Good Bad Smells : Fragrance Talk

What strange, bad scents do you like? 

In perfumery, the worst smells can have the best effects–the inky, moth ball fragrance of indole lends a natural, velvety note to floral compositions; aldehyde C-11 with its dirty hair facet makes rose accords rich and lush; animalic notes lend a surprising sensuality to woods and resins. Thinking about it made me wonder about preferences for scents that are considered by most to be bad or unpleasant: skunk, hot asphalt, gasoline, mildew, etc.

My own good-bad favorites include the musty smell of decaying leaves in the fall, the rotten onions and cheese of durian (a notorious tropical fruit,) and the pungent sweetness of pen ink. I also love the smell of jet fuel on the airport runway; although these days with the boarding taking place via covered passageways, one rarely gets to be on the field itself.

Photograph of fallen leaves via wikipedia commons.



  • xenia: fresh paint!!! November 22, 2011 at 6:24am Reply

  • bee: joining in for paints! And rain on hot asphalt (in summer), nice moist earth (but not compost), the animalic notes of white pepper corns… but I guess none of these are really bad smells November 22, 2011 at 7:06am Reply

  • hongkongmom: Hot asphalt after the rain, linseed oil, thinners, turpentine, paint, jet fuel, gasolene, pretty much anything burnt, leaves, matches, toast,in the 70s/80s downtown Johannesburg had tram buses, there was a smell from them that I loved…but I dont remember what it was. In our garden we had a stream that had frogs and tadpols, a kind of great murky, algae type of lagoon smell . November 22, 2011 at 7:13am Reply

  • Cristine: The airport– that strange mixture of planes & cars & fuel. No wonder I love the beginning of Tubereuse Criminelle! November 22, 2011 at 7:30am Reply

  • lenore jago: weirdly enough the fake smell of grape koolaid….it reminds me of summer day camp November 22, 2011 at 8:39am Reply

  • donna: The smell of the eraser bits left on the paper, it reminds me of Catholic School and the mischief I participated in, ah, those were the days. November 22, 2011 at 8:56am Reply

  • zazie: I like the smell of metal, of matches, of plastic, of my husband’s pillow, of mentholated products, of fresh onions and garlic and I like the sneeze-inducing smell of carpets.
    I love the smell of cats’ & dogs’ warm furs (but can’t stand a dog’s bad breath or the acrid smell of households whith too many cats).

    I love the vanillic smell of “unscented” erasers and of my old la pléiade books. I love the “skank” (is it skank? I smell velvety opulence) of Jicky, absolue pour le soir and une fleur de cassie. I find the mentholated opening of Tubereuse criminelle relaxing and soothing.
    But I am not so tolerant after all – Cilantro makes me throw up. And I hate cumin. November 22, 2011 at 9:06am Reply

  • Anne: The smell of magic markers and magazine. Inky stuff really. I also love the smell of the forest in autumn after rain. It smell of mushrooms and rotting vegetation, and I have a thing for horse menure too! Kisses to you all. November 22, 2011 at 9:10am Reply

  • Olfactoria: I love the smell of Vitamin B. I don’t know if that is even a bad smell, since I find it so gorgeous, but other people tend to shake their heads at me. 😉 November 22, 2011 at 5:05am Reply

  • Ines: I love the smell of blue cheese, burnt matches and varnishes. 🙂 November 22, 2011 at 5:15am Reply

  • Alexandra: Gasoline, the metallic smell of those big ironing presses in laundries (they smell like vanilla-coconut), furniture lustre and polish, being inside new cars. But a commonly acceptable smell that I cannot stand AT ALL, is boiling milk (I am intolerant you see!)Hallo from London! November 22, 2011 at 10:25am Reply

  • cheesegan: rubber cement, gasoline, skunk, puppy November 22, 2011 at 11:07am Reply

  • Christine Lee: That’s hilarious. After some time outside sunning, my dogs’ would smell of popcorn! November 22, 2011 at 11:24am Reply

  • Olfacta: Horse barns. Paint and varnishes. A whiff of skunk, which always reminds me of Los Angeles — skunks everywhere, cars everywhere = lots of skunk smell. Linseed oil, which some people can’t stand. November 22, 2011 at 6:50am Reply

  • Nikki: I like that image of trams and Johannsburg, I remember the hills there…nice stream you must have had in the garden with frogs! November 22, 2011 at 12:05pm Reply

  • Nikki: I love the scent of my dogs’ paws, like freshly baked bread! November 22, 2011 at 12:06pm Reply

  • Anne: Oh forgot about Playdoh!!! Love that stuff! 😉 November 22, 2011 at 12:14pm Reply

  • Alexandra: moth balls for me too! November 22, 2011 at 12:44pm Reply

  • gautami: I like smell of turpentine, gasoline, varnishes, burning wood and leaves, old musty books… My daughter likes the smell of horses, stables, and all the riding gear. November 22, 2011 at 1:43pm Reply

  • Pam: I like the smell of rain on cement sidewalks, a tiny bit of skunk from far away, pencil boxes. November 22, 2011 at 3:31pm Reply

  • Pam: Although I hate to think of how many brain cells I destroyed indulging in it in the 1950’s, as a child I loved the smell of gasoline;
    Not a bad smell but I’d love to have it identified: In the 1950’s my father brought back from Japan a very light wooden box which held a doll, styled like a Geisha, lying down the middle of the box, with six ‘cells,’ made of the same wood, three on each side, which held six wigs, each elaborately and differently styled. The box had a fitted lid. I loved the smell of that pale wood as much as playing with the doll. November 22, 2011 at 3:43pm Reply

  • Julie: Read your post and thought you might want to read a children’s book called The Friendship Doll by Kirby Larson. It’s about one of 58 dolls sent from Japan to the US in 1927 as Ambassadors of Friendship. Look for it at your local library. November 22, 2011 at 3:54pm Reply

  • axum: Raw green beans, Magic Scent Markers (esp orange, black licorice), purple ditto copy ink, India ink, moth balls. November 22, 2011 at 10:58am Reply

  • Maddy: I like the smell of burnt rubber, turpentine, the sweet resin of antique furniture, dusty tomes, and my cat’s fur after she has been laying out in the sun. The most strange scent of all? I like the smell of my dog’s paws, oddly they remind me of the smell of fritos. November 22, 2011 at 11:13am Reply

    • Rose Childress: I love the smell of jet fuel and tar! I will go out of my way to get behind a truck that has a tar thingy attached just to smell the fumes! June 1, 2012 at 7:28pm Reply

  • Raluca: I like the smell of burned leaves in the fall. Back home when I was little, ppl would burn the dead leaves. I also like the smell of blue cheese. November 22, 2011 at 11:26am Reply

  • Elisa: Does anyone dislike the smell of burnt matches? I adore that smell, and blown out candles. I also like the smell of gunpowder in the air, reminds me of childhood days at the skeet club.

    I do NOT like the chemical smell of a new can of tennis balls, which made me feel like a fraud as a tennis-playing kid. November 22, 2011 at 11:34am Reply

  • Mandy Aftel: I love the smell of a skunk — just a bit far enough away November 22, 2011 at 12:22pm Reply

  • Debbie: Ha! Yeah, my dog’s did too. And i felt compelled to sniff them often 🙂 November 22, 2011 at 5:26pm Reply

  • Victoria: I love the smell of vitamin C pills. I have no idea what vitamin B smells like. Must find some soon! November 22, 2011 at 1:29pm Reply

  • sunsetsong: Sawn wood – any kind of wood. Motor oil not petrol. The smell of a dairy (milky, cheesy and Borax cleaning powder on wet concrete) – our local cheese deli has just this smell and it takes me right back down to the farm. The smell of earth. Love all of these. November 22, 2011 at 6:30pm Reply

  • Victoria: My mother hates the smell of snuffed out candles and burnt matches. I, on the other hand, love it! November 22, 2011 at 1:30pm Reply

  • Victoria: It is a good one, in small doses though. November 22, 2011 at 1:30pm Reply

  • Victoria: Whiffs of skunk are strangely pleasant. I am scared of skunks though after having a close encounter with one (thankfully, I was not sprayed!) November 22, 2011 at 1:31pm Reply

  • Victoria: >>the animalic notes of white pepper corns

    You are the only other person I know who finds them animalic. I do too! November 22, 2011 at 1:32pm Reply

  • Victoria: Hmm, I just realized that I have no idea what linseed oil smells like. November 22, 2011 at 1:32pm Reply

  • Victoria: On the other hand, I hate the smell of stale food on the plane. My least favorite part of traveling. November 22, 2011 at 1:33pm Reply

  • Victoria: Have you smelled Dior’s Poison? Some people smell koolaid in it. November 22, 2011 at 1:33pm Reply

  • Victoria: Love love love the smell of erasers, pencil shavings and ink! Really makes me think of the first days of school (before the strong longing for summer holidays sets in.) November 22, 2011 at 1:34pm Reply

  • Victoria: Oh, you might enjoy this article about hating the smell or taste of cilantro: November 22, 2011 at 1:36pm Reply

  • Victoria: A fun list–all of my favorites too! 🙂 November 22, 2011 at 1:37pm Reply

  • Victoria: The common smell I dislike is rancidity. The moment I taste or smell it in nuts or oil (it is so common to find that even expensive restaurants are not always careful about storing their olive oil,) it turns my stomach. November 22, 2011 at 1:38pm Reply

  • Victoria: Moth balls make me think of India, so it is always a good association. November 22, 2011 at 1:39pm Reply

  • Victoria: I have not been near puppies in ages, but that milky-pungent smell is so good. November 22, 2011 at 1:39pm Reply

  • Victoria: I have another friend who describes her dog’s paws as smelling of fritos. November 22, 2011 at 1:40pm Reply

  • Victoria: I do too, that is a great scent. November 22, 2011 at 1:40pm Reply

  • Victoria: Sweet almond smell of Playdoh is very appealing! My little cousin once was caught eating it. November 22, 2011 at 1:41pm Reply

  • Victoria: Me too, as long as subtle, it is strangely pleasant. November 22, 2011 at 1:41pm Reply

  • I think Serge Noire smells a lot like burnt matches, Have you tried this? November 22, 2011 at 3:43pm Reply

  • I love the smell of mildew or wet basement! Gasoline! Cheap leather! Mushrooms! November 22, 2011 at 3:48pm Reply

  • Nina: I love the smell of burnt matches and blown-out candles. Our dog mostly smells nice too. My husband hates the smell of burnt matches and smoking candles, but he likes the smells of airplanes, garages and cars. Which I hate. Luckily we both like eachothers scent : D November 22, 2011 at 3:51pm Reply

  • Lindaloo: Add me to the lovers of skunk. And burnt matches and blue cheese. Not so fond of the mothballs though — I find it difficult here in the first wet, cold days of fall when it seems that all at once many elderly people have pulled their winter coats out of storage and that particular miasma fills the buses. November 22, 2011 at 9:25pm Reply

  • behemot: Yes, i love the smell of gasoline from the aircraft..It was, after all, one of Behemoth favorite drinks.
    I have a hint for all gasoline lovers who hate tunnels at airports: Frankfurt and CGD currently do not have tunnels, they use buses for transporting passengers to the aircraft so it smells great over there…It is probably due to the renovation and temporary, so hurry up. November 22, 2011 at 9:51pm Reply

  • natalieT: I loved reading all these. I also really like inky smells. But maybe the most unpleasant (or the one people don’t seem to understand) is chlorinated pools. November 22, 2011 at 10:04pm Reply

  • behemot: mushrooms do not smell bad!!! November 22, 2011 at 10:23pm Reply

  • TaffyJ: When I lived in a semi-rural area, I had a family of foxes set up house outside my fence. I could watch the family from the kitchen window…and smell them. Loved their strong, musky smell; they were far enough away that I could appreciate their odor.

    I had a parakeet that would sit on my shoulder, and I loved the scent of his feathers (mixed with a little seed smell).

    Dislike mothballs though! November 23, 2011 at 1:42am Reply

  • Christine: I’m with all those on the smell of airport tarmac and also wet leaves and earth. As a child I adored the smell of my hamster’s cage – not sure what that was about! November 23, 2011 at 6:31am Reply

  • Hanna: I have never smelled a skunk, but i’m sure i would like it. As may have mentioned I also love the smell of gasoline, air fuel and rainy asphalt, mothballs are also good. A smell i’ve come to love over the years is the pungent smell of compost when the farmers fertilize in the spring, maybe not right next to the field, but a whiff carried by the wind takes me back to my childhood.

    I also love the salty, almost putrid smell of kelp revealed by the low tide. November 23, 2011 at 9:26am Reply

  • Ines: Hmm, I have a bottle of Serge Noire that’s neglected completely. I’ll try it today, thank you! 🙂 November 23, 2011 at 4:30am Reply

  • Chi Nguyen: Dear V,
    I love Durian smell and I’m dreaming of a perfume that would feature a combination of lilies and durian. That would be striking! haha November 23, 2011 at 4:54am Reply

  • Elisa: Really! I don’t think I have tried that one yet. Liz Zorn’s Sonoran Leather smells a lot like gunpowder. November 23, 2011 at 10:50am Reply

  • Elisa: Or Alien. The top notes always remind me of grape soda. November 23, 2011 at 10:51am Reply

  • johanna: Am I too late?

    I think I scared a prospective boyfriend by saying that I liked the smell of rotting meat.

    I was *trying* to pin down how much I like the smell of Ridley Road Market in East London, which is a truly international melting pot, with halal butchers (with strange offcuts of goat and who knows what, floating in buckets of blood), african vegetable stalls, cockney grocers and bengali fishmongers crowded on the street.

    Obviously I wouldn’t want to wear this smell, but it’s exhilarating. November 23, 2011 at 6:16pm Reply

  • minette: my cat (george) and i love the smell of valerian – a mix of stinky socks, patchouli, wet earth, and super-stinky cheese. i also love stinky cheeses. and the smell of bananas when they’re first getting brown spots – they smell like jasmine. can’t eat them that ripe, but they smell like flowers then. November 23, 2011 at 7:13pm Reply

  • I have another strange smell and I would appreciate it if anyone could help me identify the source. Back in the 70’s when I was a child(…..) we had this grey heavy projection machine. It would take films of celluloid but it was projecting stills, not movies, and of course no sound. We had rolls of films with cartoon stories. There was a button on the side that you had to turn to get from one still to the next.

    The smell of the inside of that machine was amazing. The other day I was walking past an abandoned shop and this smell hit me again and reminded me of my childhood. It is like some sort of clean, urban (as TF would put it) musk. Anyone know what I am talking about? November 24, 2011 at 1:40am Reply

  • carsten: whiffs of skunk are pleasant to me, too. they remind me in very low concentrations to the very pleasant smell of freshly ground, dark roasted coffee beans November 24, 2011 at 10:18am Reply

  • Nicoll: So funny – I had a dog, Chuck, whose paws smelled like nacho chips. My boyfriend called him “Dorito Paws.” I did not realize other dogs paws had that scent too. November 24, 2011 at 1:03pm Reply

  • NS: I like the smell of tattoo inks, it is pretty distinctive and hard to describe, sort of medicinal and chemical. I like wet earth, sweat (light sweat, on some people) latex, and gasoline. November 24, 2011 at 1:10pm Reply

  • Lena: yeast…gas station…the Italian glue Coccoina, it smells like bitter almond…I can’t get enough of freshly printed magazines…the paws of my cat… November 24, 2011 at 5:42pm Reply

  • NancyG: Probably warm celluloid plus metal plus dust. I think you must be talking about a film strip projector. Perhaps celluloid – cellulose – from wood smells faintly like vanilla because of lignin? November 25, 2011 at 5:25pm Reply

  • Joan: I concur with the gasoline and dirt hair. Definitely not skunk though!

    I love the smell of nail polish. November 26, 2011 at 2:48am Reply

  • Thanks NancyG. It could be lignin warmed up by the projection bulb. It had sinked into the metal paint and it has a faint note of halitosis (a la Oud 27). November 26, 2011 at 4:59am Reply

  • Liz: Add me to the skunk list, there is always a fight when we drive by a not too strong dead skunk about my desire to roll the window down and inhale my husband’s desire to stop breathing. Also diesel exhaust, hot tar, cilantro, comino, warm cat fur, old machinery, rusting metal, lead, parrot feathers/dander, damp newspaper and gunpowder. I also do not entirely hate the scent of decaying flesh in small doses. A long dead deer or hare can have a pleasant musky scent if mild enough. November 26, 2011 at 2:59pm Reply

  • Kym: Yes, to decaying leaves. The scent of skunk – but not too close, just when it wafts from a few blocks away. Mulch. Manure. I’m not one for inky smells, but there seem to be many here and I wonder if they’ve tried Byredo’s M/MINK? November 27, 2011 at 3:00pm Reply

  • If anyone is interested I have found a perfume which smells exactly like my old filmstrip projector. Surprisingly enough it is Tom Ford Urban Musk. What freaked me out is that in my comment above I used the words “urban musk” to describe the smell. Apparently I had subconsciously recalled testing UM and although I didn’t realize the similarity, I had registered it. Seeing a tester just triggered the recognition! January 3, 2012 at 12:48pm Reply

  • Victoria: I need to smell it! I love the smell of an old film projector. My father had one, and although the last time I was near it, I must have been 10, I still remember the scent. January 3, 2012 at 12:57pm Reply

  • I really cannot understand why that smell was etched in my mind… Do you have any ideas….?

    I do not mean to advertise (and feel free to edit this) but I have written about that smell and my memory associations in my blog. January 3, 2012 at 1:00pm Reply

  • Victoria: Strong memories, good associations, perhaps? Sometimes I realize that I remember the strangest things. 🙂 January 3, 2012 at 1:09pm Reply

  • I think the aninalic aspects in a fragrance reach further in the subconscious. Smelling Our 27, which has a similar note, for the very first time seemed like an extremely and unusually familiar experience. January 3, 2012 at 1:12pm Reply

  • Cliodna: Well, hot asphalt smells good to me no matter if it has just rained or not.
    Infact I found this post when googling for why asphalt smells good for some people because they’re putting down a new driveway in front of our house so it’s scent welcomes me every time I walk outside. It just…tickles my nose. Freshly layd asphalt or one that’s heated after a long summer day.
    I also love the smell of basements. It’s…a cold smell, a bit damp. Like age and ancient paperwork.
    The smell of acrylic paint, wet clay and dogs is also pleasant to me, but not in a ”GASP, THIS IS SO GOOD!” kind of way. October 22, 2012 at 1:19pm Reply

  • Shoop: Decaying leaves in the fall, burnt matches, skunk, gasoline, pen ink… You’ve got all my favorites lol. Two good bad smells that even I find weird and a bit gross, though, are ferret and really old roadkill. The latter takes on an almost spicy scent that makes me think maybe I’m part vulture. ;P November 22, 2012 at 6:47am Reply

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