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Five Subtle Scents for People (Like Me) Who Hate Smelling Like Perfume

Photo: Courtesy Retailers

Around the time I gave birth to my now 4-year-old daughter, I began sniffing anything I could get my hands on. What was it about my ceramic kitchen sink that smelled so strongly of metal? Why did the top of my newborn’s head smell like peaches and milk and a brown paper bag? When I went back to work as a stylist, I started paying as much attention to the smell of a garment as I steamed it as I did to the look of it. I even began bringing different perfumes to set as conversation starters. After observing my new habits, my husband (who works in coffee and is no stranger to sensory obsessions) eventually suggested that I take perfume classes.

I took his suggestion, trading nights of potty training for classes at Los Angeles’s Institute of Art and Olfaction, where I learned about raw materials. The curriculum alternated between smelling natural essential oils and synthetic aroma chemicals to learn the building blocks of a perfumer’s palette (woody, citrus, floral, aromatic). Each week we got little vials of raw materials, which I’d take home and line up against perfumes I like to try to deconstruct the fragrances with my nose. Sniffing my way through the fragrance wheel, I discovered some raw materials that were tenacious and cloying (indole, black-currant bud, blue chamomile), and others that were softer, unobtrusive. The latter included musks (like the star ingredient in the scent supposedly beloved by Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy that Strategist contributor Fiorella Valdesolo discovered during her own pregnancy), synthetic amber notes, ionones (powdery violet notes), salicylates (aroma chemicals that add a textural, grainy quality), and certain woody notes (like sandalwood, amyris, and cypress).

Perfumes composed around these materials, I’ve found, are kind of like trusty shapewear or a good skin highlighter — they’re intentionally subtle and meant to enhance your natural scent. Niche perfumers began formulating these softer fragrances (which are actually called “skin scents”) as a response to the long tradition of baroque, complicated perfumes made with anywhere from 50 to 300 raw materials. L.A.–based perfumer (and my IAO teacher) Ashley Eden Kessler explains the science behind skin scents: “These are more streamlined formulas with intentional spaces in between notes; this looser spacing allows for your skin to react and influence the scent. Instead of asking, ‘What perfume are you wearing?’ people will ask, ‘Is it you that smells so good?’” Below, my five favorite skin scents, all of which I consider unisex and any of which is subtle enough to make passers-by wonder, What’s that smell? — in the best way, of course.

If you’ve ever wondered what the sun’s rays shining down on you smells like, I say it’s kind of like this. The fragrance mostly smells soft and creamy (an aroma perfumers call lactonic), but you also get notes of suede and grass. The key ingredient is cetalox, a synthetic molecule in the ambergris family. I’m willing to wager this scent would never turn anyone off — ever — so it’s a good place to start for those curious about skin scents, and it would be equally great for folks who like to spray something on before going to the office. A spritz will last a good six hours but is extremely subtle with an almost ephemeral effect. It’s also available in a smaller vial if you like the sound of it but want to sniff before committing to a bigger bottle.

In 2006, perfumer Geza Schoen had an industry-altering hit with Molecule 01, a fragrance composed entirely of one aroma chemical, Iso E Super. People went nuts for both the scent and the underlying premise that it added “atmosphere” to your own pheromones. Molecule 04 is the most recent in Schoen’s perfume collection and is composed only of Javanol, a synthetic sandalwood (Indian sandalwood is a vulnerable species). With notes that include a burst of bittersweet citrus and a vibrant, earthy aroma, it smells to me like fresh grapefruit still on the branch with bark, leaves, and all. My friend Laetitia describes the smell differently, like the inside of a really tasteful, expensive furniture store. The fragrance is lighter and lasts a long time, often playing hide-and-seek: Just when you think it’s gone, the aroma will surprise you with another hit. [Editor’s note: Need Supply Co. sells a 100 ml bottle; Net-a-Porter’s is smaller at 30 ml.]

Anyone who claims to like clean scents (like freshly laundered or just-showered aromas) but has never smelled this must order it immediately. It’s not new, but it’s simply off the charts when it comes to a comfy, musky scent — which is one reason why this is universally beloved by people I know who claim to not like perfume. To me, it smells like warm, clean skin and freshly washed linen drying in the sun, with some low-grade vanilla sweetness. As in the oil supposedly beloved by Bessette-Kennedy, musks are the key ingredient here, and they have tremendous staying power — a little spritz of this will last for six hours at least. It also comes in a roll-on oil version.

Certain synthetic scents have no natural equivalent, so when you smell them, it can be a bit of a mind game trying to define the odors. That’s the case with I Don’t Know What, which perfumer David Seth Moltz told me he created with his “favorite radiant materials: Iso E Super, Civettone, Physeol, and others.” The scent is buzzy, electric — kind of like the smell of rain hitting soil after a dry spell but also a bit like static. Various friends have described it as “cellophane,” “car exhaust,” or “a library-book cover” — all in a good way. However strange it may seem, you can’t help but be drawn to it, especially when it mingles with your skin. Moltz says this continues to be D.S. & Durga’s best seller since it came out last June (Linda Rodin and Chris Black are also fans of the brand’s scents), and it can be worn on its own or layered over other perfumes or oils. Even though it has a sheer quality, I’ve found that it lingers on skin, and other people’s noses will pick it up long after your own stops registering it.

I once had a photographer ask me what scent I was wearing on a shoot, which is not that unusual a question, but in this case, I could tell he was asking because we were both wearing the same thing: Le Labo’s unmistakable (and ubiquitous) Santal 33, a very sharp, distinct, and self-announcing fragrance that can linger for hours in elevators and stairwells. I have since traded that for this, which is not as omnipresent and is far more restrained while still giving skin a similar sandalwoody aroma that’s sensual, velvety, and elegant. Although it smells very floral and fruity (peachy) at first, Scandalwood within minutes tones down to an inviting blend of sandalwood and cedar. (Its co-creator Dita Von Teese told the Strategist that the scent’s corresponding candle is something she can’t live without.)

Technically, this would be classified as a woody scent (not a minimal skin scent), but the effect is so intimate and soft that anyone should consider himself lucky to get close enough for a whiff while you’re wearing it. The perfume is sold in both red and clear bottles, depending on where you buy it (and although it’s still available at Bergdorf’s, it’s currently on back order there).

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5 Subtle Scents for People Who Hate Smelling Like Perfume