Scent and Your Skin: Get the Chemistry Right

Scent and Your Skin

Did you know that the exact same fragrance can smell wildly different depending on who's wearing it? Amy Brady, 36, learned that bit of spritz science after buying her BFF's signature fruity-floral scent. "The blackberry and vanilla notes I loved on her were completely lost on me — I reeked of musk," says Brady. What gives? "Your skin can alter the way a fragrance smells," explains Robert Fuller, PhD, a professor of chemistry at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA. Read on to discover why — and find a scent that's perfect on you.

Your Skin on Fragrance

Here's why the perfume on that test strip may smell completely different once it's on you.

If your skin is dry… fragrance goes wonky. "Most perfumes are made with ingredients that are attracted to oil," says George Preti, PhD, a researcher at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. The oils in your skin help those notes evaporate slowly, letting the fragrance stay balanced. But when skin is dry, some lighter notes dissipate faster, leaving behind more intense base notes such as musk or sandalwood — and nothing else. Love a delicate citrus or floral? "Apply unscented lotion or oil to your skin before spritzing," says Brooke Banwart, vice president of fragrance for Sephora. "It will hold those notes, so the scent will stay truer."

If your skin is rough… the tiny nooks and crannies (what perfume experts call skin contours) can actually trap fragrance molecules. "The uneven surface means some of the ingredients will evaporate at different rates, making a perfume smell differently from the way it's meant to," says Ahmet Baydar, PhD, executive vice president of research and development at International Flavors & Fragrances. Again, prepping skin with moisturizer before spritzing on your perfume may stop some notes from evaporating too quickly. Regular exfoliation also helps.

If your skin's pH is off… your fragrance can smell different, says Anne Nelson Sanford, perfumer and founder of LurkBeauty. What, exactly, is pH? It's a measure of how acidic or alkaline something is. (Your skin's happiest state is slightly acidic.) And even a temporary imbalance — often caused by an alkaline soap — can change your fragrance, she says. "Switch to a gentle, unscented body cleanser that's designed not to affect your skin's pH," advises Fuller. One soap-free option: Dove Sensitive Skin Body Wash ($5.50, drugstores).

If your diet is — how shall we put it? — a little pungent… the aroma comes through your pores for days, and it doesn't always play nicely with your perfume. Garlic is the major offender, but other foods include red meats; certain spices such as curry and cumin; and vegetables like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and asparagus. The by-products flushed through skin from garlic and red meat can take floral notes from fresh to sour fast, while a mix of garlic and a citrus scent may produce an intensely sharp odor. Then there's alcohol. As your body processes a few drinks, excess sugars are released through your pores. When they combine with your fragrance, the effect is either unpleasant or over-the-top sweet, says Nelson Sanford. Bottom line: If your usual scent suddenly smells off, consider your last meal.

Sniff Out a New Scent

How to find the right mix for your skin's chemistry? Use the tricks perfumers swear by.

Test early, smell often.

"Try a new scent in the morning," says Nelson Sanford. "At this point, your skin is fairly clean and you haven't eaten a lot of different foods yet." You'll get a good baseline impression; then check the scent throughout the day to see how it develops. Baydar suggests waiting at least two hours before you decide to buy.

Spritz your skin.

Blotter sticks and scent strips are a good way to get an initial whiff, but once you've narrowed down your choices to a few favorites, go straight to skin. The inside of your forearm, a typically smooth spot, is the area most perfumers tend to test, but Nelson Sanford suggests also dabbing it on the outside of your forearm to see how it smells on thicker, drier skin.

Stick to three scents.

Any more than that and "you simply won't smell as well anymore," says Banwart. Strange, right? It's actually your body's defense mechanism to ensure you don't overload your nervous system, she explains.

Go with your usual beauty routine.

It's tempting to skip your favorite scented body lotion if you know you'll be fragrance browsing, but go ahead and slather it on, says Banwart. "You want to get a sense of how your new fragrance will work with your regular products," she says. "People tend to be attracted to similar scents, so there's a good chance they won't compete."

What's Your Best Bouquet?

For a scent that stays true, pay attention to the label. Here are some words to watch for:

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Perfume Oil

With no alcohol or water and a hefty percentage of fragrance (40% to 100%), oils are slow to break down and are ideal for dry skin. They're also a good pick if you enjoy fresh notes, like the bright lemon of MCMC Fragrances Hunter Perfume Oil ($45, mcmcfragrances.com).

Parfum

These have a high concentration of fragrance oil (20% to 40%), so the notes will last longer on most skin types. That's especially nice when it's a pretty floral like Aerin Rose de Grasse Parfum Spray ($185, aerin.com).

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Eau de Toilette

In a lightweight eau de toilette, such as Chanel Chance Eau Vive Eau de Toilette ($77, department stores), the top notes tend to evaporate quickly on drier skin — so lotion up, ladies! If you have oily skin, that zesty-fresh smell will linger a bit longer.

Eau de Parfum

The fairly concentrated eau de parfum (8% to 25% fragrance oil) is richer when blended with an "oud" — the exotic, incenselike scent made from agarwood. Ouds are everywhere now; we like Annick Goutal 1001 Ouds Eau de Parfum ($280, annickgoutal.com).

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Cologne

The lightest of fragrances, cologne tends to fade fastest. Try one with richer notes — such as the sandalwood in Jo Malone London Mimosa & Cardamom Cologne ($125, jomalone.com) — for extra staying power.

This story originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.

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