A perfume smells different on those paper blotters in the department store than it does on your skin. That’s why you’re always meant to try before you buy. You may have also noticed that a perfume could smell wonderful on a friend or colleague but wreaks of old dog on you. Besides complaining about how unfair it is to anyone who will listen, have you ever wondered why a certain perfume you love doesn’t appear to love you back?
To find out the answer, we called on fragrance expert Michael Donovan—what he doesn’t know about scent could fit on a postage stamp. “I have been spritzing people with scent for over 20 years and smelling their skins afterwards, and have noted that certain skin types have certain properties when it comes to fragrance,” he tells us. “I have to say that, sadly, there has been no scientific investigation into this. I spoke with Luca Turin [a biophysicist with a keen interest in scent] about it, and he assured me that this has yet to be investigated, so my theories are just that, theories, but picked up from observations accrued over many years.”
Meet the Expert
- Michael Donovan is the founder and creative director of the luxury perfume line St. Giles. He is based in London.
- George Preti, PhD, is a researcher at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. He is also an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Medicine.
“The most important thing when choosing a new fragrance is that it must love you back,” he notes. “There is nothing worse than falling for a scent in a perfumery or even on a friend or a stranger in the street only to find that it just doesn’t suit your skin. Interestingly, I have noticed that people with different hair color carry scents differently too. My advice? Always check the effect of a fragrance on your skin before parting with your money.”
So why does scent smell so different on everyone? “The pH balance of the skin differs slightly, which can change the way a scent smells," says Donovan. Use a shower gel designed for sensitive skin that will help keep your pH in check.
“Scent can even be affected by your diet,” he adds. The London Perfume Company notes on its website that “edible perfumes,” otherwise known as herbs and spices, can change how your perfume smells. Hormones are another factor that can alter your perfume’s characteristics: When estrogen drops (around week three in your cycle), you may find you overheat a little more easily and sweat a tad more, and this will, in turn, affect your perfume. One study found that people are drawn to scents that will work with their natural body odor.
If you have a “normal” skin type (not dry or oily), you are likely to find that most perfumes will smell pretty true on the skin, but be aware that your pH, fluctuating hormones and diet could still affect the aroma throughout the month. Keep scrolling to find out how oily and dry skin types can change how your perfume smells.
If you have oily skin, it will “hold top notes for longer but can also exaggerate certain elements in the perfume,” says Donovan. “Sweet notes, I have found, can be overwhelming and almost sickly on oily skins," he adds. "Fruit, on the other hand (especially citrus), can be amazing. Notes that would just disappear on dry skin can be symphonic on oily skin.
“The general rule is that oily skin makes fragrances pop. They can turn quite modest, discreet scents into a magnum opus. However, you have to be careful; certain elements can become too much and upset the balance of a perfume. I had a client the other day who just loved a scent to pieces on the blotter, but on her skin it became syrupy,” muses Donovan.
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“Dry skin needs bigger fragrances with a good solid base to hold up the fragrance and make it last,” explains Donovan. “Orientals and chypres work well, as do spices and the heavier blooms like tuberose. The delicate scents will disappear, so if you want to make a statement, then you need something with a strong voice.”
Want to make a fragrance last longer on dry skin? Make sure it's thoroughly moisturized with a scent-free lotion or oil before spritzing your perfume. Or try layering a scented oil with a perfume; Jo Malone offers fragrance combining consultations in its boutiques.