I Smelled Like a Man for a Day

There’s a reason men’s body washes and deodorants all seem to have that same, specific scent.

A man in a shower
Philippe Laurenson / Reuters

During a recent shower, I grabbed my bottle of body wash—which smells like lavender and has “relaxing” properties—and squeezed. It was dead empty. This left me with the backup plan many girlfriends know well: using your boo’s “manly” body wash.

You’ve seen it—dark gray bottle, sometimes with grippy nubs on the side. It gets you “deep clean,” like you’re polishing a rim wheel rather than scrubbing your armpits. Under no circumstances do you “luxuriate” in it. The graphics on the bottle feature capital letters and mysterious spiraling atoms. It’s gonna blast you straight to Cleanville, bro.

And the smell … oh, it is distinctive. It’s aggressively tangy, like Kool-Aid made from pine cones. I emerged from the shower smelling somewhat like an executive robot.

It’s not that this smell is bad. It just smells, to me, like dudes. My dad smells like Old Spice, and every man I’ve ever known smells like a slightly different variation of Old Spice. How did male personal-care products all come to smell this way?

I reached out to Ann Gottlieb, a scent expert who creates scents for Axe, a brand that’s somewhat infamous for its “dude” smell. She says male fragrances tend to be “fresher” smelling than female ones. This is likely what was responsible for the piney/minty/alcohol-y odor I was picking up.

In any fragrance, she explained, there are what are called top, middle, and bottom notes. The top notes diffuse right away and hit the nose first. The middle notes make up the majority of the fragrance and give it its character. The bottom notes are heavier and help the scent stay on the skin. “It all comes together in a magical concoction,” Gottlieb says.

A scent relies on a perfumer expertly mixing 75 to 200 ingredients, most of them synthetic. In a women’s fragrance, there’s a large middle section filled with floral and fruity notes, and a bottom section that’s more vanilla-y. Men’s fragrances, meanwhile, are extremely “fresh” smelling, which is what gives men’s products that sharp bite. Men’s scents have notes of mint or “sea” or “fresh air” on top, followed by less prominent notes of leaves and flowers, all underpinned by woodsy bottom notes. According to Gottlieb, the most traditional male fragrances are in a category called fougère, after the French word for “fern.” They’re, well, kind of grassy. Fragrances such as Axe Apollo and Eternity for Men by Calvin Klein fall into this category.

Why are men minty and women fruity? “Part of it is the effect of long-term marketing,” says Pamela Dalton, a scent expert at the Monell Chemical Senses Center. Essentially, we’ve all been convinced that “this is what a man should smell like: It should have more woodsy overtones that are less floral, because floral is more of a feminine trait,” she says.

The whole category of “men’s” body washes and shampoos arose because people like to buy products that they believe are tailor-made for their personal biology, Dalton explains. And even if you’re a man who would just love to try Bath and Body Works, it can be scary to cross the gender-scent divide. “There is a tendency to use a scent as your own personal identity, so you’re stuck in scent stereotypes,” she says. “People smell you sometimes before they see you.”

Gottlieb says women’s deodorants and perfumes tend to have a more diverse array of smells than men’s products do, which is probably why male-branded products all smell so similar to me. But things are changing. According to Gottlieb, male fragrances—especially higher-end, department-store colognes—are becoming more feminine, and there’s been a general uptick in “genderless” scents. She points to Axe Gold, which was adapted from a gender-neutral fragrance and has a “floral heart,” as Gottlieb calls it. “I think you’d feel comfortable and like wearing it,” she told me.

It’s not entirely preposterous that I would: The same scent will smell different depending on whether a man or a woman is wearing it. Everything about you—how oily you are, your own natural scent—mingles with the products you wear to create your own signature scent. Indeed, when the writer Dahlia Lithwick wore Axe to a work party, she found that she was “accosted by three female Slate colleagues who spontaneously observed” that she smelled “completely amazing.” You might not like the smell of Axe, but Axe might smell great on you.

With that hope in mind, I recently smeared on some Axe Gold deodorant to see whether I could, indeed, wear it—at least in a pinch, if I ever ran out of my own Dove deodorant. When I twisted the Axe up from its charcoal tube and took a sniff, it smelled a little like an ocean-scented candle. And though it was softer than the more stereotypically boyish Axe scents, it was definitely still too dudely for me to reach for voluntarily.

Once it was on me, though, it smelled … kind of nice! After the “dark vanilla” and “oud wood” had melted into my apocrine glands, I ended up smelling manlier, sure, but still like myself.

Afterward, a male friend asked me whether I had just gone to the gym. No, I said. I just smell swole.