Scent 101 : Skin Chemistry (New Video)

Is there such a thing as “skin chemistry”? I have to note that the phrase itself is misleading, because it implies that a chemical reaction takes place on skin once a fragrance is applied, while it’s not clear that such reactions take place. In general, the effects of perfumes on the molecular and chemical diversity of the skin are poorly understood, although some studies attempt to fill the gap in our understanding. When “skin chemistry” is used in the context of perfumery, people usually mean that fragrances smell different on different people.

From my first day working in a perfume lab, I’ve been taught to smell every single fragrance mod on skin. Usually, perfumers test the same sample on several different people, because indeed compositions may smell differently depending on one’s diet, hormonal imbalances, medication regimen, or the level of moisture. People smell differently–that’s a fact.

For instance, people with oily skin tend to have fewer problems with perfumes disappearing too quickly, while those who have dry skin may need to add a layer of unscented lotion when wearing fleeting scents. Green compositions tend to be more delicate and vary more dramatically from one person to another. “Their skin is pushing sweet notes,” perfumers might comment, for instance, if blends smell overly sweet on someone in comparison to paper.

What is not the case is that “skin chemistry” can make a perfume smell like Mitsouko on one person and Love’s Baby Soft on someone else. The differences are much more subtle than that. On the other hand, in perfumery subtle variations lead to dramatic effects, and when you smell a perfume on someone else, be sure to try it on your own skin first. Smell it throughout the day, study its nuances, live with it. That’s the only infallible test.

P.S.: if you want to try eating fenugreek to see how it will affect the scent of your skin–and the way perfumes smell on you, be aware that the scent of fenugreek will linger on your skin for a couple of days. It’s that potent. Fenugreek has numerous health benefits, and it’s a delicious spice with a bitter maple syrup flavor. It’s often used in Indian cooking, as it aids digestion and adds an interesting nuance to the flavor of lentils and beans. The seeds are quite hard, so if people eat them for medicinal purposes, they soak a small amount overnight in a glass of water. You can also sprout them and add them to salads.

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53 Comments

  • Jovana: Thanks for the lovely video ! The comparison between a scent and a soundtrack is spot on.
    I’m definitely one of those people whose skin pushes sour/woody notes, which usually means I can get away with some very sweet compositions. On the other hand, some scents that I really enjoy on my friends can pull very traditionally masculine on me, which makes me enjoy them a bit less. August 14, 2020 at 8:15am Reply

    • Victoria: It’s so important to try everything on skin! August 15, 2020 at 3:17am Reply

  • Tourmaline: Dear Victoria,

    Thank you for this interesting post and video.

    I am looking forward to trying your suggestion of eating a teaspoonful of fenugreek seeds and then seeing how my skin smells and then affects fragrances. My first challenge will be to find some fenugreek seeds! I just looked them up on the online website of my local Coles grocery store, and it came up blank. Then I tried Woolworths, and it, too, had no fenugreek, only half a dozen recipes that I assume contained the product which they didn’t sell! I suspect I’ll find it at a heath food store.

    Was that you in the photo of the hands holding the bottle of Annick Goutal perfume? If I’m not mistaken, the fingers of those hands are wearing nail polish. I know that this would be unsual for you, given your job. Anyway, it looks very pretty.

    With kind regards,
    Tourmaline August 14, 2020 at 9:40am Reply

    • irem: Hi Tourmaline,
      I have done that experiment inadvertently when I ate a spread containing a copious amount of fenugreek seeds and other spices including garlic. My sweat and urine smelled for several days, and that smell clung to all my clothes as well. I would wear only easy-to-launder stuff during the experiment. But then I might have consumed more than one teaspoon 🙂 As for where to find it, you might want to have a look at ethnic Indian stores as it is heavily used in Indian cuisine. August 14, 2020 at 11:51am Reply

      • Tourmaline: Hi Irem,

        Wow, your unintentional experiment certainly packed a punch! You knew exactly what Victoria was talking about!

        Thank you for the tip about trying an Indian store for fenugreek. While I’m there, I might see if they have any Mysore Sandalwood soap. It’s been too long! August 14, 2020 at 11:40pm Reply

      • Victoria: Yes, that sounds like fenugreek. It’s very good for you, though. August 15, 2020 at 3:20am Reply

    • Victoria: Why would it be unusual to wear nail polish? August 14, 2020 at 5:17pm Reply

      • Tourmaline: Dear Victoria,

        I didn’t mean to offend you. I recalled that you had mentioned in a comment, some years ago, that you didn’t often wear nail polish on your fingers because it wasn’t practical given your work. I spent a while looking for the comment, and I think this is the one. It is from your post of January 15, 2016, called “Pink, Perfume and Blush”. Your comment was:

        Victoria: Practical is overrated at times, and one of my favorite coats is a beige A-line. I also bought a bright purple coat during the winter sales.

        You’re reminded me of one of my favorite nailpolishes, Chanel Fracas which is a hot pink. I rarely wear nailpolish on my fingers, since I work with my hands so much, but when I do, it’s an instant boost. January 15, 2016 at 10:54am

        With kind regards,
        Tourmaline August 14, 2020 at 11:29pm Reply

        • Victoria: That comment was from 4 years ago. My thoughts on nailpolish occasionally change. 🙂 August 15, 2020 at 3:33am Reply

          • Tourmaline: My Dad’s don’t. “All nail polish is silly; some colours are just sillier than others.” 😊 August 15, 2020 at 5:03am Reply

          • Tourmaline: Actually, I thought it was probably a matter of practicality rather than of choice. When I read your 2016 comment, I thought that any alcohol or oils you worked with might dissolve or mar the surface of your nail polish, making it easier to wear none. August 18, 2020 at 4:45am Reply

  • Joyce: Oh dear, I hope my earlier comment wasn’t the inspiration for this post. Quite embarrassed now.

    Will keep quiet from this forum from now on…. August 14, 2020 at 9:55am Reply

    • Victoria: Not at all. That video was published several weeks ago, and the post likewise scheduled around that time. But even if it was, it’s nothing to be embarrassed about. August 14, 2020 at 5:16pm Reply

  • Nina Gulka: Hi Veronica…love your videos. You provide a special place to go to in stressful times. Fragrance is an unspoken language that helps us communicate to those around us, creates memories and comforts us. I absolutely have observed that women especially, depending on hair color and overall complexion, tend to lean towards fragrance categories and perhaps its from being told that blondes should wear light fragrance and brunettes should wear spicy in the way fragrances have been marketed? We should all explore the full spectrum of fragrance options and be surprised at what we discover…it may result in some new additions to the perfume tray. August 14, 2020 at 10:16am Reply

    • Victoria: I myself didn’t notice that at all. It’s more about what you eat, your lifestyle, etc. August 15, 2020 at 3:19am Reply

  • Alison: Amber and resin perfumes are the best on me , the dry down of such perfumes especially powdery Amber’s are the best on me, gourmands and sweet perfumes just font work for me and make me smell like those vapour cigarettes. Woody, Masculine perfumes work very well on me as well. August 14, 2020 at 11:56am Reply

    • Victoria: I also like these notes. August 15, 2020 at 3:21am Reply

  • Kat: I have had the experience of loving a scent on a friend and trying it out on myself only to have it smell …not so nice. An example are most Hermès scents, for whatever reason, smell fresh on my friend but turn sour on me. August 14, 2020 at 4:18pm Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, this happens a lot. August 15, 2020 at 3:23am Reply

  • Peter: Aloha Victoria. Mahalo for the informative post.

    I think my skin amplifies Oud. I went and got a blotter sample of Dior Oud Ispahan after reading your evocative review. I was mesmerized by the scent on that blotter and went back and purchased the fragrance without testing it on my skin. The perfume is very dark and smoky on me. It’s a little challenging, but I’ve grown to love it.

    Another Oud blind-buy was Russian Adam’s Malik Al Taif. I read all the hoopla about this limited edition perfume that features a very high concentration of rose oil. Unfortunately, on my skin, the Oud overshadows the rose.

    My last Oud experience was skin testing Montale Black Aoud. The initial smell was awful: harsh and synthetic. After an hour a nicer scent did appear, but it wasn’t worth the overpowering beginning.

    The lesson for me is to always try and sample perfumes on skin, especially Oud. August 14, 2020 at 4:26pm Reply

    • Tourmaline: Hi Peter,

      That’s a shame about your experiences with oud. I have yet to try it. But it’s a valuable lesson for us all – to try scents on our skin prior to making a decision about a purchase. August 14, 2020 at 11:45pm Reply

    • Victoria: I also recommend to try all ouds on skin. Some end up too sharp and medicinal on some people. August 15, 2020 at 3:24am Reply

    • Qwendy: Hi Peter, I have had a very similar experience with Vetiver. On me it dominates to the point that it blocks everything else in the perfume!

      Interestingly in the last few years this has changed a bit, and very well blended Vetiver takes its proper place in the scent.

      Since you are wearing Oud scents you can be alert to your own changes over time, as I am living proof that we definitely change. Perhaps due to hormones ….. I definitely had a few confusing perfume years in my 50s, I imagine due to Menopause, so you never know! August 15, 2020 at 3:56am Reply

      • Peter: Hi Qwendy. It’s kind of exciting that we all have our unique skin chemistry. It’s a personal discovery to learn about our bodies reaction to fragrance and how it may change over time.

        Of the woody notes, I definitely prefer Sandalwood. But I do like Hermes Vetiver Tonka. It’s not harsh and it’s nicely blended. It might be worth a sniff. August 16, 2020 at 4:31pm Reply

        • Qwendy: Peter, I adore woody scents, in fact I can even wear ones that are all (other) base notes, which is funny given my Vetiver Problem …. you are right that Vetiver Tonka did work for me. Yes change on this level is stimulating, one of the areas where we have “control” these days and room for experimentation! August 16, 2020 at 7:22pm Reply

  • Silvermoon: Hello Victoria! I loved the idea of perfume as ‘a bubble of beauty’ around you. So true! Also I imagine many of us think of it being like a soundtrack for special moments in our lives. August 14, 2020 at 4:27pm Reply

    • Victoria: I’m thinking right now what I should pick for today… August 15, 2020 at 3:24am Reply

    • Qwendy: I love both of these images, thanks! August 16, 2020 at 7:15pm Reply

  • shiva-woman: Thank you for discussing “skin chemistry.” My understanding is that Luca T argues that a smell is a smell is a smell (maybe I’m wrong about his theories), but my sense is that smells “smell” quite differently on one another, and then there’s “perception”–another thing entirely. As a Serge Lutens fan, I wear much of his oeuvre, but a few of his new ones, didn’t quite do it for me. I gave L’orpheline to my husband, and it’s “his” signature scent now. I smell no incense or anything like that, but on him, it does have a weird “hauntingly clean” smell–two words that don’t usually go together. I have found that what I smell on myself–is NOT what others pick up.
    And what I like, is not necessarily what others like on me (I usually try to please myself, but if around others will concede a bit). I like the ouds, the masculine woods, the incense and the dark. But sometimes it’s the quick uninspired grab of effervescence that gets loads of compliments. One scent that I quite like–and had people swooning in admiration–was Slumberhouse Kiste. I wore it one day, thinking it was a nice rich fruity scent, a bit overly-fruited, but I like it. I had people following me, asking what I was wearing. Same thing with Coco (I think my skin amps peach and apricots in a good way). It’s very subjective.
    I also have the sad fortune to be anosmic to musks. I cannot smell “Lovely” at all. I also cannot smell Versace Crystal Noir on myself AT ALL or almost any of the Narciso Rodriquez scents. But I gave Versace CN to my husband, and oh my goodness. It is sexy in a bottle, and yes, he wears it with style, regardless of its gendered trappings. I can recognize that smell on other people. So the anosmia is “up close.” At a distance, Versace CN smells amazing–just sophisticated incense (I’m not the only one that picks up on incense)–but it’s labeled a gardenia/floral. Hm… And if I poured a bottle on myself, I wouldn’t perceive it.
    I’m also convinced that we perceive smell on ourselves on “different sides.” I test drive a perfume on both wrists, and on both wrists pick up different elements, with my left wrist being the dominant but also more nuanced perception, and the right picking up louder qualities. Finally, I cannot use the white strip blotter test. It doesn’t work. The perfume doesn’t smell true at all–yet I know that’s the test that real perfumers use. I have to hit the middle notes and top notes right away. One “test” I do to see how a perfume smells “not on me” but more “objectively” is to spray it into my bathwater. I leave the room immediately. I wait and then re-enter to get an overall sense of the perfume. The room has this vast essence permeating throughout with the humidity, and I get a greater view of all its parts that I simply cannot get when first test-driving a perfume. I’m sure this ruins the perfume, and burns the notes, etc., but I do get this “wide open” impression, and I’m later able to recognize those elements in a longer, more subtle way when wearing on my skin. It’s like looking at a forest, and then focusing on a tree.
    I DO have fenugreek which I rarely use except in some occasional Indian recipes, and I’m going to try eating it a couple of times.
    Thank you as always for these informative, fun blog/videos. August 14, 2020 at 8:27pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you for your thoughtful comment. Yes, I agree with you, the perception of a scent matters. What you’ve smelled before will affect how you perceive another scent. It’s quite complex and fascinating. August 15, 2020 at 3:27am Reply

    • Silvermoon: Hi shiva-woman!
      Enjoyed reading your comments. I agree that perception is important in how we receive a perfume. And yes, sometimes a perfume that smells great on others doesn’t sit comfortably on ones own skin. I have never heard about your bath water “test” before. Really fascinating idea, although I am curious about what you look for when you go back in?

      I have never been curious about the Versace perfumes, but now will look to smell Crystal Noir (Gardenia, incense sounds good). August 15, 2020 at 4:54am Reply

    • Qwendy: I love this bathwater technique, can’t wait to try it! August 16, 2020 at 7:32pm Reply

  • rickyrebarco: Excellent recommendations for choosing a perfume and testing new ones. August 14, 2020 at 10:43pm Reply

    • Victoria: I’m glad that you found it helpful! August 15, 2020 at 3:27am Reply

  • annemariec: I agree that the effects of ‘skin chemistry’ are not as dramatic as some people sometimes seem to think. Otherwise, we would never recognise fragrances on other people. I suppose we’ve all walked down the street or sat in close quarters with someone wearing Chanel No 5 or Opium or Coco Mademoiselle or whatever and recognised it immediately. That would never happened if we all ‘make our own perfume’, as a perfume SA told me.

    I know we all should wear perfume for our own pleasure but I do worry sometimes that a perfume that I find quite moderate in sillage might be too strong for my colleagues or fellow commuters. For instance, I don’t find Narciso Rodriquez for Her EDT to have a huge sillage and I find it comfortable rather than ‘carnal’, but I notice a lot of comments from people who find it quite intense. It must be to do with how people perceive musks. August 15, 2020 at 4:49am Reply

    • Victoria: That’s a spot-on observation. It all makes a difference in a subtle way, and while sometimes it’s more obvious to you than to others (“this perfume smells drier on me; Mitsouko doesn’t smell as fruity as it does on my friend, etc.”), a perfume remains recognizable.

      Musks are the biggest culprits in those situations when a person thinks that they can’t smell their own perfume that strongly, while others find it suffocating. August 15, 2020 at 7:54am Reply

  • N: Patchouli seem to amplify on my skin. Also I have no gourmand fragrances in my collection because I find they are cloyingly sweet on me. Even Couleur Vanille turned into salted caramel on my skin. That is interesting about “skin pushing sweet notes”, because that might be what happens to me. That feels like a revelation for me. August 15, 2020 at 10:46am Reply

    • Victoria: How interesting! Yes, some people do experience that. August 17, 2020 at 4:10am Reply

      • N: I had an aha moment reading this piece. I’ve often wondered why that was in the past. Thanks for your posts and fragrance education you provide. August 18, 2020 at 6:32pm Reply

  • Aurora: It’s a fascinating subject, thank you for your video. I wonder if scents are different on vegetarian individuals like myself. I want to do the fennel test. August 15, 2020 at 10:50am Reply

    • Victoria: I’m sure that there would be a difference, although I haven’t compared side by side. August 17, 2020 at 4:11am Reply

  • annemariec: Yes, I’m exactly the same. I have no gourmands except minis of Prada Candy, Chopard Casmir and Kenzo Amour, and I really only keep them for reference.

    I would like Bottega Veneta a lot more if the sweet notes were more subtle but I don’t see too many other complaints about this so I guess it’s just me. August 15, 2020 at 8:46pm Reply

  • Carolyn Middleton: I have always loved the smell of vanilla, but fragrances containing it are revolting on me! Likewise rose, although Perfumer H’s Rose Green is the exception – am assuming the ‘green’ part counterbalances the ‘rose’ part on my skin. A dear friend wore EL’s Beautiful for years & I loved it on her, but when I tried it on me it almost made me gag – I do find the subject of smell, especially what smells fab on one person being horrible on someone else, endlessly fascinating. August 16, 2020 at 9:32am Reply

    • Victoria: Plus, when you smell a perfume on someone, you smell it at distance, while on yourself you smell it up close. That too would make a difference. August 17, 2020 at 4:11am Reply

  • Qwendy: Hi Victoria, such an interesting subject!

    I wonder what you think about the interaction between skin “chemistry” and smell-ability? I have always thought of my peculiar “Funk Blindness” as a vagary of my nose but maybe it is Rather that my own body chemistry that prevents my skin from transmitting “Funk”? Literally Jicky and Visa Just smell ladylike and nice to me, and my husband too, but then again he is smelling them on my skin. Hmmmmmm. August 16, 2020 at 7:30pm Reply

    • Victoria: Hmm, I’m not sure what you mean. August 17, 2020 at 4:09am Reply

      • Qwendy: Oops! Sorry for the incomplete thought …… I guess I just realized that qualities I have always ascribed to my Nose are more related to my Body Chemistry! And there is a kind of interaction with certain anosmias, which I certainly have, probably to Synthetic Musks, and some other synthetics. I don’t have anosmias to any natural essences.

        So thanks for the thought provoking post ;-0 August 17, 2020 at 5:47pm Reply

        • Victoria: That would have made sense if your skin secreted Galaxolide, but I doubt that that’s the case. 🙂 Maybe you use a particular body product or fabric detergent with lots of musks. Or you simply have musk anosmia. August 18, 2020 at 2:00am Reply

          • Qwendy: I guess it’s musk anosmia, but only to certain musk molecules? The first perfume I remember smelling completely off to me was Calandre in 1969 (I just looked it up, I was 12!) and it is called “musk intensive” ;-). But Acampora Musk I smell just fine! So you can imagine how I get confused … I have just made my peace with the fact that there are certain scents I just “can’t smell”! August 20, 2020 at 6:56pm Reply

            • Victoria: It’s rare to be anosmic to all musks, so it’s probably just some types that you can’t smell. August 21, 2020 at 4:05am Reply

  • Ninon: I’m intrigued by your comment about the correlation between hair color and choice of perfume. Is that a myth or is there something to it? August 17, 2020 at 2:08am Reply

    • Victoria: As I said in my comment above, there is no correlation. It’s a myth. August 17, 2020 at 4:07am Reply

      • Ninon: Oh, I misheard you. Thanks! And thank you so much for the videos. They are delightful! August 17, 2020 at 12:42pm Reply

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