Perfumes, incense, and scented salts have been around for centuries. In the book of Esther, young women spent months undergoing grooming with scented oils and spices in order to prepare for their invitation into the king’s chambers (Esther 2:12). Our sense of smell is connected to our other senses and can be trained to make us respond in certain ways to a specific scent. Who hasn’t had a moment of déjà vu at the whiff of something that reminds us of grandma’s house or our first date? Proverbs 27:9 says, “Perfume and incense bring joy to the heart.” Certain smells have both positive and negative connotations. Perfumes and colognes tap into the evocative power of scent, and some Christians wonder about the appropriateness of wearing fragrances.
Naomi instructed her daughter-in-law Ruth to “put on perfume and get dressed in your best clothes” in order to make herself attractive to Boaz (Ruth 3:3). There is nothing sinful implied in this. Perfume has always been considered an accessory that helps make people more pleasing to others. In fact, Ecclesiastes 9:7–9 says, “So go ahead. Eat your food with joy, and drink your wine with a happy heart, for God approves of this! Wear fine clothes, with a splash of cologne! Live happily with the woman you love through all the meaningless days of life that God has given you under the sun” (NLT). As might be expected, perfume is spoken of in negative terms when it is worn by an adulterous woman in order to ensnare a man (Proverbs 7:16–18).
In Jesus’ day, perfumes were a luxury and could often cost a fortune. The most famous mention of perfume is the account of Mary breaking her alabaster jar of expensive perfume and anointing Jesus with it (John 12:3). Jesus praised her for this, saying that she was preparing His body for burial (John 12:7). Perfumes and spices were wrapped with a corpse to help mask the stench of rotting flesh. Without realizing it, Mary was foretelling Jesus’ death and expressing her gratitude for it by anointing her Savior with costly perfume.
Christians should not be motivated by vanity in the use of perfume or cologne, but there is nothing sinful about using a fragrance. As Christians, we are to present ourselves to the world as worthy representatives of our Father’s kingdom (2 Corinthians 5:20). Part of that presentation is personal hygiene and grooming. God’s message of reconciliation is a fragrant gift we offer the world. His messengers need to represent that. People are less likely to listen to such a message from a person who does not seem to care how he or she appears or smells. We should be careful not to overdo perfumes and colognes, and we should be sensitive to people with allergies, but using perfume or cologne is perfectly acceptable.