It feels like a betrayal when the much-anticipated first spray settles onto your skin, and you discover that instead of being enveloped in a giddy rush of sensual pleasure, you’re racing toward the nearest bathroom to scrub off the offending odour. Yet there’s nothing wrong with the actual perfume; it hasn’t passed its four-year expiry date, cooked near a hot radiator or baked in direct sunlight. Rather, it smells gorgeous. Just not on you.
There’s no guarantee of how a perfume will smell once it’s on your skin, says Ruth Sutcliffe, senior marketing director and fragrance designer for Coty Beauty in New York City. “We’re all individuals,” she explains. “So it depends on your DNA, the pH balance of your skin and the oil content within it, diet and body temperature; some fragrances just won’t work with your body chemistry.”
Scent and your skin
The way a fragrance smells on your skin is the culmination of a number of physiological factors, including our bodies’ sweat glands, which are sensitive to hormones and stress. Add cigarettes, prescription medication, your menstrual cycle and various hormones, says Dr. Lisa Kellett, dermatologist at DLK on Avenue in Toronto, and you’ve got your very own personal ‘eau.’ Mix it with your favourite parfum and your body chemistry can actually alter the way a scent’s ingredients smell.
It’s possible that citrus and fruity notes such as mandarin, guava and papaya can, on some, have a “rancid, fatty smell,” says Sutcliffe, while warmer, woodsy, musky smelling notes like vanilla, amber, cedar, sandalwood and musk tend to blend well with body chemistry. “Musk-like ingredients can have a skin-like odour and are often used in what perfumers refer to as a ‘soft-skin accord,'” says Will Andrews, a fragrance scientist for Proctor & Gamble Prestige in London. “They help a perfume better harmonize with the skin and last longer.”
But even if the perfume is perfectly matched to your DNA, the outcome is not foolproof. Scent is visceral, explains Andrews, so there’s still a chance that you may not come up smelling like roses.
Thanks to what scientists call your olfactory psychology, your age, personality, culture, environment, experiences and mood can also contribute to how you’ll perceive a scent. “Even the most innocuous scent becomes objectionable if it reminds us of an unpleasant experience,” scientist and author Avery Gilbert writes in his book, What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life.
Should a perfume remind you of the mean girl from ninth-grade math class, an ex-boyfriend who dumped you on Twitter or a departed loved one, chances are you may have a negative reaction. “You may feel uncomfortable if the fragrance is too powerful for your personality,” adds Andrews. “Human beings are complex creatures and psychology plays a big role in whether you like a fragrance.”
Still, if your heart’s set on wearing one particular scent, there are options. “You can wear your eau de toilette with a body lotion, an oil or a solid version of the scent,” suggests Sutcliffe.
Spritzing your hairbrush — not your décolletage — and running it through your hair is another, as is spraying your clothes or saturating a snippet of material and wearing it in a locket. “This way the fragrance isn’t directly interacting with your skin, yet you still have the aura surrounding you,” she says.
And never give up. Even though there’s no scientific test or mathematical equation to determine which fragrances will smell good, keep trying. Says Sutcliffe, “With over 1,000 fragrances launched just last year, there’s something for everyone.”
12 fall fragrances: Discover your signature scent from our roundup of the season’s newest fragrances.
Beauty 100: Find out which products our editors picked as their must-have in every category: anti-aging, cleanser, fragrance, face, sunscreen and concealer.