Editor’s Note: This article was first published on January 16, 2018.
I remember watching the women I’ve loved most vividly create themselves in front of me — curling their eyelashes from bed, gelling their hair back or spraying themselves in a cloud of dry shampoo. Or I remember them by the cloud of fragrance they summoned when they moisturized after a shower: coconut oil or baby powder, tea tree oil and lip gloss with that fake strawberry smell or the clean musk of Old Spice and the slick pop of the top as it slides on and off in two beats.
More often than not, though, I remember a lot of old lovers by the haze of this specific deodorant they leave behind on their long-forgotten T-shirts. I’m not sure why women — and more specifically, queer women — love wearing Old Spice so much, but I know it’s not a fluke. I did an informal and unscientific survey on Twitter for proof. The poll was a landslide: Many women do like wearing men’s deodorant, though not exclusively Old Spice. (Dove for Men and Degree were mentioned, too.) Still, it’s Old Spice that garnered a love letter on the popular beauty website Into the Gloss — it’s the smell of the one you love or at least like to fuck.
The market of men’s deodorant is laughably predictable to the point of being self-satire. So why do women love buying into it as well? Old Spice ran one of the most successful ad campaigns in history centered around TV spots featuring personalized responses from its ambassador. Part of this genius was the company realizing it’s often the girlfriend buying deodorant for their partners to begin with: “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” addressed this directly (for a heteronormative audience, of course), but it also explicitly nodded to the fact women buy the grooming and wellness products for most households. Of course, once compelled into trying it out, women wouldn’t keep buying it if it didn’t actually smell good.
Pulled apart, the notes are as follows: top notes of orange, spices, sage and aldehydes (a compound most famously found in Chanel №5), with a heart of cinnamon, jasmine, and heliotrope and a base of vanilla musk, and cedar wood. It’s a classic combo that you can find in a multitude of popular perfumes for men and women alike: Elizabeth and James’ Nirvana Black, a popular women’s fragrance, shares a lot of the same notes, and Old Spice Denali smells quite similar to Creed’s Silver Mountain Water, though it costs a fraction as much.
The desire to smell “spicy” and fresh is a universal desire for every gender, and somehow, men’s cologne captures it much better than the endless variations of floral options in the women’s aisle. According to market research group Euromonitor, deodorant sprays had a 13 percent value growth in 2016, because of a growing demand for body mists (“products that blur the boundaries between deodorants and more traditional fragrances”), and the sale of men’s body mists are growing at a faster rate.
Many athletes and SoulCycle instructors like Kathleen Kulikowski say men’s deodorant doesn’t just smell better — it does a better job, too. In studies on the subject, however, this isn’t actually true. Ingredients in both are exactly the same minus packaging and fragrance variation — oh, and there’s a markup for feminine branding, as if we’re all adamant collectors of pink and purple memorabilia.
Yet the perception that it’s more effective persists. For example, my friend Celia Edell uses it “because women’s — even the ones marketed as invisible — always cake up and show up on armpits. I have hair, and I’ve always assumed they weren’t made with hair in mind, whereas men’s deodorant is.” Another person I surveyed offered something similar for her fandom: “I have hyperhidrosis so nothing totally stops me from sweating. So I look for things that keep me smelling good even if I get sweaty, and women’s deodorants just don’t hold up for me.”
What’s even more interesting is that some women date people who exclusively wear the fabled men’s deodorant. Every lesbian I asked use it or dated a woman who does. Krista Burton, New York Times columnist and internet famous lesbian, confirms: “I use men’s deodorant and so does everyone I date. I’ve never even slept with someone whose medicine cabinet I’ve casually opened (so: everyone I’ve ever done anything with) and seen women’s deodorant.” Another queer person, Hannah Rimm, uses it over women’s deodorant because “it works better, it smells better and it makes me feel less femme, which makes me feel better because the world presumes I’m femme.”
Burton has a pretty good hypothesis as to why we tend to avoid traditionally feminine deodorants and perfumes: “I think we, as queer people, are often first in line among our straight peers to point out pinkwashing, and a lot of us remember things that smell like cucumber flower and apple melon paradise from childhood, and how our very straight peers smelled like this in locker rooms and we associate it with oppression, perhaps. Why do women always have to smell edible?”
I’d be skeptical of this causality if not for the fact my parents used to slap me awake with a wet towel drenched in Estée Lauder women’s fragrances, and now I can’t stand floral and gourmand perfumes. (Admittedly, my experience is highly unusual.)
In reality, many “male” scents are based on early women’s perfumes and home fragrances. And in the earliest era of perfume, everything was genderless anyway. It was only in the 19th century that gender-specific rationale came into being, mostly in response to the then-popular germ theory that said you could smell illness. Fragrances at that point became muted or unpopular in response, with only the wealthiest women socially permitted the slightest bit of a floral perfume. For their part, men were to smell clean-shaven.
Since then, ever-changing religious and class presumptions have caused ongoing evolution in our cultural perspectives on what fragrance more accurately belongs to who. The book Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell describes how people used to burn aromatic woods on the streets to “cleanse the atmosphere,” and how others once fumigated homes using juniper and frankincense. (Both are in Old Spice deodorant and cologne.) The base smell of assorted men’s perfumes — citrus and musk — also go back to pomanders, porous spheres worn on the body to mask odors. The word pomander traces back to the French term pomp d’ambre, or “apple of amber,” referring to the ambergris in the pendants that typically held multiple fragrances — or, in the earliest variations, apples stuffed with cloves. As for the topnote of vanilla, it’s a no-brainer to include: Studies have shown vanilla is a universal indicator of a “pleasant” odor, and experiments have shown it reduces stress and anxiety. As a result, it’s one of the most popular notes to include in any fragrance — gendered deodorant or otherwise.
So, while more and more beauty companies dip their toes into the pool of gender-fluid brand identities, Panacea Skincare and Milk Makeup being just two, half the women I know will be walking down the men’s aisle — where millennial pink packaging and floral-fruit fragrances are nowhere to be found (or smelled) — for a bit of that good ol’ needlessly gendered deodorant for themselves. Plus, as Ashley Sastre, another of the many women I surveyed about Old Spice (she wears it too), explains, “I use men’s deodorant so that I can enjoy the smell of men without actually having to go near one.”
That, to me, seems like a perfect marketing strategy all by itself.