Scents and non-scents by
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I’ve always loved the scent of perfumes and colognes, but they haven’t always loved me. Even as a child, many flowers gave me the allergy sniffles. As a teenager, I wanted to wear cologne, and that’s when I discovered that the same fragrance could smell different on different people. My skin chemistry tended to turn everything sickly sweet, so I did best wearing very light, citrus-based colognes. I did like Muguet de Bois, the lily of the valley fragrance from Coty. (You can still buy this and the other fragrances in this story online, labeled “vintage” or original.) I loved its color and its pretty scent.

He was wearing Brut, perhaps in retrospect not the most subtle of scents. But I'll never forget the scent of Brut, forever associated with the amazing excitement of that first kiss.

My favorite memory from my teenage years was one great night at a gathering of teens, all children of a group of friends of my parents. I was 14. We were in the basement of a home in Levittown, Pennsylvania, listening to the Beach Boys and slow dancing. A boy named Rob and I went outside on this warm night and kissed. He was wearing Brut, perhaps in retrospect not the most subtle of scents. But I’ll never forget the scent of Brut, forever associated with the amazing excitement of that first kiss.

College years tended to be ones of jeans, backpacks, and no makeup, and no fragrances that come to mind. When I started working, I experimented with various fragrances, mostly put off by the cloying sweetness that my skin chemistry added. Someone suggested trying men’s cologne, and I found Canoe, which I loved. My skin added just enough sweetness so the cologne smelled “feminine” on me, a contrast to the hilarious commercials for the product you can see on YouTube.

A few years later I came by a bottle of Cinnabar. I don’t remember how. Its dark color and sultry image made me hesitate to try it. By then I was a marketing communications manager in a company, and for some reason one morning I just decided to try the new fragrance. That day I had a one-on-one meeting with one of the company’s sales guys, in a closed conference room. The scent almost drove him mad, but fortunately he restrained himself and gave me the feedback on how sexy it was. From then on, I saved Cinnabar for only the most romantic occasions.

In 1990, the world of fragrances changed for me. My then husband and I had already spent a couple of years renovating a 100-year-old Victorian house, and we were finally making good progress. Because he was color blind, we hired a designer to come up with a beautiful indoor color paint scheme for the walls and trim, and through my husband’s business connections hired one of the best painters in the area. As the one with good color vision, I stayed heavily involved. One afternoon I came to the house while Michael, the painter, was starting the trim painting. The trim had a nice sheen, but something smelled strong and odd. As I talked to Michael about how great everything looked, I started to see double, and the room began to spin.

I dashed out the front door, with Michael behind me. “Are you OK?” he shouted.

“Did you put an organic solvent in the paint?” I asked.

“Yes, to make it shine. It’s my secret. How did you know?” he replied. I’d had to write about organic solvents in my work with laboratory reagents. If you mix them with another substance and inhale them, the other substance goes directly into your body. Something in the paint was very toxic to me, and the solvent brought in a walloping dose of it.

Michael felt awful, but I didn’t blame him for what happened. I did recover in a day or so, but my allergies got worse from then on, and to this day, I can’t be around paint, unless it is no-VOC, without getting very ill. Years later, when the office I worked in, with its windows that wouldn’t open, was repainted, I had to move to a far-away part of the building for a week until I could safely go back to my usual spot.

And, I could no longer comfortably wear cologne. Thus began my use of fragrance-free (not merely unscented, they have masking fragrances) products. Fortunately they are more easily available today than in 1990. My home has perfume-free laundry detergent, dryer sheets, deodorant, hand lotion, body lotion, body wash, along with many more I am forgetting at the moment. When I traveled, I needed to take an entire cosmetic case with me because I couldn’t risk using what I’d find in hotels. In the early 2000s, my allergist thought that perhaps I could take shots and be able to tolerate some fragrances, but the skin prick test showed I was sensitive to 38 out of the 40 challenges, so I gave up on that idea.

My allergist reminded me that there was one exception to the no-fragrance regimen: going to Hawaii, where there were flowers that I didn’t encounter at home. I did go several times, and enjoyed putting ginger flowers in my hair, wearing a pikake lei, and even putting a dab of essential oil on my wrist and thoroughly enjoying the scent. If I kept using the oil when I got back, I’d eventually develop the allergy, so I gave that up. But, I have lovely memories of those Hawaiian flowers and scents from my younger days.


Profile photo of Marian Marian
I have recently retired from a marketing and technical writing and editing career and am thoroughly enjoying writing for myself and others.

Characterizations: well written


  1. That’s quite a scentsual saga, Mare (sorry, can’t help myself)…I laughed out loud over the Cinnabar episode. While I don’t remember the scent, I do remember the bottle because I love the color of the cap…and I have a feeling it was more than the perfume that guy fancied!

    I had no idea about the paint/solvent danger! You’ve certainly had your hands full dealing with these disastrous side effects. I see a doctor who forewarns her patients not to wear perfume because someone that works in her office has similar issues. Having known women (and men!) that wear far too much scent, I think some people are simply unaware and/or physically and/or mentally insensitive to how it affects others. You must have to run the other way when you encounter them.

    I hope you (and I) can return to Hawaii some day!

    • Marian says:

      Absolutely, Barb, Hawaii it is. Sometimes science comes in handy, although it’s still disappointing that there are no true cures for allergies.
      The same perfume can be miserable for one person and lovely for another.

  2. Betsy Pfau says:

    I love that the smell of Brut is associated with that first, wonderful kiss for you. Sigh! I understand about body chemistry changing the way perfumes smell on individuals. It took me a long time to find a fragrance I liked, as they all changed when I tried them on (and John’s wife tried to remember the one that smelled like lilies of the valley after reading my story…I’ll have to pass this one on to him. I am not familiar with it).

    Fabulous that you could wear a men’s cologne so successfully for a while, but how trying that allergies tripped you up. Just horrible that paint can cause you so much discomfort. Glad that Hawaii brought you joy, relief and wonderful memories.

    • Marian says:

      Thanks, Betsy, and it’s amazing how many vintage scents are still available, so John’s wife can get it online. Not having bought fragrance for a long time, I was shocked how expensive it was.

  3. Suzy says:

    Marian, I love that you took such a scientific approach to scents, and figured out your skin chemistry and what worked well with it. I also love that you used Canoe — so did I! As I said in my story, I may have swiped my bottle of Canoe from my father, but it was definitely my favorite scent at the time. It’s also great that Brut reminds you of that first kiss in Levittown, PA (of all places!).

    What an experience you had with the paint and organic solvent! Again, your scientific approach helped you to understand what was going on, where another person would not have known. Sorry that you can no longer wear any fragrances except in Hawaii, but hey, it sounds like a great reason to go to Hawaii! Thanks for a great story!

    • Marian says:

      All right, another woman who wore Canoe! I think I tried it at a department store fragrance counter. Then we had to wait for 15 minutes or so to check how the fragrance had changed.

  4. Marian, sorry to learn about your allergy, but so glad your memory and your four other senses prevail!

    • Marian says:

      Thanks Dana. I can substitute my other senses. For example, if someone gives me flowers I can put them outside my back door slider, which is glass, and enjoy looking at them.

  5. Laurie Levy says:

    So sorry about all of your allergies, Marian. Until my sense of smell diminished, I couldn’t tolerate the smell of paint. Now I know why. Thanks for the chemistry lesson.

  6. John Shutkin says:

    Great story, with great vignettes, Marian. I do recall Brut — green bottle — but didn’t realize what an aphrodisiac it was, at least in the adolescent crowd.

    Also found fascinating — though so sorry for you — your discussion of your allergies. The flip side of fragrances and a reminder to us all of this aspect of them.

    And thanks for mentioning Muguet de Bois. Doesn’t ring a bell with me but, as Betsy suggested, I will mention it to my wife today and see if that is the lilies of the valley scent she had in mind. Retro may be a better research source than Google!

    • Marian says:

      John, Muguet de Bois was a girl thing, so it’s no surprise you didn’t know of it. I will be interested to know if your wife confirms it’s the scent she remembers. While I doubt Brut would be an aphrodisiac today, it sure made a fun memory for me.

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