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On the Scent: The Odorants in Deodorants

Most people could easily go through their day without encountering or thinking about perfume, if by perfume we mean “fine fragrance,” the scented mixture of oil and alcohol that is bottled and sold as a luxury item, like jewelry or wine for the nose. But almost nobody in the developed world can go a day without encountering functional fragrances, the perfumes that are added to cleaning and beauty products and other household items. Unless you go out of your way to surround yourself with unscented products, you’ll likely smell perfume in your hand soap, dishwashing liquid, laundry detergent, shaving cream, shampoo, hairspray, lipstick, body lotion, and, of course, your deodorant.

It would be wrong to assume that functional perfumery is the realm of talentless hacks. Many great perfumers either began their careers on the functional side, or continue to contribute to functional formulas while working in fine fragrance. Ernest Beaux of Chanel No. 5 fame got his start working on soap formulas, for example; Sophia Grojsman (Paris, White Linen) and Mandy Aftel of Aftelier both work on functional as well as fine fragrance projects.

It would also be wrong to assume that functional fragrance formulas are simplistic – functional perfumers must work on much smaller budgets and under much tighter restrictions in terms of materials, since small amounts of allergenic substances might be tolerated in perfume but not in other products. In addition, the perfumers must work with more varied and complex bases – you can’t simply add a fine fragrance to soap or lotion, because the materials in these products have their own smells, and perfumes can change the color or texture of the products. The longevity of the scent also needs to be engineered, since buyers want some functional fragrances to linger and others to disperse quickly.

Consumers probably don’t give much thought to the smells of these functional products, and may even believe that the smells are innate to the products, rather than intentionally added. Deodorant, in fact, may be the only product that most Americans put on primarily to affect how they smell. So this month, in a departure from my usual fine-fragrance forays, we’re looking at the populist perfumery of deodorants and antiperspirants. (Please note that I evaluated the below deodorants on the basis of scent alone; I can’t speak for how well they prevent or cover up other smells.)

Dove Original Clean – From the container, Dove Original Clean smells surprisingly sweet, a little like those cheap, chalky, pastel-hued candies that came in a roll and collected at the bottom of your trick-or-treat bag. But it’s also undeniably soapy, and the formula is probably closely related to the one in Dove bar soap. On skin, it comes off fresher, a deodorant version of the powdery aldehydes and musks that make Estee Lauder Pleasures smell a bit like laundry detergent. Dove is clearly banking on the persistent desire among American women since the mid-90s to smell “clean” via the aura of chemicals, this clean smell being code that you’re not a cheap slut. Unfortunately, the “clean”
accord almost always smells cheap. This is deodorant we’re talking about, but still. I find it really cloying. If the default feeling is what appeals to you, why not buy unscented? Then you can spray on Pleasures, or better yet, White Linen – both of which evoke cleanness on a higher budget and with less artificial sweetener.

Dove Men+Care Clean Comfort – This one comes in grayed-out packaging so you know it’s for guys – the ingredients are exactly the same as in the women’s version. The smell of the stick is bar soap plus a harsh synthetic citrus that combine for a weirdly buttery effect (as in comfort food, I guess). It’s much more pleasant on skin, where it’s simply a light, soapy, lemony cologne smell, preferable to the women’s Original Clean scent by virtue of being less sweet and powdery. Ladies, try this one out if it’s the word “clean” in the name that appeals most. I’m growing progressively fonder of it myself. (It even lasted through a handwashing.)

Dove Ultimate Cool Essentials Cucumber & Green Tea – Great branding here: this actually does smell cool and green. In functional settings, cucumber is usually combined with melon, a tired, sour combination that never fails to remind me of Tranquil Breezes, a scent Victoria’s Secret used to carry in the early ‘90s, which was wildly popular with sixth graders. By skipping the extra melon (cucumber already has a similar smell profile) and adding green tea, Dove achieves an accord that feels both fresh and refreshing. Unlike Original Clean, this one smells a little sweeter and fruitier on skin than in the packaging. I can see women wanting to smell like this all over, and accordingly Dove sells lotion and body spray in the same scent. A pleasant, summer-appropriate deodorant.

Mitchum Power Gel Shower Fresh – A more literal interpretation of the “clean” theme, Mitchum Shower Fresh actually smells like bleach: tile cleaner with a splash of Diet Sprite, a real nose-burner of a fragrance. Why smell like you just got out of the shower when you can smell like the shower itself? This is the one that I already owned – there was no unscented option when I purchased it, and it seemed like the next best thing – so I can report that the scent fades quickly after application. (And you know antiperspirant works better if you put it on at night, right?)

Dry Idea AdvancedDry Cotton Dry – This initially smells a bit toxic in the manner of Mitchum Shower Fresh, then you realize it’s none other than the abhorrent Dove Original Clean (talcum candy) in disguise. The drydown of this liquid roll-on formula, however, is more pleasant, less sweet (or should I say, more dry) than the Dove.

Irish Spring Original – Smells like Irish Spring soap, of course – cheap, fresh, and surprisingly green in a kitchen-y way, almost lemony, like dishwashing liquid plus parsley sprigs. What is there to say? I don’t go to deodorant for an object lesson in nostalgia, but you could do much worse. The packaging is hideous.

Degree Fine Fragrance Sexy Intrigue – I had high hopes for this one – with “fine fragrance” branding and a leopard-print-cum-paisley design on the label, how can you go wrong? I predicted this would be some kind of gesture toward amber, and it is, a fruity, nutty, vanilla-ice-cream-type scent that has celebrity fragrance written all over it. It smells like a butterscotch sundae made with soft-serve and topped with extra maraschino cherries: chemical goodness. On skin it quickly loses its charm, turning even sweeter, and with a nod toward citrus that comes off like bug spray. Sexy Intrigue is only slightly more disgusting than Dove Original Clean, however; here at least you’re expecting something like this.

Degree Men Invisible Stick Cool Rush – Very similar to Dove Clean Comfort, but with a definite gingery bite that actually reminds me a lot of Chinese food. Stirfry cologne! Weird, but not bad.

Degree Women Shower Clean – Anything marketed toward women with the word “clean” or “sexy” in the name is virtually guaranteed to be gross. Degree’s version of “Shower Clean” is another gaggy-sweet chemical mess in the bottle. On paper, you can make out a bit of a peppery-fresh muguet note (lily of the valley), but once you recognize that, it just smells like scented toilet paper or tampons. Ladies, if you really want to smell clean, I recommend buying a men’s deodorant, which at least manage to get the soap thing right.

Ban Sweet Surrender – Usually, terrible names point to terrible fragrances (see the recent Daisy Eau So Fresh – more like Ew So Fresh). But Sweet Surrender isn’t nearly as bad as I feared. It smells like cheap shampoo, instead of cheap deodorant (drugstore semiotics), a generic fruity accord (apple-peach?). On skin it’s a little bit musky, a little bit “doll head” (think Strawberry Shortcake). You’ll swear it reminds you of something, but probably it reminds you of everything.

Old Spice Classic – Maybe I got my hopes up too much. The smell of the celadon-green stick is oddly salubrious and briny, like pickles, but with a harsh medicinal edge. (The homme said “Jagermeister.”) On skin it’s not much better. The “old spices” come off as sharp, lacking balance. Is this really the “classic” formula? The drydown (as in, five minutes later) is a little warmer and more pleasant, but still pretty blah. I will say this – it feels really nice going on, smooth and cool, like a bar of soap that melts a bit on contact.

Old Spice Fresh Collection Fiji – This one smells like “palm trees, sunshine & freedom” – says so right on the package, what do you need me for? Actually, it smells like Dove Cucumber & Green Tea but with more of whatever that aromachemical is that they put in every other masculine fragrance, which says “Manly citrus” (dihydromyrcenol?), and a little coconut, standing in for the palm trees. Not bad, as long as you wear it with irony, which they seem to encourage. There’s an imprint of a clipper ship on the top of the stick, a very nice touch.

Old Spice Fresh Collection Matterhorn – Wow: In the package, rather than “ice, wind & freedom,” this is a remarkable dupe for a granny smith apple. On skin, you smell the herbal touches, mint and maybe a little pine. These elements in concert create a crisp, cool sensation without resorting to the usual chemical clichés; it smells remarkably natural, considering it certainly isn’t. (I prefer it to the more chemically Cool Water, which surely inspired it.) I’m kind of amazed – I’m hanging onto this one. (The container is exceptionally well-designed too; it feels good in the hand and somehow less resolutely cheap than the usual.)

Secret Invisible Solid Powder Fresh – I was really dreading this one after all the previous fresh ‘n’ clean disasters, but Secret Powder Fresh is by far the most pleasant of the bunch. To tell the honest-to-God truth, it smells a lot like Flower by Kenzo – it’s legitimately floral, equal parts pink and green and not too sweet. I suspect that, like Flower, it contains helional, an aldehydic green aromachemical. Not for anyone who hates the smell of baby powder, but then why would you pick up anything labeled “Powder Fresh”?

Secret Scent Expressions Crystal Clear Gel Ooh-La-La Lavender – Another one that surprised me in its general not-badness, Ooh-La-La Lavender is not your typical herbal lavender soliflore. In the packaging it smells like a pretty good dish soap or laundry detergent, with that telltale radiant freshness, but on skin, it’s a sort of fruity, lavender-inflected gourmand, a crude approximation of Belle en Rykiel from 10 paces. I could swear there’s actually some patchouli in the “base.” Knock me over with a feather, by all means.

Lady Speed Stick Invisible Dry Powder Fresh – Lady Speed Stick is clearly working off a different kind of baby powder than Secret; this one has an almond-vanilla slant, evoking the anisic root beer flavor of some of Annick Menardo’s work, and the feel of old-fashioned, powdery floral orientals (orange blossom? lavender?). It’s closer to the smell of classic Johnson & Johnson baby powder than Secret’s version. I’ve always avoided “powder fresh” deodorants like the plague, not wanting to smell like a baby’s ass, but this category actually comes closest to resembling fine fragrances.

Lady Speed Stick Fresh Infusions Rainkissed Water Lily – I don’t know what water lily smells like, but probably not like a fruit punch accord – you know those juice blends that are mostly apple or “white grape” with flavorings added to evoke berries or peach. Nearly indistinguishable from Ban Sweet Surrender, but probably a little better.

Suave Invisible Solid Sweet Pea & Violet – Do sweet peas smell as awful in real life as they always do in functional products? “Sweet” is the operative word here: it’s a cheap, sugary, flat floral, nary a happy violet in sight. Pass.

Suave Invisible Solid Tropical Paradise – Ha ha ha. This one doesn’t even attempt to conjure flowers. It’s pineapple coconut – smells like Piña Colada Lipsmackers. The image on the label would look good on the side of a van. Suave gets the slow clap for standing out as truly bad in a field of mediocrity.

What have I learned from my journey through the deodorant aisle? I still think, if you’re a fragrance lover, scented deodorant is a waste of airspace – personally, I don’t want my “underarms” competing with my wrists. But if you choose the scented route, my favorites are Dove Cucumber & Green Tea, Dove Men+Care Clean Comfort, Old Spice Matterhorn (my #1 pick), Secret Ooh-La-La Lavender and Secret Powder Fresh, any of which would play nicely with real perfume.

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Elisa Gabbert is the poetry editor of Absent and the author of The French Exit (Birds LLC) and Thanks for Sending the Engine (Kitchen Press, 2007). Her latest chapbook co-written with Kathleen Rooney is Don’t ever stay the same; keep changing (Spooky Girlfriend Press). Recent poems can be found in Colorado Review, The Laurel Review, Puerto del Sol, and Salt Hill.

Perfumers interested in having their scents reviewed can send inquiries to elisagabbert [at] gmail [dot] com.