You’re Not Imagining It: Vanilla Perfume Has Come a Long Way Since Dessert-Scented Body Sprays—Here’s What Makes the New Class Smell So Dang Good
2022 was the year we went back to vanilla, with finger-licking launches in almost every smelly category, including home, beauty, and especially personal fragrance. There were vanilla launches from legacy brands (Gucci's "The Eyes of the Tiger" ($380), Mugler's "Alien Goddess Intense" ($150) and trendy new brands (Phlur's "Not Your Baby" ($96), Kayali's "Vanilla Royale" ($100)) alike, and we loved them. Ellis Brooklyn's "Vanilla Milk" ($108) became the first vanilla perfume I had smelled since middle school that *didn't* give me a headache, whereas By Rosie Jane's "Dulce" ($70)) became W+G's commerce team's go-to, instant mood booster. Even celebrities like Billie Eilish and Ariana Grande jumped on the bandwagon with their own confectionary concoctions: "Eilish" ($72), which drips in moody amber and musk, and "Mod Vanilla" ($68), a posh gourmand heavy on the plum, praline, and cocoa.
Yes, vanilla is back and better than ever. After a particularly volatile, confusing few years, it seems we all craved something sweet and comfortable, known and nostalgic. "Vanilla-dominant fragrances have made a huge comeback since around the start of Covid," says Bee Shapiro, founder of the clean-beauty brand, Ellis Brooklyn. "There's a comfort that references the kitchen and hearth here with food-type scents. There's also a 'treat' aspect to vanilla which is cozy... It references youth and yes, has this delectable quality."
Despite its comeback, vanilla is undoubtedly a polarizing scent. You either love it, or you hate it. While some of us are willing to give it another chance, others have Pink Sugar-induced scars so deep, you couldn't convince them to indulge in a slice of vanilla cake, let alone spray the scent on their bodies.
"There's a little vanilla trauma," says Greta Pagel, fragrance director at Good Chemistry and Illume. Pagel says years of slathering ourselves in frosting-flavored lotions and body mists have caused a taste aversion of sorts, only the bellyache is in our noses. "It's almost like our tastes have changed. So, we're still interested in the decadence and coziness and comfort of vanilla, and yet, getting away from it being too juvenile, too sticky, too sweet. That's where I think people get divided."
So what makes a vanilla perfume or candle tasteful, not treacly?
"It's the quality of the vanilla but also the blend," says Shapiro. "The thing with vanilla is that it's at once so captivating on its own, but it can feel overdone or very stereotypical in a fragrance. What can still be surprising about an ingredient that is so well-loved and so much used? A quality vanilla on its own is complex and beautiful— is there a way to tease more of those facets out?"
What makes a vanilla fragrance 'good'?
1. They're high-quality
As Pagel mentions, our ideal vanilla has matured from cloying and dessert-like to something more sophisticated and elevated. The differentiating factor between the two, experts say, comes from the ingredients.
Noemi Lottiau, a fragrance specialist at Unilever, says that vanilla's signature sweetness comes from vanillin, a molecule first synthesized by perfumers in 1874. Its cousin, ethylvanillin, is about twice as potent and completely changed the game for gourmand fragrances when it was first added to Guerlain's "Jicky" ($145) in 1889 and subsequently "Shalimar" ($125) in 1925.
"What I can see now is that, for a couple of years, we're having more vanilla [perfume] that is woodsy and spicy," says Lottiau. "This is actually closer to the smell of the original vanilla absolute, which is moodier." She says achieving this starts with sourcing high-quality, natural (very expensive) ingredients, like the prized Madagascar vanilla bean. While naturals are preferred, they're not nearly as sustainable or affordable compared to synthetics and other raw sources.
Regardless, "it's the art of the perfumer to balance each fragrance," says Lottiau. "In the fragrance formula, each ingredient has a purpose. If there's too much of an ingredient, you will see it be out of balance."
2. They explore texture
Arnaud Guggenbuhl, head of global marketing, insight, and image for fine fragrances at Givaudan, explains that experimenting with textures (which is what differentiates a "silky" scent from a "powdery" or "velvety" one) can help reinvent traditional bakery-inspired scents. He posits Victoria's Secret's "Tease Crème Cloud" ($80) perfume—which is airy, and whipped-cream-like—against Ellis Brooklyn's "Vanilla Milk," which is creamier and sumptuous. "The reinvention of gourmand is a very grown-up type of gourmand," he says. "You take the same sugary vanilla syrups you'd put on pancakes and you change the texture."
Aside from a product's final name and label, its texture is reexamined with the ingredients themselves. For example, Givaudan is exploring vanilla's texture through upcycled rice, a more sustainable alternative to ethylvanillin extracted from Madagascar vanilla beans. Though subtle, rice does have a sweetness to it (think: coconut rice and rice pudding). "It has a texture that is not normally encapsulated into vanillin," says Guggenbuhl. "You are then able to play really differently from all the first sets of these [vanilla] ingredients [and] it's becoming much more versatile than the way it was treated before."
3. They're not so literal
The root of much vanilla disdain stems from the scents of yore being too on-the-nose. The only thing Pink Sugar smelled like was a cone of cotton candy—there were no base or top notes. "Vanilla on its own is a straightforward scent, but pairing it with complex notes that are unexpected brings what most people want from a fragrance: something familiar and something that is elevated from everyday scents," explains Chrissy Fichtl, founder of the luxury home fragrance and body-care brand, Apotheke. "A 'good' vanilla fragrance will bring in other elements to complement or contrast the sweetness of vanilla, such as clove or rose. Ingredient quality also makes a difference in how luxe a scent comes across."
Experts agree that we're moving away from the hyper-literal, food-inspired perfumes and lotions we wore in the '90s and early 2000s. Today's sugary scents are more complex and counterbalanced with other scents to make them more grown up. "The familiar, accessible vanilla is all of a sudden turning into a prestige, luxury experience," says Pagel. "There's a bit more openness, maybe a fantastical interpretation [to vanilla] today, which is kind of fun, because then the possibilities are pretty much endless, right?"
Tl;Dr—Vanilla is, well, vanilla. It's treacly, it's one-note. A good vanilla fragrance plays with interesting arrangements and pushes the scent to new places, preferably to one of the combinations below.
To give vanilla some depth and break it out of its overbearingly sweet cake mold, fragrance experts are blending it with flowery accords, like rose and peony. "With floral notes such as tuberose, jasmine, cherry blossom—what we call in perfuming this 'exotic flower'—they have really always had this touch of vanilla," says Lottiau. A big trend? Traditional French lavender, which is mintier and more herbaceous than culinary lavender grown in the U.S. "We are seeing more fragrances being mixed with lavender for freshness," says Lottiau.
Like a spring day bursting with sweetness. Apotheke’s refreshing candle uses top-tier fragrance oils to create a creamy, flowery blend with notes of herbal lavender, iris, rose, cardamom, and of course, saffron.
Like vanilla, Axe has recently gotten a makeover and recently unveiled a line of budget-friendly fine fragrances that don’t smell like a boys locker room. Enter, Blue Lavender, a burst of zesty mint, fresh lavender, and warm amber that’s reminiscent of a luxury men’s cologne. If you look, er, smell closely, there’s a touch of vanilla in there, but it’s the florals that really stand out.
New from Homecourt is its line of room deodorants which, “neutralize odors while imparting a fine fragrance.” True to its name, Steeped Rose is blooming with rosy notes, elevated with bright geranium, fruity ylang-ylang, and a smidge of vanilla. It’s fairly sustainable, too; Many of the ingredients, like the rosewater, are upcycled, while the packaging features post-consumer recycled plastic, paper, and non-toxic ink.
Pagel and Guggenbuhl agree that primal, earthy scents, like patchouli, musk, and even vetiver, play really nicely with vanilla and can elevate it from treacly to tasteful. "The best is sandalwood," says Guggenbuhl. "It has the creaminess and woodsy parts that marry really well with vanilla." Solar is another vanilla trend that can take on an earthy tone. These notes have are meant to exude a warmth and light, like you're basking in sunshine. "Juliet Has a Gun has that beautiful 'Vanilla Vibes' fragrance that has a nice sea salt compliment to it," says Pagel. "It's kind of musky and skin-like, so you're getting a beach aspect without it being like a suntan lotion."
Le Labo describes this earthy, dark vanilla fragrance best: “…as if the humid summer underwoods, their seeds and resins, were sprinkled with layers of musks and sweetened with drops of vanilla.” Key notes include orange flower, cedar atlas, stryax resins, tonka, and musk.
On the darker, spicier side, Henry Rose’s Torn blends warm notes of sandalwood and patchouli with decadent praline and vanilla. There’s also a hint of florals, like freesia, rose, and jasmine, to round it out and really give it that outdoorsy scent with a hint of sweetness.
Sweeten up your shower routine with this nourishing body wash from By Rosie Jane. Just like the Dulce fragrance, the body wash elevates traditional vanilla with musk and hinoki wood for an earthier experience. Lather up and drift away into a cloud of vanilla woods, while good-for-you ingredients (cocoa, white tea, and pine bark extract) soothe and hydrate skin.
Creamsicle fans: Listen up. Prepare for vanilla to get a tangy twist. "We've seen [brands] put vanilla into a fresh direction that is quite new," says Guggenbuhl. He explains solar notes work here, too, but fruits like lemon, orange, and lime, balance out the creamy decadence of vanilla.
Touchland’s hand sanitizers basically double as perfume, they smell that good. The vegan, cruelty-free formula features notes of zesty mandarin, coconut water, and ylang petals on top of base notes of vanilla bean, sandalwood, and tonka bean. Mmm.
Lavanila is your one-stop shop for all-things vanilla scented, made with pure, natural, and organic ingredients that are better for you and the planet. The Vanilla Grapefruit blend combines a Madagascar-vanilla-bean base (the hero in all its fragrances) with energizing grapefruit and goji berry for a bright, crisp twist.
Arguably, all of Rio de Janeiro’s products smell like a warm walk on a tropical beach, but its newest launch—the Rio Radiance Mist—takes the cake. That’s thanks to the creamy coconut and juicy mango in each batch that transport you to a Brazilian beach with every spray.
And finally, there's the dark side of vanilla. This mysterious, spicy, sometimes even burnt side of vanilla that really plays on the ingredient's most purest—vanilla absolute. "The best example of this for me is 'Infusion de Vanille' by Prada," says Guggenbuhl. "It gives you this sophisticated, smoky, daring, mischievous side to vanilla that's really interesting."
Part of Byredo’s Night Veil’s collection, Vanille Antique smells like a dark, mysterious speakeasy. In each bottle, “the smoky scent of vanilla bean becomes charged with history and character; transforming into something unexpected, less syrupy and more nuanced,” reads the website. Other key notes include rich plum, cashmere wood, and earthy musk.
Gender-neutral fragrance brand, Abel, recently released Cobalt Amber as a fresh take on the classic amber. It balances dark notes of leather and vanilla with juniper and pink pepper for a sophisticated scent you’ll want to spritz over and over again.
Now that it's back, experts aren't sure vanilla will ever—or ever did—really go away. Lottiau explains vanilla is an "imprinting smell", a scent deeply tied to lifelong memories and feelings of comfort. "Fragrance is all about emotion and memories," she says. "Vanilla is reassuring and enveloping—it's an ingredient that makes us feel good." And now that perfumers know how to elevate the scent, it makes the experience of wearing it that much sweeter.
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