Objectivity of Fragrance Reviews

Google your favourite fragrance.  Chances are that most of the top hits you will get will feature reviews.  Whether you go to Sephora, Nordstrom or any specialized fragrance site, you will find tons of opinions on any given fragrance ranging from the laconic “this stinks” to elaborate discussions of notes and tonality.  If you steep yourself into the fragrance community online, you will find that fragrance reviews are its heart and soul.  Heavyweights like Basenotes exist exclusively as a platform for fragrance enthusiasts to share their opinions.

Even though fragrance reviews are the heart of the online fragrance community and I tremendously enjoy reading and writing them, I’ve come to realize their limitations.  Fragrance reviews have a limited ability to communicate what a fragrance smells like.  They are plagued to varying degrees by the reviewer’s biases, experience, technical ability to smell and ability to verbally communicate what they smell.  Therefore, when reading fragrance reviews, it is important to keep in mind that a review is nothing more than a description of how the reviewer experiences a fragrance at a particular time.

Reviewer’s Biases

Generally speaking, anyone who gives an opinion about a fragrance (and possibly anything else) suffers, to a certain degree, from the following three biases:

1. Past Experience Bias

How we experience the present is greatly determined by how we’ve experienced the past.  Who we are today and how we see the world is subconsciously determined by events and experiences in our past.

The smell of coconut, sun screen and sea make me really happy because they remind me of my childhood summers growing up by the beach.  Therefore, I’m more prone to like scents with marine notes in them (e.g. Sel Marin, Sel de Vetiver).  I read an article about Giorgio Armani and the creation of Bois d’Encens and that the smell of incense is special to him because it reminds him of the time when he used to go mass with his grandmother.

…the sense of smell triggers memory and feelings more effectively than any other sense.

Numerous studies have shown that the sense of smell triggers memory and feelings more effectively than any other sense.  Therefore, it comes as no surprise that you may not like violet-based perfumes because they remind you of your Grade 9 teacher who used to wear La Violette by Annick Goutal.

The past experience bias goes beyond certain notes – it shapes our opinion whether a fragrance smells dated, promiscuous or sensual.  Since the past experience bias often works at a subconscious level, it may not always be evident why we feel a certain way about a fragrance.  Being a aware of the possibility of such a bias, however, makes it more likely for us to dissect and seek an explanation why we perceive a particular fragrance the way we do.

2. Crowd Opinion Bias

Most of the fragrances I buy or even smell are recommendations from friends in the fragrance community.  If the notes sound interesting and the reviews are generally positive, I would be more likely to try them and even buy them.

What bothered me more, though, was that I started to doubt my own tastes about fragrance.

The problem with researching the community based opinion before smelling a fragrance is that I approach it with already set expectations of what it should smell like.  Before I ever smelled Green Irish Tweed, for example, I read all reviews under the sun about it.  The truth is that none of them really prepared me for true experience of smelling it, so when I did, I was mildly disappointed that it wasn’t what I had expected.  What bothered me more, though, was that I started to doubt my own tastes about fragrance.  Maybe I can’t appreciate the beauty or I just don’t have the nose and I don’t get it.  After all, if Luca Turin (The Expert) with the whole fragrance community in tow says that Green Irish Tweed is great, there must be something wrong with me not to like it.  The reality is that there is nothing wrong with my nose and that I simply don’t like Green Irish Tweed that much.  The reality is also that if I were to review it, I would be tempted to conform with the widespread expert opinion so that I’m not seen as “unenlightened”.  I have never given in to this temptation so far but it doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been there.

3. Personal Preference Bias

Regardless of our past experiences and the crowd opinion, sometimes we prefer certain types of fragrances over others.  Our preferences tend to change with time and they can also radically change our opinion about a fragrance.

Two years ago, I used to hate citrus fragrances – I used to find them generic, boring and uninspiring.  Since then, however, I’ve grown to like them.  I cannot attribute this change in my taste to any particular past event or a public opinion.  Regardless, this shift in preference would have had an impact on how I would have reviewed Eau D’Orange Verte two years ago and now.  The differences might have been striking but unsurprising considering how impactful personal preferences can be.

These three biases are not necessarily bad.

These three biases are not necessarily bad.  They are neutral in nature and impact any opinion we have about anything.  For example, you may prefer apples over oranges.  This doesn’t make you a bad person nor does it mean that apples are inherently better than oranges.  In fact, conventional wisdom tells us not to compare apples and oranges.  Similarly, you may not like vanilla based fragrances and therefore you may not be hyped up about Vaniglia del Madascar.

The important thing is not whether these biases are good or bad.  What’s important is to be aware of their existence and how they impact the objectivity of a fragrance review.

When the Nose Fails You

Some may argue we have some biases when it comes to reviewing a fragrance, however, we all have noses and they all function the same way and we smell pretty much the same thing.  We all agree that bacon smells like bacon and roses smell like roses and we rarely have a debate about this.  So, in the least a fragrance review gives us a pretty good idea what a fragrance smells like – jasmine, roses, lavender, etc.

This is true if we agree that either one of the following two things is true:

1. All fragrances are made up of a single one-dimensional note or

2. We don’t care about the nuances of a fragrance, only what the main smell is like.

In reality, both of these things are wrong: most fragrances are made up of many multi-dimensional notes and we do care about nuances of the fragrance.  That’s why we have debates about the degree to which the vetiver note in Sycomore  is crisp, earthy and smoky.

…we tend to smell slightly different nuances of the notes in any perfume.

Our noses are pretty good at picking up main smells and notes but are more inaccurate in detecting nuances or slight variations in smell.  With practice, one’s nose can become progressively better at picking out nuances and subtle scents. Since not all of us have developed a sense of smell to the same extent, we tend to smell slightly different nuances of the notes in any perfume.

I rarely detect all the notes in a fragrance.  If I pick out the main accords, that would be an achievement.  The fact that I do not detect all the notes, does not mean they are not there.  It just means that my nose fails to detect them.  It is either that or I do not have a strong reference smell for a particular note.  For example, a fragrance may have a freesia note it in, I am able to smell it but I don’t know that what I’m smelling is really freesia.  I just don’t have a strong mental reference what a freesia smells like.

The point of all this is that if I cannot smell certain notes (or nuances of notes) or I do not have a strong mental reference, then I’ll write a review based on what I can smell.  As a result, my interpretation of the fragrance may be completely off in the details from what someone else may smell.  This is why the failings of our nose and ability to smell further adds to the subjectivity of fragrance reviews.

When the Language Fails You

Let’s say you’ve overcome your biases and you have an exceptional nose, you still face the challenge of putting what you smell into words.  You sit in front of the computer and are not sure whether the heart note is bitter or acrid…or maybe sour but then it has some sweetness to it…or is it sweetness?

We are notoriously bad at verbalizing what we smell.

We are notoriously bad at verbalizing what we smell.  We’ve never been trained to accurately describe smells.  Since childhood, we’ve described smells as good, bad, strong and weak.  In our more literally progressive attempts, we may go beyond good, bad, strong and weak and describe a smell as pungent, sweet, sour or bitter.  If we have to describe what kind of sweet a smell is, we struggle.  It doesn’t come easy to explain whether a smell is sweet as fruity-sweet, vanilla-like sweet or pastry-sweet.

If you are still not convinced of our ineptitude in describing smells, here’s an exercise: think of five variations of the colour blue (e.g. baby blue, teal, aquamarine, etc.) and then think of five variations of the smell of rose. Please use up to 2-word descriptors as you would do when describing colours.  If you get past 3 variations, you should be calling Givaudan or Firmenich because they may have a job for you.

Our struggle describing smells leads to inaccuracies when we review a fragrance.  The language, however, fails not only on the reviewer’s end.  The reader can also misinterpret the message as a result of slightly different concept of a particular smell descriptor.  For example, if a review says that a fragrance has a sweet dry-down, to me it may mean that it smells like a vanilla, when in fact the reviewer may mean sweet as a tonka bean.

It gets more complicated if the reviewer uses terms to describe the fragrance the reader is not familiar with.  I remember reading reviews about fragrances having a calone note in them or a lactonic nuance before I even knew what these terms mean.  Most of the ingredients used in modern perfumes are unknown to the general public and most people do not have a mental reference of what they smell like.  Therefore, in a sense it is pointless to write on and on about civet, indoles and coumarin because, chances are, whoever reads the review will have no idea what these smell like.

Reviewing the Technical Aspects of Perfumes

If everything else about how we experience and write about perfume is subjective, then if we want to write an objective review, we should write about the technical aspects of the fragrance.  Measurable fragrance characteristics such as longevity, sillage and projection can be measured and are not a subject to interpretation.  If a fragrance lasts 6 hours, then it lasts 6 hours, not 5 or 4 or 3.

Indeed, the technical aspects of a fragrance are usually not a subject to interpretation and can be measurable.  There still may be variation, however, in how we measure a technical aspect of a fragrance and how a fragrance perform on someone else’s skin.  The reason for these variations is that fragrances interact with their environment.  Temperature of the environment, skin type and humidity would all make a fragrance perform slightly differently. In a hot weather a fragrance may project a lot more than in a cold weather; oilier skin retains a fragrance longer than dry skin.  The fragrance’s interaction with its environment contributes to its slight variations in performance and even which notes become more predominant.  I’ve read reviews about fragrances, which smell slightly differently in a hot vs. cold weather as some notes may fall in the background and others may become more noticeable.

Even though the technical aspects of a perfume can be measured fairly accurately, I’ve never seen anyone taking such measurements.  Most reviewers rate the technical aspects of a fragrance on a subjective scale.  The sillage of a fragrance is either strong, moderate or weak.  What is strong, moderate and weak is open to interpretation.

If you’ve read so far, you are my personal hero and I forgive you if you are wondering what is the purpose of this text.  The point I am trying to make is that fragrance reviews are not words to live by or die for. Fragrance reviews are subjective for all of the reasons above and then some.  Just because Luca Turin gives a fragrance a 2-star review, doesn’t mean that it stinks.  It means that for all of the reasons above, he things it’s a fair fragrance. I happen to love some of his 2-star perfumes (e.g. Millesime Imperial).

Despite all this, fragrance reviews are not pointless. They still give a great insight in how others experience a fragrance.  They are the next best thing of learning about a fragrance after actually smelling it.  If nothing else, fragrance reviews give an artistic expression of those admiring the art and at the same time give feedback to the artists of how their fans experience their creations.


4 thoughts on “Objectivity of Fragrance Reviews

  1. The other relevant point is that all of us — even the fragrance reviewer community — are entitled to be completely wrong every once in a while. Rarely will I base my own reviews on either what others think or what the zeitgeist believes, including so-called experts such as Luca Turin.

    Each of us has the bias of our own skin chemistry to impact the outcome of any scent, which leaves us with only our own candid experiences with a fragrance. And the hope that we’re right more than we’re wrong.


  2. I agree, Andrew, as reviewers we are entitled to be wrong, even though I’m struggling with the concept of right/wrong when it comes to reviews. As a reviewer I write about my “own candid experiences with a fragrance” as you put it. As long as I write what I truly experienced, then there is no way to be wrong.
    Thank you for your comment and support.


  3. For me, the subjectivity of a scent is what attracted me at first. While I do appreciate very objective and descriptive reviewers. I tend to love stories and evocations too. Ultimately, for me, writing about perfume is about writing, if it inspires me to put something on paper, it is good for me. If anyone else likes too, it si even better.
    But great insight into the ever-expanding world of perfume reviews, one can easily get lost in here…


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