The Long Read: exhilaration in a bottle, the mood busting power of citrus

The citrus family is vital in fragrance, there’s hardly a scent composition without a touch of bergamot, lime or lemon oil in its top notes, to sparkle, flirt and grab your attention on first spritz.

The floral zing of bergamot – often credited by perfumers as being the most versatile and beautiful of all the citrus oils, with its interwoven scented threads of lemony-lavender and woods – appears in so many fragrances it would probably be quicker to list those it doesn’t feature in.

If a citrus note was a blind date contestant they’d be the upbeat and cheerful one with the friendly smile who wins every time because do you know anyone who doesn’t love the smell of fresh lemons, or crushed oranges?

Their uplifting characteristics have forged a reputation of being summery scents, with a seasonal citrus-scent-buzz often happening around late spring, when magazine articles list the best new citruses to wear in the heat, since the sharp, cool, cologne-ish notes are blissfully refreshing and easy to wear when the weather is muggy and hot.

But narrowing the user-moment to just hot weather diminishes them, they are far more than just a panacea for heatwave-inertia. Recent research from Newcastle University has discovered that some citrus species contain dimethyltriptamine (DMT), a potent and mind altering chemical that could help explain the feel-good, natural high people experience when inhaling this group of aromas.

In their excellent book Botanical Brain Balms, scientists Elaine Perry and Nicolette Perry highlight citrus fruits as one of their seven ‘mind-altering plants’, capable of affecting our human consciousness and causing natural – and safe – highs. They state that although there has been less scientific research on the conscious-altering affects of the citrus plant, ‘Clinical studies show they enhance blood flow to the brain, and reduce risk of stroke and Parkinson’s disease’ as well as there being ‘increasing evidence for improving cognition’.

Active ingredients of many citrus oils include the aforementioned DMT and flavanoids, which protect against toxins and stress, limonene and citral both positively affect the body’s reward and contentment signal and various citrus species show confirmed effects for pleasure, contentment calming and memory signals.

So it’s hardly surprising, knowing the above, that a shot of sparkling citrus fragrance sprayed onto the skin can make you feel better, heat or no heat. The international fragrance houses already record the cognitive benefit fragrance can have on our emotions and mood, those citrus notes don’t end up in formulations by accident, because who doesn’t want to smell AND feel good?

Harold McGee, in his book Nose Dive – a terrific new reference book if you want to further your reading on the science-y bit – calls citrus ‘The most important fruits in perfumery.’ Not surprising then, that the fragrance industry uses many different types of them, with their sunshine-filled and deliciously intense zing.

Often its the volatiles embedded in the fruit’s skin that are extracted (by both steam distillation and mechanical pressure – more of this later) that creates the essential oils used within perfume formulas, although more sustainable practises are seeing the use of the whole fruit and even up cycled post-perfume production waste (who remembers I am Trash by Etat Libre d’Orange?)

As we see consumers ask more about what’s in their bottles of scent and where the ingredients came from, we may see more focus on exactly what oils are used by perfumers, and even what benefits they might bring.

So as we start to come out of the pandemic and life evolves to a new version of normal, might citrus fragrances be ones to kick start a positive vibe, lift our mood and add some feel goodness – even exhilaration! – to our scented lives? We think so. Judging by the new releases of intoxicating citrus fragrances this past few months, brands think so too so we’ve rounded up a few really good ones that make best use of their feel good, mood shifting nature.

Free 00 by Vyrao – the empowered citrus
A great example of how fragrance is now focusing on the mood-busting qualities of ingredients used is new brand Vyrao, launched by seasoned fashion consultant and retailer Yasmin Sewell (read her Today I’m Wearing here).

Vyrao takes the double-whammy view that fragrance can be used both to make yourself smell good and as an energising tool, to ‘connect you to yourself and amplify your energy’. Yasmin sees the five Vyrao fragrances as the anchor for a growing wellness brand, combining beautiful fragrances with a functional botanical purpose, all working hard to support your emotional needs. It’s definitely a ‘yes please’ from us.

Wisely, Yasmin has used master perfumer Lyn Harris to create all five fragrances, briefing her on how she wanted each fragrance to make her feel first, which is not how it’s usually done but we feel it could catch on, as all are gorgeous.

We love Free 00, which channels the power of a citrus mash-up to help you feel alive and uninhibited. It features lemon to uplift your mood, mandarin for its elevating nature and orange flower absolute for its anti anxiety properties. Other notes are also picked for their emotional powers, dainty notes of waterlily for courage, gentle sandalwood for grounding. Altogether, Free 00 takes the shape of a clear, bright oranges-and-lemons floral scent with a deliciously creamy heart and a sensual musky base. One inhalation does indeed lift the spirits, and we can imagine this emotional connection could easily be incorporated into a daily scenting ritual that would charge you up for the day.

Molecule 01 + Mandarin by Eccentric Molecules – the amplified, juicy citrusTaking a dive into a lesser used citrus note, the new Molecule 01 + Mandarin by Eccentric Molecules, is a juicy blast of mouthwatering mandarin, amplified by the brand’s most famous ingredient, Iso E Super. Many will be familiar with the brand’s game changing Escentric Molecule 01, which revolutionised fragrance by using the single, ethereal and vaguely woody-scented molecule of Iso E Super. The new Molecule+ collection adds additional accords (there’s an Iris and a Patchouli, both excellent) to the molecule for a beautifully contemporary presentation of ingredients.

We spoke to the brand’s founder Geza Schoen at the launch of his Molecule 01+ collection, where he told us how much he loves the lively, fruity and richly aromatic mandarin note, and how well it combined with the radiating warmth of the Iso E Super molecule. We love this scent for both its candied succulent juiciness and its tremendous wearabilty, it seems to go with every mood and it adds a weightier, more thoughtful dimension to the citrus family, no one’s going to call this a summer-only scent.
It’s worth noting that at WWP HQ, this fragrance had every passer-by wanting the bottle, once they’ve tried it, it’s got all the makings of a fragrance classic.

Lemon Island by Atelier Cologne – a warm round the edges citrusA short aside here for new fragrance readers; Eau de Cologne was the name given in the eighteenth century to a very popular light fragrance of lemony citrus oils, which were initially drunk rather than sprayed and used medicinally for health benefits. Isn’t it interesting how we’re coming back full circle to concentrate on the wellness attributes?

Obviously WE DON’T DRINK perfume now, but the bright clarity of eau de cologne is still a popular fragrance style, and one which Atelier Cologne excels at. We’d highly recommend a visit to all its citrus scents, but here we’re looking at Lemon Island, it’s latest launch, a lickably delicious new take at the lemon note.

Using a lemon found on the Rodrigues Islands in the Indian Ocean, Lemon Island is a warm, rich citrus using a completely new lemon note for fragrance, something Atelier Cologne strive to do in order to offering more sustainable and interesting angles to its fragrance range.

Here the lemon has a rounder, gentler feel on first spritz, which combined with jasmine flowers in the heart gives a softer, more sensuous version of lemon, so, uplifting and supportive at the same time. The use of a powdery vanilla on the base hints at a comforting, familiar vibe that’s super-addictive, it feels good enough to eat. The fragrance has real longevity too, aided by being perfume strength – for an intense and longer lasting journey.

Rêverie de Bergamote by Miller Harris – the grown up citrusIf you want to experience the bergamot note much-beloved by perfumers, then this beautiful new Miller Harris fragrance is an excellent place to start. We’ve been doing some blind fragrance testing recently with the Escentual Discovery Boxes, and have discovered that any Miller Harris scent is nearly always our favourite in the box, which was quite the discovery itself.

Rêverie de Bergamote taps into all the aforementioned feel good factors found in the citrus group. It showcases bergamot as a cheerfully animated, lemony-rich citrus, like the perfume equivalent of a genial host at a country weekend house. It’s backed up with shots of lively and juicy tangerine and orange and It’s impossible not to smile when applying this fragrance, its sunny nature feels like a cheering haze of summer sunshine to wrap yourself in.

The heart and base notes of lavender, patchouli and summery herbs – think rosemary, basil and geranium – add an easy going feel of a rambling country garden to the mix. It’s like a calming, grounding walk on a sunny day. And just look at the bottle, the loveliest shade of yellow to brighten your fragrance shelf.

Bergamotto di Calabria La Spugnatura, by Acqua di Parma, Limited Edition – Italian sunshine, bottled.

If you know a bit about fragrance, your go-to brand for a blast of sophisticated citrus might well be Acqua di Parma, a brand whose heart is a ball of golden Italian sunshine the shape of a magical citrus fruit.
This Bergamotto di Calabria La Spugnatura is a limited edition, and is almost a text book example of how beautifully sunny, uplifting and bright bergamot can be. It sparkles with lemony happiness and joy on first spritz, like a bolt of energy that adds a spring to your step and a twinkle to your thoughts.

The bergamot oil here has been gathered using a traditional artisan sponging technique perfected by Calabria’s farmers over centuries. The freshly harvested bergamot rinds are separated from their pith and fruit, then gently wiped over natural sea sponges to extract the essential oil, preserving the richly complex facets of the fruit. The sponges eventually become saturated with oil – imagine the smell!- and are carefully squeezed into terracotta containers to collect the incandescent liquid, over 200kg of fruit is required for one kilo of essential oil. If there was ever a shortcut to a natural high, then surely inhaling this is it, Acqua di Parma do not mention if its bergamot harvesters are happy workers, but we like to imagine they are supremely smily.

The fragrance is rounded out with notes of succulent orange and mandarin, with a splash of grapefruit for sharpened focus. As it warms on the skin, there are hints of floral rosiness and the slightest hint of a salty sea breeze, evoking intensely stylish sunshine in a bottle.

Orange Peel from the Marmalade Collection by Jo Malone London – the nostalgic citrus
We always feel on safe ground recommending any JML fragrance, you can never smell anything other than lovely wearing one of its ever-growing portfolio of scents. The brand is good at harnessing the zeitgeist, too, and the Marmalade Collection of citrus-heavy scents nods to the importance of the ingredient as well as being a contemporary look at citrus.

Orange Peel is citrus with a light touch, bright and zesty on first spritz, with a tart hint of rhubarb blending with the pithy blur of warm mandarin. As it dries down, theres a a warming, golden glow anchoring the scent, the lightest hint of woody pine, which adds an interesting depth.

Often citrus notes are used as enticing top notes, grabbing your attention with their sparkling zeal and maxing out those feel good vibes. Here they dance charmingly on first spritz, but more attention has been paid to warming up the rich, longer lasting peel-y notes, which combine with a musky base to evoke a tinge of nostalgia, of warm kitchens and simmering preserves. This is a Citrus+ scent, one that hangs about charmingly on the skin and seems to glow and grow into something more emotional and comforting with time.

All images by the talented Kate Anglestein