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My nose is growing

Do You Smell What I Smell? – A Challenge

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Of course we’re all unique. But how large are our differences? There are fragrances – rose, lemon, vanilla, coffee, … – that most of us are very familiar with. We’ve all learned to recognize them, we associate the same fragrances with the same sources, and we use the same names for them. But what about less familiar odors? I wouldn’t have recognized a fougere or chypre before I got into fragrances.

I'm thinking about how wide the differences are in the way people experience smells. How do I know whether the 'fresh' note in fragrances smells like grapefruit to me and something else to you, or whether we're just using different names for the same experience, or whether I'm just less practiced at recognizing something that you notice at once?

We can all start out with the same molecules, say a spritz of Anais Anais on a clean dry handkerchief. [That’s to eliminate skin differences that might change evaporation.] Perfumes The Guide classifies this as “fresh floral.” The same molecules evaporate from my handkerchief that evaporate from yours. We both breathe them in. Assume neither of us has a cold. [More about that another time. I’m just getting over a cold. I hope.] The molecules make it up to the odor receptors in my nose and in yours. Do we have exactly the same receptors?

I have brown hair and eyes. Maybe you are blond and blue eyed. My wife, Kitty's eyes are green. My color vision is pretty good but Kitty has some trouble telling greens from browns. Kitty and I both convert asparagus into “perfume” about an hour after eating it. Not everyone does that. We all share the genes that develop eyes and hair and odor receptors and digestion. But variations on these universal themes are common.

I hope that most of my odor receptors are also yours, but I’m guessing. Maybe the similarities are 95% and the differences are 5%. But I once read [sorry, can’t find the reference] a comment on the web from someone who said he’d worked his whole career in fragrance chemicals and seen many test panels. He said that on every panel there would be someone who was anosmic to [could not smell] the new molecule they were testing. I don’t know if there were 20 on his panels, or 10, or 5. But it makes me wonder if our smell differences might be wider than, say, our color vision differences.

And then, after the various molecules from Anais Anais react with the receptors in our noses, signals go from the receptors to our brains and our brains have to decide what they mean. It’s not as if one receptor sent a signal that said, ‘lemon’ and another receptor sent a “rose” signal. First, the smell of a rose or a lemon contains many types of molecules and AA is a complex composition of multiple notes. It’s known that each receptor reacts to different molecules and a single molecule will trigger signals from multiple receptors. Recognizing a rose smell must be a bit like looking at a bowl of alphabet soup and seeing equal numbers of Rs, Ss, E’s, and Os, and arranging them to make R-O-S-E. How well we do that has to be a function of experience, attention, and even training.

So here’s a challenge: Help me figure out how close or far my nose is from yours. Maybe help me identify some new note(s) that I need to learn. I have three fragrances that are all described as fresh. To me they are clearly different but I smell something in common. I guess it’s the “fresh” note. And to me, that “fresh” smells a lot like grapefruit. But none of the notes listed in the Basenotes Fragrance Directory for these fragrances includes “grapefruit.” Actually, there are no common notes in the lists. Of course published notes lists are not necessarily complete. But maybe I just can’t make fine enough distinctions to appreciate that they are three different things. So, if you have any of these, and especially if you have all three or can smell them all somewhere, tell me what you think their fresh note is. Or, do they smell completely different from each other?

1) Cacharel, Anais Anais. (fresh floral) Top Notes -Orange Blossom. Middle Notes - Lily, Hyacinth, Carnation. Base Notes - Sandalwood, Incense.

2) Tommy Hilfiger, T Girl (not Tommy Girl). There’s no Basenotes pyramid but reviewers mention “floxes + grass,” “strong citrus notes,” and “daffodil, as well as the same sparkling clementine found in the men's version.”

3) Tommy Bahama, Set Sail South Seas for Men. (fresh fruity). Top Notes - Mandarin. Middle Notes - Violets. Base Notes - Rum.
Don’t worry about hurting my feelings. I’m 64, so I can blame age [another topic to consider at another time] if I’m far away from everyone else.


  1. Saintpaulia's Avatar
    Ah, 64! A contemporary! No wonder I have been reading and following your thoughts with such ease. It's a great topic and one that I have just been ruminating on myself. I read alot of reviews because I have so little personal experience with any of these fragrances, even the most common and well-known.

    At first I was puzzled. Why were peoples' perceptions of a given fragrance sometimes so radically different? I think I was simply trying to take in so much 'new' at once that the obvious answer did not occur to me until this week. It is not so much what we smell that is different. It is what we PREFER. Take for example vanilla. I have a good friend here on BN who shares my love of orange blossom and roses. However she does not like vanilla and I do. So if there is a vanilla note in a perfume, reviewers are going to pick up on that. And those that like vanilla are going to rate that fragrance higher, with a thumbs up, while conversely, those who do not like vanilla are going to pan it. This has nothing to do with the relative merits of that scent, per se.

    But you are right-on when you also put the focus upon the brain. While the nose's receptors might be the same in everyone who has a "normal", unimpaired sense of smell, once the signals reach the brain all bets are off! It's probably all a typical bell curve. Perfumers aim their scents at a market. And if they are of a certain kind of perfumer, maybe one who wants to be popular, they aim their composition to the middle of the curve.

    As the saying goes, "It takes all kinds"; this applies especially to fragrances. Thus niche companies. Et cetera. I am not sure where I went with all this. It was mainly just spontaneous stream of consciousness stuff, but maybe it has some value?
  2. lisa16's Avatar
    Ok-- I will give AA a shot (it is the only one of your reference scents I have on hand).

    I think I understand the smell that you are describing as grapefruit, but I do not get grapefruit myself. For me, grapefruit is sharper, cleaner and more astringent. What I get is more of a powdery floral with a really strong hyacinth. I do get the greener, astringent, spicy bite of the carnation on the tail end of this. I grow carnations and recognize that smell. I suspect this is what might be read as grapefruit and that some of its character is masked by the hyacinth. Hyacinths are incredibly odiferous flowers that tend to overwhelm. I think they are responsible for the powder here.

    The lily part is an enigma for me-- I also grow lilies and there are lots of types and they all smell differently. A stargazer type is really sweet, cloying and heavy. Orenpets, tiger lilies and oriental lilies are more subtly scenterd and vary a great deal from species to species. If they are there, which kind is it? Either it is a more subtle type that is lost or it is the stargazer funk married so closely to the hyacinth that I cannot pull them apart.

    I am just starting out and I just order the perfume notes educational kit from the Perfumer's apprentice, so I might be off base. But when it comes, I will try this again:-)

    Oh-- and I ran this by the husband. He doesn't get grapefruit, but he does get incense. He grew up near Buddhist temples and this is what stands out for him. But I suspect I may have lost the middle notes by the time I ran this by his nose (poor man-- I am always sticking a wrist in his face and asking him what he thinks.)
    Updated 21st June 2011 at 06:26 PM by lisa16
  3. lisa16's Avatar
    accidentally posted twice-- sorry.
    Updated 21st June 2011 at 06:26 PM by lisa16
  4. ECaruthers's Avatar
    OK, I'm slapping my forehead. I have relevant data right here on my desk and didn't remember it. Back in November, 2009, I found the September, 1986 and the October 1987 back issues of National Geographic on eBay and bought them. You remember? Sept. 1986 had "The Intimate Sense of Smell," by Boyd Gibbons. And it had a pull-out, "The Smell Survey," with 6 scratch and sniff panels and a questionnaire to fill out and mail in. And Oct. 1987 had "The Smell Survey: It's Results," by Avery Gilbert (later author of What The Nose Knows) and Charles Wysocki.

    I won't describe the results in too much detail - they are still the intellectual property of National Geographic. But there were 12 choices that could be used to describe each of the 6 smells on the panel - 1 was "No odor," 2-11 were descriptors, and 12 was "Other." The scratch and sniff panels in my copy of the magazine were intact and I took the survey. I correctly identified the floral aroma (as did more than 80% of the men and women who sent in the survey) and the fruity aroma (as did only about 49% of men and 53% of women). I mistook a spicy smell for sweet, a foul smell for burnt, and a musky smell for spicy - I think I was at least in the neighborhood on those. And there was one where I could smell something but had no idea what.

    There were 1.5 million responses to the survey and they came from the US and from abroad. There's always a worry that respondents to surveys are somehow systematically different from the general population, but 1.5 million is a lot. For two of the smells, correct identifications were below 50% for both men and women. Slightly more than half the women and slightly less than half the men correctly identified the fruity smell. Another smell was correctly identified by between 58 and 60%. And two of the smells were correctly identified by more than 80% of the men and women.

    Interestingly, there were two smells where more than 20% each of men & women couldn't smell anything. (I could smell something for all 6, so I don't feel too bad about my then-62-year-old nose.)

    My interpretation of these results is, 1) There's a lot of commonality, so what's happening in the nose and in the brain is fairly consistent, at least within the community of National Geographic readers, but 2) The variations are also significant. Mistaking spicy for sweet or foul for burnt may be linguistic differences when our noses are all sending the same signals. But the difference between "can" and "can't smell anything," seems to show real differences in the noses of more than 1/5 of the respondents.

    More later ...
  5. ECaruthers's Avatar
    I think there's a lot of value is separating the mental processing from the receptors in the nose. And you point out the extra dimension of taste - judgment, standards, comparison to a range of alternatives and information about those alternatives. I'm especially interested in your friend's reaction to vanilla because I found it somewhat soothing during some health problems two years ago. It's pretty widely liked. Do you know if she dislikes vanilla generally (e.g., in desserts) or just in fragrances? If she just dislikes vanilla in fragrances, then I'd guess she has a wide knowledge of fragrances and might dislike other notes that are so widely used they start to seem like clichés. I think Chandler Burr wrote that he likes lavender but it's so widely used in men's colognes that it's a cliché & he won't wear a cliché.

    On the other hand, if your friend dislikes vanilla generally, she may be sensitive to some note that the rest of us miss or at least don't detect strongly.

    Thanks for your analysis of Anais Anais. it had occurred to me that hyacinth might be the "fresh" note there. I don't have hyacinth growing in my yard and don't really have any recollection of how it smells. But I've made a note on my calendar that the bulbs will be available in our garden centers in September.

    I need to find a source of inexpensive but reliable sample bottles so I can send out T Girl and Set Sail South Seas For Men. I haven't seen hyacinth listed as a note in either, so I'd love to know if their "fresh" notes all seem as similar to other people as they do to me. Of course it will be a problem quantifying how similar. I do smell other things in these fragrances at the same time I'm smelling "fresh." But let's leave quantification until later.

    What if hyacinth and mandarin and flox and grapefruit and other natural products are all different but all add something to fragrances that's similar enough for us to call it "fresh?" What could it be? A single molecule that's present in all of them? Different molecules that share some common knob or indent (if the shape theory of smell detection is right)? Different molecules that share some common vibrational frequency (if the vibration theory of smell is correct)?

    Keep smelling...
  6. Doc Elly's Avatar
    Ed, I just found your blog after you mentioned it.

    I would be really wary of scratch and sniff surveys since the cards may actually smell different depending on the conditions to which they have been subjected. If they were sitting in a hot mailbox for days they will probably smell different than they did when fresh. If they got wet somewhere in transit, that will affect them.

    Having said that, it's amazing how many people are anosmic to something or other. Humans have several hundred different olfactory receptor molecules, but only three for color vision. Smell has about 100 times the potential to vary that color vision does. When you think of all the possible combinations, the numbers become astronomical. It's not at all surprising that everyone's sense of smell is different. It's almost surprising that there's as much uniformity as there is.

    The almost infinite number of variables at the front end is only the beginning of individual differences. Olfactory information is represented in the brain as a pattern of neural activity distributed over both space and time, which we have to interpret based on experience. Just as we have to learn to see, we have to learn to smell, assigning names to our best guess as to what mostly ambiguous patterns represent.

    Conventionally, most perfumes characterized as "fresh" contain some sort of citrus, aldehydes, and/or aquatic notes produced by aromachemicals such as calone, helional, floralozone, etc. I haven't sniffed Anais Anais for a long time, but my recollection is that it was chock full of Iso E Super. But maybe I'm confusing it with something else. I'll have to dig it out and smell it again.

    Nice job on the blog!


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