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Why does perfume smell... "perfume-y", and not like anything else in life smells?

Hi guys, this is the probably-dumb, still baffling question that's formed in my mind lately. I've been trying to either find a Perfume or scent that I truly love, or toying with the idea of possibly trying to make something myself.
Like probably most people I have an abstract idea of "naturalness", "freshness", and other pleasant things that I'd like in a handy bottle. Now that I go back smelling the perfumes I grew up with in the 90's that were sold as fresh, light, aquatic etc, I realize they all have more or less of this "perfume-y" quality that I really want to avoid at the moment.
But not just those - really every perfume I ever remember smelling has had it to some extent. It has always seemed like it's just inherent to the nature of perfume, somehow. Is that true?

Like these careful "flower headspace recreation" attempts I've seen recipes for here and there, based on chemical analysis, for example. If you took one of those, dropped it in some ethanol, sprayed it on and let the ethanol evaporate, and someone walked into the room. Would the person first go "ooh, where are the roses?" or first "ooh, perfume"?

In either case, I feel like this "note" is it's own smell (or group of smells?), and it is stronger in some perfumes than in others. Just the other day, I tried a cheap fragrance I neverthless expected to be "light, fresh, green" and probably, well, kinda natural-smelling - Fuji Green Tea from the Body Shop. It did start out "fresh", a bit too sweet but with a nice little "green/bitter" note. After about two minutes and for the rest of the day, I just had this one strong note of "perfume" coming from that wrist & sleeve. (I went to Fragrantica and read reviews, just to confirm my scent memory that this was a pretty typical green tea-type smell, and not some especially synthetic abomination; people mostly felt it was fresh, sparkling, green, citrus, and comparable to Elizabeth Arden, etc.)

I can't find words for this smell. Is there perfumery vocabulary for it? It's sweet but not super-sweet. It doesn't seem "powdery" or "soapy", two other notes I'm kinda wary of and associate strongly with "perfume". Maybe it's "generic floral". But then why don't flowers seem to smell like that? And why is it in "tea" or "oceans breeze"-themed perfumes, and everything else?
It's not a "bad" smell. It's just - I have this secret dream that people could hug me and go "ah, did someone open the window and they're cutting grass and growing flowers outside?". But of course with perfume, the best you can ever get is "ah, nice perfume". (The only exception I can think of is maybe strongly gourmand-scented hair products. But if the "real thing" you want to smell like isn't chocolate fudge or coconut, you're out of luck.) And yet I can't fully let the dream go till I understand better why.

I hesitate to use the word "synthetic", in part because I don't know exactly what I mean, and in part because it can inflame potentially irrelevant and semi-political discussions about the merits of using "more natural" vs "more synthetic" compounds. (I used to own a lot of essential oils and a few absolutes. To me, they generally don't have the perfume-y note (linden flower absolute might be an exception, I have one now and it's surprisingly a bit "perfume-y" actually), but they also generally don't tend to smell like I want to smell most of the time either. And the exceptions, like citrus peel oils, tend to be really short-lived.)


Here are the theories I've been kicking around so far:

#1: The Cheap Frags-theory.
I only think that I've sampled all kinds of perfumes; in reality I've mostly smelled relatively cheap perfumes of a certain type, and the "perfume note" is due to a certain class of cheaper AC:s that are always in them for some reason, and if I'd really smelled a lot of expensive perfumes I'd know that.
I do feel that I've smelled some expensive perfumes and felt the same thing. But my main counterpoint is just, it seems like if there were some typical cheap "perfume smell culprits", wouldn't that come up on forums like this one?
Or maybe it's a more complex "accord" that will always result from a bunch of different AC:s with synthetic sidenotes mixed together without very advanced knowledge and testing, but again, there are plenty of nice perfumes that avoid this, just not ones I've smelled?

#2: The Necessary Blenders-theory.
The "note" is something that will appear with just about any blenders that are necessary to amplify, fix or bring diffusion.
Perfume concentrates seem to always involve some compounds that are there more for how they make the perfume behave, than specifically for how they smell themselves. Like, I don't know - Benzyl salicylate, Hedione (seems to be a big component of perfumes I've liked but felt were too perfume-y; all Green Tea-type scents, CK One), or any of the synthetic musks, maybe the amber compounds.
So my very first theory was that when you use these, your perfume concentrate will go from a "flower" or "fruit" smell to a "flower perfume" or "fruit perfume" smell. If you made a perfume with no basenotes, it would be gone quickly, but it wouldn't smell "perfumey".
I don't think that's quite it/all though, because lingering notes like woods or vanilla I can identify as their own separate smells. The note I'm talking about is there from the start, and seems to die down at the same rate as the rest of the perfume, except for the very fleetiest top notes.

#3: The Just Not For Me-theory.
The "note" is actually traceable to specific aromachemical "culprits" (I have no idea which ones, ionones? Various aldehydes? Alcohols, geraniol? wild guesses), and they're pretty much ubiquitous in perfume simply because most people like such notes. Maybe to them it gives a "general floral", or "clean" smell. Maybe it's what reads as "feminine", though to me "masculine" perfumes seem to have a different but corresponding perfume-y note - an even stronger one. Maybe "perfume" is an acquired taste that most people have acquired more of than I did.

#4: The Just Not For Me Cuz I'm A Pleb-theory.
Or (going off theory 3) maybe to people with more trained/refined scent tastes, that one "perfume" note is really a group of notes, that go in a bunch of different directions, at least some of which they do enjoy. Maybe there's actually a real difference between the "perfume" smell of expensive vs cheap ones, for example. And it's just my lack of experience that makes my brain give up and go "yeah, that's perfume you're smelling right there". Kind of the way "coffee taste" was once "bitter sludge" and "red wine taste" once "weird 'off' grape juice with a burn".

#5: The Ambiance Theory (AKA you can't bottle a wholesome stroll in the park).
Or maybe many perfumes do smell much like the actual materials by themselves, but I'm idealizing in my memory the experience of smelling those actual materials, or my experiences of them are distorted by other factors - especially their "freshness".
This seems especially plausible with things like blooming flowers, "green" leaf, grass or hay smells, etc. Because when I've smelled those things I've usually been outdoors, maybe in the woods or near the ocean, and I smell all the outdoor "ozonic" etc freshness there. Whereas when I smell perfumes, I'm at a mall or in my dusty apartment sitting around in my own funk, and sticking a flower or a fistful of green grass, bottled or not, won't really change that.
How would this account for the perfume-y note though? Maybe just by amplification of the flowery and sweet stuff? Which brings me to -

#6: The Artifical Cleanness Theory.
Maybe the "perfume-y note" is actually the relative absence of not-so-nice notes in real whole materials in nature, like indoles in many flowers. Why would excluding these weird side-smells read as "less fresh" to me, not just "nicer", and actually "more fresh"?
Maybe again ambience is a factor - when I smell jasmine it's usually in nature, I have fresh air, leaves, grass, earth etc around. Or maybe it's more context; if I stick my nose in a bouqet, I know I'm smelling fresh flowers - so any fecal or musty or moldy notes are not going to register with me as such, because my brain is not frantically trying to identify who pooped in the corner. Those notes would be disconcerting to me coming from a bottle, but without them, I get this other thing that I don't like.

(I think I'm thrown off here by the vocabulary of "animalic" - this is used as a positive, but never to denote "freshness", instead "sensual/sexiness". I've never smelled the real natural materials like real musk and civet, but if these notes are as I read in some review, "think animals in cages", I've smelled that, and am completely perplexed by the supposed connection with sex.
But maybe those are notes that read to me as "fresh" as in "natural", and that aspect of "natural" is what comes off as somehow "naughty" and "dirty" to some folks?
Like, I feel like I probably wouldn't spray myself from the bottle labeled "Wet Dog" before a date, but maybe a whiff of wet dog mixed in with my grass or flowers is what I want?)

So. Sorry that this got so endlessly long-winded and rambling, I'll see if I can go back and edit it down later. But I do hope some of you have thoughts or ideas to share on this!


This post first appeared on Grant Osborne, please read the originial post: here

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Why does perfume smell... "perfume-y", and not like anything else in life smells?

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