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.
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!