Whenever a new perfume comes across the Well+Good Beauty Desk, the first thing fellow beauty editors Ali Finney, Rachel Lapidos, and I do is take turns sniffing it. And every time, without fail, we have completely opposite reactions to the fragrance, ranging from “OMG I love this!” to “ewww” to “eh, it’s fine.” All of this is to say that we like very, very different things spritzed on our wrists and wafting into our noses, which has recently had me wondering: Why? What makes Ali love the scent of patchouli and me
want to gag every time it comes within two feet of me not love it?
It all comes down to the intrinsic link between scent and memory. “Scent preference can be influenced by so many exterior factors, both consciously and unconsciously,” explains Sarah Horowitz, the in-house perfumer at Skylar. “There are cultural preferences that we grow up with, and then more specific experiences that can affect how we react to a scent. Remember that scent is the strongest memory trigger, so this plays a huge part in influence.”
So, for example, I absolutely love the smell of (…don’t judge me) Axe Body Spray, because it reminds me of making out with my high school boyfriend after football practice, and yet, that likely won’t hold true for everyone. As Horowitz puts it, “If you had many happy memories by the ocean, you may love the salty scent of the sea. If you had a bad break up with someone who wore a particular scent, that fragrance will forever remind you of that person.” Scientifically, this checks out. A number of studies have confirmed that fragrance can trigger emotional memories, which is why I’m transported to the Moses Brown School bleachers when I catch Phoenix wafting through the air.
Even for scents that may seem to be “universally positive,” like freshly baked bread, clean laundry or vanilla (which, fun fact, has historically been used as the “pleasant” control scent in psychological scent experiments), there are still some people who will turn up their noses at them. “There are always exceptions, especially if one has had a bad experience that involved these particular scents,” says Horowitz. “You can start to hate a scent you once loved if you have a bad experience with it. Think of tequila after your first time of overindulging. I’m sure everyone agrees that it takes a long time to want to smell tequila again.”
As for why we all generally hate “gross” smells like cat pee and hot garbage, that, too, comes down to the associations our brains have with them. Case in point: “If you’ve smelled a lot of rotting food in your life, you think then about how bad it might taste,” says Joseph Vittoria of Olfactory NYC, noting that if that’s the case, you’d probably be skeeved out by the stink. “But let’s say you’re someone who’s never smelled rotting food, and then you smell it, and you might kind of like it depending on how you’re wired. Whatever memories it triggers tends to be what create the reaction.”
He explains that there are actually probably many fewer “universally bad” scents than you might think, noting, “There are plenty of fragrances that people would smell and have a choking reaction, but then you have people come in and that’s all they want to smell.” AKA: Why Ali wants to smell like palo santo and patchouli and I’ll have nothing to do with it.
So is there anything you can do to change your scent preference once a particular fragrance has been ruined for you (…like the time I spilled an entire my favorite perfume in my everyday tote, and now can’t smell it without wanting to gag?). Sadly, no. “At the end of the day, barring surgical removal of the part of your brain that controls memory, my answer will always remain that it’s highly unlikely,” says Gaye Straza, founder and CEO of Kai Fragrance. “When it comes to scent, there is zero gray area.”
The good news? At least Ali, Rachel and I will never have to fight over the same bottle of perfume.
For perfume that does more than just make you smell good, try one of these functional fragrances to help relieve stress. And these iconic (and bougie) candles will keep you home #lit and smelling amazing all season long.
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