The Subjective Smell of Scents

The Subjective Smell of Scents

We often hear people say that scent is subjective. This is a true statement, but it has some nuance to it.

Others often claim that their bar is dead and has no scent, while it may not be entirely true. Granted, I have had received bars from the brand with the big hairy mascot that had no scent, none from Dapper Yankee have ever been lacking in the aroma department, and I have tried them all outside of Sweet Baby Jesus. I would even say that Dapper Yankee has a higher scent load than most soaps.

To explore this, we must look toward science. Now, I am not a scientist, but a follower of “bro science”. By that, I mean that I just read science stuff, but I don’t do it on my own. Most of it is just based on personal experience and what I have noticed in nearly a decade in the fragrance world.

So, what causes a new bar to potentially have no smell or even smell bad? Well, there are many things that can cause such reactions. Most of them are due to how our bodies work, while others can be caused by outside factors. Let’s dive in and uncover these mysteries.

No Smell, Bro

Most of the bars that appear scentless usually aren’t. Now, there is the off chance that you would get an old soap that could have a faded scent, but I have never experienced that with Dapper.  

There is nothing more disappointing than wanting to smell that brand new scent and being let down. You prepare yourself and raise that shiny swirled soap to your nose, and you smell nothing. In that moment, you are devastated. We feel you, and that is why many of us swapped from the brand with the mascot that is in desperate need of a razor.

The vast majority of the time, this is from being nose blind. Meaning that your nose isn’t smelling it. This can be due to several reasons, but the most common one is that your nose just can’t pick up some scents. Things like musk, cedar, and amber can’t be picked up by some people. It’s just part of your DNA. It’s similar to people who think cilantro smells and tastes like soap. It’s not their fault, but it’s just how their body works.

Another reason is due the love of powerful scents. I know this might sound counter-intuitive, but all those strong scents can break down your sense of smell over time. When this happens, you can’t smell lighter and more subtle scents because your nose is accustomed to strong scents. Think of it like food. If you love spicy food and eat it on a daily basis, then probably won’t even taste more subtle spices such as paprika.

Your Nose has your Back

Your nose is a complex organ. It works in tandem with your brain to send signals about what it smells. Sometimes, when scents are very strong or there is another lingering scent in the room, such as a candle or food being cooked, it can make your nose shut out the aromas from a soap.

This can also happen if you keep smelling the same scent repeatedly. Your nose wants to conserve enough energy to look for threats, such as fire, smoke, lethal gases, and the smell of your mother-in-law coming after dousing herself in an entire bottle of perfume. To put it plainly, your nose has your 6, and it wants to keep you alive over smelling pretty things.

The best way to remedy this is to come back later and see if something smells the same to you. Let your nose rest and reset, and then it’s quite possible that you will pick up the scent again. If only it was as easy as telling your brain to shut up, but we all know how that goes when you are trying to figure out if ghosts of dinosaurs exist or not.

Experience Tells All

I have seen many posts that say a bar smells like a monkey flung poo at you. This is just not right. Why are we blaming the monkeys for your sense of smell? They didn’t do anything. Seriously though, people who say this usually aren’t very experienced with scents. They offer no explanation as to why a scent smells bad to them, so they resort to insults over explanations.

Let me be clear, not liking a bar or some scents is totally normal. It’s the language that gives it away. Someone who knows why they don’t like something can explain why they didn’t care for the aroma. Emotional reactions such as these don’t come from a place of knowledge. They come from a place of misunderstanding.

When you smell something new, it can sometimes smell unpleasant because your brain is lost on what it is taking in. Oftentimes, like a new food, the more we try it, the more we become enchanted by it. As kids, most of us didn’t like broccoli or spinach, but as we grew older, we began to understand it more, and then we learned to love it. First impressions aren’t always good. Life isn’t a Hallmark movie.

The Emotional and Weather Factors

Weather and emotions play a huge role in how something smells. Your body just may not want to take in something like Humidor in the middle of summer when it’s 100 degrees outside. They feel cloying and can make some people nauseous in the heat. This is one reason we talk about seasonality with perfumes, and soaps fall under that same umbrella.

If you are sad or depressed, scents may not appeal as much to you. If you are happy, your nose may crave something fresh and energetic. So, it’s best to come back to scents a few times and give them a few chances. I never completely judge a fragrance by my first impression. I like to spend time with them and see how they make me feel.

Emotions also play into our scent memories. Whether they are positive or negative, it can dramatically alter our perception of scents. Root Beer Barrel is a hit, and many love it due to their association of having root beer as a child and the fond memories that came with it. However, if you have never had root beer before, then you might not enjoy how it smells due to having no history with it.

When you get a bar in the mail during the summer months, they can get quite hot in the mail trucks. Now, it’s not enough to melt a bar of soap, but it can make them a bit soft. However, they should return to normal after a few hours in a temperature-controlled house. Heat can change scent profiles, just as the cold can. Certain notes come out more on warmed skin as opposed to cool skin.


As you can see, there are many factors that can change how something smells. While not all of these can be fixed, you can take steps to ensure you what you perceived is what you received. It boils down to patience, which is difficult. However, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was your story about that 25-pound rainbow trout that you caught, which started off as a 3-pound fish. They both built up step by step into something grand.

Whether we like it or not, soap that doesn’t smell pleasant isn’t trash. There are many factors at play. If the majority of people are enjoying it and you aren’t, then it’s likely just your tastes or your body, unless you are one of those bros that likes to kill the party by trying to edgy or a contrarian. Either way, your soap has a smell. Opinions are one thing, but remember every dumpster gets emptied every week or so, so it’s better to not put all of your stock in it, unless you want to end up in a landfill.  


About the Author:

A New Hampshire native with a lifelong connection to fragrance, John Harper isn't your typical fragrance blogger. After serving in the US Army from 2005-2013, John discovered his passion for the world of scents in 2015. Now, with nearly a decade of experience, he shares his insights on perfumes, soaps, and all things olfactory. When he's not writing, John enjoys unwinding with outdoor adventures like hiking and fishing, or diving into a good book or video game. A strong advocate for veterans' mental well-being, John's background adds a unique perspective to the fragrance space.

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