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Ever Wonder Why Your Favorite Product Smells The Way It Does?


Maybe it’s because I’ve got politics on the brain, but recently beauty feels like a two-party system, too. On one side of the aisle is fragrance, personal care's pleasure factor. And on the other, there’s fragrance-free. Some people go fragrance-free because their skin is too sensitive to handle essential oils or the oft-mysterious ingredients in synthetic scent, and the rest forgo fragrance out of sheer principle. I have my own views, of course, but if you’re itching to get into a debate please take it to Twitter. (Or call your cousin with a camo bald eagle cover photo. You know he's always down!) Here we’re talking common ground: on both sides, a product’s scent can inform whether or not you buy, use, and love it. Below, a catalogue and look behind the scenes of seven of the most addictive scents in beauty—from the floral, to the sweet, to the inexplicably stinky.

The Naturally Fragrant: Vintner’s Daughter Active Botanical Serum

What it smells like: Citrusy bergamot, lemon, and neroli grounded by earthy, mossy, medicinal notes. (Maybe from the rosehip, nettle, and frankincense?) All blended together, the result is a potent sniff salad of herb-y freshness.

The explanation, from Founder April Gargiulo: “People describe Active Botanical Serum as having a lush, tropical botanical forest scent, and that is 100-percent informed by the richness of our ingredients. At the heart of each formulation is our proprietary Phyto Radiance Infusion, a weeks long process that captures and delivers all the skin beautifying effects of our powerful botanicals. We are proud of and celebrate this process and the performance it delivers to the skin, and for me, the scent experience is all about that performance. When I smell Active Botanical Serum, it makes me think of all the illuminating, firming and plumping plants that went into each bottle. We would never want to add scent to cover that up in any way.”

The Nostalgically Synthetic: Bread Beauty Everyday Gloss Hair Oil

What it smells like: There’s artificial bad, like cloying chocolate-scented candles, and then there’s artificial good, like the taste of blue raspberry Sour Patch Kids, which was scientifically engineered to make my mouth water. (A distinctly Pavlovian success.) Bread falls squarely in the artificial good category, and fades before you have the chance to get sick of it. It smells like a nearly spot-on dupe for the Bath and Body Works Blueberry Art Stuff roll-on, or at least my fond memory of it.

The explanation, from Founder and CEO Maeva Heim: “First and foremost, I wanted the oil to smell delectable—I love a haircare scent that makes you want to eat it. I knew the fragrance should have subtle plum notes to reference our key ingredient, Australian kakadu plum, and we paired that with notes of berry and sweet baked goods. Based on what I wanted the oil to smell like and also my concerns that using essential oils could potentially cause skin irritation, we chose to opt for a synthetic blend. Out of a range of options, this was the scent I kept going back to. I had that ‘mmm’ reaction every single time I smelled it, and there’s a certain warmth to that feeling I wanted the finished product to reflect.”

The Subtly Scented: Glossier Milky Jelly Cleanser

What it smells like: Soft hints of rose mixed with something chemical yet comforting, like Elmer's glue or the muted scent of baby shampoo. It manages to be distinct when you're using it, but not overpowering.

The explanation, from Brand Strategist Emily Ferber: "Milky Jelly started with the product concept: how could we make the ultimate conditioning cleanser that really cleaned skin (taking off makeup in the process) without irritation or dryness? The texture really became the differentiator while we were developing it. But beyond wanting it to really work, we wanted to make it enjoyable. Something you WANTED to reach for twice a day because it makes you feel good and taken care of. We were able to replace some of the water content in the formula with rose water—it kept the feel and the performance the same, but created an additional ritual aspect that felt very Glossier. The scent is light and watery, but iconic. I love it."

The Polarizingly Pickle-y: Biologique Recherche Lotion P50

What it smells like: The scent of Biologique’s cult classic exfoliating acid has been described a myriad of ways on ITG, but I think it smells like a cocktail of plastic, vinegar, and smoked gouda. Better than hot garbage but worse than a field of flowers.

The explanation, from Director of Creation Dr. Philippe Allouche: “We want our users to feel satisfied knowing that they are using a product that works, and has only the active ingredients their skin needs. These ingredients have their own powerful scents. Fragrances have a tendency to alter the results of a product’s formula, and furthermore, some of them can bring irritation, allergies, or inflammation. To preserve the efficiency of our formulas, we do not add fragrance—for our iconic Lotion P50, the cider vinegar brings its characteristic scent. Lotion P50 was not made to be beautiful, or glamorous—but it was also not made to smell like a pickle. It was made to work.”

The One Approved By Gen Z: Kinship Self Reflect Sunscreen

What it smells like: Not sunscreen's chemical-y signature scent. Kinship’s whipped take on SPF smells like... the perfect not-too-sweet buttercream frosting. A big bowl of box mix cake batter. A perfectly plain vanilla tea cookie. Sweet and mild.

The explanation, from Co-Founder and CEO Christin Powell: "The actual scent is natural vanilla extract with a slight hint of turmeric, and it was inspired by the idea of a vegan golden milk latte. Originally, the sunscreen had cardamom, cinnamon, and ginger—that's what we first took to our Kinship Circle of Gen Z-ers, who help us test out product and provide feedback. They wanted the scent to be more soothing, so we removed most of the spices but left the turmeric, which allowed the vanilla to come more forward. Turmeric is an anti-inflammatory—it's soothing and helps protect skin. And vanilla is known for its anti-anxiety aromatherapeutic qualities. The revised formula was a hit with our Gen Z Circle."

The Perfumer's Design: Guerlain Abeille Royale Youth Watery Oil

What it smells like: Straight up perfume! It's clean and powdery, like the ladies' room in a five-star hotel lobby or a hug from your rich grandmother. The scent screams old-school luxury beauty in a familiar, comforting way—a few drops of oil on your face in the morning lasts all day, and can replace an even heavier eau de parfum.

The explanation, from Perfumer Delphine Jelk: "Scent, fragrances, and perfume have been at the heart of Guerlain since its creation in 1828. This is our DNA! Our founder Pierre François Pascal Guerlain was a perfumer, his son Aimé succeeded him, followed by Jacques and Jean-Paul and today Thierry Wasser and myself. When you use a Guerlain product, it has to be a pleasure, a true sensory experience. It gives you the desire to go back to your product, to take time to massage your skin—and so pleasure is efficacy! The inspiration for the Abeille Royale scent is definitely inspired by the French island Ouessant where we get our honey. Rose, jasmine, orris, and fresh honey make a sunny radiant floral."

The Creatively Addictive: Tower 28 Shine On Milky Lip Jellies

What it smells like: Picture a perfect frosted donut. A pink and sprinkled, Simpsons-esque Dunkin ad. Got it? Scrape off the strawberry frosting, and that's what this lip oil smells like. Mysteriously, it doesn't have any strawberry scent inside at all.

The explanation, from Founder and CEO Amy Liu: "All of our products are clean, vegan and designed for sensitive skin, adhering to the National Eczema Association's ingredient guidelines. Avoiding every known irritant and allergen (including essential oils and synthetic fragrances) definitely pushes us to rethink scent and formulations—for our new Shine On Milky Lip Jellies, we used a small amount of food grade coconut flavor in the formula. Coconuts remind us of good times at the beach—my favorite place and a huge influence on the brand! I hope it transports users to a place full of sunshine, wherever they may be."

—Ali Oshinsky

Photo via ITG