Don’t Believe These Lies About Perfume

You may not have spent a lot of time learning about perfume. That’s OK. Life is complicated, and we’re all doing the best we can. Besides, you’ve got me to tell you about it! Here are a few things you may have heard about fragrance that are not particularly true.

Bottle of Tommy Girl perfume next to its box
photo from Walgreens.com

Perfume goes bad after a year or two.

Nope. Traditional perfume will stay good for decades as long as it is not exposed to the sunlight, which is why juice junkies bid on ancient unopened boxes of it on ebay. If you splurge on a fancy frag, you can at least tell yourself it’ll last a long time.

Natural ingredients are good; synthetic ingredients are bad.

Eh, not exactly. Almost all perfumes contain synthetic ingredients, including many manufactured by companies with “all natural” repuations. Many scents, such as fresh fruit or lily of the valley, are impossible to extract, and synthetics give the perfumer a huge array of options for blending. People can have allergic reactions to synthetic or natural ingredients.

Some human-created chemical compounds used in perfumes are identical to those found in nature. People often cite benzyl acetate and ethyl acetate as dangerous substances, for instance, and in some concentrations I’m guessing they are, but the first occurs naturally in jasmine, and the second one is in wine.

While artificial compounds in perfume are not necessarily bad, the U.S. laws concerning them are. Fragrance and cosmetic makers aren’t required to list all of their ingredients, even really nasty ones. I have a resigned attitude toward Things That Will Give You Cancer, but if you’d like more transparency about what’s in your cologne or shampoo, tell your Congressperson to support the Cosmetics Safety Amendments Act.

Expensive perfume is good; cheap perfume is bad.

Perfume is a lot like wine: you can find some good bottles at modest prices, and everyone’s taste is different anyway. The Tommy Girl I buy at the drugstore should not smell better than half the perfumes at the counter at a fancy department store, but it does. You can probably find an inexpensive berry-floral thing at Victoria’s Secret or Bath and Body Works that smells as good as Chanel’s Chance Eau Tendre, or at least save some money and buy Marc Jacob’s Daisy. Some good-smelling cheap things become a little ubiquitous, and this bothers some people. It doesn’t bother me.

Old perfumes will make you smell like an old lady.

When I hear someone say, “This smells like Old Lady!” I hear two things: 1. “I am completely ignorant about perfume.” 2. “I am ageist and insecure.” Don’t put down old ladies. They’ve been ladying a lot longer than you have! I’ve heard people say this about wildly different scents, from mysterious chypres to bombastic florals, so it really doesn’t mean anything specific.

Wearing vintage scents is a lot like wearing vintage clothing: it shows some knowledge, appreciation of craftsmanship, and originality. Just use a light touch when you apply them.

The same perfume can smell really different on different people.

I believed this quite a while, but when I had coffee with Luca Turin, the king of perfume critics, he insisted it doesn’t vary that much. OK, I’ve never met him. I read his book, though, and I was probably drinking coffee at the time.

I have noticed that there are certain perfumes I enjoy on other people that just don’t fit with my personality. Also, maybe sometimes we like the smell of something for a brief time but get sick of it after a while. My other theory is that too many of us judge a perfume on its opening and don’t wait around to see if we like it once it has been on the skin for an hour or two.

In any case, this is the politest of lies: “Oh no, I love your perfume, it just doesn’t work with my chemistry!” I guess you could also say: “It just doesn’t work with my olfactory memories and associations, conscious and unconscious!”

Anything else you’d like to know about fragrance? I might be able to help! Or maybe not!

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Bryn Donovan

Romance writer, poet, quilter, and dog cuddler.

24 thoughts on “Don’t Believe These Lies About Perfume”

  1. I’m so excited to hear about number one. I’ve really expanded my perfume collection over the last year or so. I’m gonna be moving out of the country next year and putting a lot of stuff into storage. I’ve been pre-agonizing about what to do with my perfumes because, really, I shouldn’t bring them all with me.

  2. That last bit about perfume smelling different on everyone is quite interesting! I always assumed it was true, but it makes sense that the real issue is personal perceptions of perfumes. I used some of my mother’s Dior a little while ago and though it smells great on her, I thought it was terrible on me. Maybe it’s just because I tend to prefer more floral scents (like Viktor & Rolf Flowerbomb) and something so dark and serious played mind tricks on me.

  3. about that last point, one of my best friends was able to identify j’dore on me, and told me it smelled much better on me than on her mother, who also wears it…?

    also, is there any evidence that more high quality scents last longer through the day? i was wearing my perfume (same as mentioned before) and someone identified it on me wayyyyyy later in the day, i was like damn!

    1. I’m inclined to trust Turin on this one, but it seems like there might be a lot of other mitigating factors, including the individual’s bathing habits and the scents of the other products she uses, from shampoo to deodorant to fabric softener…? And people react very differently to a light spritz than they do to a heavy dousing, of course. :)

      In my own experience, inexpensive frags are a little less likely to last a long time, but it’s becoming less true as more expensive houses put out watery, barely-there scents to appeal to people who are kind of scared of perfume.

  4. I basically have two scents I wear. One is a Mary Kay perfume called Elige that I started wearing in high school because my aunt sent me some, and I still really love it. The other is a cucumber Dove body spray that I got for free because I bought two sticks of deodorant, haha. WHATEVER WORKS.

    So that’s a $50 (I think) scent and a $5 one!

    1. Oh, I feel ya, sister. My obsession with perfume started because I thought I would find one signature scent, but I like too many things! Besides, some things are perfect for summer and not so much for winter, and vice versa.

      So because I am a little eccentric, I have figured out a different scent for each month of the year. (I also have a style of music, beverage, cooking category, and nail polish color for each month of the year. Like I say, eccentric. But it does make the start of a new month more interesting!)

  5. When I think about “bad” perfume, I immediately think of Exclamation perfume. It’s not bad at all; in fact it smells good. It’s more that it was my perfume of choice as a tween-early teen and thinking about it brings back memories of those years which are best forgotten!

    P.S. Bryn, I’m dragging at work today b/c I’ve been up late two nights in a row reading Sole Possession! I’m really enjoying it and most romance novels make me roll my eyes. Kudos for writing wonderfully steamy scenes that a feminist can enjoy!

    1. Oh man, I had an aerosol can of Exclamation! (hello 1994) that once had the nozzle stick when a friend and I were using it. Tween girl screeching and we ended up just putting the cap on it and then throwing it in a plastic bag, but not before we became overly doused in it. Couldn’t stand smelling it after that.

      The “bad memory association” thing reminds me of people’s complaints about patchouli. It’s not the patchouli you think is bad, it’s the BO smell of the unwashed hippie wearing it COMBINED with patchouli.

      (I like the smell of patchouli — more in candle form — AND I shower. FANCY THAT.)

  6. “They’ve been ladying a lot longer than you have!”

    ^^^ Loved this line. :) I’ve only ventured into the world of perfumes six months ago, and by ventured I mean someone gave me a bottle and I’ve been wearing it, but I’ve been loving it so far. Thanks for clearing a few things up for me.

  7. This is awesome! I’d always believed that perfume goes bad after a period of time, so it’s rather nice to know that what I do have isn’t needing thrown out. Also? Huzzah for cheap perfumes, I have a couple (that I consider cheap, at least) and I love them.

    1. Hey Juni, this is totally off topic, but I wanted to tell you: the other day I tried Marmite (on buttered toast) and I LOVE it. I mean LOVE it. I couldn’t stop thinking about it!

      I have to be careful though, because it’s so salty! Today I had Marmite at breakfast and a bunch of salty olives later in the day and I suddenly felt like I’d eaten a full cup of salt. Eek.

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