Monday, December 5, 2011

The Myth of the Skin Chemistry Myth


There has been quite a bit of babbling about the blogs regarding the explanatory relevance of skin chemistry in understanding radically disparate reactions to perfumes by different wearers. Luca Turin, co-author of Perfumes: The A to Z Guide (written with his wife, Tania Sanchez), maintains that much ado is made about nothing by a bunch of people whom he evidently regards as ignorant. He himself is an academic biologist who studies the science of olfaction, but he also feels qualified to make grand judgments about perfumes, to offer advice to all willing to accept it about his particular likes (“Stock up!”) and dislikes (“Avoid.”), as though readers of his screed not only shared his aesthetic values but also inhabited his skin.

According to Turin, we smell the same things but interpret them differently. Unfortunately, that thesis does not explain why some people smell cat pee where others smell manna from heaven. We all know what cat pee smells like, so does he really mean to suggest that some people confusingly interpret the smell of cat pee as divine? Or does he think that those of us who do not think that cat pee smells divine are wrong?

Clearly, it's time to set the man straight once and for all. Blindness is bitter, and anosmia all the more, but fortunately for Turin, sherapop has arrived on the scene to counter once and for all the silly rejection of skin chemistry as mythic. I offer three separate lines of reasoning.

Proof 1: Why do some perfumes make us ill?

The answer is simple, really. Just as every other human trait is distributed over a bell curve, so, too, is sensitivity to the various chemicals commonly included in perfumes. When you learn, as have I, that your physiology violently rejects a certain peony rendition, then you naturally become wary of its presence in all future perfumes, and you learn to recognize it quickly—as in before dousing your entire body with the vile stuff—when it appears.

There are some notes for which the distribution is better described as an inverted bell curve: you love it, or you loathe it, and nary a nose finds itself in between these two extremes. Patchouli may be such a note, since people are not usually neutral toward it. For some perfumistas, the mere presence of patchouli destroys any perfume; for others, it makes it a dream.

Is “skin chemistry” a myth? Well, interpreted literally, as a chemical reaction that takes place directly using test tubes somehow mysteriously planted within the epidermis, perhaps. But interpreted in the spirit of those who wield the phrase to explain why perfumes that they hate are beloved to others, “skin chemistry”—as a code for the physiological experience of the various of components—is obviously a reality.

It's not just the case that we describe what we experience differently. We all know what patchouli smells like, but that's not the end of the story. If patchouli induces vomiting in someone, as certain chemicals do in certain people, and some chemicals more generally than others, then that person is not going to enjoy the experience of having it on his skin or smelling it on others. Whence the notion of “chemistry” incompatibility.

It makes a lot of sense, really. Some people like beer, and others hate it. Many foods are highly polarizing: eggplant, black licorice, anchovies, to name but a few. Some, such as wheat gluten, are deadly to some and the staff of life to others.

Why are some people coffee addicts, while others don't touch the stuff? It may not be strictly “skin” chemistry, in that case, but there is clearly something going on physiologically to mark the distinction, and what happens in our cells is indisputably a matter of chemistry. Therefore, “skin chemistry” is not a myth, after all, whatever the so-called experts (including those with stock holdings in the Estee Lauder company) may say!

Proof 2: The case of the stinky guy

Everyone knows someone who needs to shower frequently. Everyone has known someone with halitosis. Everyone knows someone who simply smells unpleasant, for reasons which remain somehow inscrutable. Do they eat a lot of garlic? Wear dirty clothes? Live in a slovenly hovel teeming with vermin? Who really knows? All that we really need to know is that physical closeness is very difficult to conceive of with such a person.

Some among us, the savvy urban dwellers who are blissfully car-free, have also had the dreaded encounter with the guy who rides the subway in summertime and thought that he'd skip a shower to save some time on the day when we happened to be riding in his car, which happened to be precisely the day when, in that particular car, of all the cars we might have boarded, the air conditioning just happened to have been broken. Yep, it happened. A guy holding the bar above my head actually dripped sweat on my arm. This is no joke. Honestly, it must have been my grossest public transportation experience ever.

Some among us, the gals who prefer exclusive no-men-allowed health clubs, do so for a simple reason. To find out for yourself what that reason might be, drop by your local co-ed health club about one hour after the end of any work day, and take a deep breath through your nose. It's a fact: guys who work out, on the whole, are a very stinky lot.

Stinky people exist. It's an undeniable fact. What happens when you mix certain chemicals with the stinky people's stinky skin chemistry? Well, it's an experiment: try it and see! What you'll find is that, yes, in fact, a perfume smells different on such a person than it will on you or me—unless, of course, you happen to be just like him! QED.

Proof 3: What swapping implies

There can be little doubt that certain synthetic perfumes are simply intolerably gross. But others actually further induce acute psychological and emotional stress in some but not all wearers. That such compositions remain on the market would seem definitively to prove that some people's nerve endings are far more sensitive than others. Although those who deny the relevance—or even reality—of skin chemistry may attempt to mock those who identify chemical differences as the explanation for their incompatibility with certain perfumes, it seems patently absurd to deny that people have different neurological complexions.

Why, after all, are some people more neurotic than others? Why are some people in good moods all the time, while others are surly curmudgeons? Why do some people become alcoholics and drug addicts, while others have no difficulty with reality as it stands? Obviously, then, if people differ this much in their psychology, which is to say, their neurology—since nerve endings are what's in play in those cases—then why would the same explanation not hold in the case of radically disparate receptions to perfumes?

As the frequently wielded aphorism goes: One perfumista's trash is another perfumista's treasure. Is not that the basis of the entire enterprise of swapping? If everyone found the same perfumes perfect and the same perfumes nightmares, then no one would ever be able to swap anything away! Some people are more sensitive to environmental stimuli, including perfumes, than others. And since perfumes are made up of numerous distinct components, it follows that some people are more sensitive to some of those components than are others.

This is why, then, perfumes that make me want to wretch may make you swoon and strike you as a good deal to boot. Is one of us right and the other one wrong? No. We are simply different people. What works for me may not work for you. Given the undeniable reality of the the vast differences among human beings, it strikes me as nothing short of inane that certain self-proclaimed authorities should issue such sweeping prescriptions as “Stock up!” and “Avoid.” about perfumes which they, in all of their insipid particularity, happen to love or to hate.

In conclusion: Is skin chemistry a myth? No, not at all.

(written in July 2011)


  1. Amen :D

    I am not sure if you mentioned it in here, but to me a lot has to do with body temperature also.

    Testing on paper does not make the perfume develop.
    It needs the heat, even the moist and the grease, even maybe the fungi and bacteria to come to interact with to bloom.

    A perfume on paper (cotton ball or whatever) is just a framework, just a sign of potential.

    Just a hint to where the richness may reach into warm caverns of the mystical and mythical juice <3

    To me, ONLY testing on paper, is blasphemy to the art of perfumery.

    So amen to your words :)


  2. Guusje: so glad you got the memo! (-;

    Yes, I think that reviewing a perfume on the basis of a spritz on a paper strip is like reviewing a meal by looking at a table set with plates full of food. Maybe the food tastes as good as it looks and smells; maybe it's made of plastic... You won't know until you put fork to mouth!

  3. Thanks for posting this, sherapop! Having read Turin's certainty that "chemistry" makes no difference, I thought, "Has he no friends?" It's hard for me to believe that he has never sprayed something on his arm & immediately after on someone else's and then sniffed them several times after. It's stunning how different they can smell. Although I enjoyed the cattiness of his book, I also find it hard to take him seriously when he & TS only smelled many of the perfumes on paper AND did not do the sniffing blindly. Yet, he thinks of himself as a scientist!

  4. Dear Pitbull friend,

    Very nice to see you around these parts! Welcome to the salon, and thank you for your sharing your thoughts!

    I have speculated now and then that Turin may be simply playing the devil's advocate. I find it utterly unbelieveable that someone could actually think that the factors which make different people have different scents would not affect how perfumes smell on them. It's such a preposterous idea to me, that I sometimes find it impossible to believe that he is actually serious.

    On the other hand, if they really did "test" on paper strips, that suggests that they believe that useful information can be derived in that way. When I get paper strips at sephora or some other store, I find myself thinking that they really don't tell me very much. Many perfumes which smell okay on a paper strip smell and, importantly, *feel* very different on my skin. Sometimes they're better; sometimes they're worse. But the perfumes always seem *very* different.

    I also don't understand how anything meaningful about development and longevity can be derived from a paper strip test. All that one really can glean from such a "test" is an idea of the top notes, it seems to me. If one holds on to the strip (I sometimes throw them in my pocket or purse), then sniffs them later on, I think that it's still not all that informative. It tells how the perfume would smell on a piece of paper some hours later. I still have no idea how the perfume developed, or whether it would have tenacity on my skin.

    I got a big chuckle out of your apt and witty question: "Has he no friends?"

    I also agree with you that reviews are affected by prior knowledge (of the perfumer, house, and price) and wonder why they did not test blind. Disclosing that some perfumers are one's friends and then writing rave reviews of nearly everything they do can only sow doubts in readers such as myself who are naturally led to wonder who their enemies might be and how reviews of their perfumes may have been affected in the opposite direction...

    Thank you again for stopping by, and please drop by again soon, pitbull friend!

  5. Theres a couple of things here, just because we don't consciously recognise a scent doesn't meam that the subconscious doesn't. Scent and memory association are a big deal, when I smell dirty rose in a scent I find it offensive, not just for it's own sake but for the memory of my quite mad paternal grandmother who wore a black rose scent of some sort, had a loose jawed laugh which to this day can send chills down my spine. It seems unfair on rose scents but there it is, we all have scent associations for good or bad.
    Secondly and far more seriously is toxoplasma; the little parasite that that causes toxoplasmosis. Toxoxplasma has a very curious life cycle which starts in the gut of cats, it's natural breeding ground from where it gets defecated out and then gets eaten by rats, discerning epicureans that they are. When eaten by the rat the toxoplasma go "I can't breed in a rats gut, I need to get back inside the cat", they worm there way (after all they are a parasite), to the rats brain and somehow affect the rats sense of smell. So when the rat smells a cat instead of thinking how dangerous this is the rat thinks that it's another rat with serious amorous intent, thinking that they are gonna start gettin' it on, the rat approaches the cat who really only wants a bit of lunch, (another discerning epicurean), and the toxoplasma end up back in the cat's gut where it's chances of gettin' it on a greatly improved.
    This is serious science and my point is that we don't really know a great deal about sense of smell and what lives in the human body, all we can do is have the best understanding that we are capable of and accept that it is limited.
    Luca may of course just be a little dull.

  6. Dacha, darling, welcome to the salon, and thank you so much for these enlightening ideas!

    You've managed to dig deeper than anyone else dug before here at the salon, pointing out that there is SOOOOO much more going on in our perception of perfume than even physiological differences having to do with skin chemistry or basic perceptual variations (such as hyposmias, etc.).

    In some ways, I think that what you are pointing out is that it's amazing that we are able to communicate at all in any way about scent, given that we all have traveled such very different paths to arrive where we are today.

    Yes, you are right: we associate scents with people, places, and other things intimately entwined with our personal history and lodged in our memory bank. My suspicion is that you have a strong ally in memoryofscent, who is also very much struck by the subjective side of perfume perception.

    Thank you so much for sharing these insights and reminding us that it's actually something of a miracle that any of us are able to communicate at all! Perhaps we should be delighted that anyone ever agrees with us about the quality of any perfume. Far from being anomalies which requires explanation, disagreements about perfumes should actually be the rule, not the exception, given that none of us has walked in anyone else's shoes, so to speak...

  7. Sherapop you old smoothy, how can I resist.
    Think of toxoplasma, think of the the rat, contemplate the burning of witches and toxoplasmosis. Is it just possible that the mad old cat lady the we know in modern times was the mad old witch that caused deformities in babies in medieval times, her evil eye that we all so feared, boiled down to the olfactory failings of amorous rats.

  8. Endearing dacha, I really did mean to reply to the fascinating example of toxoplasma, but I got distracted--probably by toxoplasmic matter--and instead went off to post The Question of Vintage 2.

    So, what do I think? There definitely was a rodent security breakdown on the local front here, and I'm wondering how your theory applies to the case. Let's see...

    We recently had a mouse drop by--a most unexpected visitor! I heard the scurrying noise a couple of times but dismissed it, reasoning to myself that no such creature would dare set foot into this humble abode, given the formidable presence of HRH Emperor Oliver. I pretty much succeeded in convincing myself that it was just noise generated by water running through the pipes of the heater.

    In fact, I later learned to my great surprise that it really had been a mouse! S/he must have been very hungry to burrow through a cloth bag containing an energy bar (which must have had a pin hole in the wrapper)? Or am I all wrong on this?

    Is it the toxoplasma which disarmed the mouse, and made it possible for him to risk sudden death, because he just "didn't get it"?

    He lucked out, it turns out, because The Emperor has limited mobility at this point in his Golden Years. He is happy and relatively healthy--for someone who had a stroke and is more than a century old. But he's not doing a lot of hunting these days.

    Of course, the mouse would not have known these facts about his adversary, right? So maybe your theory explains the apparently intrepid behavior of the mouse.

    I have to think through the above example of the witches and mad old cat ladies, but as matter of fact, it's time for me to bow out for a moment in order to execute my duty as Chief of Staff to HRH. He is also diabetic and must receive an insulin shot along with dinner on a strict schedule. I shall return....

  9. I'm sorry I appear to been oblique the toxoplasma is actually a refence to us cat owners, we don't really know how the toxoplasma may affect the adult human sense of smell but it's worth contemplating. I have owned many cats the latest of whom seem to have been consumed by the foxes, just now I don't have the heart for either cats or dog's.
    Oliver must be one hell of a cat, I assume those are pictures of him on your profile, how old is he?

  10. It is I, dacha, who should apologize to you, for having attempted to reply in a state of relative decaffeination to your comment about toxoplasma. I think that I do not fully understand the theory--or its implications. I got the part about the rat being fooled and thereby disarmed. How do you suppose that this sort of thing (I gather it's an analogy?) might work with people?

    This reminds me of something my sister reported to me. She read somewhere that some human beings have a "gene" (genes are actually metaphors, but you know what I mean) which disposes them to adore cats. It's supposed to be something like an amplifier of a cat pheromone receptor, or something along those lines, I think.

    This little theory is supposed to explain why some of us are nuts about cats, while others could not care less about them. The worst cases are people like the Florida feline serial killer, who apparently have less than the average amount (and probably a severe deficiency) of cat-love-receptors.

    Have you heard about any of this? I ask because you seem to be either a research scientist or else the best-read taxi driver in the world!

    Thanks for asking, HRH Emperor Oliver is, in fact, one hell of a cat. All historical documents available to me date his birth sometime in January 1997. (He had a rocky kittenhood, bounced from sadistic foster home to sadistic foster home--but now he's finally safe and sound with me!) That makes him fifteen years old or--if the theory that a cat year is like seven human years is true--105 years old! He's doing pretty well, though, as you can glean from the photos!

    My sister had a cat, Boots, who disappeared one day, and she believes that she was either eaten by a coyote or kidnapped by a mad old cat lady. Let's hope it was the latter!

  11. No longer a taxi driver, back to cutting wood, running a bandsaw at a timber mill.
    I read a great deal and have a deep curiosity.
    Now I've never heard of catlove receptors, however if taht works for you, I'm all for it ;).


All relevant comments are welcome at the salon de parfum—whether in agreement or disagreement with the opinions here expressed.

Effective March 14, 2013, comment moderation has been implemented in order to prevent the receipt by subscribers of unwanted, irrelevant remarks.