Beauty School: The Science of Scents
Choosing a perfume should come down to one thing: do you like the way it smells on you? But since we’re human, and we like to analyze things down to the molecular level (as in, “um he said LOL at the end of his text, what does that MEAN?!”) the process can be a bit more complicated than scent preference alone. Everything from packaging, critical acclaim, and even the words used to describe a scent, has a way of seeping into the decision making process. To help us understand the science behind perfume descriptions, we reached out to David Suffit, AVP of Fragrance Development, L’Oréal Luxe.
When walking through the fragrance department you’ll undoubtedly here a lot of talk about “notes.” To understand what notes are exactly, first you need to know what a scent is made of. “A fragrance is a blend of molecules; this is what is perceived by your brain through your nose. Each molecule has a specific weight; some are light, others heavy. At a given temperature, the lighter molecules are perceived first and it will take more time to smell the heavier ones,” Suffit explains. “The top notes are the elements of a fragrance that you smell during the first 15 minutes after spraying it on skin. Then come the heart notes that will stay on skin for 2 to 3 hours. The base notes are the heaviest elements of a fragrance and will linger on your skin for 4 to 6 hours.”
The notes that make up a fragrance, also affect how it’s described and categorized. “Traditionally, we use some ingredients like flowers and fruits more for feminine fragrances and others like aromatics and woods for masculine fragrances, but essentially, perfumers use the exact same palette for both categories, it’s just a matter of proportions,” Suffit explains. “Defining a fragrance as feminine or masculine is really a modern decision. Going back to the roots of perfumery in the 19th century, there was just fragrance. Everything was made using the limited offering coming from natural ingredients like citruses, herbs, flowers and woods. As the perfumer’s palette started to grow and become more interesting with the addition of synthetic ingredients, modern perfumery created a gender-oriented offering.”
MDC Tip: For feminine summer scents we love Stella McCartney L.I.LY and the new Lancôme La Vie Est Belle L’Égere. Ralph Lauren Polo Red and Jo Malone Vetyver are topping our list for heavier, more masculine scents.
In addition to feminine and masculine, we often hear fragrances described as “light” or “heavy.” According to Suffit, these impressions come from the ingredients used to create the scent. “We often consider citruses to have the lightest scents and musks to have the heaviest. In between, you can find the fruits, herbs and aromatics, spices, flowers, woods, resins and balms and finally the sweet or gourmand ingredients.”
Finally, how a fragrance smells when you spritz also comes down to your body’s chemistry. “Fragrance is a living material; it’s a complex blend of ingredients that interact together and with your skin. It’s all a question of chemistry, based on your skin type, what you eat, your body temperature… your body chemistry will have an impact on the fragrance notes, enhancing or buffering the nuances and eventually making it smell different from one person to another,” Suffit said.
With that in mind, Suffit also advised on how we can choose wisely. “The best way to test a perfume is to allow yourself enough time to find your perfect match. It all starts by a trip to the fragrance counter where you should smell a few fragrances (not more than 5) on blotters (strips of paper used to smell). After smelling on blotters, you should spray on your skin (hands or arms) your 3 favorites and see how they interact with your body. Then ask for samples and take your top 2 or 3 choices back home and try them for a couple of days. You will see which one works the best for you and is the best expression of your olfactive personality.” So, who knew we had olfactive personalities? Must be sure to drop that fun fact into cocktail party conversation soon…
And, there you have it: the science of scents. Do you have any fragrance questions we didn’t cover? Leave ‘em below in the comments!