Why Is The Scent of Lipstick So Nostalgic?

Do you remember the scent of your mother’s lipstick? Do you enjoy the aroma of Nivea cream? Have you ever wished to have the fragrance of your favorite sunscreen as a perfume? The November 2019 issue of Financial Times’s HTSI Magazine includes my article about the scent of lipstick and other cosmetics. I explore the nostalgia behind these aromas and explain why these scents, though subtle and discrete, can have a powerful effect.

I don’t remember the colour of my first lipstick, but I recall its scent. I was passing through the local department store in Chicago, aged 15, when an array of shiny, black tubes at the Chanel counter drew my attention. They promised the glamour and sophistication that I desperately craved. I was making swatches of the different tones of pinks and reds on the back of my hand when, suddenly, I became aware of the fragrance of roses.

The wave that swept over me was so intense that my eyes welled with tears. The scent reminded me of my great-grandmother, Asya, who adored rose essence; its sweetness enveloped her and always left a rich sillage in her wake. Even her lipstick smelled of roses. When Asya wasn’t around, I furtively sniffed her rouge compact, its fragrance evoking her soft cheeks and melodious laughter.

Update: The article is now available online, The Nostalgic Allure of Lipstick, November 2019.

As always, I’d love to know what scents transport you? Do you have favorite scented lipsticks or other cosmetics?

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28 Comments

  • Sherry: Thank you Victoria for sharing this. As usual it is beautifully written and informative. This is the first time I am reading about the ingredients used to scent the lipsticks, glad and relieved to know these are food grade!! I think I have already found THE lipstick fragrance, my beloved Frederick Malle lipstick rose, now I am lemming a new Chanel lipstick! I find the scent of the lipstick wears close and don’t usually project. I never paid much attention to the subtle difference between the lipsticks, however I am very aware of the unpleasant lipstick scent and had to toss a few because of the fragrance too strong or don’t like the scent. I did like the chocolate or maybe vanilla ish scent in the Tom Ford lipsticks which added extra luxuriness to the lipsticks. Will definitely pay more attention to the scent of my lipsticks and thanks again for sharing this article! December 16, 2019 at 11:52am Reply

    • Victoria: I like the scent of Chanel’s older lipsticks, but I admit that the new ones are much more comfortable to wear. Lipstick scented perfumes, on the other hand, are my favorites. December 21, 2019 at 9:04pm Reply

  • Gunilla Gorman: So this article took me right back to when I was 13 years old (now 70). I lived in Sweden and was on vacation in Spain with my mother and we were in a department store and my mother let me buy a transparent brownish/pink lipstick. It had a scent I can’t explain but it was wonderful and I would recognize it immediately should I smell it again.
    My favorite lipstick today is By Terry because of its scent, I love it.
    Thank you for another great article.
    Gunilla Gorman December 16, 2019 at 12:52pm Reply

    • Victoria: I enjoyed reading all of these comments. It’s fascinating how strong some of these early scent memories tend to be. By Terry does smell very classical. December 21, 2019 at 9:13pm Reply

  • Christine Funt: My mother wore makeup before marriage but after she married my Dad, he didn’t want her wearing makeup. But she always kept her pot of rouge, always had face powder, and used a lipstick (really a lip gloss) called Tangee. It smelled of peaches and oranges and gave lips a slight color. I remember its scent vividly and the feeling of excitement when my mother bought it when I was very young. Now, as a women age 69, it makes me feel sad that my mother had to give up enjoying makeup after marriage. December 16, 2019 at 3:03pm Reply

    • Victoria: And yet she still kept it. What a moving story. December 21, 2019 at 9:14pm Reply

  • Karen A: Really interesting article Victoria! For me Chanel lipsticks work really well – beautiful colors and that subtle gorgeous fragrance. I may try other brands usually to save money, but inevitably end up back at the Chanel counter!

    The Vermont Country Store catalog carries Lemon Up shampoo and soap (I know I mentioned this in a post a long time ago) and just seeing the photo makes my mouth water, I have a physical reaction remembering using the shampoo back in the 70s! December 17, 2019 at 8:11am Reply

    • Victoria: Shampoos are a big memory trigger too. Who else remembers the original Herbal Essences? December 21, 2019 at 9:15pm Reply

  • Carolyn Middleton: The third question in your introductory paragraph prompted me to post on this article. I was in Space NK in Glasgow a number of years ago & got chatting to their main perfume sales person – lovely chap, very knowledgeable – he was asking me what I wore then, what I’d worn in the past etc & pointed me towards Hampton Sun’s ‘Privet Bloom’. I’d never heard of the brand & living in the north east of Scotland sun block isn’t the first thing that comes to mind even in good weather! – but I was intrigued & pretty much bought a bottle on spec there & then. I love it, it’s gorgeous, & on my skin reminds me, just a little, of my much loved & missed Eau de Camille. Unfortunately Space NK don’t stock it any more, but I did have a bottle sent from their head office in NYC to friends in Seattle we visited a few years ago, & I still have the freebie rollerball the lovely lady I dealt with popped into my parcel. I’ll have to do likewise the next time we’re visiting our friends in Texas, as I can’t find a stockist either in the UK or anywhere near our friends. I’ve even had compliments from my best friend’s husband when I wear it, which is most unlike him! December 17, 2019 at 7:54pm Reply

    • Victoria: Now I want to smell it! December 21, 2019 at 9:16pm Reply

  • Nancy Chan: I love the scent of Nivea cream, scent of my childhood. I really love the scent in perfume form, but the closest I can get to that is their Nivea deodorant, which I use like a perfume.

    The other scent is of Oil of Ulay, now known as Oil of Olay. I remember the glass bottle containing the pale pink fluid face cream that my mother used.

    I really like the scent of Guerlain’s Meteorites face pearls, that gorgeous Violet scent. I wish Guerlain would reissue the perfume before they changed it.😯 December 18, 2019 at 3:56am Reply

    • Victoria: I also wanted the original version. The perfume is fruitier, I think. December 21, 2019 at 9:16pm Reply

      • Nancy Chan: The new version is definitely fruitier, with an apple like scent. I have to sniff the Meteorites face pearls to enjoy the wonderful vintage Violet scent.

        Now, if only Guerlain would reissue the original Meteorites perfume, even for a limited time. December 22, 2019 at 10:22am Reply

  • Fazal: I have mentioned it already but I fell in love with original formula of Dior Homme exactly because it so precisely captured the smell of lipsticks from my childhood, the lipstick collection of my sister. In fact, I had completely forgotten about the smell of lipsticks from childhood until I smelled Dior Homme back in 2007, I think.

    My sister’s lipsticks might have been of different colors but they all smelled exactly the same so I was quite surprised to learn few years ago that the lipsticks in the west came with different smells. Until then, I was under the impression that lipsticks are not infused with a fragrance; that particular smell I remembered from childhood is simply the natural outcome of the raw materials that go into making the lipsticks. December 19, 2019 at 11:16am Reply

    • Victoria: They are dosed lightly in scent, mostly to cover the smell of the base. Which is why even when a lipstick doesn’t smell of anything, it’s scented.

      I remembered your comment when writing my article. It made me research what scents were used for lipsticks in different countries. December 21, 2019 at 9:19pm Reply

      • Fazal: Ah, I see 🙂 You do mention in the article that rose tends to find its way in the lipsticks marketed in the west while Huda markets vanilla-scented lipsticks in Dubai.

        I am aware of Huda but I thought she was generating most of the sales in the west. Did not know she is so huge in Dubai where consumers are quite brand-conscious. Impressive that she has bagged a major market share in Dubai, going against European luxury brands. December 21, 2019 at 10:22pm Reply

  • Klaas: My favorite ‘make up’ scent is not of one particular product, but the smell of a dressing room right before the start of a ballet performance. The blend is quite heavy and will always remind me of the excitement before ‘curtain up’…..there is of course lots of make-up in there, but also Elnett hairspray, shellac and perfume….there realy is nothing like it! Frederic Malle should have a go at that 😉 December 19, 2019 at 6:17pm Reply

    • Victoria: I love that smell too. It always feels exciting. December 21, 2019 at 9:20pm Reply

      • Carolyn Middleton: If you get the chance to have a sniff, I really would recommend it. Would love to find a UK stockist – Amazon have it listed on their site but it’s tagged as ‘unavailable, don’t know when or if it will be ever again’! We have a Space NK opening here in Aberdeen in January so I might just pop in & have a word, likewise next time I’m in Glasgow. December 22, 2019 at 8:47am Reply

    • Notturno7: Hi Klaas,
      Thanks for sharing about your childhood Shalimar discovery! Lovely!

      Yes, I’d definitely be interested in that perfume if Malle would have a go at that. I wonder who the nose would be! And the name of perfume could be some French ballet term.
      You must have been a baller dancer like Victoria, to have those lovely memories. December 22, 2019 at 11:25pm Reply

  • Klaas: Typing up my previous post reminded me of another very strong scent memory. I was 12 years old and was spending a day at my aunts house. She lived alone in a big house and I always used to sneak up the stairs to wonder through the spotless though slightly musty bedrooms that were waiting for visitors that rarely came…..in her bathroom I found a small perfume sample that intrigued me (I had no idea what it was, but something so small, the juice like liquid gold, and the tiny golden cap), so I opened it and put a tiny drop on my hand and smelled it. I remember feeling like Alice in Wonderland falling through the rabbit hole. Never, ever had I smelled something so magical, so poetic and so intoxicating. I literally experienced verigo! This is how I discovered Shalimar extrait (my aunty had good taste!) and marked the beginning of my love for fine fragrance. She ended up giving me the sample, as I clearly wasn’t ready to part from it 🙂 December 19, 2019 at 6:35pm Reply

    • Victoria: I can’t imagine a better introduction! What a great story. Thank you for sharing it. December 21, 2019 at 9:20pm Reply

      • Klaas: And no better place to share it then on your wonderful blog! December 22, 2019 at 11:07am Reply

  • Satsukibare: Camellia hair oil (tsubakiyu): When I first lived in Japan as a high school exchange student in 1978, my host mothers mostly wore western clothes, but one liked to wear kimono in the winter, because she and her husband ran a small shop and it was warmer in kimono; and another was the mistress (o-kami) of a traditional inn and thus wore kimono every day, changing not only for the season but also for day and evening. They both used camellia oil to keep their updos in place. Now on those rare occasions that I catch a whiff of camellia oil, the scent takes me straight back to that provincial city and those patient women–most of them younger than I am now–who put up with me. December 20, 2019 at 5:23am Reply

    • Victoria: I do like that smell too. Another very typical Japanese smell for me is the creamy, floral-aldehydic scent of shampoos and shower gels. December 21, 2019 at 9:22pm Reply

  • Aurora: Lovely article and I imagine you as a teenager so happy with that luxurious lipstick.
    I know that when my mother was young she wore Rouge Baiser which was advertised as being indelebile. I wear lipstick only time time but am partial to gloss and stain. December 20, 2019 at 10:45am Reply

    • Victoria: I also wear mostly gloss these days, especially the lip stains from YSL, which aren’t strongly scented. Yet, they still have their own light, floral scent. December 21, 2019 at 9:23pm Reply

      • Aurora: I will check the stains from YSL, thank you Victoria. December 22, 2019 at 3:45am Reply

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