“Don’t crush the molecules!” I turned around, a bottle of perfume in hand, to discover a sales associate approaching me with a look of mild panic. My crime was that I sprayed too much perfume on my wrist and tried to transfer the excess to another arm. “You’re about to crush molecules,” she repeated for emphasis, leaving me to imagine dramatic visions of aldehydes and ionones bursting like overripe grapes on my skin.
Out of all the nonsensical things I hear at the perfume counter, “don’t crush the molecules” (or its variant “don’t crush the scent”) tops the list of my all time favorites. I never argue with the sales associates, but I once inquired where they’re taught such a concept. What do the perfume sales associates know that still eludes modern science? One counter manager admitted that she heard more senior personnel say it and repeated it herself. Another recalled hearing this molecule business in a perfume training class (in my opinion, she deserves a refund).
One need not be a nuclear scientist to figure out that simply rubbing the wrists together can’t crush anything on the molecular level, but there is a minuscule grain of truth in the “don’t crush the molecules” myth. Perfume is a mixture of scented oils that vary in their volatility. Think of a scent as a choir with different voice ranges, from soprano to baritone. The most effervescent and fleeting notes appear first–for instance, citrus and leafy notes are the sopranos of perfume, and they make way to the heavier, less volatile notes that linger the longest. The hotter the skin, the faster the top notes will evaporate, so in theory, if you rub your wrists together vigorously, you might heat up the perfume and change the way it develops.
When testing a perfume most of us are probably not trying to make sparks ignite, but I nevertheless decided to run an informal test. I picked Guerlain Mitsouko, a perfume with distinctive top notes of cinnamon, peach and bergamot, and sprayed some on my forearm and also on my wrists. I rubbed my wrists with such force that my skin turned pink. I made sure that I still had the same amount of perfume on my wrist as on the forearm. I waited for 15 minutes and then walked around the office asking perfumers to smell the spot on the forearm and the spot on the wrist. Nobody could tell any dramatic difference between them. So much for crushing the molecules or ruining the perfume.
In the end, there is no right or wrong way to put on a perfume; you can spray, dab or rub it all over. The most important part is that you apply in a way that best suits your lifestyle–a delicate veil of scent for the office or a rich wrap for occasions when you want to make a statement. If you like to press your wrists together to transfer perfume, there is no harm in it.
That being said, my recommended way to test a perfume for the first time is to spray it on an unscented, lotion free spot on your arm and wait. The most essential part before you smell perfume is to let the alcohol evaporate. Ironically, this is hardly ever addressed by the sales associates. Smelling perfume before alcohol evaporates will not only skew what you perceive, but the alcoholic fumes will tire out your nose in a flash. So spray on your selected perfume, wait till the spot looks dry and only then take an inhale.
As for molecules, they’re much hardier creatures than the perfume sales staff lead you to believe.
Image: Two Magi, mosaic, 6th century, Ravenna, via wiki-images.