Does the forest smell like a woman or a man?
How about a summer rainstorm?
Or a vanilla Frappuccino?
Despite an endless array of grooming products that would seem to indicate otherwise (e.g., cotton candy girly-girl cologne spray, ol’ cowboy leather beard oil and lavender night-time cleaning wash), smells don’t have a gender. “There are hundreds of notes at a perfumer’s disposal, and most of them don’t have a gender association,” explains Dave Johnson, who reviews men’s colognes at FragranceBros.com and on YouTube. If anything, science shows that humans mostly associate scents with personal experiences and the memories that accompany them.
That said, some smells have an easier time than others going both ways. “Citrus, mint, musk, vanilla, patchouli or cinnamon are examples of scents that can be used interchangeably as male, female and unisex scents,” Johnson explains.
But since it can be difficult these days for men to find grooming products that don’t smell like booze, bacon or other scents that are associated more with hyper-masculinity than with a specific moment in time, we took a deep breath to sniff out a few other notably genderless whiffs.
Freshly Washed Linen
Whether it be in the form of a candle, cologne or fragrance oil, men and women are equally comforted by the aroma of a warm T-shirt fresh out of the dryer. What’s that smell like exactly? I’ve got my shit together. “I use a body spray/perfume that smells like clean linen/cotton that my gran got me at the Gap for X-mas one year,” KieranTheWerewolf42 shared with the Asexuality.org message board. “That’s fairly neutral. I also use a coconut one, too.”
Petitgrain Essential Oil
Essential oils are usually extracted directly from the bark, flower, fruit, seed or root of a plant or tree. Petitgrain is extracted from the leaves and green twigs of the bitter orange tree, making it neither too floral or citrusy. It’s more “fresh” smelling than anything else.
For centuries, the feminine nature of the rose has inspired poets, playwrights and perfumers hoping to bottle the bloom’s essence—a usage that flies in the face of the flower’s history. Roses were considered macho in ancient Rome, where they symbolized wealth and power: Emperors showered guests with them; gladiators bathed in them. As The New York Times noted earlier this summer, “depending on the perfumer’s vision, rose can smell fresh or feral, peppery or syrupy, whisper light or as dank as a mossy cave.” In other words: Anything capable of smelling so many different ways is incapable of smelling solely like a man or a woman.
Frankincense and Myrrh
You might be thinking this will make you smell more like a God than a mere mortal of either gender on account of the three wise men who presented the Baby Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh shortly after his birth. Appropriately enough, the Middle East, Jesus’ birthplace, ignores gender when it comes to scents. “A lot of new fragrances have these rich, incense-y, woody notes inspired by the Middle East, where fragrances are genderless,” Rachel Herz, a psychologist and neurologist at Brown University who studies the sense of smell, explained to theperfumegirl.com. “We don’t differentiate between ‘male’ or ‘female’ scents in the Middle East,” agreed Sheikh Majed Al-Sabah, a Kuwaiti fashion executive who launched his own fragrance line, The Fragrance Kitchen, in 2005.
Is all this leaving you a bit confused? That might just be your nose talking, according to Howard Eichenbaum, director of the Laboratory of Cognitive Neurobiology at Boston University. After a smell enters the nose, it travels through the the emotional center of the brain — the olfactory bulb. “Olfactory has a strong input into the amygdala, which processes emotions. The kind of memories that it evokes are more powerful,” Eichenbaum explained to NBC News.
So in the end, it’s probably best to just ask yourself: Does wearing this scent make me feel more masculine or feminine? If the answer is inconclusive then (at least to you) you’re smelling a gender-neutral scent, according to the ny.racked.com fragrance pros. And since smell is a subjective experience and masculine and feminine associations with scents are even more subjective, the only person who can really determine if a smell has gender is you.
C. Brian Smith is a writer in Los Angeles. In his last piece for MEL, he talked to a guy who studies man caves for a living.