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Follow Your Nose: Essential Oils

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 “Of all the senses, the sense of smell is the one that reaches most readily beyond us even as it most powerfully taps the wellsprings of our inmost selves. It has an unparalleled capacity to wake us up, to make us fully human.”
-Mandy Aftel

As a child, I loved to mix potions from plants I found in my yard. Roses, mint, grass and berries were all fodder for my creations. My mother had a mirrored vanity full of alluring perfume bottles that she did not use. She let me play chemist and mix her perfumes together into my own concoctions. It was the 1980s and everything was decadent and entirely synthetic. My blend “Scents of Hawaii” mixed in an old Giorgio bottle, still smells as potent 30 years later. If you buried it and dug it up in 1000 years, it would smell just the same. My heavy mixing led me to develop an ongoing sensitivity to synthetic fragrance. I get a strong visceral reaction leading to headaches and nausea. Since childhood, I steered clear of anything with fragrance until in my 20s I discovered natural perfumery.

I was living in the hills in Berkeley at the time and was enthralled with the scent of jasmine, citrus and eucalyptus floating on the breeze. One day I walked into a friend’s store in the neighborhood and smelled a sterling silver compact of solid perfume. It smelled like blooming jasmine, fresh blood orange and juicy grapefruit and it awoke a lost passion within me. I found out the perfumer Mandy Aftel lived around the corner and I took a class with her and never looked back.

I discovered the rich and sensuous palette of essential oils. Essential oils are the most concentrated essence of a plant, distilled from spices, roots, leaves, bark, resin and flowers. Captain Blankenship grew out of my love for natural perfumery and blossomed into a full skincare and haircare line with lush, experiential essential oil based scents at their heart. Scent is our first sense to develop in the womb and the most closely tied to memory. A scent can awaken age-old memories in a whiff. Smell is how a baby first recognizes its mother and we are attracted to others based on their unique aroma. If you were to lose your sense of smell, a condition called anosmia, life can lose much of its dimension. Scent is an incredibly rich and powerful tool to get to work with and one we can learn so much about ourselves from.

Fragrance in most beauty products is made of a cocktail of synthetic fragrances that are created in a laboratory, not found in the fields or forests. If you see the word “fragrance” lurking on an ingredient list you know that it is not derived from natural origins. “Natural Fragrance” usually means that the scent is made of aroma molecules isolated from essential oils. Many “clean” beauty companies still use synthetic fragrance in their products, which I find very misleading. Often times they will use some essential oils but also use fragrance oils to prolong the life of a scent. If only wearing naturally derived scents is important to you, follow your nose and closely read ingredients lists. Essential oil based scents evolve over time and wane quickly, while synthetic scents are one noted and cloying. Synthetics are very cheap, while essential oils are very expensive and precious. Sensitivity to synthetic fragrance is only becoming more common and I hope soon companies will catch the drift and clear the air.

Rachel Herz, a psychologist and a cognitive neuroscientist as well as an expert on the psychology of smell, reveals some interesting perceptions about natural versus synthetic fragrance in her book, The Scent of Desire. “Surprisingly my research has shown that we cannot reliably tell these two versions of an odor apart—the synthetic fake rose and the rich, natural flower bed—and if asked which is the fake and which is the real thing, we are more likely to err in favor of exclaiming the artificial aroma as being ‘the real thing.’” It is time to start retraining our noses to the smells of natural world. By doing so, we can reconnect to a primal and intuitive part of ourselves and begin to relish in the beauty of scent. If you are interested in learning more about natural perfumery and essentials, a good start is diving into Mandy Aftel’s seminal book Essence and Alchemy and Julia Lawless’s comprehensive The Encyclopedia of Essential Oils.