How to choose the fragrance that works for you

Journalist and author Greta Solomon explores how fragrances can help us to form our identity and hold memories and meaningful moments in place.

WORDS: Greta Solomon
ILLUSTRATION: Maggie Stephenson

How the right fragrance can help with self-realisation

In the summer of 2005, on a visit to the French Riviera, I came across the beautiful village of Grasse, home to the almost 100-year-old Fragonard perfumery – a treasure trove of all things fragrant, where you can see the noses at work and even mix your own scents. I walked away with a small bottle of perfume named Miranda, a heady blend that smelled like vanilla ice cream mixed with coconut and a fresh bouquet of flowers.

It garnered compliment after compliment. I was even told that I smelled like a box of chocolates. So, for the next 15 years, I ordered it online whenever I was running low and it became my signature scent – until the day Fragonard abruptly discontinued the fragrance, leaving me bereft.

If this has happened to you, London-based olfactory curator Tanya Moulding suggests searching, which has a forum where people discuss possible replacements for discontinued brands. But the end of one scent era can be the start of a new one. Finding an entirely new fragrance can help anchor who you are now – and contribute to the creation of who you truly want to be.

How do smells positively affect your mental wellbeing?

Smell is a visceral experience because olfactory signals travel directly into the brain’s limbic system, which governs memory and emotion. Sensory memories are elicited in response to smells, which makes them a powerful tool for mental and emotional wellbeing. ‘Smell is an unbidden sense, so unless you have a smell disorder, you can’t switch it off. Smells automatically flash up an image or feeling – whether complex, positive or negative. This gives us an immediate portal to the past, present and future,’ says Tanya. But it’s often not until you lose your sense of smell that you realise its power.

Writer and photographer Miranda Waugh, who lives in East Sussex in the UK, had her sense of smell damaged in her 20s through working as a model-maker, inhaling toxic solvents, adhesives and spray paints. ‘When you can’t smell the world, you’re distanced from it. Multi-sensory experiences are muted, and daily life is less complete,’ says Miranda, who writes about storytelling, memory and gardening in her online newsletter Root Stories. But, one Christmas, she picked up a bottle called Noel, in natural health and beauty shop Neal’s Yard Remedies, in London’s Covent Garden. ‘When I sniffed the room spray, it roused something I hadn’t consciously noticed was missing,’ she says. ‘A warm mix of sweet citrus and mince-pie spices conjured a childhood memory of sticking cloves into oranges and tying them in red ribbon. My scent memory was reawakened.’

This kind of awakening is a powerful tool that can be used when facing life changes. ‘You can smell a fragrance, and it makes you feel confident or powerful,’ says Tanya. ‘It can stir up something hidden that leads you to say: “This is how I want to be.” For instance, the smell of citrus is fun, zesty and optimistic, and so a smell can make you feel that you want that to be your future self. Whatever you’re going through – bereavement, job loss, divorce, new parenthood, starting university – you can recreate yourself through fragrance,’ she adds. ‘We know that fragrances can smell cheap, expensive, confident and a host of other things. When you make these classifications for yourself, you can create who you want to be.’

How can you find a fragrance that suits you?

It can help to view fragrance as part of the armour you use when you prepare to take on the various roles in your life. ‘We all put on masks in life, at work and in our relationships,’ says Tanya. The key is to find fragrances that match and enhance the different parts of you: ‘Pairing your work outfits with a specific fragrance gives your work self an intangible essence or quality. You can have a wardrobe of fragrances that you use in this way.’

Take your time and remember that, while marketing is designed to lure you in, what most matters is how a scent makes you feel. ‘Many of us have had a bottle of perfume bought for us and it’s like wearing someone else’s coat,’ says Tanya. ‘Your fragrance needs to be something people want to get close to, but always buy it for yourself – not others.’

She suggests shopping in independent stores, if possible, which although sometimes more expensive, can provide more personalised advice: ‘Tell the assistant the kind of smells you like and the emotional memories associated with them. And give examples of fragrances you’ve bought before.’

Another tip is to use smell strips, ensuring you write the names of the fragrances on them. After five to 10 minutes, the notes will have evaporated, and you’ll know whether to test it on your skin. ‘I like to try three on my skin at a time – one on each wrist and one on the back of my hand,’ says Tanya. Live with the fragrance for half a day before deciding if it’s for you. If not, rinse and repeat, until you find the one.

Finally, remember that fragrance doesn’t have to be a perfume in a bottle, or an essential oil – there are natural aromatics in everyday life. This includes everything from an orange peel to a square of dark chocolate, fresh mint to jasmine tea. Let these aromas support and nourish you. A special scent offers so much more than a pleasant smell – it’s an ingredient in the creation of how you want to feel.

Tanya Moulding’s top three olfactory remedies for when you need a mental boost

  1. Rosemary – for concentration and focus. If you need mental clarity for work or study, crush or rub some fresh rosemary in your hands. Then cup your palms over your nose and inhale.
  2. Rose – to instil self-love and acceptance. Rose is a heart-soother when you’re feeling hurt, bruised, fragile or anxious. Spritz rosewater onto your upper chest area and take some slow breaths, while affirming: ‘I am safe, I am loved, all is well.’
  3. Vetiver – for grounding. Vetiver, extracted from the roots of the plant, is the oil of tranquillity, so it’s ideal for winding down after a busy day. Add one drop to 5ml of base oil (such as sweet almond or jojoba) and massage it into your feet.

For more information about Tanya, who runs natural perfumery workshops and creative blending experiences for individuals and companies, visit


You can read more articles about self-care and wellness in the latest issue of Breathe magazine.