Photo: Trunk Archive/Carlton Davis
It takes years to find your signature scent. Then, once you do, you can never actually smell it on yourself. You’ve probably heard someone dismiss the complaint, saying you just get used to it, reassuring you that everyone else can in fact still smell the fragrance—which sounds crazy. It’s not.
New York magazine reached out to Pamela Dalton, a cognitive psychologist at Monell Chemical Senses Center, who has spent over 20 years researching scent memory and what they refer to as “nose blindness.” When you first smell an odor, your scent receptors send a signal to your brain’s limbic system, which determines how you will process and feel about that particular scent. But Dalton says the receptors in your nose essentially turn off after around two breaths, and the scent—no matter how strong initially—starts to fade. She uses the example of a study she conducted where people were given a pine-scented air freshener for three weeks. “They would ask me, ‘Are you sure it’s still working?’”
Even experts and scientists don’t know why we become used to smells, but they know that we do. It’s why we can easily pick up on unexpected or strange scents in our homes. You may notice how a friend’s house smells, but you never notice the way your own home smells. “It’s why people go on vacation and come back and say, ‘Oh, it’s so musty in here — I’d better open some windows!’” says Dalton. She says it’s possible your house always smells like that and you’re just desensitized.
If you’re missing the beloved scent of your favorite fragrance, Dalton suggests taking a break and coming back to it. If you have a few fragrances you love, try alternating them every other week or month. That way you’ll pay close attention to the notes you love in the same way you’d notice a great fragrance on a friend. Another surprising tip: get your blood pumping. Dalton says that perfumers have been known to run up and down stairs to make their odor receptors more sensitive, and that she’s had luck with this method in her own lab. Perhaps a quick sprint will perk up your nostrils and bring your favorite fragrance back to you, too.