Welcome to Tynan Sinks’ fragrance column, Smells Like Trouble. As Byrdie’s resident fragrance connoisseur, Tynan will be sharing the scents that linger on in his mind, and nose, and clothes.
Perfume is the most sacred and esoteric beauty product in history. Originating in ancient Egypt and appearing in almost every civilization throughout recorded history, it has been used in everything from religious ceremonies and sacred rituals to masking body odors and denoting status. And of course, personal scent.
As we have evolved, so has our use of fragrance. Though we still use perfume in all of the same ways as those that came before us, we’ve discovered and invented innumerable ways to scent our lives. We have car air fresheners hanging from our rear view mirror, makeup collections scented with peach, fragranced hand sanitizers to brighten our day while cleansing our hands and keeping us safe. If it can be made, it can, and will, be scented.
It is odd, then, that the hottest type of fragrance in the game right now is the illusive, mysterious, and barely there “skin scent.” Scents made to emulate the scent of, well, skin. But isn’t it odd that we are applying a perfume to our skin in order to smell like skin? Seems sort of redundant, no?
That’s not my only question about skin scents. Before I get ahead of myself, what is a skin scent?
That’s a good question, and the answer may depend on who you ask. Widely, skin scents include or are built around the molecule Iso E Super, a synthetic molecule developed in 1973 in the lab at IFF, or International Flavors & Fragrances, Inc., an American corporation that develops scents, flavors, and cosmetic actives. It smells softly of wood and maybe a bit of musk. It stays close to the skin and is only detectable by you, or someone very close to you.
Skin scents are not solely defined by their usage of Iso E Super or molecules like it, but more generally, they’ve come to be defined by their soft presence that often smells like woods, fresh linen, vetiver, or white florals. Anything really, as long as it wears very lightly. The term “skin scent” has evolved to be a colloquial term to describe a light, inoffensive fragrance.
But why are they so sought after?
I love perfume, but I love fragrances that actually…smell like something, you know? I keep wondering what the point is of wearing something that someone else, or even you, can barely smell? Isn’t the fun of fragrance in the fantasy it creates? The mood? There are endless places fragrances can take you. So why, especially in an era where we can’t go anywhere, wouldn’t you want to let your scent take you on a journey?
It could be the reason why so many people love the “no-makeup makeup” look, or the ritual of touching up their face with only a translucent powder: we like to feel like we’re doing something to take care of ourselves, even if it’s just for us.
There is also a fear of being “too much,” in all aspects, really. Being too glam. Smelling too strong. Taking up too much space. Loving too hard. Skin scents give us what we want, which is an identity through scent, without the worry of being too much for anyone else.
For me, skin scents aren’t really the vibe, but I know many, many people love them. Because I can’t ever let a good thing just be, I got my hands on a few of the biggest skin scents to see just what all the fuss is about.
Escentric Molecules Molecule 01
This is the skin scent standard. Molecule 01 is built around the skin scent molecule, Iso E Super, and nothing else. It isolates the molecule so you can discover how it comes to life on your skin. It will probably smell differently on your skin than it does on mine, and it might smell like nothing at all.
This one comes and goes, but the brand tells you as much, explaining it “seems to vanish and then re-appear. This is due to the way it bonds with receptors in the olfactory system…”
When I first sprayed it onto my chest, I was like “I did spray that…didn’t I?” It seemed to hit my skin and then disappear through a trap door.
I’m used to talking about scents by explaining all of the notes within it, but Molecule 01 is truly only Iso E Super, so it’s an almost imperceptible dry wood. It smells like static, something you can’t see or define but you know is there. It doesn’t really heat up or change throughout wear, but it will remind you it’s there as soon as you’ve stopped thinking about it. It’s better under a hoodie.
Iso Gamma Super by Ellis Brooklyn
This one as billed as being able to be worn on its own or layered over other scents to amplify them. For the sake of this piece, I wore it alone. Even more than Escentric Molecules, this one is very, very transparent. Almost invisible. As soon as I sprayed it, it was undetectable on skin, and it was only after about two hours of wear that I could begin to smell much of anything, and even then, it was light.
This, too, was a soft, shiny wood scent, when you could smell it. I will say that while many of these can go stale after a day of wear, Iso Gamma Super, after it made itself more pronounced, remained very clean even after 12 hours of wear. It stays extremely close to you, and sometimes can only smell it when its wafted off of your clothes.
Glossier You is a skin scent made to be experienced. While still being very light and gauzy, it’s a bit more forward than the other scents on this list, which is only to say, you can smell it without questioning if you actually sprayed it on.
Top notes of iris and pepper sit atop a base of musk, ambrette, and ambrox. It’s woody, dry, foggy, and smells different on everyone. Yes, all fragrances wear differently on different people, but this one especially, because it utilizes its notes create a bit of a framework, and when your own body chemistry is added, that’s when it really comes to life. Some people I know love it, some people hate it, which is my favorite kind of, well…anything.
If you aren’t familiar with it, you probably won’t know it’s there. But if you know the scent, you’ll be able to recognize it anywhere. This is probably the most mainstream skin scent on the list, but this one really serves up something that you can smell. I appreciate that.
Yes, this one still exists, you just need to know where to look. You know all of those ’90s GAP scents that are ICONIC? They never went away! They’re all still available at a GAP Outlet near you!
This is my favorite skin scent of the bunch. Like Glossier You, it is more noticeable than the scents that are simply built around the Super molecule, unlike Glossier You, this one is a little warmer. A little more liquid. It’s not too woody, not too sweet, not too soft, and not too dry, but its also all of those things at the same time. It’s a bit more inviting than the rest of these.
At the top you’ll find ginger, coriander, and a few green notes. In the middle, there is incense, and at the base, you’ll find woody notes. The scent is extremely balanced, tempered, and reserved. I enjoyed wearing this one the most because there was a touch of sweetness, creaminess, and spice to it that made it smell like actual real skin to me, not just light, dry woods. Not just the idea of skin, but skin skin. I sprayed this on and was like “I get it.”
Rosie Jane Perfume Oil
Inspired by naked skin, this one is a clean and cottony, it smells warm and white. It smells very fresh, full of plush florals and morning dew. It’s not groundbreaking, in that we’ve all smelled a white floral before, but it’s served up in a very pleasing way. It smells like the morning. Like a sun-drenched duvet. Like waking up from an afternoon nap with no place to be. If you like textural florals, you should check this out.
Maya base is really nice, equal parts white florals and woods, but not too much of either. Even for someone who doesn’t love the skin scent concept, or florals for that matter, I have to admit that this one is very, very good.
It’s clean without being sterile, familiar without being obvious, and soft and wearable without disappearing altogether. This is a great everyday fragrance you can pop on quickly in the morning and trust that it’s gonna ride with you until the end of the day. It was a really nice surprise. This one does the skin scent thing really well.
Essential Faith is not unlike Maya Base, but this one has more of a floral focus. It’s more forward than most on the list, super clean, almost a little watery. It’s made to meld with your unique body chemistry to smell different on everyone, which I guess all of these are. Heavier on the florals, musk, and maybe a little wood, it’s definitely worth checking out if lightweight florals happen to be your thing.