No Perfume Smells the Same on 2 People—How to Choose One that Works for You
I believe that fragrance is the most intimate of all beauty products. There's just nothing else that can evoke emotion, elicit memory, and enhance mood like a signature scent. While my favorite perfume is Phlur Missing Person ($96), I wore a now-discontinued Chloé scent for most of my life. Why? Because it was the perfume my mom wore when I was little, and every time I spritzed it, I was filled with nostalgia.
Here's the thing, though. Even though I loved that perfume and I sniffed it constantly, it never smelled exactly the same on me as it did on my mom. It was the exact same scent and formulation, so why did it smell slightly headier and smokier on my skin? The answer is body chemistry. Yes, that's right. Body chemistry affects how a perfume smells once it's out of the bottle and on the skin.
I wanted to know more about the interaction between body chemistry and fragrance, so I reached out to two experts to learn more. Ahead, they share why the same perfume can smell slightly different when it's applied to different people and how to tell whether a perfume will smell good on you before buying it.
My first question for the experts was why does a fragrance sometimes smell so good in the bottle but smell different once it's applied to the skin? I have personal experience with this. A few years ago, I was testing luxury perfumes with Who What Wear's beauty director, Erin Jahns, when the fragrance expert who was helping us spritzed a sweet scent on her wrist. She loved the scent and offered her wrist up so I could smell it. I loved it too, so the expert then spritzed it on my wrist. When it hit my skin, it smelled… different, and not in a good way. When I expressed confusion and frustration, the fragrance expert laughed and said some scents just smell different when applied to different people. Ever since then, I've been wondering why that is.
Wonny Lee is the co-founder and CEO of Elorea, a brand that's known for fine fragrances inspired by the founders' Korean heritage. He says finding a fragrance that works for your specific body chemistry is kind of like cooking. "Scent is a complex phenomenon that involves a combination of different aromatic ingredients," he says. "When worn, fragrances interact with body chemistry, temperature, humidity, beauty products, and even clothing." Furthermore, he says how a fragrance is applied can also affect the final scent. For example, if you rub it in (which is not recommended), it might smell different than if you just spritzed it or dabbed it on your skin. "The final fragrance is a result of the interplay between many different factors, and it can be difficult to predict how it will smell on any given person."
Temperature is a big factor that dictates how a fragrance will smell on the skin. According to Frank Voelkl, principal perfumer at Firmenich, the evolution of a fragrance is driven by your body temperature alone. "This means you will experience an evolution from the top note when the fragrance is initially applied all the way to dry-down notes, which is the part of the fragrance that will be lingering after many hours of wear," he explains. "Also, fragrances are composed of different ingredients which all have different volatilities. For example, citrus notes will flash off more rapidly than say musky or woody notes that will linger for many hours on the skin."
That explains why a scent can smell different after you wear it for a few hours. For me, that happens with one of my favorite long-lasting perfumes, Byredo Eyes Closed Eau de Parfum ($200). With notes of cinnamon, cardamom, and ginger, it smells immediately rich and spicy on my skin. After it dries down though, it smells softer and subtler. I actually prefer the scent of it after I've worn it for an hour or two.
So how can you tell whether a scent will smell good on you before buying it? Unless you're able to sample it in-store, this is tricky. Take it from Lee, who says, "Unfortunately, without a breakdown of your own body chemistry, you won't know how a perfume will smell on your skin. However, one common mistake I see is when customers are using products with clashing scents at the same time. To get a better idea of how a fragrance will smell on you, it's a good idea to avoid using other strongly scented products, such as bodywash, shampoo, conditioner, lotions, or laundry detergent. Going back to the original analogy of cooking, some ingredients just don't work well together."
Voelkl agrees that it's difficult to know without testing a particular perfume IRL. He says "fragrances can be perceived differently on different people due to their body chemistry, which sometimes is related to behaviors such as their nutritional habits, for example." All you can do, then, is choose a fragrance based on your personal preference. What brands do you love? What notes are you drawn to? "I think that preference is not so much linked to body chemistry, as it is more emotional and based on personal preferences," he says. "We all have different likes and dislikes based on our cultures, the environments we grew up in, and the type of fragrances we were exposed to—so fragrance preferences are very subjective and change from person to person. To me, it’s more about finding the fragrance that will make you feel good and comfortable rather than the body chemistry reaction itself."
With that being said, both Lee and Voelkl have some tips for you when it comes to buying a fragrance. "If you are not able to wear the fragrance before buying it, my suggestions would be to look for brands that you personally like and that have values that you align with yours," Voelkl says. "From there, my best advice would be to try the fragrance on your skin. If you are in a store, spray yourself, and if it is online, I would try and request a sample or buy a trial size so that you can wear it and try it to see if you like it on yourself before committing to it."
Lee agrees, saying, "It's always a good idea to sample a perfume, like purchasing a discovery set, to wear before you invest in a larger-size bottle." Lee recommends applying the fragrance to clean skin. Make sure you shower and apply only a neutral or unscented lotion before doing so. Then, he recommends spraying the perfume lower on the body, as scent tends to travel upward. Finally, "Try Vaseline. One of the things we can somewhat control is body temperature and the rate of evaporation. This also helps scents last longer!"
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