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Scandalwood: “The effect is so intimate and soft that anyone should consider himself lucky to get close enough for a whiff while you’re wearing it.” -NY Mag


Around the time I gave birth to my now 4-year-old daughter, I began sniffing anything I could get my hands on. What was it about my ceramic kitchen sink that smelled so strongly of metal? Why did the top of my newborn’s head smell like peaches and milk and a brown paper bag? When I went back to work as a stylist, I started paying as much attention to the smell of a garment as I steamed it as I did to the look of it. I even began bringing different perfumes to set as conversation starters. After observing my new habits, my husband (who works in coffee and is no stranger to sensory obsessions) eventually suggested that I take perfume classes.

I took his suggestion, trading nights of potty training for classes at Los Angeles’s Institute of Art and Olfaction, where I learned about raw materials. The curriculum alternated between smelling natural essential oilsand synthetic aroma chemicals to learn the building blocks of a perfumer’s palette (woody, citrus, floral, aromatic). Each week we got little vials of raw materials, which I’d take home and line up against perfumes I like to try to deconstruct the fragrances with my nose. Sniffing my way through the fragrance wheel, I discovered some raw materials that were tenacious and cloying (indole, black-currant bud, blue chamomile), and others that were softer, unobtrusive. The latter included musks (like the star ingredient in the scent supposedly beloved by Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy that Strategist contributor Fiorella Valdesolo discovered during her own pregnancy), synthetic amber notes, ionones (powdery violet notes), salicylates (aroma chemicals that add a textural, grainy quality), and certain woody notes (like sandalwood, amyris, and cypress).

Perfumes composed around these materials, I’ve found, are kind of like trusty shapewear or a good skin highlighter — they’re intentionally subtle and meant to enhance your natural scent. Niche perfumers began formulating these softer fragrances (which are actually called “skin scents”) as a response to the long tradition of baroque, complicated perfumes made with anywhere from 50 to 300 raw materials. L.A.–based perfumer (and my IAO teacher) Ashley Eden Kessler explains the science behind skin scents: “These are more streamlined formulas with intentional spaces in between notes; this looser spacing allows for your skin to react and influence the scent. Instead of asking, ‘What perfume are you wearing?’ people will ask, ‘Is it you that smells so good?’” Below, my five favorite skin scents, all of which I consider unisex and any of which is subtle enough to make passers-by wonder, What’s that smell? — in the best way, of course.


I once had a photographer ask me what scent I was wearing on a shoot, which is not that unusual a question, but in this case, I could tell he was asking because we were both wearing the same thing: Le Labo’s unmistakable (and ubiquitous) Santal 33, a very sharp, distinct, and self-announcing fragrance that can linger for hours in elevators and stairwells. I have since traded that for this, which is not as omnipresent and is far more restrained while still giving skin a similar sandalwoody aroma that’s sensual, velvety, and elegant. Although it smells very floral and fruity (peachy) at first, Scandalwood within minutes tones down to an inviting blend of sandalwood and cedar. (Its co-creator Dita Von Teese told the Strategist that the scent’s corresponding candle is something she can’t live without.)

Technically, this would be classified as a woody scent (not a minimal skin scent), but the effect is so intimate and soft that anyone should consider himself lucky to get close enough for a whiff while you’re wearing it.