"Skin Physics" By Luca Turin
I was in New York City with my coauthor Tania Sanchez for the launch of the new perfume guide, and the publisher had scheduled a medieval ordeal for us: 30 or so interviews of 5-9 minutes each in quick succession for a total of four hours. The way this is done now is from your hotel room by digital link with a switchboard that hands you over to one station after another, like air traffic control during a transcontinental flight. This being the morning, the hosts that came on air were invariably chirpy to the point of discomfort. But the hard part was that they all asked the same two questions: Are celebrity fragrances uniformly bad ? Do fragrances smell different on different people ? The answer to the first is that celebrities have little control over the fragrance that bears their name, so the stuff cannot be worse than average, i.e. awful. The second question is trickier. I have long assumed that everything fragrance marketing says must be exactly wrong. It turns out to be more like a mythomanic friend of mine who would tell outrageous stories about herself to the point where at long last you ceased to believe her, precisely when the most outrageous of her tales (e.g. dancing on the tables at the Café Royal) turned out to be confirmed by several eyewitnesses. There must be some truth to the skin chemistry thing: in the final stages of fragrance composition perfumers always rope in their colleagues to bare their arms for spraying to see the range of effects obtained. They would not do it if there was no variation. So what exactly happens ? I object to the term chemistry, since no two-electrons bonds are made or broken, but I’m happy with the idea of skin physics. Your skin is made up of proteins and fats. Like silk knickers (silk is, after all, caterpilar protein) or butter, it will therefore absorb odors. The extent to which it does so will depend on complex factors such as how hard you rubbed the skin, and how much fat you’ve added (lotion) or taken off (soap). This will unquestionably affect the most volatile parts of the fragrance, i.e. the first ten minutes. Whether it messes with the rest needs to be tested by proper experiment and for all I know is already the subject of a 200-page internal report at Givaudan. But try to explain this to people stuck in morning traffic.