The power of perfume in a plague year.
It was October 2020. The days were getting shorter; the news was getting worse. I was looking for a small distraction, something to look forward to in the coming pandemic winter. After a brief consideration of the limited available options, I decided to get into perfume.
After a little online research, I signed up for the subscription box Olfactif because, beyond forking over my credit card information, it did not require me to make any decisions. For the relatively affordable price of $19 a month, the company would pick out three sample-size perfumes on a vaguely seasonal theme and send them to my door. It was a way to guarantee myself something that had been in short supply that year: a nice surprise.
I wasn’t alone. After a dip at the start of the pandemic, fragrance sales started to rebound in August 2020 and were surging by early 2021, up 45 percent from the first quarter of 2020. “Last year was super busy,” Kimberly Waters, founder of the Harlem perfume shop MUSE, told me. Pandemic-numbed consumers “needed to feel like themselves, needed to feel new again, needed to feel something,” Waters said. “And fragrance was that vehicle.”
For me, perfume was a way to feel a little excitement amid the stress and monotony of the pandemic. I might not have been able to eat in a restaurant or see my parents or go a day without experiencing existential dread, but I could open up my Olfactif box and sample, for instance, Blackbird’s Hallow v. 2, a standout from the October collection with notes of benzoin, frankincense, and marzipan.
I couldn’t tell you what benzoin actually smells like, but I do know that Hallow reminded me of ghost stories, of forests and dark places, of fears that were fun and manageable, intriguing rather than consuming. Amid the long, isolated slog of late 2020 and early 2021, my perfume box became a reliable escape.
Then — maybe you knew this was coming — I got Covid, and I became one of the hundreds of millions of people around the world to suffer from anosmia, a partial or total loss of the sense of smell. Anosmia is generally seen as one of the milder symptoms of Covid-19; it’s not particularly dangerous on its own, and people presenting with anosmia tend to have less severe cases of Covid-19 overall. This was the case for me — I felt very lucky to emerge from quarantine with a messed-up nose as my only enduring symptom.
That symptom, though manageable, turned out to be significant. Covid-19 changed my relationship to smell, even — perhaps especially — as that sense began, slowly and strangely, to return. Learning to smell again came to symbolize resilience and healing, but also simply forward movement: a sign of personal, biological progress in a year when everything seemed stuck in a terrible cycle.
Smell, Waters said, is “how we navigate our lives.” And this year, regaining smell has been how I navigate, if not back to the shore we all left in early 2020, then at least to a place where I can recognize my surroundings, and start to make a home.
Scientists know very little for certain about how Covid-19 damages our sense of smell. Danielle Reed, associate director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center, studies taste and smell; she told me one popular theory is that the virus infects a group of cells called the sustentacular cells, which “support and nourish the smell cells” in the nose. When the sustentacular cells are infected, the smell cells lose their nutrition, and “that’s how things suddenly go south,” as Reed put it.
Another theory holds that when fighting SARS-CoV2, the immune system produces a substance that switches off the function of the smell cells. That explanation would fit with the experience of people who go to bed one night fine and “wake up the next morning and they can’t smell their coffee,” Reed said. Whatever the cause, loss of smell is extremely common: about 86 percent of Covid-19 patients lose some or all of their sense of smell, according to one study, while others put the figure even higher.
The extent of the effect varies among patients. Some people lose everything, like Tejal Rao, a restaurant critic for the New York Times, who first discovered her Covid-induced anosmia in the shower. “At first, I mistook the lack of aromas for a new smell, a curious smell I couldn’t identify — was it the water itself? the stone tiles?” she wrote, “before realizing it was just a blank, a cushion of space between me and my world.”
Others, like me, experience only partial anosmia — some smells are lost, while some remain. At first, I had no idea I’d been affected at all.
Every morning while my family was in quarantine, I put on perfume to lift my spirits. I chose House of James’s Sun King, a citrusy blend of mandarin, green tea, and black agar I’d received in my February 2021 box. While we were very fortunate not to get sicker, the first few days of our illness were tense ones — my husband quarantined in our bedroom, both of us double-masking at all times in a futile attempt to avoid infecting our then-2-year-old son. Perfume was a way to remind myself that I was human, not just a machine for converting raw anxiety into nose wipes, temp checks, and healthy snacks.
By week two, our son was mercifully fever-free (though extremely tired of being indoors), my husband was stuffy but on the mend, and I was sick of Sun King. I had told myself a new perfume would be my reward for finishing quarantine, and so when I finally got the all-clear from the New York City Test and Trace Corps, I popped open a vial of Musc Invisible, the only February fragrance I had yet to try.
Musc Invisible, by the fragrance brand Juliette Has a Gun, is supposed to smell like jasmine, cotton flowers, and white musk. Long a fan of musk fragrances (like many people, I enjoyed The Body Shop’s White Musk in the ’90s), I was excited to sample it. But when I sprayed it on, it smelled like nothing with a hint of something — or like someone had wrapped my head in several layers of gauze and then opened a vial of perfume across the room.
Once I realized something was off, I went around the house sniffing everything in an effort to gauge the damage. Many objects smelled normal — I remember sticking my nose in a jar of peanut butter and being satisfied at its peanut-ness. Others had lost their scent entirely — the candles my mother had sent me in a birthday care package, once rosemary and lemon balm, were now nothing and nothing.
Others still occupied a disconcerting middle ground, not as I remembered them, but not completely scent-less, either. The perfume I wore to my wedding, for example, a rose oil I still keep in a bottle on my dresser, smelled like the faintest hint of its former self — or maybe I was just remembering the smell, and not really smelling it at all?
Such experiences became commonplace this year, but before the pandemic, they were considered relatively rare. One of the few people to chronicle the loss of smell prior to Covid-19 was Molly Birnbaum, whose 2011 memoir Season to Taste details her recovery from a brain injury that damaged her olfactory nerves.
“When I lost my sense of smell in a car accident, it was devastating,” Birnbaum said. At the time a 22-year-old aspiring chef, she ended up having to change careers because her loss of smell had also affected her ability to taste. “All of the nuance of flavor, all of the details, ” she said, “that was gone.”
To this day I’m not sure if I lost taste along with smell in February. Food in general seemed to taste less good, but I couldn’t tell if I was actually experiencing dysgeusia — the technical term for an altered sense of taste — or simply stress-induced lack of appetite. I experienced my post-Covid sensory change not as a devastation but as a profound murkiness, of a piece with the anxiety and confusion all around me.
The pandemic had already wiped away so much that had once seemed certain: that children would go to school, that some adults would go to work in offices, that families could gather together for holidays. No one knew when it would be over; no one knew what the next month or week or even day would hold. I remember feeling that even the changing of the seasons was no longer a sure thing — in February 2020, I had told my husband, “at least winter will be over soon.” Then winter came for the whole world, and stayed for more than a year.
It seemed fitting, in this context, that I should no longer be able to trust my senses. Indeed, uncertainty is a hallmark of Covid-induced anosmia. There’s no single accepted clinical test, like an eye chart, to gauge people’s sense of smell, Reed said. There are tests used in research, but they aren’t readily available to the general public. That means people are generally left trying to gauge their condition, and their recovery, by trying to remember what things smelled like before Covid — a process that’s flawed at best. “If you take your temperature, you know if you’re getting better,” Reed said. “Your fever was 102, and now it’s 100.1.”
With smell, though, “there’s no real metric,” she said. “It’s very frustrating for people.”
Most Covid-19 patients do eventually regain some sense of smell. But 10 to 20 percent of those affected are still experiencing significant impairment a year after their diagnosis, Reed said. The recovery process itself, meanwhile, can be disorienting, unsettling, and even disgusting.
Some people experience parosmia, in which smells are distorted — a French wine expert recently told the Times that during her recovery, “peanuts smelled like shrimp, raw ham like butter, rice like Nutella.” Others are confronted with phantosmia, smells that aren’t there at all.
For me, it was the smell of coffee, which began wafting into my nose (or brain) every afternoon sometime around March, even though I haven’t had a cup of coffee since 2009. Others have more upsetting olfactory hallucinations: Some smell cigarette smoke or even rotting flesh.
For Birnbaum, it was “an earthy, garden-y scent” that seemed to follow her everywhere. At first, “I thought I was smelling my own brain,” she recalled, as though “my recovery process was allowing me to smell what was inside of me.”
But then, slowly but surely, real smells began to come back — first the smell of fresh rosemary, then other pleasant smells, and last of all, bad smells like garbage. “I was living in New York in the summer, and there was trash on the street corner, and I could smell it, which was very exciting,” Birnbaum said.
I, too, remember the excitement of recognizing a smell again after its long absence. I was walking in the park one day in May when I realized I could smell fresh grass again. I kept sniffing flowers and smelling nothing until, one day in July, I felt the winey sweetness of a red rose hit the back of my throat. All spring and summer I had the sense of smells returning to me out of nothingness, like figures stepping out of the dark.
Smell, for me, became a way to measure time — time since our illness, time since the pandemic began, time since we’d been vaccinated and things started to go back to some semblance of normal. I know I’m not alone in losing my grasp of the passage of time since Covid-19 hit — often I still forget what month it is, even what year. But I know that now I don’t smell phantom coffee anymore, and I can, just barely, smell the lemon balm candle in my bathroom. Something must be progressing, no matter how slow.
People who work with smell often emphasize its ability to ground us, to situate us in time and space. Every day during lockdown, Waters, the MUSE founder, says she used some kind of scent, whether it was perfume, incense, or a candle. “It was how I remembered life before the pandemic,” she said. “It made me feel like myself at a time when I was just so confused.”
I also kept using perfume, even after my incident with Musc Invisible. At first it was a source of anxiety — would I be able to smell the next vial? Was White Castitas — a sample from the June box with notes of lemon, sandalwood, and licorice — just very subtle, or was I still missing some crucial licorice sensors deep inside my nose?
Over time, though, those worries have faded. I’ve come to accept that my sense of smell is different now, that what’s still gone may never be coming back, and that I’ll probably never know if I’m back to “normal.”
For researchers like Reed, the prevalence of Covid-induced anosmia is a wake-up call that science and medicine need to take the sense of smell more seriously. She and her colleagues advocate for testing of taste and smell the same way we test for hearing and vision, and are at work on a new test to help doctors evaluate a patient’s sense of smell quickly and easily.
For Waters, the pandemic is a reminder to embrace our sense of smell while we have it. “Continue keeping your nose open,” she said. “We can’t take our ability to smell for granted.”
And for me, regaining smell is just another small way that I’m emerging, marked, from the last 20 months into whatever comes next.
I tried smelling Musc Invisible again as I was writing this story. I could definitely detect something: a kind of chemical sweetness, like bubblegum mixed with hydrogen peroxide. I don’t know if it’s the perfume itself or my still-wonky sustentacular cells, but I don’t care anymore. This perfume smells bad to me now. I’m going to throw it away.