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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.”
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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.