Finding happiness in a bottle — of perfume

Have you been feeling a little down lately? Maybe it’s the weather. The rainy days we’ve had this winter just might touch off a mild case of seasonal affective disorder, a type of depression that experts say generally appears during late fall or early winter, when sunshine is scarce.

For serious cases, treatment includes light therapy, medications and psychotherapy. But for those of us who are just having a gloomy day or two, there are beauty products that claim to elevate mood. Bliss in a blush? Perky in a perfume? There are no magic potions, but some experts say it’s possible to get at least a little lift from a beauty routine.

Happy scents: A March 7 article stated that Clinique’s Happy skin-care products are scented with grapefruit and bergamot notes. Although its Happy perfume contains these notes, the skin-care products are fragrance-free. —

How? Many “happy” beauty products work through our noses. “Scents and fragrances can alter our mood, often for the better,” says Charles Spence, a psychology professor at the University of Oxford in England who is an expert in multisensory perception. The sense of smell is the sense with the shortest path to the emotional centers of the brain, he says — just a few neurons from nose to emotion. “This route is so short and direct that our conscious thinking brain can’t really step in and modulate” it, he says.

Spence believes that wrinkle creams may be effective as much because of the aroma as because of the active ingredients. “The fragrance … helps to relax the customer putting cream on, and hence when people are more relaxed the wrinkles will start to fade a little,” he says. And so he suggests that when it comes to beauty products, “any application that gets closest to the consumer’s nose would be best.”

Not that we should go around dabbing perfume on the tips of our noses — but whiffing our wrists regularly while wearing a happy scent seems to have its benefits in fostering relaxation, according to some studies.

Which bring us to the question: What is a happy scent? Spence wrote a paper on “Sensism,” as he calls it, on the benefits of aromatherapy: According to Spence, lavender aids relaxation, roses and heliotrope have a sedative affect, cucumber and green apple help with claustrophobia and citrus has been shown to have invigorating properties that aid concentration and boost spirits. “Citrus is an alerting essential oil and mood enhancer,” Spence says.

Happy scents: An article in Sunday’s Image section stated that Clinique’s Happy skin-care products are scented with grapefruit and bergamot notes. Although its Happy perfume contains these notes, the skin-care products are fragrance-free.—

This explains why so many of the “happy” beauty products tout grapefruit, orange, lemon, lime, verbena and other citrusy fragrances. Dr. Tom Mammone, executive director of research and development for Clinique, says it’s why the company’s Happy perfume have grapefruit and bergamot notes. In studies, “we asked women which mood bests fits this fragrance, and overwhelmingly they chose ‘happy,’ ” he said.

Origins is another company that is capitalizing on the perceived link between fragrance and feelings. Origins’ Gloomaway Collection for the bath and body — formulated with grapefruit essential oil, field mint and sweet orange — is designed “to brighten your day and liven your spirits,” says Lynn Mazzella, senior vice president of global product development. Grapefruit essential oil is used to calm nervous exhaustion and produce an uplifting, joyous and balancing environment, she says.

A lot of this can come off as hype and create inordinate pressure on the user to emerge joyous from one simple shower. But when I tried the Gloomaway body wash, body-buffing cleanser and body soufflé together, I did feel uplifted, though I don’t know whether it was because of the scent or the expectation that the scent would improve my outlook.

Other citrusy products include Nivea’s Touch of Happiness Body Wash with a burst of orange blossoms ($6.99 at and Lush’s Up You Gets Emotibomb with a little happy dancing figure carved into it. Infused with lime, grapefruit and lemon, the Emotibomb is designed to release clouds of citrus essence when tossed into the shower, and it “slaps your brain awake and uplifts your spirits,” according to the company website. At $3.95, it’s particularly wallet-friendly. Another citrus perfume choice is Jo Malone Orange Blossom Cologne ($55 for 30 ml at, which you can layer and temper with the Jo Malone Nectarine Blossom & Honey Cologne (also $55 for 30 ml at

One way fragrance can enhance mood is by reminding the wearer of positive past experiences. “The smell of heliotrope flower [an essential oil] might relax me not because of an active ingredient in the fragrance itself, but by association, given that Johnson’s Baby Powder has that fragrance, and the smell somehow takes me back,” Spence says.

Fragrance companies know how to capitalize on these associations. If you long for a Midwestern childhood, Fresh Hay, sold by the fun fragrance company Demeter, might be just the ticket to boost your mood. If that aroma doesn’t do it for you, not to worry: Demeter, at, offers a large number of evocative scents including Frozen Pond, Laundromat, Jolly Rancher, Christmas in New York, Russian Leather and Baby Powder.

Some beauty products claim to induce a more positive mood by acting on the brain’s neurotransmitters. Rubbish, Spence says. “Even if the claims were true, that it was altering nerve growth or production of neurotransmitters, that would put it in the class of medicine,” not beauty products, he says.

Beyond the aromas, Spence points out that grooming — putting on makeup, applying face serum and moisturizer, brushing the hair — is a happy experience. These activities stimulate the brain’s pleasure system, he said. This might help explain why women love to experiment with eye shadow combinations, new creams and the latest nail polish.

Sure, the perfect shade of red lip gloss may not save the world — and happiness is also connected to being around other happy people, positive feedback, helping others, self-esteem, optimism, extroversion, a sense of personal control and a good laugh — but it’s helpful to know that when we’re feeling down, the right scent, or even a few minutes of grooming, might help us feel a little better.