Could Essential Oils Be The New Fragrance?
Wanting to smell good is by no means a new phenomenon. If you delve into the history books, you’ll soon find that fragrance was used extensively in ancient Egypt, both for religious rituals and rites as well as a means of olfactory adornment. But perfume as we understand it didn’t really come about until the so-called fragrance revolution in the 19th century. During that time, the idea of bottling and marketing certain scents, usually under a designer’s signature, became the norm and the modern perfume industry was born.
Before that, however, most people used essential oils to keep themselves smelling fresh. Historically, these plant extracts have served a dual purpose: not only are they easy on the nose, they boast a host of therapeutic benefits. Tea tree oil, for example, has long been employed topically for its antibacterial qualities, but it is also touted for its calming aroma; lavender, the essential oil most of us are most familiar with, has been scientifically proven to promote sounder sleep. And as the appetite for wellness and health-promoting products reaches ravenous levels, could essential oil be the new perfume?
Indeed, the reality of modern perfume manufacturing methods means that even if you can smell the notes or spot them on your favourite scent’s ingredient list, their holistic properties get lost in translation by the time they reach you, as Mr Brendan Murdock, the founder of anatomē, a brand specialising in essential oils, tells MR PORTER. “In the perfume industry, it all ends up getting synthesised,” he explains. “No matter how much a brand might claim to have natural ingredients, they probably only isolate a handful of the naturals and it’s underpinned with synthetics. That’s what gives it that longevity of scent and that commercial scent.”
Founded in 2017 with a group of “aromacologists”, nutritionists and couture nose Ms Anastasia Brozler (who has designed perfumes for the likes of Sir Elton John and the Sultan of Brunei) on board, the brand is harnessing botanical ingredients in a way that sets it apart from the rest of the scent market. “Even when you walk through an airport, you’re surrounded by scent, but nothing’s really actually going to improve your journey or improve your inflight experience or the way that you travel for work,” Mr Murdock says. “That was missing for me. And I felt that anatomē could be the next evolution.”
The label’s signature “elixirs”, which are blended with a carrier coconut oil, so they’re safe to use topically, are made using the same curated process as perfumes (minus the synthesis part of the equation) and are formulated with specific concerns in mind. Demystifying the confusing and often inaccessible world of aromatherapy was one of Mr Murdock’s main goals.
“I wanted to be straight-talking and authoritative,” he says. “I was trying to come up with a vocabulary that the consumer can connect with and understand and then want to potentially give it a go, for want of a better word.”
So what it says on the tin (or in this case, recyclable glass bottle) is what you get: Expression + Confidence, for instance, includes ingredients such as cypress and camphor to encourage and support breathing, while Balance + Stability is blended with black spruce, which has a calming effect.
“Essential oils are volatile ingredients. They do change depending on where you’re getting them from”
The brand’s therapeutic blends are also more layered than the traditional essential oils you might find in a pharmacy or drug store. Unlike typical concoctions – which utilise around six or seven extracts – the compounds in anatomē’s oils run into the double digits, with the Recovery + Sleep oil containing 22 separate ones.
“We have a huge focus on the complexity and the provenance of the ingredients,” Mr Murdock says, comparing the importance of the origin of ingredients in essential oils to terroir in winemaking. “Essential oils are volatile ingredients. They do change depending on where you’re getting them from… You may taste an amazing wine or taste a really refined gin and you as a consumer will understand the complexity of the taste and the nuances of the palette – it’s the same with essential oils.
“There’s that kind of complicated layered process that we’ve brought to the oils. When you smell cedar from the Atlas Mountains compared to cedar from Virginian mountains, there’s going to be a different noticeable scent in terms of the altitude and the climate,” he explains, adding that the brand’s Recovery + Sleep oil contains three different types of lavender – high-altitude Himalayan, Provençal and Cornish – all with their own scent subtleties for this very reason.
The only way to find out if they work for you is, as Mr Murdock puts it, is to give it a go, much as you would when testing a traditional fragrance. In the case of the brand’s Recovery + Sleep oil, the team consulted with professionals and discovered that routine use was key to unlocking the potential of essential oils. “Our nutritionists work hand in hand with the perfumers and look at how scent is training the receptors in the brain to engage with the scent,” he says. “The sleep disorder clinics that we’ve talked to that a whole part of the concept of using essential oils for sleep is, yes, there’s absorption to the body, but there’s a training going on: training your brain and your mind to calm down and de-stress; it’s that connection with the scent that helps to trigger a more orderly sleep.”
Mr Murdock hopes that education and the Herculean effort on the part of his team will help people look at essential oils in a different light, just as he did before anatomē opened its doors. “People want to know that everything they’re using has an added benefit to their wellbeing,” he says. “We’re taking that step back and thinking about how you’d want to wear something on your skin and the benefits.”