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February 02, 2006

Perfume Whom

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Oh boy, am I going to catch hell for this one.

Inadequate researching, sloppy logic, social tone-deafness, mounds of clichés, intellectual unseriousness, lousy writing -- they're all probably here (what else is new?). Worst of all, I'm likely to be stepping on delicate toes of self-esteem. (How's that for a clunky metaphor?)

Anyhow ... I recently was on my way into the local monstermarket to buy a Wall Street Journal and a Starbucks ("tall drip with room, please"). Exiting was a twentysomething gal who was pretty well dressed -- knee-length dress, high heels, etc. And she was overweight. Not what I'd call fat, exactly, but noticeable.

What I really noticed was that she was reeking with perfume.

Let me clarify "reeking." I could smell the stuff from 20 feet away; it was sorta like there was a bow-wave of odor. Perhaps that's not quite right. The entry of the building had one of those air-curtains, so it's possible that the bow-wave effect might have been enhanced a trifle. Still, the stench ... er, smell ... was seriously strong at the point where we passed one another.

Naturally this micro-drama got me to thinking, and here's what I came up with:

I don't consider myself a perfume-fascist. If a perfumed someone enters a room I don't instantly gag and order that someone to leave, pleading one health excuse or another. I have pretty good manners, so I'll likely sit there and take it. After all, I don't think I'm allergic to perfume.

Still, I can't recall any positive experiences related to strong perfume whereas I remember some bad ones; to wit:

  • Ages ago at a frat house conference at another college I got fixed up with a date. I didn't find her attractive in the first place, and in the second place she was wearing strong perfume that had a slightly sour smell. Hmm, was she trying to tell me something?

  • At Dear Old Penn I once had to attend an evening demography seminar (the prof couldn't meet during the day that week). Next to me sat a real babe who was wearing perfume, and over the course of two hours a lot of it wafted onto me. Arriving home, my wife immediately smelled the perfume and assumed I'd been hot 'n' heavy instead of taking notes about population statistics (if only!!). So we had a grand fight that evening. Which was nothing new since her favorite after-dinner sport was drinking a couple vodka cocktails and starting a fight. Did I mention that it was a brief marriage?

My strictly non-scientific view is that women who fall into the less-attractive category, if they are perfume-wearers at all, tend to spray on too much of the stuff. I might be missing a deeper meaning, but I suppose they over-perfume in the belief that it will make them more attractive.

Except when it's really noticeable, I'm indifferent to perfume but would rather that it not be used at all. Its presence definitely does not make a woman seem more appealing to me. The risk is all on the down-side.

And cologne for men? I used to use it when I was in college but haven't since, even though The Fiancée would like it if I did.

Friedrich von Blowhard delved into perfume and other aspects of fashion and genetics in this interesting post: it's well worth a read.



posted by Donald at February 2, 2006


An interference factor here might be smokers, who have a damaged sense of smell and might also be trying to cover the tobacco odor. That describes my sister, who has always been remarkably good-looking.

Posted by: John Emerson on February 2, 2006 09:51 PM

When I was in the eighth grade in Portland, OR, in 1953, there was a remarkably handsome boy that we all fell in love with. One bold and predatory girl got into his locker and poured his winter hat (padded, with ear flaps) full of Taboo perfume. My eighth grade has reconvened (now 66 years old and somewhat diminished by deaths along the way) and we still talk about it. It was like openly flaunting sex in a world where the girls barely needed bras and the boys might have worn cups but the girls didn't know there was such a thing. Maybe it had something to do with pheromones and maybe it had something to do with skunks. WE thought it was a terrifically sexy thing to do, but I doubt that his mother thought so.

In her last years my mother wore "Aromatics" perfume -- pretty strong because, as she said, her smeller was a little worn out. But she didn't know it. When I bought her some stuff called "Packages" I THINK, which was a lighter version of "Aromatics", she got the hint at once and was mortified. The smell was so associated with her that when she died, my brothers hid her perfume so I wouldn't get it.

Once in summer stock theatre I was very close to a man whose "Bermuda Lime" we both wore. We had a chaste though intensely emotional relationship and it made a connection that was respectable.

Once I lived in an apartment down the hall from a Vietnamese couple and was nearly bowled over by the perfume on them and their apartment -- it smelled of baby powder, but very intensely. Sometimes the Blackfeet girls here will wear something similar.

I love men's cologne, preferably on a man, but like to wear it myself, too.

What does it all mean? Darned if I know, but one's "smeller" is connected so directly to one's brain that if one were to sniff gas, it dissolves the front part of the brain.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on February 2, 2006 09:52 PM

I blogged about my highly unpleasant experience yesterday, being stuck for an hour on the train next to a woman who reeked of cheap perfume. Why is it that women who drench themselves with too much perfume always seem to use _cheap_ perfume?

Posted by: Peter on February 2, 2006 10:19 PM

Interesting, Mary--your comments about wearing men's cologne and particularly Bermuda Lime. My favorite--when I wear it at all--is Bermuda Spice. I bought it for a beau decades ago and loved the scent so much that after we broke up I searched it out here in the States for myself. It has a scent reminiscent of those red cinnamon smelling licorice nickels.

Posted by: susan on February 3, 2006 12:03 AM

As a man who puts on a few scents in the morning, I realize the perfume is for other people ... strong natural single smells, mint, sage, basil. So I smell vaugely nice in close comforts.

The urge to cover yourself in cheap perfume seems like an insecurity ... you worry you smell horrible, so you overdo it with too much cheap, horrible, cover-up.

Dorthey Parker was known around the Vouge offices for covering herself in some horrid "floral" scent that lingered for weeks after she left.

Posted by: JL on February 3, 2006 01:34 AM

I am firmly of the opinion that scent should not be worn in the workplace. Not because I'm some kind of fascist. Only because I love this quote:

"Don't wear perfume at work. You're on a job - not a date."

And to Peter: the reason why women who wear a lot of perfume almost invaribly wear cheap perfume, is economics. If you felt compelled to use perfume by the gallon, you too, might very well seek out the cheaper stuff (or bulk rates).

Posted by: David on February 3, 2006 10:52 AM

I had to leave a cafe recently because a couple sat down several tables away and completely stank the place out. It was vile. Couldn't tell if it was woman-perfume or man-perfume or what, but it was strong and chemical and clearly deliberate. Unbelievable.

Posted by: Alice on February 3, 2006 11:08 AM

I wonder if part of it's "cultural" too. One problem I have with seeing classical music at the stuffy (er, prestigious) venues is the amount of perfume and powder a lot of the women wear. (Expensive in this case, no doubt.) Seems to be part of the dressing-up-and-going-out ritual, at least at this ritzy level. But I react very badly to it -- headaches, fevery feelings, etc. The crowededness and claustrophobia really get to m.So I tend to be happier seeing art music at smaller, cheaper places where people aren't done-up as ritzily.

Seems to come from another era too, doesn't it?

I've found one exception to the I-dislike-perfumes rule, though. There are some health-food-type body oils that feature very subtle aromas (vanilla, that kind of thing). Fun to rub 'em on the Wife, and they don't bug me. I don't think they have chemicals or even alcohol -- maybe that's why ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 3, 2006 12:12 PM

Being forced into two situations, both happened to me this morning, I hesitate to choose which one was worse:

* first subway car I entered was soaked in hazardous unwashed-for months body/clothes stink emanating from the bum spread comfortably on 3 seats (where, interesting, were the subway police who fine normal people for violating ridiculous "no open drink" rule?)

* after jumping off that car, with relief, onto the platform and then to the other car at the next stop I realised my joy was premature. There was a female, dressed in goth skirt in fatigue pattern, reggae-style crocheted hat and former DDR military jacket, reeking of violets and lily-of-the-valley!

Posted by: Tatyana on February 3, 2006 12:21 PM

When I finished your post I leapt to the comments as I agreed that you had stepped into a world of hurt as does anyone who calibrates anything to attractiveness. I'm suprised and the Fox Entertainment in me is a little disappointed to see the moderate response.

I have a very poor sense of smell, which can be a blessing for someone who lives in Jersey City and works in New York. Usually the only time I notice scent is when I wander too close to the spray-harpies in a department store.

In college, though, there was a lovely girl with whom I was friendly and flirtatious, but not involved. Unfortunately. I think I'm a bit younger than you so the woman with whom I was involved was probably not your ex-wife, but your description sounded familar. She wore an expensive perfume which seemed okay to me at the time. The other woman wore a popular scent, I think it was White Shoulders. Whenever I smelled it, even if I was on stage and the scent came from the audience, I became enchanted. Enraptured, actually, and I would have to struggle to maintain full consciousness. That scent has that effect on me, in a muted fashion to this day. When I encounter my girlfriend's scent it puts me in mind of a urinal.

Posted by: Sluggo on February 3, 2006 12:48 PM

When did everyone become so grim? In San Antonio at the opera, a woman passed by, her scent at first just a hint and then there and then gone. It was wonderfully complex, a bouquet of scents, and ten years later I still regret not asking her for its name.

Posted by: anonymous on February 3, 2006 01:54 PM

Michael: I don't think they have chemicals or even alcohol -- maybe that's why ...

As a chemist, I have to break it to you that even vanilla-scented body oils from health food stores have chemicals in 'em. That's partly because everything's made of chemicals to start with (standard industry-shill answer), of course.

But even if you mean "man-made chemicals", vanilla is one of the scents whose "note" is almost entirely due to one compound, and it doesn't matter much if it was pressed from a bean from Madagascar or was loaded off a truck from a lab in Newark. Over the years, Cook's Illustrated has run a couple of comparison tests and found that no one really seems to be able to distinguish natural and synthetic vanillas.

Most other natural aromas are a lot more complicated, to be sure, with all sorts of trace constituents adding to the effect. (That's why there's no such thing as a realistic synthetic equivalent to the smell of a strawberry, say, or to many flowers).

Cheap, penetrating banana or pineapple scent, though? No problem. And the main notes in cheap perfumes must come from the stuff that you can buy in railroad-tank-car quantities. My nose is nowhere near as sensitive as my wife's, but bucket-of-perfume women (and the occasional bucket-of-cologne man) will still clear me out.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on February 3, 2006 02:16 PM

Derek -- I'm assuming that the reason I don't get headaches from a vanilla-scented-health-food-body-oil has to do with the fact that it's not a perfume -- I suspect that whatever it is that sets me off has less to do with the aroma-chemical and more to do with whatever other chemicals it is that makes up a perfume. Alcohol, maybe? Other things? Anyway, the actual aroma of a perfume doesn't seem to matter to my noggin, just the fact that it's a perfume. Body lotions and such generally don't set me off.

But it could all be psycho-somatic too, I suppose ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 3, 2006 02:23 PM

Michael, body lotion-yes, parfumes-no? Yours is not a normal condition.
Sorry for any possible offence, I wasn't forewarned.

Posted by: Tatyana on February 3, 2006 02:57 PM

Donald: pheromones are powerful things; can't tell you how many times I had a strong negative reaction(I'm trying to be nice here) to an otherwise intelligent and perfectly charming guy due to nauseating mouth smell (especially if "covered up" with a mouthwash and cologne).
Common wisdom of "women love with their ears, men with their eyes" applies only if the smell is not revolting, I'm sure of that.

Perfumes (and scents in general) choosing is a matter of highly personal preference and level of registration (forgive the awkward expression). An amuzing book on a subject (fiction, and might be too...over-the-board dramatic for a male reading)is Patrick Zuskind's "Perfume".

Posted by: Tatyana on February 3, 2006 03:20 PM

I heard recently that a man I used to be involved with said he'd love to see me again because I "always looked great and wore great perfume."

A man I was once engaged to told me in a clinch once that I smelled great, but I "always did"---and yes I was wearing some Estee Lauder perfume.

Obviously, not all men share the same sensibilities!

But they do teach you some tricks to make sure you don't overdo it. Remember the scene in "Broadcast News" when Holly Hunter spays perfume in the air and then walks through it. One way to make sure you don't knock people over.

But I also happen to like aftershave on a guy.

Posted by: annette on February 3, 2006 03:51 PM

The feminine arts! Gotta love 'em. I mean that seriously!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 3, 2006 03:56 PM

Most perfumes are indeed in an ethanol (or ethanol/water) base. But I doubt that this is what's driving Michael's perfume-versus-lotion discrimination, since the ethanol is actually long gone by the time you run into someone reeking during the working day.

My guess is that it's one or more of the various scent bases and fixatives - musk, vetiver, ambergris, balsam, civet, and so on. You don't find those as much in non-perfume products, whose scent isn't their whole purpose.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on February 3, 2006 04:00 PM

I think cheap perfume might actually smell stronger. When I was 14, my boyfriend gave me some tearose perfume. Of course, it was cheap...we were 14. But I wasn't terribly knowledgeable about these things at the time.

I did notice it seemed fairly heady stuff, however, so I used HALF a spritz. When I got to gym class that morning and began undressing, some older, snotty girls started looking around and shrieking about how the place reeked of cheap perfume. I was mortified. But I swear, it was a tiny amount of perfume. I never wore it again.

I hardly ever wear perfume now, though I do like it. When I do, it's only noticeable to people standing close enough to kiss and/or molest me. Which is exactly how it should be. Heh.

Posted by: Peggy Nature on February 3, 2006 07:21 PM

Honestly, Donald, if the girl looks good, I'm not apt to much care what kind of perfume she wears. I'm generally thinking about something else.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on February 3, 2006 07:41 PM

Funny, I'm normally the leftist, feminist puritan around here. Perfume seldom bothers me and sometimes I like it. I can't stand the scents they put in soaps, shampoos, and cleaning supplies, theough -- they tend to be overpowering and uninteresting.

Posted by: John Emerson on February 3, 2006 07:42 PM

Chronic migraine and gratuitous odors do NOT go well together, let me tell you. All sensory input gets turned up to 5000%, and a lot of cheap perfumy things are the olfactory equivalent of staring into the sun. With a good set of binoculars. (Years ago, before the migraine problem developed, I used to get headaches and sickly feelings from certain odors, like what Michael talks about. Maybe a couple of aspirin before facing an over-perfumed situation could help.)

What really drives me crazy are the deodorizer (har har) spray cans that some evil person puts in the bathrooms at work. The smell of shit I can deal with. But the combination with DuPont Floral Mixture #17 is staggeringly bad--H.P. Lovecraft would not have the words to describe it.

Posted by: Daniel Newby on February 3, 2006 09:05 PM

Oh how I love to talk about smells! My first perfume was Wrigley Carnation in a hobnail milk glass bottle that could be converted into a lamp. My first REAL perfume was "White Shoulders." My first "precious" perfume was "Act IV" -- at least I thought it was precious. My high school acting teacher gave it to me and she was really classy. The first perfume that made a man really react was Estee Lauder's "Aliage." I still love it, though one of my Blackfeet students said I smell like a mushroom.

And I love "Opium." Even after I once got trapped in a malfunctioning and too small elevator in the Multnomah County Courthouse that was loaded with "ladies of the night" wearing wet fur coats with "Opium" permeating them, I still loved "Opium." So many people loved it that the sample spray bottles were all kept under the counter or filled with water.

But my favorite perfume story is about the brand called "Nokomis" and advertised as meaning "the moon." Actually, it was an Indian word (forget which tribe) for Grandmother. As one listserv Indian put it, "My grandmother smelled of Bengay, tobacco, and spearmint chewing gum."

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on February 3, 2006 09:55 PM

Derek Lowe,

Please take pity on a fellow Hendrix graduate ('84) and a Ph.D. from a major research university.

This equation has appeared on your blog and 2 Blowhards:

A bat and a ball together cost $1.10. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

I can't figure out why the answer is five cents instead of 10 cents. Would you take a minute to explain? THANKS!

Posted by: beloml on February 3, 2006 10:28 PM

Somewhere in my distant past is a lady I think of now and again, not least because she was very adept in the feminine arts. There was some perfume that she favored...I never knew the name of it, and her use of it was fairly subtle, but I came to associate the scent with her. Years later, I ran into a nebulosity of that same scent in a movie theater, and instantly all the thoughts and feelings and memories of that lady hit me like the proverbial ton of building materials. Almost went straight to the pay phone in the lobby to call her... I also recall some gift-giving occasion when I asked her what she'd like, and she mentioned that giving her a bottle of Opium would certainly make her day. The stuff was expensive, though, and I didn't know much about parfumerie, so I didn't follow up on the hint. Maybe I should have?

Then there was another lady who lived in another state and we started corresponding on some matter I've forgotten. I didn't realize anything was up until the letters began coming drenched in some rose-scented perfume. That ended before I ever even met the woman in person, but the mailman seemed to give me funny looks forever after. I've always associated that particular scent with memories of that time and place.

I've read somewhere that odors are the most powerful memory setter-offers, and after all that I think I believe it.


Posted by: Dwight Decker on February 4, 2006 12:37 AM


call the ball's price x. Then the bat's price is 1+x, and the total price 1+2x=1.10. So x=.05, or 5 cents.

Posted by: Zach on February 4, 2006 02:29 PM

Belomi, I'm '83 myself, so I'm sure we know each other somehow. The "ten cents" answer is indeed the first thing that pops into a person's head, and it can be hard to get it out of there. But if the ball cost ten cents and the bat costs a dollar more than that, then that means the bat costs $1.10 all by itself, so the two of them together would cost $1.20.

Knock it down to five cents, though, and you land just right: five cents for the ball, a dollar more give you $1.05 for the bat, and together they're $1.10.

Sorry for hijacking the comment thread. We now return to perfume-related topics!

Posted by: Derek Lowe on February 4, 2006 11:51 PM

Zach and Derek,

Thanks for the answer. And thanks for letting me briefly interrupt this thread, Blowhards.

Posted by: beloml on February 6, 2006 10:33 AM

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