A 'Spritz Of Armor': How Fragrance Is A Self-Care Tool For Black Women

A spray of perfume was and still is the last step in a Black woman’s routine to prepare for a long day at work and to face the challenges that await.
Eva-Katalin via Getty Images

The women who raised us were the first people to introduce us to how to use fragrance for our self-care. I remember being a little girl and peering over the dresser on my tippy toes at the collection of perfumes my mother had on display. The pretty bottles, more than likely including Elizabeth Taylor White Diamond, lined her vanity dresser, and I was not allowed to touch them. Observing our Black mothers, grandmothers and aunts prepare for the day was an exhibit of pride for their bodies and homes.

“Black women, in particular, love to smell good. From scented body washes and lotions to lavish oils and creams to top-shelf mists and perfumes, layering fragrance is a major form of self-care for us,” said Brianna Arps, founder of the fragrance brand Moodeaux. “An heirloom tradition passed down and across generations in our community.”

A spray of perfume was and still is the last step in a Black woman’s routine to prepare for a long day at work and to face the challenges that await. That spritz of armor reminds them that they are that girl ― that woman. A tradition of showing up in spaces smelling good and looking good is something that we could control, even if the rest of who we are as people isn’t always accepted.

According to the latest findings from the 2022 Fragrance Consumer Report, 60% of Black and Hispanic consumers do not leave the house without wearing fragrance, which is significantly higher than among white and Asian consumers. That tradition translates into dollars contributing to the multimillion-dollar fragrance industry, as Black and Hispanic Americans wear fragrance more than other groups.

The historical connections that Black people have to scents trace back to the early art of perfumery in Africa. Throughout time, it has become a piece of our self-care. Here are four ways Black women are using fragrance in their self-care routines.

Fragrance helps with mental health.

For many of us, having a favorite scent is an easy way to help manage our mental health, bringing on the good vibes when we need good energy.

When we asked people to weigh in on this topic, one of the women we spoke with was LaTasha Brown, a writer in the advertising and media industry. “I strongly believe that when you smell good, you feel even better. Whether a feeling of nostalgia or badassness, fragrances can take you back to the good ol’ days or redirect you and remind you how dope you are. As someone who is personally conscious of and invested in my mental health, setting the mood and tone in the spaces I occupy is critical.”

And it’s not just about personal fragrance ― it applies to candles and home scents that change the scent of a room. You can turn a living room or bedroom into a place of relaxation after working remotely all day. With the amount of aggression and inequities Black women face in the workplace, utilizing scents to change the mood is just one of the many ways Black women are using fragrance as a self-care tool.

A 2011 study on scents found that our sense of smell can create psychological and physiological responses in our body. The National Library of Medicine research also revealed that scents can reduce anxiety, heart rates and negative mood states because smelling a fragrance can bring up pleasant memories. As stroke and heart disease continues to be a leading cause of death for Black women, clean fragrances can play a small part in reducing stress.

“During the evenings when I am winding down, I like to spray my linen and sheets with a light fragrance and burn a Harlem Candle Co. candle in the Speakeasy scent,” Brown said.

Brown incorporates scents throughout the day to shift her energy and mood when working out of her home. She wears perfumes and uses candles and diffusers as other fragrance layers to help get her out of a funk or set a mood. “Wearing fragrances is similar to wearing a bold-colored lipstick ― it takes appearance and energy up a notch or two,” she said.

Fragrance reminds of us our loved ones.

Scents can help us not forget cherished memories and create new ones.

LaDonna Boyd, the CEO and publisher at R.H. Boyd, uses fragrance to remember her late father. She remembers him giving her Lolita Lempicka when she was a preteen. The gourmand fragrance incorporates star anise, and she thinks of him every time she wears it. “It elicits very fond memories and reminds me of him. This is known as redolence — the recalling of memories and experiences based on scent,” she said.

After her father died in 2022, Boyd was inspired to lean into her love for fragrance and luxury and begin making her brand of perfumes, which will launch in 2024. She has studied different elements of perfumery’s history, art and business at the Grasse Institute of Perfumery. Black women “need to be the creators, not just the consumers, of products that have cultural relevance and provide economic mobility,” Boyd said. “We need to not only create and consume, but grow the flowers, fruit and other materials to have vertically integrated processes.”

“Fragrance is a part of Black history. There’s no way the industry would have been this successful without us,” said Tola L.
Oleksandra Yagello via Getty Images
“Fragrance is a part of Black history. There’s no way the industry would have been this successful without us,” said Tola L.

Arps also ties scent to memories. Her mother and late grandmother influenced her fragrance choices and self-care routines. As a little girl, she studied how they created routines centered on their well-being and built their “scented wardrobe” of the various lotions, oils and sprays for their signature aroma.

“Most folks I chat with about fragrance don’t necessarily know smell is by far our strongest sense — affecting mood and behavior more than any other human sensorial experience,” Arps explained.

It helps create a mood.

Today’s fragrances are developed with the intention of triggering emotions that should arise when wearing a scent.

For example, studies show focus, accuracy and memory increases when smelling rosemary, lavender, lemon and orange. Fragrance creators such as Arps and Boyd build on their knowledge of how specific scents affect our emotions by layering combinations to create a fragrance that will encompass a feeling or energy.

“I believe in layering and creating a unique scent based upon my mood and creative inspiration for the day. I never smell the same twice,” Boyd said. “I do believe in using safe beauty and fragrance products, since health is the most important aspect of self-care. I use raw materials and equitably sourced materials as much as possible.”

When Arps was developing her first scent, Worthy, she wanted to smell like “a hug in a bottle”; she used a mix of citrus, floral and woodsy aromas to create a feeling of a warm and cozy embrace.

“For our sophomore scent, PunkStar, I used juicy dark fruit tinged with a hint of saffron smolders alongside incense, rose and peppery cedar leaves wrapped in leather — which we believe can help involve an inner fearlessness to rebel against the status quo and rock your own world,” she said.

Arps did extensive research and online coursework at The School for Aromatic Studies to help inform her development of Moodeaux using aromachology, which analyzes how odors influence the mind. According to the Harvard Gazette, scents go through the olfactory bulb, the structure in the front of the brain that sends information to the other areas of the body, including areas that control emotion and memory. That means the smell of your favorite scent can bring pleasant memories or calming energy when you need it most.

Fragrance helps elevate other self-care activities.

Going shopping for fragrances or indulging in a staycation are just a few self-care activities that Black women love, and fragrances can elevate them.

Another person we spoke to is Tola L., the founder of a nonprofit based in Los Angeles. When she needs some self-care, she looks for fragrance retail therapy or a trip to a favorite hotel for a fragrance sensory experience.

“Every time my friends and I walk into The Edition Hotels or Le Labo, we die and resurrect because it smells so good. It’s like an escape that lingers throughout the day. Smelling good makes you feel good,” she said.

The Edition Hotel smells so good to her that she has meetings there and will give her clients and friends the candles that the hotel uses so that she can share in the joy of the fragrance with others.

Keep in mind that fragrances are more than perfumes. Room sprays and candles also create scents that can change the energy of any space. Even hotels and stores have found a way to incorporate signature scents into their guests’ experience. And today, many businesses use different scents in their HVAC systems or use candles and sprays to affect the productivity of their employees and give customers a subtle olfactory experience that may go unnoticed. In 1993, the Chicago Tribune reported that a Japanese oil and gas company used the scent of lemon to keep employees alert and focused, while another company used peppermint and lily-of-the-valley to reduce errors in their volunteers’ work.

Fragrance is power for Black women.

For women like Tola L., fragrance has been an invisible power play in rooms where she is required to take up space. When many Black women feel invisible or may hold a level of imposter syndrome, they may turn to bold lipsticks and fashions while networking. But Tola L. uses the boldness of Oud Ispahan by Dior to break the ice. “It is such a strong smell, and I know that if I walk by you, your neck is going to break. I want to be remembered when I walk by, so you can ask me what fragrance I’m wearing. It gives you a strong feeling of owning the space you are in.”

Black women are also working to own more space and equity as owners in the fragrance industry.

“It is a multibillion-dollar industry,” said Boyd. “We have historical connections to scent — perfumery began in Africa and the Middle East, and Black Americans have direct connections to agriculture knowledge that built this country.”

With hopes for more access to capital to build and own the full process of creating fragrance brands, there are opportunities for more Black-owned brands to have a stake in the industry. As more Black women thrive in STEM careers that help drive the beauty and fragrance industry, Arps believes, it could “unlock unlimited wealth opportunities.”

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