As we continue into the winter months, all efforts turn to remaining warm, especially when the wind chill dips below zero. This is the time to wear cozy sweaters, throw another log onto the fire, and sip hot soup, but there's another way to stay warm that's often overlooked: scent.
Tricking the brain into warming the body
Our olfactory sense is attuned to changing seasons through culturally associated smells like pumpkin spices in autumn, evergreen in winter, petrichor in spring, and salt spray in summer. But this is different, it’s more primitive and basic, having to do with tricking the brain into warming the body. Our olfactory receptors interface the limbic system which includes the hippocampus (responsible for odor memory), the amygdala (emotional reaction to smells) and the hypothalamus (conscious perception of smells).
A couple of smoke molecules are enough to trigger our reptilian brain to scream “FIRE” as some scent associations are hard wired into our bodies. In addition, there’s evidence that our skin has chemical sensors capable of detecting odor molecules. It is believed these receptors may be a way for our body to signal stem cells to help rebuild tissue. Scent might turn out to be more important to us biologically than previously imagined, not only alerting us to danger, but helping us remain healthy.
Fragrance can also be viewed as an invisible cloak that completes one's outfit for the day according to the season. In winter, the fragrance that best conveys a feeling of warmth is amber. Musky, sweet, and caramelic with a touch of smoky incense, amber is practically synonymous with warmth. The basic accord is made with just three notes that can be accented with spices, woods, or florals.
The "fantasy accord"
Interestingly, amber is not a scent that exists in nature. There is fossilized amber, the kind used for jewelry, which emits a sweet scent when warmed, as well as the destructive distillation of the same, which has a smoky scent, but neither smells like the amber we know and love. Amber is actually a "fantasy accord," a composition intended to create the impression of a naturally occurring scent.
A basic amber accord can be made with benzoin, labdanum, and vanilla, all of which are best used as absolute extractions (solvent extracted and then distilled under low pressure to isolate the volatile oils). The three notes used to create an amber accord are all base notes, or notes that have low volatility, tenacity, and longevity. In a perfume, the base notes would be the ones to emerge after the top notes and heart notes have dried down.
A DIY 'amber' perfume (which will make you feel toasty)
- 13 drops benzoin
- 6 drops labdanum
- 1 drop vanilla
Note: These can be adjusted as desired. The essences should be warmed in a bain-marie before being weighed on a scale or measured in a graduated cylinder. Once blended, the essences should be transferred to a stock bottle and aged for a few days (or up to two weeks) before diluting. This allows the notes to marry and transform from individual components to a single scent.
- After aging, the amber blend needs to be diluted into a carrier oil so that it can safely be applied to the skin. Mix 20 drops of essence (1 part) with 180 drops (9 parts) of carrier oil for a 10% dilution.
- The best oils to use as diluents are jojoba (actually a liquid wax) or fractionated coconut oil (distilled coconut oil). Both are shelf-stable, unscented, skin-friendly, and readily absorbed.
- Once the essences have been diluted, it's time to bottle. Roller bottles or small vials work best.
This formula will yield a large enough batch for you to gift all of your friends a warm amber fragrance this winter!