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The Euphoria of Wearing Cologne in Quarantine

Guys have stopped shaving and wearing pants. So why are we still trying to smell good? For scent die-hards, spritzing up for no one is a nostalgic mental vacation

Over the weekend, I took up the fraught task of organizing my limited makeup collection. I subscribe to Allure’s monthly beauty box but haven’t mustered the courage to explore far beyond the mini First Aid Beauty moisturizers and Sunday Riley serums. After an hour rummaging through unused lip liners and eyeshadow palettes, I made it to the bottom of the bin, where three long-lost sample-size Le Labo Santal 33 vials rolled across the plastic floor.

Santal 33 was my signature scent a half-decade ago — just like every other city girl and gay in 2015. About a spritz and a half remained, so I splashed a drop onto my wrist. Immediately, the summer of 2017 came back to me. It was my first in Los Angeles, and I spent my weekends traipsing up and down Santa Monica Boulevard as a 20-year-old college kid from the Midwest entirely on his own for the first time. The gazelles I’d pass on the Silver Lake streets in their floral day dresses and Comme des Garçons sneakers left an indelible impression on me through their lingering fragrance. This woodsy, citrusy musk was the elixir for the life I wanted to live: clear skin, self-confidence and an ability to look good in a pair of flared jeans. 

I spent my last weekend in Los Angeles determined to track down that smell of success before returning to my cornfield college town where the closest thing to a signature scent was Old Spice body spray drifting out of my communal fraternity bathroom. I finally identified it at Le Labo on Sunset Boulevard, and I immediately bought three small vials. I couldn’t afford an $80 bottle on my small intern salary. 

That summer was a time of unbridled optimism at the endless prospects of a post-college life. It’s this cheery drive I’m yearning for three years later, as I’m once again trapped in a different kind of house: my cold Brooklyn apartment. I never expected putting on fragrance in the pandemic to be a makeshift therapy session, but the smell of vintage Santal 33 is now keeping me optimistic in quarantine. 

Why is that? “Perfume is liquid emotion,” Michael Edwards, the perfume expert’s expert, tells me. As the author of the famed 1984 scent classification guide Fragrances of the World, Edwards has spent over four decades studying why scent isn’t just a status symbol — it’s a matter of self-identity. 

While the pandemic has slowed the sale of fragrances, it hasn’t halted the estimated $33.69 billion industry. Edwards reviewed 2,200 fragrances in 2020, only 900 down from last year. “You ask, why [is fragrance still big] in the pandemic? It’s probably one of the true comforting things,” he says. “We’re not wearing it for other people. We’re wearing for ourselves.”

Evidenced by the surge in sales of the Nike pink sweatshirt, Telfar Shopping Bag or even the Peloton bike, this year sparked a drastic shift in consumer shopping habits (at least for those with money to spend or a stimulus check to burn). Luxury commercial purchases are an easy way to feel like you haven’t fully regressed at home — and an easy dopamine hit for anyone feeling low. 

It seems men are happy to continue spritzing themselves with Bleu de Chanel as part of their daily routines, even if shaving and (let’s be honest) applying deodorant are often overlooked. With our bedrooms now functioning as home offices and therapy couches, cologne is a sensory timecard to signify the start of the workday. “I genuinely get a spike of serotonin when I spray cologne,” Mikey DeCicco, an account executive at Yelp in Chicago, tells me on Twitter.

The sensory benefits of cologne aren’t a placebo. The olfactory bulb, located in the limbic system, is the part of the brain that recognizes smells. The limbic system is also where we house emotion, memory and feelings.“That’s the part of the brain that dictates passion,” Edwards says. Which would explain why I sorely miss the smell of cigarettes and gin wafting from the art gays huddled up on the back patio of the Rosemont in Brooklyn.

Unexpectedly, wafting fragrance has also turned into a daily litmus test — however unscientific — for signs of the coronavirus. A loss of taste and smell is one of the leading symptoms of COVID-19. So fragrancing each morning may help determine if you’ll need to call in sick and rush to CityMD for a rapid test. “Same reason I make sure to smell my coffee every morning,” says Anu Hazra, a physician specializing in infectious diseases at Howard Brown Health in Chicago. 

However, these are the rare intentional acts of cologning at home. For most workers lucky enough to remain employed at home, they don’t think twice about their perfume habits. It’s second nature, like brushing your teeth or showering. “I was in the habit of smelling good and didn’t see any reason to stop,” says writer and influencer Harry Hill.

Perfuming is like taking a mental vacation to a pre-pandemic vibe. For me, Santal 33 is walking alongside a hilly Los Angeles road at golden hour. For Hill, Elizabeth and James’ Bourbon Eau de Parfum Rollerball is getting composed on a New York street before dashing into a party. “It does a good job of activating my senses when everything seems like a broken, dull record,” he says.

And for some, scents are solidifying core memories of a traumatic year. Writer Hannah Schneider will soon add an empty Juliette Has a Gun vial to her keepsake collection. “In 10 years, when I smell the old bottle, all of this will hit me like a bus,” she tells me. “I will set it down and wonder how I made it out. But I will have.”