Put it down to nostalgia for eras past or the infinite inspiration provided by icons across industries, but beauty trends, as with those in fashion, tend to be cyclical. Some, though, hit closer to the heart than others and retain an enduring appeal even if it flies under the radar for a while—out of sight but not out of mind, if you will. One such trend: vanilla fragrances, which faded from consciousness after first winning the crowd’s favour in the early 1990s, but are now riding a high once again, taking social media by storm (at the time of print, the hashtag #vanillafragrance has been used 21.5 million times on Tiktok alone—more than thrice that of #rosefragrance and some 10 times that of #citrusfragrance, two perennially popular scents).
What is it exactly, though, about the scent of vanilla that makes it so timeless and universally embraced? And why, after decades of neglect, has vanilla fragrances now come to the fore again? As those who’ve ever taken a sniff of the inherently sugary note would know, few scents are as transportative as that of vanilla. A single whiff can instantaneously impart a sense of home or take you back to happier times—moments, typically in childhood, involving sweet treats or rewards—enveloping you in a warm, fuzzy blanket of nostalgia and good vibes.
But beyond being a way to wear sentimentality, vanilla fragrances have the magical ability to soothe and bring solace in times of struggle—perhaps because they remind us of our mothers and their loving embraces (human breast milk has an aroma similar to that of vanilla, while baby milk formulas are often flavoured with vanilla), perhaps because the note was part of a relaxing blend scenting a prior therapeutic spa experience. Which could explain their current rise in popularity. Because after the emotional toll of Covid‑19, who can blame us for doubling down on comfort, even if things have now eased up a little?
“Vanilla is often used in fragrances in ways that are inspired by childhood memories, so we associate them with [positive] emotions [and] comfort, which makes them attractive and compelling. I think [the scent of vanilla] makes people feel happy,” says Joanna Yong, a brand trainer at Asia‑Pacific’s biggest beauty distribution platform Luxasia—whose job entails trend spotting, training floor staff as well as conducting educational workshops for press and VIP customers—when asked about the ingredient’s appeal.
It helps, too, that the more recent compositions (think Narciso Rodriguez’s sensual Musc Noir Rose For Her and Kayali’s intensely seductive and decidedly bougie Vanilla Royale Sugared Patchouli 64, both released in 2022) present more exciting takes on vanilla fragrances, which have traditionally been viewed by most as basic and one-dimensional—though the truth couldn’t be further from this. If anything, the newer releases highlight that vanilla is actually one of the most complex and versatile scents in existence; one with subtle nuances depending on where the beans come from and that reveals different facets when matched with different notes. “Vanilla is paradoxical as a raw material because everyone thinks they know the smell, but many people are actually thinking of soft, powdery vanillin, which is just one of its compounds. It’s always said that the green pods have no smell of their own, but when I went into a warehouse in Madagascar where they were waiting to be processed, I was struck by an extraordinary white floral scent with sunny, spicy tones,” Julie Massé, a perfumer at bespoke fragrance studio Mane, once said in an interview.
This is echoed by Olivier Cresp, co‑founder and master perfumer of French perfume brand Akro Fragrances, who says that Madagascar vanilla “has a more floral essence to it as compared to ones from Tahiti, which are spicier”. Its versatility as an ingredient, he adds, is what makes vanilla a dream to work with. “You can make a perfume using just vanilla, or use it in a spicy, solar or even a woody one. It’s spicy, flowery, tropical and leathery—it’s amazing that its raw form as a pod is a fragrance in itself,” he expounds. “You can do anything you want with the note as it’s so attractive and sexy. For example, at Akro, we recently released a fragrance called Bake, where I infused a limoncello note into the scent of a fluffy and creamy cupcake. There’s also a cream Chantilly note so that it’s lighter, but underneath [that], you’ll find a huge vanilla note that gives it depth. [Another fragrance, the 2018 creation] Awake, which was inspired by coffee, has benzoin and tonka beans, but the amount of vanilla used helps to make the fragrance ambery and sweet. As I said, you can mix any note with vanilla, such as wood, spices or florals, as [it] fits so well with others. Everything goes with it, and it attracts both men and women.”
While vanilla fragrances are still overwhelmingly associated with feelings of warmth and comfort—no doubt a key force driving their recent revival—that they can simultaneously delight with dark and sexy overtones surely adds to the buzz. Yong posits that vanilla fragrances can make women feel like they’re a walking treat and consequently, “flirty, sexy, seductive and confident”. Interestingly, smelling like a truly delectable dessert, it seems, does fuel libido in men—a 2014 study showed that the scent of vanilla increased arousal in human males by 9 per cent, affirming the use of vanilla as a natural aphrodisiac, a practice that dates back to the Aztec period. Those looking to leverage the boldness, carnality and syrupiness of vanilla can count on classics such as Maison Francis Kurkdjian’s Oud Satin Mood (“[It’s] reminiscent of precious, shimmering satin draped over bare skin,” says Yong of the 2016 EDP that debuted a new look in 2022) and Byredo’s 2022 cult hit Vanille Antique Extrait de Parfum (which she describes as “a smoky, seductive vanilla bean that’s nuanced”).
Musing on the next evolution for the trend, Yong puts forth the idea of completely genderless vanilla fragrances, with the formulas of the future possibly involving a dilution of the ingredient’s creaminess and sweetness, and/or unexpected interplays with notes the likes of oud, amber and leather. Vanilla’s versatile nature certainly makes for endless possibilities and only time will tell what other treasures master perfumers will dream up next. For now, let us simply indulge in the multifaceted appeal of vanilla and come through tough times in its warm embrace.
Photography Jaya Khidir
Art direction Marisa Xin
Photography assistant Natalie Dykes