By Aleta, Fragrance Contributor
Aleta is the associate editor of a national history magazine (World War II), and an unapologetic fragrance nerd. Growing up on a farm west of Portland, Oregon, she spent many summer nights attempting to make perfume by soaking flowers in cups of water (if only her mother had let her use the vodka). Her most prized possessions include a bottle of French cologne brought home by an American GI after World War II (L’Ardent Nuit by Cotay), a signed copy of Perfume: The Guide, and a handwritten “enjoy your purchase” note from perfumer Mandy Aftel. Other obsessions include lipstick, Pellegrino, Adirondack chairs, and yoga. You can find her at worldwarII.com.
Scents for the Holidays
My first college holiday season was…brief. November and December went by in a blur of studying, social events (okay dorm parties), and finals. My dad and I had to stop at the grocery store after he picked me up for winter break, and I realized that the campus bubble had utterly shielded me from the season–the music, the decorations, the food. Lesson learned: when you leave the nest, you either get yourself in the holiday spirit or it will pass you by.
One of the easiest ways I’ve found to fell merry and bright this time of year is to–you guessed it–surrounding myself with nostalgic, festive fragrances. Bonus: the fragrance notes we often associate with the winter holidays are ones that play nicely with big family meals and intimate social gatherings, times when everyone would rather smell the turkey, fresh-baked gingerbread, or their glass of Riesling rather than someone’s boldfaced eau. Here are some of my favorite fragrances for the season, most of which are available as dry skin-soothing lotions, pick-me-up cleansers, and candles:
Years of making orange pomanders has left me with a serious citrus fixation every December. My favorite is Fresh Hesperides ($32.00) it balances the effervescence of grapefruit peel with a dose of sugar. Aftelier Candide ($45.00) is also gorgeous, tempering its zesty orange notes with a kick of pepper. Pacifica Blood Orange ($22.00) is perfect for purists, plus the brand is widely available and an absolute steal .
Evergreens feature prominently in Western holiday traditions; Yankee Candles fill in for the Douglass firs I grew up with, particularly Christmas Tree. Holiday Bayberry smells like the fresh-from-the-attic decorations did when I was growing up. It’s a hard note to wear on the skin, but Pacifica’s Avalon Juniper ($22.00) is beautiful. The resinous juniper is perfectly balanced with juicy grapefruit, simultaneously warm and fresh. Those who grew up in warmer climates may resonate more closely with Chanel Sycomore ($110.00), it’s a gorgeous balance between sap and smoke–meant for men, I think, but gorgeous on anyone, anytime.
Vanilla and spice abound during winter, and there are too many fragrance iterations to count. Personally, I like something just a touch inedible, like Guerlain’s L’Heure Bleu ($71.00). It has recently been reformulated, but I never smelled its previous iteration, so I am unabashedly smitten with the bottle I purchased this November. If you grew up with anise and almond extract in your holiday cookies, this one’s for you–especially if you went through a rebellious stage involving countless sticks of Nag Champa ($71.00) incense. Many also love Guerlain’s Shalimar ($55.00) and its many vanilla-spice offspring, though it’s not one that grabs me. You also can’t go wrong with Bath & Body Works Warm Vanilla Sugar ($5.00), a gorgeous vanilla bean tempered with Basmati rice water and cinnamon. Spice lovers: try Pacifica’s clove-laden Madagascar Spice ($22.00).
Sometimes the brightest holiday memories attach themselves to a non-holiday scent. For me, it’s Victor & Rolf Flowerbomb ($100.00). Each year my parents would skip the Macy’s line for Santa and take me to Nordstrom to see Father Christmas. And in my mind, nothing conjures Nordstrom like Flowerbomb.
What scents keep you warm during these darkest months of the year? And for those who grew up in a non-western culture, I’d love to hear about the scents that speak to you during November and December!
Holiday Gift Guide: Totally Holiday, Totally Gift-Worthy and Under $30
First, I want to cover holiday gift sets, kits, palettes, and value sets specifically and exclusively. There are several more posts to come, including items from holiday color collections as well as permanent products and more. I tried to take into account the incredible input I received from readers, so the whole guide is broken down by price with special attention to different categories of products (e.g. lipgloss vs. eyeshadow), as well as I tried to provide commentary on who the gift might work for.
A Few Money-Saving Tips
- If you’re on a tight budget this year but feel you absolutely must buy something to gift, consider doling out more on a single value kit/set but then breaking it up. For instance, a kit with ten lipglosses can be split and gifted to two or three or even ten people. You can buy festive holiday ribbon at a local crafts store to tie around the gloss, or you could include a few holiday candies or homemade baked goods.
- Splitting up sets is also a great idea if you’re looking for stocking stuffers or you want to do more mixing-and-matching of gifts for your favorite pals (say a gloss, eyeliner, and lipstick).
- When it comes to getting the most for your money, pay attention to the amount of product you’re getting and compare to the full-sized version (and its price).
- Consider nail polish sets and kits; some come around for the holidays (but availability online may be difficult), there are lots of fantastic brands for $2-5 a pop, so you can get a good variety without breaking the bank.
Eyes: Snag two travel-sized eyeliners (which are usually around 0.03 oz., compared to 0.04 oz. for full size) in Oil Slick and Rockstar in Urban Decay 24/7 Glide-On Eye Pencil Duo ($14.00); there is also one in Bourbon and Ransom. Bare Escentuals Strike It Rich Prime Time Collection ($28.00) contains five miniature-sized versions of the brand’s colored primer, which I’m a fan of; the only way the kit could have been better is if they included Urban Nature!
Cheeks/Face: Trial kits like Benefit One Prime Day ($10.00) are great for personal use but also to give, because you’re giving someone the chance to try new products they might not otherwise buy, but if you’re not totally sure they’ll love them, neither of you will feel bad. I’d give this to a friend who complained about their oily skin! Something else to consider is Benefit’s Powda WOWza, which consists of three top-selling face powders (and two that I love): CORALista, Bella Bamba, and Hoola.
Lips: This is an easily one of the best places to get a lot of bank for your buck when it comes to holiday sets–there are numerous lipgloss/lipstick kits available. I love the sheer, tinted hydrating lip shines, and the Philosophy Much Mistletoeing Lip Shine Set ($20.00 for 4×0.50 oz.) is a good value (these are full-sized!) and already comes in festive packaging. Korres has a great lipgloss formula in their Cherry Oil Lipglosses, and for the holidays, they have a Cherry-Picked Cherry Oil Lipgloss Quad ($28.00 for 4×0.20o oz.) set–and don’t let the word “quad” fool you, because they’re four individually packaged glosses that are full-sized. For lip balm, you know I’m loving and have to recommend Jack Black Balm Squad Lip Quad ($25.00 for 4×0.25 oz.) includes four full-sized lip balms of my very favorite formula in four flavors (there is also a lip balm/hand cream duo for $12, and both formulas TOPS!).
Skin/Body: Badger Three Bold Balms Set ($15.99) is a fabulous balm for healing dry, cracked skin, and this set gives you one to help with sore muscles, another for everywhere, and one scented to help you sleep–a totally classic multi-purpose balm but in a cuter set for the holidays. Bliss Winter Wonder Hands ($11.00) is a duo of hand creams that are purse-sized and fit easily into stockings. It’s not my very favorite hand cream, but it’s a good one! Burt’s Bees Healthy Hands Repair Kit ($12.99) is perfect for someone who works with their hands or loves to do their nails (and is therefore meticulous about their hands!).
When it comes to body care, my favorite go-tos for gifts are Philosophy and Bath and Body Works. Philosophy has numerous gift sets available (from all categories they offer), but a few of the ones I like best are Sugar Plum Frost Set ($18.00), Candy Cane Trio ($22.00), and Fun in the Frosty Air Trio ($25.00). Similarly, Bath and Body Works has tons of various baskets and sets. Giving body products are excellent gift ideas for people who enjoy relaxing (think baths and long showers) or for those you don’t know well enough to be able to pick a specific color for. If you’re unsure about someone’s scent preferences, food-based scents tend to be most generally applicable, so long as they’re not cloyingly sweet.
Fragrance: They may be teeny-tiny, but you’ll be surprised at how many uses you’ll still get out of Tocca’s Love Yourself Collection ($18.00 for 7×0.05 oz.). Pacifica Hawaiian Ruby Guava Take Me There Set ($18.00) contains travel-sized versions of the scent’s rollerball perfume, body butter, and body wash, which would be a great layering kit, especially for someone who enjoys fruitier, tropical scents.
Do you have any suggestions for readers on the prowl for affordable holiday gifts this year that came out just in time for holiday gift-giving?
Oh, the Scent! NOW, There’s the Rub…
True Blue Spa There’s the Rub ($24.00 for 24 oz.) is a salt glow with natural sea salt–basically, it’s a sea salt-based body scrub to help slough off dead skin and all that fun stuff in the shower.
Where’s the Rub? IN THE SCENT. I’m sorry, but I found this product really, really difficult to test just because I found the scent so appalling. I’m not that prone to disusing a product purely based on scent–I can get through some interesting scents (chemical, synthetic, weird, whatever), but this smelled like I was scrubbing with household cleaner. It smelled exactly like the bathroom would after my Dad finished giving it a good scrub from floor to ceiling (when I used to live at home).
Anyway, I wanted to get that out of the way, because scent is inherently a personal experience, so you may not find it as cleanser-like as I did. I used it three times, and I really did like the product itself. Despite being a salt-based scrub, it didn’t feel overly coarse or harsh against skin. Each time I used it, I was in the shower, so I applied it to wet skin, and it was creamy and easy to scrub into skin. Sometimes a scrub will dissolve, disperse, or otherwise not allow you to really work it into the skin.
It gets the job done and leaves behind soft, smooth skin. It just smells terrible (to me) while in use. I didn’t notice any lingering scent post-shower, which is a good thing as far as I’m concerned with a scent like this. I’ve used other True Blue Spa products, and I haven’t had any issues with the scents in those, so I was a bit surprised here. (One of my favorite products is their Just a Minute hand scrub, which has a nice orange-citrus scent.)
Because scent is personal, I don’t want my nose to dictate that this is a no-go purely on scent alone, particularly when the product performs well otherwise.
If you want to know more about how products are evaluated, read out Rating System FAQ!
- Product: 26/30
- Value: 8/10
- Ease of Use: 4/5
- Packaging: 4/5
Recommendation: Smell before you buy, if you can. It may or may not be the right scent for you!
Availability: Bath & Body Works
At Home with Beauty: Sleep Pillow Mist – Part 2
Bath & Body Works’ Sleep Pillow Mist in Lavender Vanilla ($10.00) is is just like their Lavender Chamomile Sleep Pillow Mist, except it has a slightly different scent. It’s sweeter, with more of a vanilla kick, than the earthier scent of Lavender Chamomile. I like both, though I do lean towards the Lavender Chamomile myself.
In all other respects, the products are really the same. Whether or not the scents actually soothe or relax you on a scientific level, I don’t have the knowledge to say, but I can say from my experience that each evening I spritz these on, I am reminded to take a moment to relax. It makes me breathe deeper to enjoy the scent and take time to do just that–enjoy the scent.
I can concentrate on how pleasant the scent is with each breath when I’m having trouble falling asleep. I really enjoy these, and one bottle will last you a ridiculously long time. I do about four or five spritzes for a Cal King bed, and I don’t think I’ve made a dent in the bottle at all.
Just to recap what I said about the product last time: a lightweight scent that subtly fades away by morning that doesn’t overwhelm you while you’re sleeping; one that sprays and dries within thirty seconds; and it didn’t aggravate my sensitive skin or cause any acne breakouts.
Again, I recommend lotioning up with a lavender-based lotion if you want to further relax yourself. Just remember to concentrate on massaging the lotion into your skin and enjoying the time you’re giving to yourself.
- Product: 8/10
- Value: 8/10
- Ease of Use: 8/10
- Packaging: 7/10
Recommendation: If you don’t always fall asleep once your head hits the pillow, you might want to try adding some lavender to your nightly ritual!
Availability: Bath & Body Works
American Grown Hand Soaps & Shower Gels
Bath & Body Works’ American Grown Hand & Body Soaps ($7.50 to $12.50) is a limited edition collection of hand soaps and shower gels that has customers clamoring to give this line permanent-status. The collection is based on the concept of hand soaps and shower gels that are inspired by great American destinations with affordability in mine.
American Grown Destinations
- Washington Apple In the fertile valleys of Washington State in America’s far west, growers tend orchards that produce the world’s most crisp, ripe apples. Formulated with Apple Extract to help nourish skin, Washington Apple instantly evokes your first bite of a shiny red apple, an unmistakably juicy flavor.
- Napa Grape In the rolling hills of Napa Valley’s wine country, the alluring scent of ripe grapes wafts through the air. Breathe in this irresistible fragrance and experience the intoxicating aroma as grape seed oil conditions and protects skin.
- Siesta Key Lemon Nothing says summer like fresh-cut Meyer lemons from Florida. Sweeter than other lemons, the plump, smooth-skinned citrus produces a sparklingly fresh fragrance. Take an instant vacation to Siesta Key as Lemon Oil refreshes and brightens the skin.
- Savannah Mint A frosty glass of iced tea in a hot Savannah summer is twice as refreshing with a cool sprig of mint. Breathe in this invigorating fragrance and experience the romance of southern charm and gentility while Peppermint Oil energizes your skin and your senses.
- Montana Sky Experience the clear, crisp quality of the mountain air in big sky country with formulas inspired by the vast beauty of an endless blue sky. Bathe your skin in calming spring waters as you inhale a rush of fresh air.
I’ve tried two scents: Napa Grape Hand Soap ($7.50 for 16 oz.) and Siesta Key Lemon Shower Gel ($12.50 for 24 oz.). Napa Grape smells like a lightly sweetened grape, almost like a very fragrance, sweet wine or sangria. As a soap, a little goes a long way (in fact, I find one pump to be too much!) and it lathers up easily. I felt like these didn’t dry my hands out as some soaps are prone to do.
Siseta Key Lemon is exactly that — lemony goodness. I love, love lemon scented stuff, particular for soaps and the like. (I think it was a childhood of growing up with Joy dish soap.) Just like the soap, a little goes a long way and the product lathers up easily and smells amazing–very natural, not a perfume-y lemon, but a freshly squeezed lemon with just a touch of sugar.
The packaging is simple and functional, but the bold colors of the products themselves really make them standout in your shower/counter-top. American Grown is an extremely affordable line of products. No frills packaging and effective products at a low cost? Really? I know these are supposed to disappear in September, so I urge you to check it out next time you’re near Bath & Body Works!
- Product: 8/10
- Value: 9/10
- Ease of Use: 7/10
- Packaging: 7/10
Recommendation: Love natural scents that aren’t perfume-y, consider American Grown for your hand soap and shower gel needs.
Availability: Bath & Body Works
True Blue Morocco Cedarood & Spice Warming Body Scrub is a Bit Cool
Cedarwood & Spice Warming Body Scrub ($15.00 for 6 oz.) is a spicy, exotic smelling body scrub. It’s designed to warm on contact with the skin to be both soothing and invigorating.
It’s a mild exfoliant with a very fine particles, actually feels fine enough to be more of a body polish than a scrub. I actually found that there was not enough scrubbies in it to really make an effective scrub, just because you either use a ton or you end up having them sparsely on your legs/arms. I did, however, really enjoy the warming sensation! I just wished the warmth would last longer or allow me to spread it out a bit more before the sensation began. I found it worked well in spots, but it didn’t work so well when I wanted to lather and massage it into a larger area of skin (e.g. a leg).
So, if it doesn’t do much scrubbing and the warming sensation is short-lived, what makes me like this product anyway? Because it smells divine! It is a fairly strong aroma of sandalwood, amber, musk, and cedarwood. It’s very spicy and woody–very masculine in a way. I like! I’m just a fan of some of these darker, woodier scents, and it actually lingers on skin all day long. I’ve found most body scrubs and gels to have great scents while I’m in the shower, but they fade shortly after I’ve toweled dry. That is certainly not the case here–the scent is noticeable but not overwhelming; you could layer with a similar scented body lotion, too, but even alone, it works as a very subtle, muted fragrance.
This product has so much potential to be amazing–I really would love to see the addition of more scrub particles so it actually exfoliates well. Even though it doesn’t feel like there is much scrubbing action, it does leave skin soft and smooth wherever you do scrub, and the scrubbing particles don’t disappear/melt away quickly, so you can massage it in a bit. I like more in my scrub, but perhaps there are others who like a much finer, lighter scrub.
- Product: 6/10
- Value: 8/10
- Ease of Use: 7/10
- Packaging: 8/10
Recommendation: If it weren’t for the heady spicy, woody scent, I might find this product pretty useless. Because I do love the scent and it lingers throughout the day, I do find myself reaching it for often. It can also be nice to use on specific, targeted areas like feet or on a strained muscle to take advantage of the warming sensation.
Availability: Bath & Body Works