Makeup & Beauty

Why Is the Way We Interact With Fragrance So Subjective? We Asked Perfume Experts

Once upon a time, Allure ran advice columns by our favorite beauty pros. In celebration of our 30th anniversary, we’re bringing back the tradition — but this time the expert is: us (we’ve learned a lot over the years). Send your burning (or itching, or otherwise inflamed) questions to [email protected], and we might answer them in an upcoming story. 

I love my new woodsy perfume — it brings me back to my grandparents’ yard — but
my partner… could do without it. Why is the way we interact with scent so subjective?

One day in Capri, the smell of the Tyrrhenian Sea filled the air and Champagne bubbles tickled my nose as I got engaged. I remember what I was wearing, olfactorily speaking: Dior Lucky, a joyful lily of the valley. This bottle of happiness still transports me back to that day — and there are five good reasons why.

1. There’s a biological pathway between scent and emotion. 

With each breath we take, we inhale more than air. Above the nasal cavity is the olfactory bulb and, when stimulated by scent molecules, its neurons send messages directly to the brain’s limbic system, which controls behavioral and emotional responses. So, as we perceive smell, we get an emotional bang at the same time, says Rachel Herz, PhD, a neuroscientist and adjunct assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University. 

If you lose your sense of smell, a condition known as anosmia, you may experience a significant void in how you process emotions, and memories can even be incomplete. “[Odor] affects countless subconscious interactions we have throughout our lives,” says Zara Patel, MD, an associate professor of otolaryngology at the Stanford University School of Medicine. “It is a primary determining factor in how we choose sexual partners and life mates, and it allows us to pick up on and respond to many social cues.”

2. It’s all a bit of a mind game.

“Smells exist only in our heads. Molecules exist in the air, but we can only register some of them as ‘smells,'” writes psychologist Avery Gilbert, PhD, in What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life. How you think something smells — good, bad, funky, clean — depends on your experiences. When two people sniff a perfect May rose, they can have totally different reactions based, in part, on their memories associated with that scent. 

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