Perfume Regression: Can Scent Therapy Really Send Your Stress Away?

Whether you've experienced it or not, you've likely heard of regression therapy. According to GoodTherapy, the psychological treatment involves accessing memories that are buried deep in the subconscious mind — the kind of memories that play a major role in your life, even if you're totally unaware of them.

Regression therapy works through hypnosis, where a trained therapist guides their patient back to childhood and other points in their past, particularly times that were painful, through advanced relaxation techniques. By digging up difficult memories, proponents believe you can properly process trauma you weren't equipped to handle earlier in life.

Some scent and beauty enthusiasts are taking this concept and turning it on its head in what's called "perfume regression." And rather than just revisiting distressing moments in your past (which might be the last thing anyone from our super-stressed generation needs), it can be a way to evoke pleasant memories (that's more like it!). Here's how the technique works and the benefits that'll have you running, not walking, to the perfume counter.

The connection between smell and memory

Perfume might seem like an out-of-left-field match for the regression therapy realm, but it makes sense, according to science. The Harvard Gazette explains that the scents you inhale travel straight to the regions of the brain responsible for your emotions and memories. Moreover, our sense of smell develops quickly while we're in the womb and continues to be our strongest sense until the age of 10. That means that an odor from childhood is much more likely to elicit rich feelings and memory recollection than, say, looking at an old picture or hearing a nostalgic song.

Flashback-inducing fragrances aren't the same for everyone, however — it all depends on which scents you were exposed to earlier in life and what was happening when you breathed in those odors. But once you've formed a scent-related memory, it's "resistant to extinction or being associated with something new [in the brain], which is probably why so many emotional memories are centered in childhood," Dr. Pamela Dalton, an experimental psychologist and faculty member at Monell Chemical Senses Center, revealed to Prevention.

How scent could improve mental well-being

Aromatherapy isn't exactly a new concept. For ages, people have been whiffing lavender to sleep or lemon oil to boost their mood. But besides essential oils, familiar scents can also be a source of comfort. A 2011 study published in the journal Neuroendocrinology Letters found that exposure to odors connected to pleasant memories was associated with improved mood and lower rates of anxiety. These benefits weren't seen in study participants who were presented with pleasant scents not related to a strong memory. In other words, an old scent from a happy time in your life might be even more powerful in boosting your mental state than a new go-to perfume or packaged aromatherapy concoction.

Nostalgia is one important piece of the puzzle. Research has found numerous ways that reminiscing can improve your mental well-being, from encouraging social connection to easing symptoms of depression (per Greater Good Magazine). That might explain why you can't get enough of those social media accounts featuring '90s-inspired content or throwback fashion trends like mood rings. Next time you need a pick-me-up, try sniffing your way to nostalgic bliss.

So what exactly is perfume regression?

Scents play an important role in easing stress and reviving forgotten memories, but how exactly does perfume regression work? Essentially, it borrows from regression therapy, relying on scents to transport you back to another point in your life. Feeling burned out at work? A whiff of your favorite scent from middle school will remind you of simpler times. Noticing loneliness creeping in? Inhaling a loved one's cologne or perfume can be a source of comfort and a reminder that you're not truly alone.

Perfume regression isn't limited to store-bought perfumes and sprays, though perfumers have made it a point in recent years to formulate scents that are nostalgic and soothing — and consumers have flocked to these fragrances. In discussing scent trends during the COVID-19 pandemic, Lauren Rooney, VP of Fine Fragrance Marketing at Firmenich, shared with CEW, "Our Firmenich COVID Surveys showed that fragrances that conveyed a sense of cleanliness and protection played an important role, particularly at the beginning of lockdown, as did fragrances that delivered soothing comfort and serenity ... Comforting fruity, floral and gourmand notes that conveyed a sense of wellbeing and nostalgia, were also popular." Turning to these scents during tumultuous times can provide a much-needed mental escape until things blow over.

Start by sniffing these comforting scents

Bubble gum, baby powder, new textbooks, fresh-out-of-the-oven bread — some smells are almost universally nostalgic. A 2015 study published in the journal Memory even aimed to discover what scents are most nostalgic by enlisting the help of 160 volunteers and their noses. The results: Pumpkin pie spice was ranked the most nostalgic odor, followed by the perfume Chanel No. 5 and the smell of lavender.

However, what's considered to be a comforting throwback fragrance can vary depending on personal experience and even the generation you grew up in. For Millennials and older Gen Zers, vanilla — an uber-popular scent throughout the '90s — can be especially sentimental (which might explain why vanilla is among 2023's fragrance trends). For someone who grew up in the 1970s, however, earthy scents like patchouli might be more evocative. Perform a sniff test of classic fragrances, like L'Air Du Temps Perfume by Nina Ricci or Angel by Thierry Mugler, at your local perfume counter and notice if any core memories are unlocked. You can also ask family members and longtime friends for their signature fragrances if you want to reminisce about the old times you've shared.

If you're new to perfume regression, you may also need to do some trial and error to discover which scents trigger those fuzzy, feel-good memories. Notice what everyday scents spark joy, or take a trip to the candle aisle and note which ones light you up.

Can perfume regression work for overcoming troubling memories too?

In traditional regression therapy, a professional encourages you to mentally revisit trauma from your past to process and heal from it. However, you may not want to use DIY perfume regression in the same way. Research, including a 2003 study published in The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry and a 2016 study published in Brain Sciences, suggests that scents associated with traumatic events can trigger more stress and, in some cases, symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Without the help of a trained therapist, it's generally best to avoid smells that remind you of the bad times in your life. If you wore a certain perfume while in a toxic relationship, for example, throwing it away (or perhaps donating it to a friend you rarely see) can be one way to mark the end of a tough era in your life and welcome a fresh, healthier start.

How to make the most of your scent therapy practice

Perfume regression can be practiced anytime, anywhere, but to maximize its effects, there are a few tips to keep in mind. First, wait to spritz until you have an opportunity to pause and be fully in the moment. Dr. Pamela Dalton studied the effects of odors on memory and facial recognition as part of her graduate work. "The best recognition performance occurred when [study participants] were tested with the same odor that had been present when they first saw those faces," she told Verywell Mind. "A number of other studies have confirmed similar findings, i.e., that studying in the presence of an odor can help one's recall of that information." Take advantage of perfume's powers by closing your eyes and observing what memories and details come up. You might remember information you'd forgotten or a comforting moment from childhood you haven't thought of in years.

To enhance your practice, you can also add in another sensory experience, like tasting a snack you used to eat every day after school or listening to uplifting music from your playground days. Take note of your observations in a journal or voice recording.

Perfume regression can also become a gratitude practice by listing out the things from your past that you're thankful for. However, be careful to avoid getting too sucked into nostalgia land — be proud of the strides you've made since then too.