There’s an innate sexual energy to fragrance, one that was happening long before creators on TikTok began dabbing vagina secretions on their person as a form of attracting partners. (For the uninitiated, it’s called vabbing and it’s become quite the nano trend.) I’ll take a respectful pass, put that in the “you do you” category, and leave it at that. But that practice of sexuality and attraction through scent has both scientific and cultural prominence.
While it’s known that animals use airborne molecules to attract a member of the opposite sex for a little hanky panky, these so-called sex pheromones have not yet been identified in humans — but not for lack of trying. In fact, scientists have actually been able to find a turn-off pheromone in human tears. So, it would stand to reason that there has to be turn-on pheromone somewhere in our genetic makeup. “For as long as pheromones have existed, body odors have been a source of sexual attraction,” says Matthew Herman, co-founder and creator of Boy Smells. “Odor has always informed attraction.”
But, if we push past the yet-unsolved pheromone question, scientists have proven time and again that how we smell has an impact on how people perceive us. However, that impact varies from person to person due to a combination of what Olya Bar, digital strategist at niche fragrance boutique Twisted Lily, attributes to nature versus nurture. “[Studies have shown that] the scents which mothers are exposed to when the child is in the womb begins to imprint in the last stages of the fetus development,” she says. “Going forward into the early years of our lives, our olfactory system works in overdrive to map out our perception of scent, building the subconscious map that will eventually become the core navigation for certain scents we will find comforting and soothing, exhilarating and happy, or frustrating and melancholic.”
Eventually, she continues, media and advertising begin to affect our perception of things and influence how we interact with scents. You can only see so many breathy film noir models chewing on their lower lips in tortured ecstasy or celebrities running through mountain fields in frothy couture creations before your adolescent brain starts thinking “gee, is that what attraction smells like?” Thankfully, society has started to move past those troubling times into a more sexually enlightened era.
What Do We Find Sexy In 2022?
“I think the idea of what is ‘sexy’ is being shifted away from the male gaze and is being more internalized,” says TikTok creator Emelia O’Toole, who goes by Professor Perfume on the platform. “Now, the idea of what’s sexy is more along the lines of self-empowerment and confidence. It’s less ‘buy this perfume to make him want you’ and more ‘find a signature scent to make you comfortable in your own skin.’”
Adds Honorin Blanc, a master perfumer with fragrance house Firmenich, “With fragrance, we can create a new world of sensuality through our emotions. Sensual wellness today is not just about eroticism or the pervert — it’s all about taking care of yourself. Sensuality in fragrance is more about extreme pleasure than attraction, it’s about knowing yourself and what is pleasurable to you rather than to just attract others — it can do both, but starts with what pleases you.”
And if what pleases you is a “who’s your perfume daddy?” vibe, well, you’re in luck because the fragrance landscape has evolved to encompass a wide range of dominant sexual scents. The hallmarks of a top energy fragrance depend on the wearer, but they share commonalities of intensity and embracing that unapologetically bold side that entices and allures.
What Makes A Dominant, “Top” Energy Scent?
As to what those specific notes are, Herman notes that there will always be some personal variety. “The scent notes associated with ‘dominant’ energy may differ greatly from person to person,” he says. “Top energy can really differ depending on the individual. I find notes of musk, leather, rose, black tea and peppercorn to help me tap into my dominant energy. For me they are straightforward and kind of insist on being noticed, as well as being very sexy.”
When it comes to the “Christian Grey” of fragrances, O’Toole says, “I would immediately jump to something containing more intense notes like leather, amber, oud, warm spices, or sharp woods. Something like that would be enticing and alluring enough to excite your partner, but it wouldn’t necessarily graze into that warm/cozy category — this Christian Grey type would be far too self-indulgent to worry about aftercare.”
“Leather, for sure, because you of course associate leather with this S&M vibe,” says Elaine Keay, the director of brand and business development at Twisted Lily. “Something smoky and tobacco, and these resin and balsam scents as well give off a sexual energy, but that’s also how they’ve been pushed in advertising — these masculine scents that are marketed as very moody and with sexual innuendos.”
Adds Bar, her partner at Twisted Lily, “Chypre fragrances that tend to be green, slightly bitter, and even a bit standoffish at times stand out for me as a top energy fragrance. Very pulled together, confident, with a pinch of attitude.”
Blanc, meanwhile, has a unique take on sensuality, pointing not just to the notes, but rather to the texture of the scents she creates through its ingredients. “For me there are three textures of sensuality — wet, salty, and warm,” she says. “The opposite texture of sensuality for me is a fragrance that is too dry or has too much tension with the notes. I created the ‘fluffy’ texture that defines the feeling of floating or addictive sensuality. I’ve used its different intensity in many of my creations such as Aerin Lauder Amber Musc, Tom Ford Noir Anthracite, YSL Black Opium, and Avon Attraction Game.”
The Evolution Of Gender & Scent
As many of the experts point out, in traditional fragrance creation, many of these notes tended to be used in the past predominantly for men’s fragrances, however the industry has grown in leaps and bounds in the past two decades in how it views gender and scent. “Things like tobacco, leather, lavender, and woods have been traditionally used to build many men's fragrances, simply because it was men who wore leather, chewed and smoked tobacco and naturally it was recreated in fragrances for men,” says Bar. “Today, however, we are way past the point of looking at fragrances as men’s and women’s. We see more brands playing around with the genderless concept, focusing more on how the fragrances make you feel vs. what it says on the label.” Adds Blanc, “We’re breaking the codes of gender — the notion of gender is no longer a boundary or limit for our creations. Today, we play with masculine and feminine notes together in different ways which allows us to come out of our comfort zones and define the signature of sensuality in a new way that is more exciting.”
Views on sex have also evolved, which has come with its own unique set of cultural minefields. “In the past, traditionally sensual scents were way more taboo,” says O’Toole. “I remember wearing loads of Victoria’s Secret scents when I was in high school, but God forbid anyone would ask what I was wearing and I’d have to say ‘Tease’ or ‘Very Sexy’ out loud. I remember thinking, ‘Couldn’t they have just named this something like Sweet Pea or Pure Paradise? Why does it have to be sexy?’ Now, Goop is out here with This Candle Smells Like My Vagina, people are vabbing, and Etat Libre d’Orange came out swinging with Secretions Magnifique [Editor’s note: for the uninitiated, that’s a scent that literally smells like semen, sweat, blood, and breast milk]. As our culture has gotten more sex-positive, no one would even bat an eye at a perfume called Tease anymore.”
She continues, “It’s true that sex has oversaturated the media we consume daily, so a large part of this shift is due to desensitization as well, but I also think that people are moving more towards the idea of confidence and self-love being sexy. We don’t really need a fragrance ad to tell us that ‘wearing this will make you irresistible!’ Now, the conscious consumer is shopping for products that will enhance the things they love about themselves rather than try and change or cover it all up. The sexiest fragrance is the one you feel the most confident wearing.”
With that in mind, here are nine scents the experts say have major top energy.
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