sweet scent smell cleaner and lends an extra-warming effect," Winnaman adds.
Scents to sample: Viktor & Rolf Bonbon ($165; saksfifthavenue.com) and Fantasy Britney Spears The Naughty Remix ($58; at Kohl's).
You want to feel…in touch with your sexy side
Look for: Exotic florals, like peony, osmanthus or freesia, paired with oriental notes of amber, vanilla or patchouli. If you want to transition into date mode, nothing does it like a whiff of a classic, floral-oriental fragrance. "Women don't know what it is about these scents that they like, but they're drawn to them," says Winnaman. "They make you feel sexy by combining sultry woods with gourmand and floral notes." Traditionally, these perfumes were created to conjure the sophisticated and exotic. "They're all built around a structure of amber, vanilla and patchouli," explains Kilian Hennessy, founder of By Kilian Inc. This trio is no accident: Vanilla evokes sweet memories, and patchouli is earthy and sensual, while "the scent of amber stimulates sexual desire," says Winnaman. Adding floral notes both enhances the femininity of the fragrance and softens it, so it's more wearable.
Scents to sample: Ralph Lauren Midnight Romance ($94; ralphlauren.com) and Salvatore Ferragamo Signorina Eleganza ($109; macys.com).
Next Page: You want to feel…powered up at work [ pagebreak ]You want to feel…powered up at work
Look for: Uplifting citrus notes combined with white florals. "Bergamot, orange, lemon and grapefruit all bring out positive chemical reactions in the brain," says Winnaman. They also ease stress. A study published last year in Advanced Biomedical Research found that children had less anxiety (measured by lowered cortisol levels and pulse rates) when they sniffed orange essential oil during dental treatments. To boost citrus' positive effects, Winnamon suggests pairing it with bold white florals, like jasmine, orange blossom or rose. If there truly were a "success" scent, she says, it would probably smell something like jasmine. Studies have shown that this floral note speeds up reaction times, sharpens focus and even improves athletic performance and physical recovery. "Jasmine is empowering," notes Winnaman.
Scents to sample: Aerin Lilac Path ($110; aerin.com) and Carven L'Eau de Toilette ($105; saksfifthavenue.com).
You want to feel…like you've escaped your 9 to 5
Look for: Tropical fruit and floral notes that mimic the smell of a sweet island breeze. There's a reason these summery scents remain popular year-round: One sniff can take you right back to the bliss of your last surf-and-sun vacation (good-bye, shoulder tension). What is it about coconut and tropical flowers that suck us all in? "They conjure memories of being on the beach—it's a Pavlovian conditioning response," explains Dr. Hirsch. Unless you live on Maui, they're not scents you smell commuting to work, so they remind you of fun, happy times. When you crave a break from the everyday, spritz on a fragrance that combines the aroma of a juicy tropical fruit, like watermelon, pineapple or guava, with summer blooms, such as gardenia, ylang-ylang or frangipani. "Gardenia can be especially intoxicating," Winnaman adds. "Everybody seems to be attracted to it."
Scents to sample: Escada Born in Paradise ($74; macys.com) and Tocca Simone ($68; tocca.com).
You want to feel…chic without trying
Look for: A mix of woodsy notes (such as cedar, sandalwood or vetiver) and fresh florals (like iris or violet). It's the scent equivalent of an oversize men's tailored shirt—slightly androgynous and very stylish. A staple in classic men's colognes, woodsy notes "are being borrowed by the women's category," says Song. Rocking a guy-inspired scent makes you a fashion trailblazer, "like a woman wearing Chanel No. 5 in the 1920s," explains Hennessy, whose new Sacred Woods fragrance blends sandalwood with geranium. Woodsy notes are earthy, while the fresh florals keep the scent feeling feminine and modern. The effect is "effortlessly cool," adds Song.
Scents to sample: Elizabeth and James Nirvana Black ($75; sephora.com) and Michael Kors Eau de Parfum ($102; at Macy's).
The new (lighter!) classics
No surprise: Women are gravitating toward softer fragrances, so many classic scents are spawning subtler, fruitier spin-offs. Here, the fresh twists on timeless favorites. (If you love the originals, don't worry—they're still going strong.)
Original: Jean Patou Joy, 1929
2.0 Version: Jean Patou Joy Forever keeps Joy's rose and jasmine heart but lightens it up with sweet peach and white musk notes. ($190; neimanmarcus.com)
Original: White Diamonds Elizabeth Taylor, 1991
2.0 Version: White Diamonds Lustre Elizabeth Taylor contains a sheerer version of narcissus, plus fresh juicy pear and mandarin. ($68; macys.com)
Original: Thierry Mugler Alien, 2005
2.0 Version: Alien Eau Extraordinaire by Thierry Mugler blends the warm, cashmeran notes with exotic white tiare flowers. ($89; muglerstoreusa.com)
Why do some scents give me a headache?
Just like cutting an onion can make you cry, odors can stimulate a nerve that causes head pain," explains Dr. Hirsch. "About 20 percent of migraine sufferers say smell is enough to trigger a headache." However, the right scent may actually relieve it. A recent study at the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation showed that green apple aroma helps reduce the severity and duration of headaches in those who suffer from migraines. "The results were equivalent to taking a prescription drug," says Dr. Hirsch. Aromatherapy in action.