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Wait, What Does ‘Fresh’ Even Smell Like?

Fresh scents are a real thing, but ‘fresh’ scent is a lie

We’ve just been going about our lives, buying “fresh” scented laundry detergent and dish soap, without ever once stopping to ask ourselves, “What the fuck does ‘fresh’ even mean?” Are we truly such sheep to the household fragrance industry that we allow ourselves to be manipulated in this way? Wake up people! 

So, anyway, “fresh” is indeed a rather vague term, but there are several more concrete scents that make up the genre. Like color, fragrance can be understood in terms of a wheel or spectrum — some scents are complete opposites, while others are relationally similar. In 1951, fragrance and psychology researcher Paul Jellinek developed such a wheel, called the Odor Effects Diagram. On one end of the wheel are vegetable scents; on the other, animal. Vegetable scents are acidic and anti-erogenous, while animal scents are alkaline and erogenous. Sweet or bitter scents, meanwhile, sit evenly between vegetable and animal, but on opposite sides of the wheel. 

As you might have guessed, most fresh scents relate to vegetation — water, greenery, flowers and fruits are most common. In our little rat brains, “fresh” is simply associated with healthy, new plant life.

Obviously, much of this is psychological. However, the actual chemistry behind fresh scents backs up the psychology. In a 2012 article published in the scientific journal Sensors, researchers gathered data on the scents people perceived to be “fresh” and the scents’ substantivity, a fragrance term that refers to its ability to linger. Authentic fresh scents, like ones from an actual plant or slice of a lemon, tend to evaporate quickly. In terms of the scents’ molecular makeup, these scents are physically light. Heavy scents, meanwhile, tend to linger much longer and are classified as animal. There are plenty of enjoyable, lingering scents that fit this category: Rich foods, spicy vanilla, tobacco and even the comforting scent of your partner could all be classified as not-fresh. At the same time, so are rotting meat and cat pee. 

All this presents somewhat of a contradiction, though: If fresh scents don’t usually last, why do I smell my laundry detergent on my clothes all day? 

Basically, it’s because these artificial scents used in cleaning aren’t actually fresh. We likely don’t even perceive them as such. Instead, we’d more likely classify them as powdery or artificially floral. On the Odor Effects Diagram, both of these scents technically sit between vegetable and animal. This is to say, a lot of items labeled as “fresh” scent are kind of a lie. 

At this point, “fresh” scent has become its own thing. It’s not fresh in the way it would be scientifically classified, but is instead a scent of its own, named “fresh.” A product with a lemongrass or citrus scent might more accurately fit the bill of a fresh scent, if that’s what you’re looking for. Tell those soap makers that you’re the boss around here!