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)