Beauty editor Caitlin Kiernan’s world turned upside down when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and her health and future became her first priority. But how would the treatment play out physically? Would she lose her hair? What about the skin issues that arise during chemotherapy and radiation
Perfume: to spritz or not to spritz
In many ways, perfume tells the story of a person’s life. For me, each chapter of my life is defined by the perfume I was wearing at the time. In high school I wore Giorgio Beverly Hills. In college, it was Elizabeth Arden’s Red. For my first job I wore YSL’s Opium—a scent I thought was mature and sophisticated. The day I was offered the beauty director position, I had traces of Jo Malone Orange Blossom lingering on my wrists and neck. Today, I’m all about Tom Ford Private Blend. For most women—and many men—perfume helps us project to the world who we aspire to be. This is certainly true for me. So, when I was sick, I didn’t want to give that up. I still wanted to smell feminine, sexy—like my (regular) self. I wanted, no, needed, that element of normalcy and happiness.
Studies show that the very existence of scent elevates one’s mood. People who have lost their ability to smell—no matter what the cause—are more likely to experience depression. So, while it can be tricky for cancer patients to use products with fragrance, if you’re anything like me, it’s still very important to have some wafting around. So, if you are going to wear perfume, my advice is that you set aside your signature scent and find a temporary replacement.
Now I know what you’re going to say: You’ve worn the same fragrance for the last ten years. It’s your absolute favorite and everyone knows when you enter a room by the gorgeous aroma that trails behind you. This is precisely why you don’t want to wear it now. Besides the fact that you don’t want to create cancer-affiliated scent memories, the changing chemicals in your skin will most likely cause the perfume to produce a different smell than what you are used to. “I think this is essential information for patients who are being treated,” says Dr. Avery Gilbert, psychologist from the University of Pennsylvania and author of What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life. “It’s very important to shelve your favorite fragrance for a while, so that you don’t link it to the negative aspect of the experience.” Instead, choose a backup blend that you love almost as much but could stand to live without in the long run. Here’s how to do just that …
Determine your skin’s sensitivity
The first thing you want to do is evaluate how sensitive your skin is to determine the concentration that it can handle. Granted, this may change once chemotherapy or radiation treatments commence but it will give you a baseline gauge for how reactive your skin is and might be. If your skin tends to get itchy, red, or irritated from the cold weather, allergies, or a sweat-filled workout—that indicates it could be supersensitive once you are in the thick of treatment. “Fragrances are categorized by the range of concentration that they fall into,” says Lisa Lewis, senior vice president and Fragrance Academy Director at Givaudan, global leader in the creation of fragrance and flavors. The Swiss-based company is behind some of the most iconic and best-selling fragrances including Calvin Klein Obsession, Dior J’adore, Angel by Thierry Mugler, Gucci Guilty, and Dolce & Gabbana—to name a few. “Going from a lower concentration to a higher concentration you have: body mists/splash, eau de toilette, perfume/parfum, and then essential oils.”
Scent has the amazing ability to change how we feel—so why not harness that to enhance your mojo? When you’re shopping for a new fragrance, consider the notes it contains. Over the last two decades, Givaudan and International Flavors & Fragrance (among others) have studied the subjective and physiological effects of aromas and fragrances on emotions via “mood mapping.” “There are studies about how different fragrances can impact different moods and that can be extremely effective for patients,” says Lewis, whose mother is a twotime breast cancer survivor. Below are some notes that work wonders for your well-being.
Need a quick pick-me-up? Instead of grabbing a coffee, spritz a citrus-based scent instead! Notes including orange, grapefruit, bergamot, and lemon are energizing. So are certain florals. A study conducted in 2010 revealed that the tiny flower jasmine could help relieve depressive thoughts and increase alertness with one whiff !
Studies show that if you are looking to attract a mate you should select a fragrance with gourmand notes including honey, chocolate, and vanilla, which have aphrodisiacal powers. (Men think they are absolutely scrumptious!) But they also have the ability to calm the nerves. This capability also extends to warmer notes like amber (which smells like vanilla) and sandalwood. But there is one surprising scent that acts like an air-based Xanax: green apple. During a control panel conducted in 2008, the scent helped control feelings of anxiety during stressful moments and provided a noticeable reduction in headaches including migraines. Apparently, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” isn’t just some stupid expression…
There’s a reason why lavender oil is used in almost every spa—it’s well documented for easing both the mind and body. But did you know that green, leafy notes do too? Researchers in Australia found that a chemical released by newly mown grass makes people more joyful and relaxed. Pine also has some relaxing powers. A study conducted at Japan’s Kyoto University examined the Japanese custom of strolling in the forest, known as shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing.” On the days participants walked through the pine-filled woods, their levels of depression and anxiety were significantly reduced. Here’s my advice for those who celebrate Christmas: The next time your relatives are coming over for the holidays, it might be wise to get a real pine tree…
A word about oils
Fragrance or perfume oils are typically made with essential oils. Because the scent is more concentrated, it also tends to be more irritating on the skin. Besides the potential to cause headaches and nausea, they can also prompt hives, rashes, and sores. For those with estrogen-positive cancers, like myself, there are some oils that should be avoided. These essential oils contain phytoestrogens that can mimic estrogen in the body, enhance the effects of estrogen, or cause symptoms of estrogen depletion—any of which may result in a hormonal imbalance. While the levels are probably nothing to worry about in dab-sized applications, it’s important to be informed and aware of any potential side effects they could cause. Three oils are especially known to exaggerate changes in estrogen levels: lavender, rosemary, and tea tree oil. Others to avoid include clove, chamomile, licorice, oregano, peppermint, nutmeg, thyme, sage, and verbena.
With all the products we use every day—from hand wash to hair spray—it’s almost impossible to use all fragrance-free beauty products. Finding a shampoo without a “fresh” scent is tough! But your health is worth the hunt. When shopping, labels can often be misleading. Terms like “hypoallergenic,” “natural,” and “organic” don’t necessarily mean they are fragrance-free or gentle. You have to read the ingredient list and give the product a good whiff to know for sure. Some products are scented with fruit or herb extracts and those are generally natural and nonirritating. Choosing scent-free beauty products is the safer route and will help keep your skin smooth, supple, and rash-free. An extensive list of brands and specific scent-free products can be found in Chapter 3 (page 67). Use that list as a guide for what products to buy and use while in treatment.
This article is an extract from Pretty Sick- The beauty guide for Women with Cancer by Caitlin M. Kiernan. Caitlin is an award-winning journalist, beauty expert and cancer survivor. A former fashion columnist and beauty director, she has appeared on many news programmes and her freelance work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Women’s Health, Yahoo, Harper’s Bazaar, StyleWatch, Today, Refinery29, New York Times and other outlets.