Chicken or Egg?: Loud Perfume on Other People

Image from Makeup Files

Many times in the past, I’ve ranted that I hate loud perfume. Hate it, abhor it, despise it… and therefore I never apply perfume such that I can be smelled at farther than a distance of about five feet. My usual preferred wafting distance is about three feet, but every now and then I come across a particularly radiant scent that, however carefully applied, leaves goodly sillage. Of that kind of thing, I just use less than my usual moderate amount.

Not everyone is so thoughtful.

A couple of weeks ago, during a trip to the Wal-Mart to pick up a few groceries and a new bike helmet for Gaze, whose head is relatively large for his size, we were olfactorily assaulted by a woman pushing her shopping cart a good 18-20 feet away from us. This lady was completely doused in Youth Dew, a heavy-hitter of the first order.

(Wearers of Youth Dew, fear not, this is not going to turn into a diatribe. At least, I’ll do my best.) I hate Youth Dew. As a child, I smelled it frequently on ladies at church, and at concerts, and out shopping with my mother. I didn’t like it then, and I still don’t like it. Just last month, I rechecked it at the Estee Lauder counter at the mall, just to make absolutely positively sure that my tastes haven’t changed with regards to YD. I put the teeniest spritz I could manage on a tester strip and then swiped the paper across the back of my hand, figuring I could wash it off easily there. But no go, I still hate the stuff. It smells dusty-oily and cloying to me, just horrid.

If I look at the list of fragrances I have found hideous over the years, they’d include these: Youth Dew, Opium, Obsession, Poison, and Angel. What do these have in common? Well, the first three are hefty balsamic orientals, Poison is a hefty floral-oriental, and Angel is… lessee… perhaps we could call it a huge, stonking gourmand fougere. Further, each one of them is radiant beyond all belief, with a nuclear half-life, with as much personality as Ethel Merman or Liberace, and with a similar attention-grabbing persona.


My further question is, do I hate these because they are Perfumery’s Big Guns – or do I hate them because so many wearers apply too much? This is still the chicken-or-egg question. I know that frequently people who have a signature scent lose the ability to smell the fragrance at the levels that others can smell it, and accordingly, overapply. Also, I think I have to take the position that people who choose these hefty, radiant, personality-plus fragrances really love to smell them, and assume that everyone else loves those scents as well.

It’s not that I only like quiet, unassuming fragrances myself. I sometimes like a big wafter – for example, L’Arte di Gucci, or Carnal Flower. I mostly liked Portrait of a Lady, which is every bit as radiant as Opium. But I like these on a small scale, a drop or two at a time, not at levels that could choke a moose.

I’m dying to know why I never smell someone from fifteen feet away wearing something I love. Why aren’t these Floating-Clouds-of-Fragrance people wearing, I dunno, Cuir de Lancome? Or Chanel No. 5 parfum? Or Hanae Mori, another wafty one, for that matter? I would adore to bump into someone wearing a little mist of, say, Agent Provocateur or Alahine. (Alahiiiiiine, yum.) I once had a boss that wore something quite lovely, and while you couldn’t smell her down the hall, she did leave a tiny trail of delicious scent behind her. Other than that, I never seem to smell something lovely on the air.

I know it takes all kinds to make a world, and I’m sorry if I’ve stepped on toes today. Anybody want to weigh in on this issue? Have you ever suspected, or been told outright, that you’re wearing too much perfume? Whether you love the Sillage Monsters or hate them, whether you like big sillage or hate it, please share.

See also this blog post on people wearing too much perfume. I disagree with the blogger that church should be a totally fragrance-free zone, but (as I mentioned a few paragraphs up) I’ve certainly been smacked about the nostrils while sitting in a pew, so she does have a point. Mine is just – “Please, don’t give non-perfumistas reason to hate us. Wear something that smells really good, and unless you’re in a spot where you can let loose without bludgeoning people, be discreet.”


37 thoughts on “Chicken or Egg?: Loud Perfume on Other People”

  1. Well, I’m a chicken when it comes to perfume in public. (No, really!) I save the big guns for when I’m working alone, which is just about every day. The perfume-o-phobes have done their work on just about everybody it seems. As far as the choices you list, except for Youth-Dew they were all heavily advertised (Youth-Dew may have been but I don’t remember) in that fashion-y way with supermodels and so on. This is such an esoteric little world — I had never heard of most of the perfumes you mention before I began blogging. The difference? Big marketing budget vs. little or no marketing budget. I miss the days when perfume floated in the air in offices and clubs. Even if it was Opium.

    1. Cheers for working alone, then! It’s not so much the idea of a perfume cloud that bothers me, but the idea of disturbing other people, for which I’ll take the convenient path and point to my mother’s very definite rules about not impinging on other people’s space, whether physical or mental.

      You’re probably right about the marketing. I remember the endless replaying of the Obsession ads on TV when I was in college, and Poison was all over the magazines. These days, there are just So Many to choose from, I think the advertising makes less of an impact.

      I definitely do NOT miss Opium.

  2. Knowing just how much perfume to spray on myself so that it is pleasant and not killah is an art rather than a science. Added to that, each fragrance house has its own characteristics – with some, one spritz can last me all day (Lauder and SSS), while with others I can barely smell it on myself after 15 minutes (DSH and Lutens). Each fragrance I wear is different; I should label them with the minimum/maximum recommended number of sprays! 😀 I’m also aware of which ones are the Big Stonkers; I love Diva and Poison (the big 80s perfumes do well on my skin), but try to be considerate about when I wear them and how much I apply.

    One’s own skin and one’s natural scent have an influence too, I believe (I heartily disagree with Luca Turin that it makes no difference). I love and wear Youth Dew, and have been told I smell “fresh”! Mitsouko and Habanita also smell “fresh” on me, according to the people from whom I’ve received compliments. Go figure!

    1. “Considerate about when you wear them and how much you apply” is all I can ask for! And, to be honest, that’s really all I want.

      I agree about skin chemistry. It matters. What this rant addresses is the possibility of whether I would actually hate big Sillage Bombs if I hadn’t been assaulted by overapplication and overexposure… but who knows? I have recently discovered at least an appreciation for Poison, applied delicately.

  3. I don’t know how to really voice what I’m feeling about this but please let me try. I love and wear alot of strong fragrances and have have only been told ONCE by my very own mama that I smelled too much.
    I was wearing Amouage Memoir Woman on a cold winter’s day-so ha!
    I probably “double-dipped” 😉 But she’s never said anything else.
    My HG is as you know my dear Une Rose Chypree and that has a reputation for being really potent, practically an extrait. I have no problem and revel in it.<3
    It's a perfume that I can temper with how many sprays of it I want-
    I know alot of peeps can only dab. And can I say I don't get all y'all "dabbers."
    It's something I like to do sometimes because it's feminine feeling and sensual but I always long to spray. LOL
    There was a time not long ago I went on my forest run and put on some EL Private Collection and oh my goodness Mals!
    If didn't hear your saying and thought
    " Estee's trying to eating my head. "
    So maybeeee that's not one to wear on warmish day working up a sweat. LOL 😀
    I'm not trying to come off as some toxic cloud Mals -but I waft some some pretty good stuff.


    1. I dunno, Miss T… you wearing six spritzes of URC to church? Cause if so, I’ll move down a row or two. I think URC is gorgeous, but that one I can only dab!

      Good stuff in the waft is what I like to smell. (I still haven’t smelled Memoir, though I’d love to.)

  4. Hey now it’s not 6 spritzes of URC at God’s house! 😉
    But I will wear oh say EL Tuberose Gardenia, Jasmine White Moss,Amaranthine and Eau Premiere there a good 3-4 spritzes each.
    And not all at the same time! lol

    I can help you out with Memoir honey-shoot I still got your CQ decant too. 🙂

  5. Mals, this is such a funny post, and I’m not sure, but I think you wouldn’t like these scents even if you’d never been gassed by those who overdo them.

    Well, no one actually said anything, but I think I sensed people tense up next to me on the Metro after I had oversprayed Guerlain Vetiver. I love it, but it is powerful. Usually I’m very careful and only wear my stonkers at home.

    1. You might be right. I might only hate them *extra much* because of overexposure!

      I still haven’t smelled Vetiver, but that’s probably because I don’t like vetiver much. (Seemed like one to avoid.)

      I don’t mind a little waft… it’s just, you know, there are places where you can’t get away from other people. I’m also against going out in public smelling like one hasn’t showered in weeks, and I suppose Youth Dew is preferable.

  6. I’m not generally persuaded by the ‘skin chemistry’ argument. I think the difference is in more in the brain, than on the skin. The way the brain perceives the scent could more influential than the way it behaves on the skin. I think Laurie Erickson has blogged about this. The brain has a way of magnifying notes that it hates, such that the ones you really like get drowned out by the ones you hate. This could explain why you can detect Youth-Dew at 50 feet or parts per million, but not Chanel No 5 extrait. It may also be the explanation for why scrubbers can be so tenacious. (The more you hate a fragrance, the harder it will be to scrub!)

    That said, of course some fragrances are louder than others, and that includes nearly all the Lauders! A teeny tiny amount is all you need. But worn well, probably under a layer of clothes, some of those heavy hitters can be lovely.

    On Youth Dew, these days I only use the bath oil, and only as a bath oil, not a perfume. I love the scent on my towel the next day.

    Great post – many thanks.

    1. I’m sure there’s some of that nose-magnifying effect going on. (Still, other than skin chemistry I can’t explain why Coco Mlle is so *great* on my sister and so… shrilly insistent… on most of the other people I smell it on. Or why Eau Premiere was so fruity blah mall dreck on my mother, the No. 5 queen.)

      I don’t think I’ve smelled the YD bath oil; wonder if it would bother me less. Huh.

      1. Yes, that does spoil my theory a bit!

        YD bath oil is very similar top the perfume; or, to be more accurate, the perfume is similar to the bath oil, as the bath oil is the original form of the product. So – don’t bother!

        A colleague of mine wore Aromatics Elixir today, as she does sometimes. I like AE and it is beautiful on her. But I have to admit I could smell it well before I saw her. I own a mini of AE but I hardly ever wear it, as I have found that it is near impossible to wear discreetly!

  7. Just was reading around and came across this-it’s exactly how I hope my perfumes come off. It’s so true for me! Reminded me of your post.
    It’s from Patty over at the Perfume Posse from Sept.23rd 2009
    Love that gals’ writing -I know you do too Mals. 🙂

    “I’ve been thinking about this whole wafting thing. Does anyone else notice that about a perfume? There are some that it is hard to really get a nose-bead on if you snuffle where you sprayed it, but if you just walk through a room, you get the full effect. I often wonder if perfumers try perfumes that way to what kind of trail they have, or are some just a happy accident? I adore the wafters, which I think of as different from sillage monsters. To me, sillage monsters are the ones that are overpowering and big. Wafters aren’t necessarily strong, but you don’t get how beautiful the perfume is until you smell it trailing off of someone. I’d far rather be a great wafter than about anything else. I think it’s that effect of leaving ambience behind you that tickles a person’s sense, and they usually have no idea where it came from, they just know it is beautiful, and then it’s gone.”

  8. I absolutely love hefty, balsamic orientals. So I should love Opium, right? I mean, from the notes you’d swear it was made for me. But I Cannot Tolerate It. When it was first launched, my boss wore it -really, really wore it. You could smell her coming down the hall and then you smelled that choke-inducing cloud of Opium for a good half hour after she’d been through the hall. She ruined it for me! 🙁

    I used to have a nice, big office all to myself and, being an accountant, I rarely had visitors 😉 So I felt free to wear my heavy hitters – just a drop to be sure, but things I’d never wear to a theater or to church. But after I retired I went to work part-time and work in very close quarters. Now when I’m at work I’ll wear one of my collection of solids which can only be smelled if you’re right next to me – literally shoulder to shoulder. I like the solids for these situations, and I’m surprised at how many good solids there are.

    I do wish that some of the people here in Florida who are currently wearing Angel and lots of it (it’s Florida! in the summer! where the heat index is 106!) would consider toning it down a notch. That’s what I smell -Angel and Coco Mademoiselle.

    1. Aha! So you’d have liked Opium except for being choked by it on someone else? I really am starting to wonder if some of us get turned off by something we’d otherwise like, by being exposed to it in too great a quantity. People sometimes talk about hating white florals (which I loooove) because they’re overpowering, which is something I never think about them. But then, I tend to dab.

      Yeah, solids are pretty good for keeping your sillage down. I think my skin might damp sillage anyway, because solids just usually disappear on me. I admit I haven’t tried any Pacificas, or any of those niche things in beeswax… who does those? Roxana?

      Gah, Angel. Took my two older kids to the school’s “get a physical at the school for school athletes for $15” event (rather than taking them to the doctor’s office and paying $25 each) last March, and one of the moms was wearing Angel. You could smell her alllll over the building. Funny, you could NOT smell the camphory patchouli thing that I hate so much on her – it was definitely Angel, but mostly berry vanilla. Almost pretty, if only it hadn’t been a little too much. (She was very very blonde and very very tan and wearing, yes, a denim bustier. I try not to be judgmental, and then people practically dare you to.)

  9. While I agree with you 100% in principle, I know there have been times when I’ve been the fragrance offender. Some bottles, you know, just don’t want to be lightly spritzed, and they come out more like a jet stream. One spray, and it’s already too much, but sometimes you don’t have time to change clothes or wash it off or whatever. Or, that innocent thing you’ve been dabbing from a vial, and the first time you spray it from a bottle, it blooms around you like a nuclear cloud … Do these things only happen to me?! 🙂

    1. No, me too. I’ve gone to work in an agony of worry sometimes that I am going to nuke colleagues out of the office. I dread over applying.

      I absolutely love it when I get a perfume that has a sprayer that allows me to TRICKLE if I want to. The sample vials that Andy Tauer uses are great like this – thank goodness! His perfumes are strong.

      1. Yeah, Andy’s vials are good that way, which is perfect because his stuff is so nuclear-bomb. (No, no, I really like some of them. Carillon and URC and URV, and I only tested a bit of Eau d’Epices but I liked that one too. Some of them I don’t like at all and still don’t know quite why not.)

    2. Yeah, the accidental overapplication – that does happen. I try to explore a new bottle’s sprayer capabilities before actually wearing something out of the house, and that helps. Also, I think I might habitually, deliberately, not press the sprayer all the way down. (The things you pick up from your mother without even noticing…)

  10. For some reason, huge perfume clouds of women’s fragrance don’t really bother me, even stuff like Angel or big tuberoses (which make my throat all scratchy) but a man wearing too much fragrance just about knocks me to the ground.

    And yea, what is up with that dab vs spray thing? I think I am abnormally sensitive to it. I infinitely prefer dabbing; maybe I just don’t care for most top-notes?

    1. I think I love dabbing because it just seems elegant. No idea on topnotes…

      I guess I’m not very tolerant of big clouds of anything, but I hardly ever smell cologne on men. Of course, I don’t work at a university or a bar or places where guys are on the prowl, which is when they seem to wear a lot of cologne. Or it could be because I live in a rural/semi-rural area where fragrance isn’t considered very manly.

      My daughter told me last year that she thought Chocolate Axe was “kind of nice. On some guys.” Aaaaaaarrrrgh. She didn’t like it in the bottle at the drugstore, though.

      Hey. A thought: It might have been the appeal of one particular guy…

      1. I think you may have hit on the reason…I grew up in Possum Holler/Skeeterville/BFE, where fragrance was definitely not considered manly, to put it mildly.

        I’ve spent 20 plus years now in SoCal, where it is apparently considered mandatory, and certain cultures also award extra points for quantity.

        And yes, I am guessing it’s the young man she found appealing! 😉

  11. Wow, you’d hate me then!

    I don’t like Youth Dew either, but people tell me I wear way too much perfume. I’m trying to cut back, but I just don’t know moderation in anything and it’s really hard to smell myself.

    I apologize in advance.

    1. Not only would I NOT hate you, I’d be sidlin’ up next to you, asking you if I knew you from the Posse, NST, PST, and Muse in Wooden Shoes! ;o)

    2. (Another) A-HA! Sillage monster comes out of the closet!!

      I’m probably more tolerant of big sillage when I’m not in an enclosed space. At least at the grocery store I can duck down another aisle. But in case you haven’t read my prior rants about this memory, I had to leave a movie that I’d saved babysitting money for because of a woman doused in Opium sitting in my row. Sat in the lobby crying because I was so miserable. Thirty years later, I’m still bitter.

      So what’s your usual perfume MO? Mine is typically one spritz to one wrist, smeared to the other, and then maybe one to the base of the throat. Something really light might get a spritz to each wrist and decolletage, and maybe the back of the neck. A big wafter (L’Arte di Gucci) is a candidate for decanting into a roll-on bottle and dabbed on one wrist, smeared to the other.

  12. My very interest in perfume sprang – paradoxically – from a disgruntled flurry of googling the scents my friend overapplied (J’Adore, L.A.M.B, Paris) to see what they had in common (quite a lot, in the case of the first two), So I am grateful to these sillage monsters – or monsters on my friend at least – for kickstarting my wonderful hobby.

    On the whole I quite agree that the scents that tend to be overapplied are the heavy hitters rather than the mimsy muted wallflowers I typically prefer myself. There may well be some arcane psychological correlation between a liking of a statement perfume and a desire to make a statement with it through generous application…

    1. Oh, interesting – that’s one side effect of Opium that I wouldn’t have thought of, in that I knew what I did NOT like, and I went looking for something that I did like.

  13. I tend to think of perfume application (and suitability) like I would conversation.

    When I know I’m in private, like with dear friends or alone, I wear the weird, strong stuff, because these folks ‘get’ me and the context for that sort of thing. These are the same people I can tell pretty much literally anything, and we tend to be…frank.

    The there’s ‘open’public, like in most resturants, or a store. I can’t speak for anyone else, but to me, this is the right sort of time for something quirky but relatively quiet. There’s a lot of subjects I wouldn’t bring up because the folks at the next table probably wouldn’t want to hear it, so I don’t impinge on them with either fragrance or my personal life.

    The third kind is enclosed, fully public places, like an airplane. I don’t want to be the person who chats their seatmater’s ear off and totally overshares, so I choose something conventional and quiet out of respect.

    Does that make sense to anyone else?

  14. There are several occasions on which I like wearing LOUD perfumes: big parties, evening walks during vacations and such. In all other situations I prefer smelling my perfume to smelling OF my perfume. I don’t mind catching a whiff of my or somebody else’s fragrance but with my current experience with so many perfumes in the whole range from “love it” to “HATE IT!” I’m trying not to subject people around me to the horror of having to tolerate a scent they dislike. Though… I recently got a complain from a co-worker about Sweet Milk by Jo Malone – not a sillage monster by any count.

    1. Somebody complained about Sweet Milk? I have not smelled it, but I have read reviews and I can’t imagine it being offensive.

      If I’m by myself, I like certain loud things. Otherwise, it just doesn’t feel right to me.

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