From Richard ‘The Bodyguard’ Madden’s obsession with wild swimming in Devon, to Jacquemus’ Instagram-bait catwalk show taking place in the rolling lavender fields of Provence, the world is finally falling back in love with nature. Forest bathing – the Japanese practice of Shinrin-Yoku that, simply put, involves a long, digital-free walk in tree-filled spaces – is the current al fresco activity of choice for the wellness set.
Developed in the 198Os as a new arm of healing medicine, it’s based on the principle that walking in nature or ‘taking in the forest atmosphere’ can alleviate stress, anxiety and even depression. Simple and, according to research, very effective. But with our busier-than-ever, increasingly city-based lives, getting our fix of the great outdoors isn’t always possible or prioritised.
In the UK, the average person worryingly spends around 92% of their time indoors.* It’s no wonder then, with depression linked so closely to this, that the World Health Organization predicts the disease will be a bigger epidemic than obesity by 2030. With that in mind, the research around the benefits of Shinrin-Yoku is impressive: one study showed that 20 to 30 minutes of strolling outdoors per day significantly reduced stress levels,** while another conducted by mental health charity Mind found that it lead to symptoms of depression being reduced by an average of 71%. As compelling as this is, for many of us, forest bathing isn’t a practical option. Try telling your boss you need an extended lunch break to nip to some woodland because you’re feeling a bit out of sorts… So, your second-best option? Bringing a whiff of the outside in.
Japanese scientists found that the smells alone of pine and other green plants can help to lower blood pressure and even increase cancer-fighting proteins in the bloodstream. These ‘phytoncides’ (the airborne chemicals produced by plants that we breathe in) have been used for centuries in aromatherapy for their healing properties, but have had a resurgence as we search for simple ways to remedy hectic lifestyles. ‘The nostalgic effect – odours reminiscent of holidays, agrestic smells you were exposed to when exploring as a child – can instantly allow us to remember joyful times. It takes you out of your current situation and to the wider picture, resulting in lower cortisol levels,’ says Luke Taylor, essential oil expert and master blender at Aromatherapy Associates.
The best way to get the full stress-melting effects of scent is with oils in their purest form: earthy vetiver and oakmoss grounds the emotions, heady pine and patchouli evoke a feeling of serenity, and woody frankincense promotes clarity and calm. Second to sitting among the pines, soaking in a hot tub and allowing the aromas to surround you in the steamy air is a pretty potent way to get the benefits of the outdoors. If that feels at best indulgent, or at worst impossible, lighting a candle or spritzing perfume that includes bucolic notes can still work wonders.
So, beauty brands are releasing products that capture the wild outdoors. Fragrances have always been built on flowers and fruits, but this is a step up, with notes that bring the breeze and trees straight to your nose. Think woody fragrances (such as Jo Malone’s English Oak & Hazelnut), or oceanic scents that use sea salt (like Chanel’s Paris-Biarritz). Sure, a dusting of perfume might not be true Shinrin-Yoku, but it could still provide a much-needed breath of fresh air.
*Ribble Cycle, February 2017. **Frontier Psychology, April 2019
This article first appeared on ELLE UK.