Lately I've been testing the same Japanese shampoo and conditioner set that my best friend uses. Both of us are serious fragonerds, so we have many perfume overlaps in our collections and we often wear stuff that the other one adores. It's what we do. But smelling of the same hair products is different. It makes me feel my friend's presence around me, and it's equal parts comforting and eerie. People often talk about scent memories. How a certain perfume or a smell transports them to a time and place, or conjures a lost loved one. But oddly enough, some of my strongest scent-related emotional reactions are not to perfume, but to shampoo. Or rather, the way shampoo/conditioner smell on one's hair.
I had a friend in middle school who used to wear Jontue. I'm sure she bathed in it (we all did in one thing or another), but what I remember most clearly about her is the scent of the cheap green apple shampoo she used. Just thinking her name brings that smell forward, and the long afternoon we spent in her room talking about the biggest mystery of the universe: Boys.
I'm not even going to start on the evil of the old Herbal Essence shampoo. The idea of smelling that green mess makes me want to cry for my meek, insecure, and utterly miserable twelve year old. I'm pretty sure that if I smell it in person I'll go back to being the ugliest creature on God's green earth. The memory is so powerful, and decades later it's as real as anything else around me right now.
The words "Flex Shampoo" immediately send me to the summer of 1982, months spent walking outside barefoot (I can't believe it, either), my little sister dragging behind me as we were looking for preteen adventures. It was a summer we were largely unsupervised, our parents tangled in all kinds of grownup stuff like selling and buying houses, dealing with older relatives, and other things we didn't understand. But my long and wild hair constantly smelled of Flex, and I felt I was just about to cover all the secrets of adulthood.
Years later, there was not one boyfriend in my life who wasn't addicted to the smell of just-washed hair. They'd bury their faces in my hair and inhale, feeling the magic of femininity. For some it was the first step to intimacy. For another it was the desired sensation of coming home from the army. It was a warm hug, a soft figure in their arms, and the complete opposite of "boy smell". Countless generations of women behind me nodded in agreement. It's all in your shampoo.
Why do shampoo scents have such an effect on us? Shampoo and conditioners have a distinctive and strong sillage, especially on people with long and thick hair. Some of them use potent synthetic musks and other aromachemicals in their formulas to achieve this very effect. These are usually simple, easy, and very pleasant smells, with a familiar hook from green apple to vanilla that draws you in. Many girls over indulge in hair products before they're allowed to leave the house covered in perfume. It all contributes to that wave of nostalgia.
Do you have shampoo memories? Were your boyfriend/girlfriend addicted to smelling flex on you?
Image:TEEN Magazine, July 1969.