What’s That Smell? How To Tell If Your Fragrance Has Turned Bad

Illustrated by Ly Ngo.
Back in 1998, after a visit to the Fragonard perfumery in Paris, I purchased Emilie, a beautiful sandalwood-floral scent. I vowed that I would return to replace it someday, meanwhile spritzing it sparsely to save the precious liquid. Cut to 2015, and there is just a smidge left — and the scent has gotten a bit dusty and weak: more Miss Havisham, less Dorian Gray. It has “turned” over the last 17 years — an extremely long time to have it in the first place. Could I have done anything to keep it goin’ strong? Read on for some expert tips on how to know if your favorite perfume has gone bad, and how to prevent it from happening in the first place.

What are the first signs of a fragrance turning?
The first thing you’ll notice is that the color gets a little weird-looking — maybe it looks like old beer, whereas before it was a glass of Champagne; you’ll catch it in the light and notice it is darker. The biggest sign, however, is obviously the scent: It can smell faded, a little sour, or musty. Céline Barel, perfumer at International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF), sums it up nicely: "Olfactively speaking, if you smell it, you’ll know. It will smell old."

Before you chuck your favorite scent, keep in mind that well-made fragrances may appear (or even smell) a little funky at first, but they’re still good. In Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez’s Perfumes: The A-Z Guide, they write: “Very old fragrances, even when well-kept, tend to darken and develop a nail-varnish smell, which fortunately fades minutes after you put it on skin. If you make sure you give the perfume time to breathe before inflicting it on others, usually you can happily wear fragrances that at first sniff seem past their prime.”

What's the life span of a fragrance, anyway?
Depending on the quality of ingredients and storage methods, most fragrances remain potent for three to five years, so you’re probably not going to have a perfume long enough to watch it go, unless you cling to old bottles for the sake of memories. Alex Gilman, editor at LuckyScent, a Los Angeles scent bar and shop that offers every perfume imaginable, says: “Run-of-the-mill quality fragrances or higher quality natural fragrances can be expected to last between three to five years if properly cared for. For high-end fragrances made carefully with best quality materials, and stored or used extremely cautiously, the sky is the limit — 10 years isn't a stretch, and if you're talking about a more balsamic, oriental fragrance (those are the notes most conducive to vintage-style aging), they can last decades.”
What makes it turn?
Citrus and floral notes turn first, so if you’re on the eBay hunt for Gap Dream, you may end up with a bottle of Kool-Aid rather than the sweet smell of '90s-girl angst. Natural ingredients are particularly vulnerable, usually because they don’t have preservatives (most consumer fragrances, i.e., ones that are not branded “natural,” actually use phthalates as the main preservative). Anna Young, manager at Twisted Lily, a Brooklyn-based fragrance boutique, says, “[In perfume,] fragility or vulnerability are qualities that refer to the molecular weight of a scent — for instance, citrus molecules tend to be lighter molecularly and are often used as top notes in the pyramid breakdown of a fragrance, which means they are also the first notes to evaporate or fade as a fragrance wears throughout the day.”

Barel agrees: "Citrus notes are by far the most fragile, as are some very volatile fruity notes and some delicate flowers like orange blossom or neroli. The top of the fragrance can smell off rapidly. On the contrary, woody, musky, or ambery notes are less fragile and can become sublime with time, like a good wine does. I remember opening a sealed vintage bottle of Guerlain’s Vetiver — according to the bottle design, probably from [the] early '70s — and it was divine."

How do you prevent a fragrance from going bad?
The best defense is to keep your perfume in a cool, dry, and dark place, which is contrary to our impulses to keep these little beauties out on a dresser or vanity. Keep the cap on in the box, and take out the bottle when you intend to spritz. Barel recommends putting "fragrances in the fridge, in their box, as high temperature and light are the two worst enemies. If not in the fridge, put them in a cabinet away from heat. And always keep them in their box.”

Another tip? Think small: “When there is too much empty space in the bottle, the fragrance will oxidize and smell off,” says Barel. “So it is always better to buy a smaller bottle, and buy it again if you like it, so that you avoid the problem."

If you enjoy keeping your scents out, by all means, follow your impulses. Perfume is one of the rare purchases that is intended solely to indulge our romantic sides — it plays with both our memory and emotions in an intangible way. Just don't keep your fragrances in the bathroom; the humidity can speed up expiration.

If you're using a roll-on oil or splash bottle, or other fragrance with a removable top, it's also important to try to keep bacteria or dirt from entering the container. (Some people recommend washing the rollerball, but that might be taking it a bit too far.) It's at least worth making sure that you don't leave a screw-top bottle open and exposed, though.


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