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April 24, 2008

Do You Have Skin? On Skin Chemistry and Perfume


“Do you have skin? I only need one arm.” I am in my office speaking on the phone with an evaluator (an individual who works with the perfumer to guide him/her on the project). Spending most of my waking hours in the fragrance world sometimes makes me feel as if I am jettisoned into another universe. It is small, closed, and very passionate.  The language it uses is laden with industry specific jargon and turns of phrase. Take the aforementioned and very common scenario. The first time I heard this question I was utterly baffled, being completely unprepared for such a query. Of course, the answer is simple—skin is needed to test the fragrance. Although paper blotters are used heavily to study the development of a fragrance composition, the skin is the ultimate test. As a result, I wear no fragrance to work to make sure I “have skin,” and I return home wearing up to 8 different perfumes on my arms. I always get a seat on the train. …

As a perfume blog writer, I receive many emails asking for fragrance advice. About 30% of questions touch upon skin chemistry and its effects on fragrance. Does skin chemistry affect the way one wears perfume? Why fragrance X smells wonderful on my friend and sour on me? Why do all of my perfumes smell different now that I have started a new prescription medication? Among fragrance journalists and writers, the opinions seem to fall in two radically different camps—skin chemistry does not matter at all and skin chemistry determines everything. In the perfume industry, however, the effects of skin chemistry on perfume are taken for granted. It matters and it affects the way fragrance develops. Every round of fragrance mods (a series of new trials) needs to pass a skin test, and every meeting with the customer includes a time when the fragrance is smelled on the skin. Some perfumers insist on smelling their compositions on several different people before making further decisions.

I admit that until I started smelling the same perfume on different people, I had no inkling how much the results might vary. Sure, Light Blue will not smell like Chanel No 5 on another person, but one might notice some differences from one individual to another. The top note is where the change is particularly noticeable, but the drydown can be altered quite dramatically as well by specific skin chemistry. In a sense, it is not surprising. As a baseline, every skin has its own specific scent, which is determined by diet*, hormones, lifestyle (smoking, alcohol consumption, etc.) and overall health.  Indeed, in the ancient times, doctors would smell the wrists of their patients in order to determine their state of health.   

The perfume’s lasting power is another skin chemistry related matter. In my experience, green, fresh fruity and citrusy compositions seem to be particularly sensitive. Dry skin may not retain as much of the volatile elements, while the reverse is true for skins that are naturally moist. In other words, if you have dry skin and have trouble wearing sheer, sparkling fragrances, moisturizing with some light lotion is often the best remedy. Beware that many unscented lotions contain elements that cover up the chemical odor of their bases, which can likewise mute the effect of your perfume.

Although the olfactive profile of a perfume would be represented most completely on the skin of someone who is healthy, does not smoke, does not drink a lot of coffee or eat heavily garlicky and spicy foods, one does not have to aim to be a perfect human blotter. I find it interesting that although seven women in my circle of friends wear Angel, it still smells slightly different on us. One friend’s skin emphasizes the citrusy fruity top notes, another’s the dark chocolate facet. The scientist in me yearns for a control study, but for the time being, my unscientific observations suffice to peak my curiosity. In conclusion, whatever the effect of skin chemistry, I love the fact that my perfume can be truly personalized by my skin. 


* If you are up to a small experiment, drink an infusion of fenugreek seeds and smell your arm the next morning. You will notice a caramel, maple syrup like note on your skin.

Image of Marylin Monroe from The Age.



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