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There’s No Such Thing as a ‘Summer’ Scent

With summer heat come summer smells. And beyond the scents that waft across the backyard from the grill, almost none of them are good. Particularly, summer is the time when bodies make themselves most pungently known, filled with sweat and armpit horrors, often covered by the cloying, not-quite-masking-the-B.O. smell of cologne or perfume.

Conventional wisdom about personal fragrance has traditionally involved the idea of seasonal scents. The rules for these are somewhat easy to guess: Summer scents should be light, fruity, clean and inoffensive; winter scents can be weird, dank and spicy. This makes a certain intuitive logical sense, which is convenient for cosmetic companies, who love to convince us that we need a new scent four times a year.

But it’s not necessarily true. The world of personal fragrance is confusing in general (Why are you supposed to put it on your wrists? How can cologne possibly cost so much?), but especially confusing when it comes to “seasonal scents.” Below, we get to the bottom of how we were sold on the idea of a seasonal scent in the first place; which scents have received the de facto smells of summer designation; and why, at the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter which scent you wear — or when you wear it.

Is There Even Such a Thing as a ‘Summer’ Smell? What Does It Smell Like?

For the most part, a summer scent is a marketing construct, much like the idea of a gendered scent. These rules are pretty much made-up and arbitrary — one can wear any type of scent in any season and have it “work,” depending on the desired effect.

Traditional perfumery sees summer scents as lighter and cleaner in order to work against the heavy, sticky smells our bodies tend to give off in the heat. But these rules are becoming much less important in modern perfumery. These days, the idea of scent is that it helps express who you are, rather than embodying a set of pre-existing rules (which, once again, conveniently plays into pushing products and ideas that people are most likely to buy).

Part of the traditional idea of seasonal scents is that your fragrance should remind you of scents that occur naturally in said season: Summer scents, for example, should smell like the flowers that bloom and fruits that ripen in June, July and August. Many traditional summer scents seek to summon tropes such as the smell of the beach, the smell of sunscreen or the idea of a fancy island vacation.

But summer might not smell like that to you. Maybe your idea of summer is the picnic benches and pine tar of a summer camp that you went to as a kid; the smell of a bonfire on the beach; or the dank, encrusted, heady tang of someone else’s sweaty clothes (no, really — some people really want to smell like this).

Perfume is about fantasy, so finding a scent you want to wear in summer is about figuring out what your fantasy of summer is.

But Do Some Things Smell Better in the Heat Than Others?

There’s a literal difference in how things smell when it’s hot out and our bodies are sweatier, so it’s easier for certain fragrances to be overwhelming in summer. Thick, honeyed, notes like amber, oud, vanilla or jasmine become more pervasive when combined with human sweat and 90 percent humidity.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing — it just depends on what makes summer a more enjoyable experience for you. Just remember that since heavy perfumes will smell heavier in summer, and your own bodily odors are more likely to be present, you won’t be replacing your natural smell with cologne, but rather creating a cocktail of the two.

Yes, bodies are gross.

In a Few Weeks, Am I Going to Need to Change My Scent Again to Smell Like What My Nostrils Think of in the Fall?

Traditionally, there’s very much been such a thing as an unfashionably unseasonal scent, but recently this notion has begun to die out, along with the idea that scent needs to be pleasant and elegant. A lot of newer fragrances and niche perfumeries run counter to the mandate that you have to smell like the season, that you have to smell nice or even that you have to smell like anything that occurs in nature at all.

Josie Plumey, the in-house fragrance expert at Osswald, a high-end fragrance boutique in Manhattan’s Soho, is against the notion of seasonal scents altogether. “I don’t believe in them,” she says. “Not only am I a fan of wearing whatever one feels like on a given day without the boundaries of rules created by marketing execs, I find that the scents typically prescribed for a specific season actually wear best in the season’s opposite! Amber scents, balsamic scents, scents redolent of vanilla and incense — these absolutely bloom in heat and humidity. There’s something so sensual (and frankly, carnal) about wearing these scents in summertime.”

So apparently, going against the grain is often the way forward — even in winter.

“Personally, I find no better antidote to the cold and bouts of seasonal affective disorder that strike us in the winter than a citrus-dominant fragrance,” Plumey adds. “It’s a small burst of sunshine in a time of bone-chilling temps and snow.”

In the end, it all comes down to smelling the way you think you should smell. Try stuff on and notice what you like; make a mental note when you think something smells good, and try to remember what it is that smelled that way. Think about what you want people to associate with you, and think about what you yourself want to be reminded of.

In other words, you don’t have to smell like a fruity cocktail this summer — unless you want to, in which case, go right ahead.