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Monday, October 09, 2006

Skin Chemistry

Article by Erin

I have often thought that Murphy must have been a perfume lover; only a scent hound could have such a perverse eponymous law. In fragrance circles, the most popular variation on his theme regards lasting power. I formulate it thusly: (x/2) + y = z, where x is equal to how disappointed you are by a fragrance on a scale of 0 to 10, y is equal to the number of sprays applied and z is equal to the number of times you will need to shower with exfoliates to stop smelling. I call this Scrubbers Theorem, and I first posited it in seclusion after, in a moment of (un)happy abandon in Barneys, I sprayed up one arm with Une Fleur de Cassie and down the other with Miel de Bois. God help me, I believe Andrew Wiles suffered less with Fermat’s Last Theorem.

The contrarian nature of skin chemistry is also frequently lamented. This reminds me of the ridiculous Blood Type diet called Eat Right 4 Your Type. As far as I can see, the nutritional advice is half junk science and half common sense, but the program does have its miraculous Murphy aspect: somehow your blood type seems to determine what you like to eat and this diet tells you not to eat those things. Skin chemistry is a similar kind of bad joke.

I have always loved dark, rich, oriental scents of the Opium and original Boucheron variety – probably because my mother favored them. This jives with my inclinations in other areas: colors (autumn tones like forest green, rusty orange, chocolate brown, deep reds and burgundies), food (strong, rustic flavors, please, and heavy on the spices, fat and booze), gems (garnets, emeralds, alexandrite), music (heavy orchestration, even in pop songs, and an almost vulgar amount of brass in classical), and activities (romantic dining, dancing, night-owl reading, having a bath etc.) Most women aspire to their own hopeless beauty ideal and mine is a menacingly statuesque type, with the cheekbones, stare and bearing of an aristocrat and the shoulders of an action hero (think Sigourney Weaver, Anjelica Huston or Angela Bassett). Any method of determining “fragrance personality” I have encountered has asked for these kinds of lifestyle or aspirational preferences, and all have recommended heavy oriental perfumes.

So what actually smells good on me? I can only describe them as en plein air scents. Instead of the Moroccan market exoticism of damascones (dried fruits and some rose petals), my skin delights in astringent, acidic fruity notes, particularly grapefruit, mandarin, bergamot and pineapple. Bitter-mossy, herbaceous, zesty, watery and oily resinous scents all seem to work, and so I have luck with chypres, fougeres and hesperidia. Lavender, mint and bright tea notes are startlingly right. Clary sage is heaven. Roots – ginger, licorice, vetiver – smell great as accents if they convey an airiness. Similarly, hay and grass notes smell wonderfully breezy, sunny and open on me.

With some ingredients, I can play to my strengths. Leathers work better if they are the rugged (Lonestar Memories, Yatagan) and not refined sort and woods if they are very dry or camphorous. Ambers are tricky, with some of the “browner” ones turning flat and cosmetic on me, like foundation. As for spice notes, cloves and cinnamon often fail, alas, but I have luck with lemony cardamom and coriander. Smells others describe as creamy (rice, milk, chocolate or tonka notes) usually exhibit waxier, nuttier qualities on me, so an Omnia or Ormonde Jayne Champaca is very balmy sheer. Some things it seems I’ll never be ever to pull off – violets, frangipani – and other aromas never seem to make much of an appearance at all. Strangely, though they smell great on me initially, some smoky notes take little time to vanish in a puff of, well… no smoke. Dusky florals like gardenia and magnolia delight me in the bottle or on fabric but disappear on my skin, with the cheerful, thick-pile lactones of peaches (one of my least favorite fruits to eat) blooming instead in scents like Dolce Vita and Divine.

Overall, I smell best as the hearty outdoorsy type I most certainly am not. It is like coveting the dramatic, shadowed world of Baroque chiaroscuro paintings by Rembrandt and Caravaggio and ending up with a Monet haystack. This is made more painful, of course, by the fact that many people I know would love to smell like a meadow or plantation instead of a big, bass blast of operatic tuberose. Please, y’all, share your pain.

24 Comments:

Blogger tmp00 said...

well, it changes over the years. I've found (and been told) that I have a peculiar chemistry that presents scents pretty much as they come out of the bottle. I've been complimented for years on Annick Goutal, I think because the sillage is great. Most of the Serge Lutens I wear can't be smelled until one is up very close, and I have discovered that I do have a personal "deskankotron" that turns the frightening slightly anal parts of MKK and CB musk into a nice skin scent, even mixed. (I've worn it to work waiting for the "Ron Jeremy" moment, and it's never come, even when I've asked if it was there) Oh well, if I can get away with MKK at work and only entertain myself, my work is done

12:32 AM EDT  
Blogger Erin said...

I'm not sure whether your chemistry confirms the Murphy hypothesis or not... sounds like 'not', Tom "As they come out of the bottle" - do you get peculiar mileage out of the top notes, then? On me, many of the Annick Goutals are almost all top note, and then disappear so quickly it is hard for me to gauge the sillage as dinstict from the longevity.

1:58 AM EDT  
Blogger Erin said...

That would be 'distinct' of course, sorry....

1:59 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My skin chemistry is a little peculiar in that it often seems to "reverse" the olfactory pyramid, or makes a perfume more linear than I expect that it is intended to be. The linearity was what I first noticed and suspected that it maybe was due to dry skin. However I have become more and more aware of that reversed pyramid effect the more fragrances I have sampled. Many fragrances that are lovely on most people, on me smells harsh, overpowering and synthetic and that makes me a little sad sometimes.

I have good luck with darker fragrances and in my case I am very happy with that. This type of fragrances seem to start dark on me with the basenotes very apparent and the top- and heartnotes quiet or only whispering. Then as the fragrance (if it is a good one) melds into the skin, the darkness expands giving "acoustic" to the whispering brighter notes. If, metaphorically speaking, the scent starts "at midnight" on my skin, it ends "at dawn". The "reversed" effect was very obvious when sampling some of the older Carons, they worked lovely on my skin - but in most cases with the effect described above. The fragrances that workes best with my skin chemistry is Narcisse Noir (my favourit), Cabouchard, Madini Musk Gazelle perfume oil, Mitsouko is nice, some years ago I wore Angel in the winter. Really dark roses seem to work as well.

One thought that have occured to me is that maybe the amount of acid and/or salt is a little bit higher on my skin than on most people, because another thing that happens to me is that if I wear jewellery of metals like silver or brass, the skin under the ring, necklace or what it is gets miscoloured in a very short time.

6:01 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a fantastic article! So very interesting! I'm not sure about my actual skin chemestry but living in florida, the humidity just does funky things to all my beloved orientals. It's almost futile to even attempt to wear them in this heat. They turn sour, they get funky and I'm sorry I even wasted those squirts. I only get to wear my favorites for about 2 months total. Such a pity... Oh and then there's the fact that I am Blonde and blue eyed and very fair so when I reach for these rich orientals people say what are doing wearing those heavy perfumes?! My husband says you're too bubbly to have that on, it's too dark and moody for you! What the hell am I supposed to be wearing? Britney's Fantasy or maybe Hillary Duff' new one... Blech! So I've got the weather but most of all I've got the stigmas to deal with. I must admit I have smelled alot of perfume in my day and I do tend to catagorize it into hair colors. Haven't you smelled something that only a raven haired beauty should wear? Or something only a brunnete should wear? So strange!

6:24 AM EDT  
Blogger elle said...

My tragedy is that my skin has the same "deskankatron" that Tom has, but I *love* skank and don't want skanky scents made more presentable on my skin. I can and have worn MKK layered w/ CB Musk to work and out shopping and have actually received compliments. *Why*??? Part, but by no means all of my "deskankatron" problem, is that I have sweet amplifying skin and if there is a sweet note to be found lurking somewhere in the minor notes of a fragrance, my skin will proudly bring it out to the fore to take the lead role in the scent. Ugh. This means I'm constantly on a search for the darkest layering scents I can find to tone down the sweetness in scents most people find to already be just a bit too dark. I'm quite certain I'll never find a scent I think is "too dark." Sigh.

7:50 AM EDT  
Blogger lilyofbp said...

I am actually pretty happy with my skin chemistry. It sounds somewhat similar to Elle's, though perhaps a bit less extreme. I know that it softens many harsh and skanky scents; I have had SAs look at me in surprise after spraying me. I don't mind this; it allows me to wear the dark scents that I love to my heart's content without offending anybody (and they are STILL dark and skanky). On the other hand, it really magnifies lemon, so that Hadrien (so lovely on others) smells like Pledge on me, and Reglisse smells like lemon candy (did someone say there was anise here?). I am not sure whether it magnifies sweetness or whether I simply dislike sweet scents; a so-called friend once chased me around Sephora with Pink Sugar; I never smelled anything so horrible in my life, and I can assure you, it NEVER came near my skin!

Great piece~

8:26 AM EDT  
Blogger chaya ruchama said...

Well, I think that I love you, Erin, and all the rest of you as well...

I feel for you, Ms. E., because there is such a schism between your actual physical presence and your fragrance persona.
You are a Junoesque, Wagnerian beauty who smells like a milkmaid/wildflower ! While that does sound lovely, it must feel incongruous.

I find that I bring out the sweetness in any scent, even citrus ones. I'm grateful that I accommodate most genres- chypres [I adore !], gourmand, floral, spicy, ambery [ummmm], incensey, green,hesperidic, etc.

I crave them all, because for me, it's about expressing the numerous contrasting parts of my nature.
This may be why a "busy' Lutens fits well, or the darker, more scary perfumes do, as well as the comforting, more maternal scents [Frapin, Botrytis,Farnesiana, CSP's vanillas,Ambre Narguile].

Mitsouko,Cabochard, Tabac Blond, Habanita, L'Air du Desert,Black Aoud,Jasmin de Nuit,Eau de Campagne, L'Heure Bleue,Vent Vert,Ambre Sultan, Daim Blond, Chypre Rouge, Vetiver Extraordinaire,Parfum de Therese- all fit seamlessly, like a glove or a stocking- in that they suit a different part of me, and smell appropriate...

This winds up being pretty costly !

The only good part is, my friends are never bored, and babies /animals like the way I smell...

And, yes- I definitely think that there are fragrances that suit hair color and skin type[blonde, dry; brunette,oilier,more acidic]...

8:39 AM EDT  
Blogger colombina said...

What a great article, Erin! Thank you!

Like the God and Goddesses of Skank (comments above), I believe my skin eats up the dirty/stinky stuff. Apart from that it pretty much behaves itself. There are notes, types of scents I dislike, but it is probably more to do with my taste rather then skin chemistry.

OK, just thought of one. My skin sometimes does some pretty unattractuve things with grapefruit. You have to smell Pamplelune on me, it is horrific on my skin.

8:47 AM EDT  
Anonymous Flor said...

My skin chemistry generally enhances the scent. What might smell one way in the bottle, smells much better on my skin - in general. My one big disappointment is that one of my favorite perfumes (Diorissimo) smells metallic on my skin. My DH can't stand it so I've never used it again. I've found at least 3 perfumes that turn metallic on my skin. I have no idea why, but it's soooo uncool!

8:57 AM EDT  
Blogger tmp00 said...

what I mean by "as out of the bottle" is that usually I don't amplify one note out of proportion to another, although sometimes Iris can be an exception to that rule.

At least I think I don't. My recent encounter with Nez a Nez has me wondering though. But more about that later...

12:54 PM EDT  
Anonymous Ina said...

I've never actually noticed any particular tendencies in my skin chemistry. Well, other than perhaps grapefruit smelling of cat pee but that's pretty common, it seems. I actually believe skin chemistry can be trained just like our noses. It's all in the perception for me. I used to think aquatic florals smelled divine on me but cannot tolerate them any more.

1:18 PM EDT  
Blogger Erin said...

Anon #1: What a wonderful analogy, midnight to dawn! Yes, I think I can see that reverse pyramid, with its creeping brightness. It sounds lovely, actually, but I'm sure could be frustrating at times. Some lines are more linear on me than others - P d Nicolai and L'Artisans are pretty direct, for example - but with most (Carons, Lutens, Chanels, Ormonde Jaynes, etc.) I get a burst of green, chilly or medicinal top notes followed by hours of completely different, usually more cheerful, notes.

3:33 PM EDT  
Blogger Erin said...

Anon #2: Thank you for your kind words! I always figured there had to be a downside to wonderful, warm weather. As for the hair color issue - very true, I think people tend to divide scents into complexions. (Angela S. on Now Smell This mentioned this a while ago...) I do think many associate the more euphoric, bubbly or "solar" perfumes with blondes, although these are the ones I do well with and I'm quite dark. As a result, I try not to judge the appropriateness of fragrances on others - although in a very Suskind-like way, I *do* tend to picture a ceratin person, a red-headed young woman, say, for a scent like Bois De Paradis.

3:52 PM EDT  
Blogger Erin said...

elle, I empathize. I, too, have sweet-amplifying, rather than sweet-eating skin, although in my case the organic, fruity sweetness (ironically usually synthetic in origin) is pronounced rather than the powdery, warm sweetness from ambers etc. What about you - is it all sweet notes? Feral, dark, musky skankiness does seem somewhat de-clawed on me, as well, unless it is accompanied by salty or unrinous/indole notes - then watch out!

4:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Erin said...

lily - I am so glad you are at peace with your chemistry! Hadrien just smells like an enormous, day-glo lemon on me too. Pink Sugar I have just avoided, although Chocolovers had enough nuttiness to cut the citrus sweetness and work pretty well on me.

4:08 PM EDT  
Blogger Erin said...

chaya - how sweet you are early in the morning, thank you! We love you too :) And you are exactly right - I want the breastplate, but I end up with the bonnet. (In more ways then one, really, seeing as I am generally cheerful and perky in temperment as well - sigh.) The 'busy' Lutens, yes, I have luck with Douce Amere, which strikes me as one of those "and the kitchen sink" scents. Please do not be fooled by this article into thinking that I don't wear everything anyway, even if it does not suit or smell completely natural on me. Parfum de Therese is a fave, even though I suspect that only the beginning, with its bright, watery melon notes, really "works" on me.

4:24 PM EDT  
Blogger Erin said...

colombina - Thank you for letting me post it, and always making everything so easy in that regard. Pamplelune is one of the scents that really made me think about skin chemistry. I search in vain for urinous or B.O. notes - I'd almost like some! - but all I get is fresh, sunny, *smiling* grapefruit. It actually seems to put my husband - a brooding, intense type - in a cheerful mood when I wear it.

4:30 PM EDT  
Blogger Erin said...

flor: Hmmm... could the metallic quality be the result of acidic skin, I wonder? Otherwise, it sounds as if you are very lucky! If you are a vintage fan, I can see your skin improving many a scent. It is such a shame that many modern perfumes are developed for their top notes, the bottle sniff or scent strip only.

4:46 PM EDT  
Blogger Erin said...

Ina: I need to send my skin or nose to obedience classes, apparently! I suspect you are not alone on the aquatic florals thing. They were a symptom of the last decade, I think.

4:50 PM EDT  
Blogger Dusan said...

Another one here with deskankifying, sweet-amplifying and spice-enhancing skin. Usually saffron, pepper and and cumin will stick around on my skin for too long, preventing the heart and base to breathe properly. Also, white musk can become too loud on my skin, particularly if combined with leather or suede, like with Daim Blond, which usually gives me instant headache rather than the pleasure of enjoying its alleged creaminess. Synthetic fruity/citrus top notes tend to turn metallic and believe me, there is nothing I hate more. Fortunately, one of my favourite citrus chypres, Chanel pour Monsieur, remains clear and breezy and doesn't go car parts on me.
My skin loves amber (me, too :)) and it never turns sour like it is wont to on other people. It also brings out florals (?), roses and violets particularly, and I've noticed that, because my skin amplifies sweetness, iris combined with amber, cocoa or any other sweetener can cometimes acquire a more violety than its usual rooty character.
Overall, I'm quite happy with my SC and. like you, I wear whatever I damn please! :)
A great and enjoyable piece, Erin!

6:45 PM EDT  
Blogger Erin said...

Thanks Dusan! Yes, I didn't talk much about florals, did I? Roses can go very sour and Victorian parlour on me, so I have to be careful; I need them to be very spacious. "White" flowers I definitely have some trouble with, though I love them irrationally. Iris needs to be chilly or ethereal, and violets I just don't do, unfortunately. Do you like the "violety" character or iris on you? What do you think of Dior Homme, for example?

1:09 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

this post made me laugh out loud. it's so true. the smellies that suck are the ones that stay on your skin best! but tmp00 is also right about body chemistry changing. Dolce Vita and Fracas used to smell amazing on me, now they're just eh. But if I put on Miller Et Bertaux #1 or Sirenuse's A Quiet Morning (both of which are much more expensive, natch)... I get people stopping me in the street. But overall, I have this magic amazing skin that turns 98% of all fragrances into this weird, acrid, horrific battery acid smell(usually laced with disgusting vanilla!)

4:03 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Correction - A Quiet Morning is also Miller Et Bertaux... Sirenuse does the Bois D'Ombrie that works on me

4:05 PM EDT  

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