Ulrich Lang Apsu

The first thing I remembered when I put Ulrich Lang ‘Apsu’ on my arm was the childhood THRILL of going to the Rainforest Cafe at the mall with my mom. If you’ve never been, the Rainforest Cafe is a huge chain of (garish, vulgar) restaurants filled with fake rainforest plants and animals. It’s pretty dark and full of foliage, and every 30-minutes or so all the fake animals move. At age ten, I thought it was fabulous. I’m sure the cafe smelled like grease, not perfume. But I think I know why Apsu called it to mind. Apsu smells like standing between a door that opens into a tropical greenhouse (palm trees, green, steamy) and another door that opens into Abercrombie and Fitch.

But let me be more specific. I smell dirt, ferns, cantaloupe, and leaves. It’s wet, earthy, and green. If you want to know whether you’d like this smell (I don’t, just to be clear), I think you should base that decision on your feelings about cantaloupe. Do you, like me, think that the cantaloupe is the worst of all the melons? Then you probably wouldn’t like this. If, on the other hand, you do like cantaloupe…maybe you should try Apsu. Truthfully I do like so many parts of this smell, but the melon and Abercrombie & Fitch is just Too Much.

Two more descriptions for you: 1) My housemate is convinced that the only accurate description for this smell is: standing in a zoo, pressed up against the glass to look at penguins underwater. 2) Ulrich Lang, the maker of this perfume, says this smells like lush green notes drenched in water. I think that’s reasonably true, but euphemistic.


Bag Balm

I’ve been thinking about protection. About safety.  I’ve been wanting to withdraw, wanting to hide away in a blanket fort (probably because covid cases are exploding where I live, and I’m disturbed at the number of people who voted to re-elect 45). And I think I’ve found the smell of feeling safe. And secure. The smell equivalent of a loved pair of hiking boots, or my brown jacket. 

I found this jacket in a dumpster, in perfect condition (shame on the person who put it there!). The outside is a sturdy canvas, and the inside is lined with shearling. When I wear it I feel limber and at ease. Maybe it’s because it’s a “mens” jacket, but when I walk down the street, I have no fear that anyone will bother me. This jacket was designed purely for function and durability. It  doesn’t care how I look, it’s there to stay on me and shield me. 

I feel the same way about Bag Balm – specifically the smell of it. The balm is similar to aquaphor – made of petrolatum, lanolin, 8-hydroxyquinoline sulfate 0.3%, and paraffin wax – but it is yellow and smelly. It smells like peat, like leather, like rubber. A hardware store, a basketball, Scotch, maybe even iodine? The smell is bracing, medicinal, purposeful. It grounds me. It’s not dreaming of something, or evoking something, as many scents are. I remember my mother introducing me to Bag Balm when I was a child. She put it on my dry feet before bed. I think she told me it had to be at night because the smell was too strong to have on at school. I agree – I might have gotten teased. But now I’ll have it anytime! Who cares!

The story of Bag Balm also comforts and pleases me. It was developed in 1899 to soothe chapped, irritated cow udders. The 8-hydroxyquinoline sulfate acts as an antiseptic, and the petrolatum and lanolin hydrate and protect. Soon it began to be used for human skin, too. The company was family owned for 115 years until it was bought in 2015. The formula is pretty much the same as it always was. I like knowing that the goo I’m putting on my hands is the same goo being put on animals in barns all over the country. 


Jasmine Rice

I didn’t grow up in much of a rice eating household. I remember that when my parents cooked rice, the smell always tricked me into thinking the kitchen was full of tortilla chips. I’d run to the kitchen thrilled, and then be disappointed. I think they must have been cooking plain long-grain white rice, because jasmine rice does not smell like tortilla chips. 

The smell of a fresh, steaming-hot pot of jasmine rice straddles the line between savory and sweet.  It smells nutty and powdery and warm. At the same time, it smells almost like a field. I smell grass, hay, and flowers. There’s paper, too, and a hint – just a hint – of wet sponge. 

This is a comforting smell, and peaceful. I can smell that eating this rice would never give me a stomach ache. It couldn’t. There’s nothing overpowering, nothing that can give you a headache, nothing intense. It’s important to note, too, that the smell is carried in steam coming off the rice. The temperature and humidity of the air that carries a smell makes a tremendous difference, don’t you think? Some smells feel like they stick in my nostrils, but jasmine rice – and I bet a lot of this is from the steam – feels like it simply passes through my nose, soothing as it goes.

Some smells that are similarly inoffensive and inviting: the pages of a new notebook, wooden furniture,  dry oats, under-brewed green tea. 

Make some jasmine rice and let me know what you think!


Chanel Chance Eau Tendre

This smell is called Chanel Chance Eau Tendre Eau de Parfum. I’ve applied to it to my arm on three different days, and it does seem that there’s an element of *chance* in how it smells. The first time I tried it, it smelled bad! It also smelled like: patchouli, lily of the valley, orange zest, bathroom cleaner, leather bags, green leaves. That sounds nice, right? Yet somehow it was very, very bad. Something cloying ran through all those other smells and ruined it. One expects (I do, at least) that a perfume from Chanel will smell generic, but also good. No such luck.

The second time I smelled this, we (smell and I) got on slightly better. Again I smelled lily of the valley and an overall impression of non-fragrant flowers. A bouquet bought at a grocery store. Cool and fresh, from afar. Closer in, there’s something sweeter and warmer. The sweet thing is rather smooth and artificial, and a bit cloying. I certainly don’t like it. That cloying component is like scented laundry detergent, and I mean the smell as it’s poured into the washer, not the smell of freshly washed clothing. After an hour, the intensity and specificity faded and it just smelled like a Macy’s perfume counter. 

In my third smelling session, I was bored. But then – it began to smell more and more like spring. At first, I got the sweet, misty smell of spring flowers – hyacinths, daffodils, tulips.  The smell of a warm, damp morning where the ground is steaming up, or a lily-filled house at Easter, with the windows open. I smelled again, and that wet spring was gone, leaving only laundry detergent. To be more specific, it smelled like Arm & Hammer with OxiClean (I know because I bought this recently – I had a coupon so it only cost $1.97. It’s not my usual and I dislike it, because it makes me think of motels).

So maybe there is not so much chance involved, after all. It seems I consistently smell spring, the unpleasant parts of laundry detergent, and I generally think it smells boring. My best guess at an official notes breakdown would be: lily of the valley, fern, pepper, patchouli, white musk. Upon looking it up, it turns out I’m dead wrong. Chanel says this smells like jasmine and rose, with a hint of grapefruit and quince. So, there you have it: my nose is not All That. But I stand by what I wrote.

If I were to re-name this, I’m afraid I’d have to call it “April Disaster: Chained to the Laundry Vent.”

Deep Cuts

A Conversation on Passionfruit with Em and M

Note: / denotes overlapping speech

M: This is one of my favorite flavors that exists. Yes.

Em: I was struck when I cut it open that it smells bright and sweet and tart but also like a touch of something rotting, or like/ like a heavy…?

M: Oh

Long pause.

Em: What do you think?

M: /yeah 

Em: like not rotting flesh but a rotting peach. 

M: mmm.


M: Maybe that quality that you’re describing is what’s left out when they make candy /in the flavor of foods

Em: / yeah yeah yeah yeah

M: It’s like they don’t get a depth to it, its a surface level

Em: Yeah like the meaty part. Or the, i don’t know, fatty…There’s some pineapple for sure. To just describe it in terms of another fruit. 

M: Maybe that rounded, deep  – what you said was rotting  – is also kind of herb-ish 

Em: Oh they’re the same thing? I thought they were  – that was-  sort of two.. Woah [laughs] the more I smell – 

M. Wait I’m gonna get S.

Em: Ok ‘cause this time I was like – grape juice??

Long pause

Em: I’ve never noticed the way it attaches to the rind with before. With those little, um, implantations…hmm…green apple. I’m tempted to just describe it in terms of all kinds of other fruits.  Pineapple, green apple – 

S: Pineapple for sure

Em:  Green grape, grape juice- 

M: Grape juice!

Em: Welch’s. I love that stuff. It smells like it should taste alcoholic

S: (a light bulb moment) Syrup. 

Em: It really makes me salivate

M: Can we eat it?

Em: (to S) Ohh it’s making you tremble. Shiver with delight!

M: All of us are smiling, yeah.

Em: (delighted) We’re all smiling!

They eat

Em: Woah.

M: Wow

S:It’s like a better version of a super artificial candy

Em: I can’t believe it’s natural. But yeah, I feel like this is the inspiration for all gummy candy regardless of the top flavor, this is the base flavor of gummy bears, gummy worms…

M: The first time I had a passionfruit I was in Rarotonga, and it was raining, and it was the only day the market was going to be open. And I went and bought, i don’t know, a bag of four. And I had a bunch of origami paper – my brother had just been to Japan, where gift culture is a huge deal, you give gifts to everyone – and he said just make a bunch of stuff with your origami paper and give it to people. And so I gave her a butterfly, just to say thanks, and then she insisted on giving me four times as many passionfruits.

Em: And then what did you think when you first ate it?

M: I mean I was just in love. Just in love with a passionfruit.


Jour D’Hermes Absolu

My friend said the first sniff made him think of dish soap. I’m sure Hermes would love that. But i think it’s true-ish! Because it smells good, citrusy, fresh, and sweet. First sniff turns into second sniff because this is delicious and I want to eat it. What does it smell like? My first thought is grapefruit, but less like the actual fruit and more like those Haribo gummies. I also smell flowers – roses, honeysuckle, mock orange, perhaps. Maybe there’s even a teensy bit of apple or pear? It’s like a candied jelly from a VERY posh candy shop. Basically, it makes me want to sashay around and use words like “effervescent.”

This smell was made by perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena. He’s one of the Big Names in perfume, and he’s known for making airy, delicate smells. I think I love him! Jour d’Hermes Absolu smells smooth and well-mixed. It manages to be sweet without being a)powdery, which makes me want to sneeze or b) middleschool-ey, which I mostly do not want. That’s rare! 

And that bottle! Mine’s a mini (from this coffret set). The thickness of the glass makes it look like the liquid is floating mid-air, which suits the smell. As for the name – I think it works. I like that it tells me nothing about the components of the smell. 


Listening Rec – 99% Invisible

Today I have a listening recommendation for you! 99% Invisible is a podcast about the unnoticed design elements that shape our world (mannequins, the patterns on paper cups, the sound of cities, etc.) They made an episode on perfume, and it provides an excellent crash course on the history of perfume for the last century, how perfumes get made, and the current state of the industry. 

A few bits of the episode to pique your interest: A perfumer explains how to make something smell “like the cat pissed on your weed,” we learn about the enchanting smell of ambergris, also known as whale vomit, and the host changes her mind about perfume.

Now, this episode also prompted me to dive deep into reading about a woman named Pamela Dalton. She’s interviewed briefly, and mentions that she is doing expert witness testimony in a legal case on landfill odor complaints. I love the idea of a legal case about smell! It raises such excellent questions! How do you prove that something smells bad? What are citizen’s rights, when it comes to smell? 

I’ve heard the town of Hershey, PA smells like chocolate. What does it smell like to live near a meat processing plant? What if your apartment is above a bakery, and then they leave and are replaced by a fishmonger? Can you get a rent cut? For more such imaginings, read about the case between Irwin County and the Sriracha factory.

Back to Pam. As I looked into this Pamela Dalton, I found that she has a PhD in Experimental Psychology and a Masters in Public Health. She works at the Monell Chemical Senses Center and does a lot of work related to the intersection of war and smell. Which, yes, yikes. 

She has worked for the Department of Defense on developing nonlethal smell weapons. Smell preferences are not universal, so one country’s yum might be another’s yuck. But some odors are universally repulsive to humans – feces, vomit, death. The difficulty with using smell as a weapon is that the nose mostly detects changes in smells. It’s very easy to go noseblind to a smell after about 15 minutes in it, no matter how foul. Still, bad smells can be used for dispersing crowds and keeping people away from locations. Dalton went with “rotting flesh” for her weapon development, by the way.

(Bet you didn’t know – when institutions have living evergreens on their property, they often try to prevent christmastime tree poaching by spraying their trees with stinky smells, like fox urine.) 

Dalton also uses smell to work on PTSD treatment and prevention in soldiers. The gist of this work seems to be: expose soldiers to the smells of war during training. This will decrease the intensity of the smell experience of war, and hopefully prevent these smells from becoming triggers for traumatized soldiers. 

It had never occurred to me that the military might use smell weapons. There are similar weapons for the other senses, too. Dazzlers for the eyes and also deafening noises. Listen to Kate Bush’s “Experiment IV” for a song about this.

On a lighter note: I work in a school, and last year I spent a very enjoyable lunch break listening over the walkie as the adults in the building tried to coordinate the capture of a bottle of poop scent that was being passed around the gym. 

So that’s that for my Pamela Dalton tangent. War is foul. If you listen to the podcast, let me know what you think!

Note: The first few minutes of the podcast feature a somewhat unfortunate speaking voice… Power through it. 


Associated Press. “A Foul-Smelling Solution to Seasonal Tree Poaching” NEw york Times. 2006.

Friedlander, Beau. A Brief History of Scent. Harper’s Bazaar. 2013.

Khan, Jennifer. Aroma Therapy / In The Military, It’s Known As ‘Nonlethal Weapons Development’. SFGate.


Papoutsanis Bar Soap – Tabac

What is soap? I know it used to be made from combining animal fat and ashes. The internet is telling me it’s fatty acids and an alkali metal. I’m curious because soap, specifically bar soap, has a consistent smell quality. Is that because there’s an industry wide standard fragrance base everyone uses, and then tops off with specific smell accents? Or is it the basic materials that make that smell? Someone tell me!! 

When I first smelled this Papoutsanis soap, I thought, “this smells like soap.” Then I thought “I really like this!!” Because, to be more specific, it smells warm, smooth, and cozy. It’s a nostalgic smell (though I think that’s true for most bar soap), and it makes me think of a sun filled kitchen with unfinished wood floors. A grandfather is there (he’s not mine) looking grandfatherly. It’s early September. I smell beeswax.

Because I had trouble describing this with words other than ‘soapy’, I smelled a Dove bar soap, the classic, and that helped me to smell this one better. The Dove smelled higher, this is lower. Dove was powdery in a bright way, but this is powdery in a rich way. The more I smell it, the warmer and cozier it gets. It’s old school – makes me want a beard so I could apply shaving cream with a brush and use a leather strop for my straight razor. 

 On the front of the packaging it said ‘tabac’ and on the back it said ‘cedar and amber’.  So perhaps it’s meant to smell like tobacco? Though in smell marketing people sometimes say ‘tabac’ when they don’t really mean it. I don’t smell cedar. Amber is a tricky one. In the world of fragrance, ambergris refers to a secretion of the sperm whale (now made synthetically). And amber (the resin) is merely a fantasy note, because it’s a good metaphor for the way some chemicals smell. I think this might be the second, because it is warm, cozy, resinous, powdery. Lovely. I got it for $1.99 at Bill’s Imported Foods, a local Greek grocery store


Review – Prada Candy Kiss

Saying ‘Prada Candy Kiss’ feels a lot like saying ‘my Maserati’ or ‘don’t worry, I made him sign a prenup’ – which is to say, surprisingly fun, glamorous, and silly – even funny. But that is not quite how this smells. That sounds juicy, and this smell is more powdery and comfy. I smell tootsie roll! And vanilla. And dryer sheets. There’s also a touch of grape, and cotton candy, and even a teensy bit of incense? This sort of smell is not usually my cup of tea, but I kinda like it! I just wish the dryer sheet part of the smell wasn’t so strong. 

This perfume is what’s called a ‘flanker,’ meaning it is a spin off of the original fragrance, ‘Prada Candy.’ There are a lot of flankers to Prada Candy. Not just Kiss, but also Gloss, Night, and Sugarpop. Truly, they are fun names. I’ll have to try the others someday. 

And though it’s a gorgeous name, I think that instead of ‘Prada Candy Kiss,’ they should call this ‘Pink Sweatpants’ or ‘My Chihuahua Ate My Homework’.


Review: Escentric Molecules ‘Molecule 01’

How things smell is contextual and suggestible. For example, if you give someone a vial of isovaleric and butyric acid and tell them it smells like parmesan cheese, they will believe you. And then if you give them that same vial and say it smells like vomit, they will, again, believe you. See study here.

Today’s perfume is by a brand called Escentric Molecules, and it’s called ‘Molecule 01’. I’m reviewing it because a friend wears it and asked for my thoughts (she is an excellent artist and you should check out her site,, where you can find her medieval/alien artwork and some excellent playlists). The salesperson told me that Molecule 01 doesn’t smell like anything; it just makes you smell more like you.

Disclaimer: this sample I have is very old – like four years old. 

Even at first application, it smells broken-in, like it’s been on the skin for at least an hour. The smell itself is evasive. I think I smell lilies? And pepper? Is it warm or cool? It certainly smells calm. I’m having trouble describing it, but I can tell you two things. One: it smells like opening a Vogue magazine. Two: wearing it, I feel like a glamorous robot.

It strikes me as a rather private fragrance. As in: “I’m wearing perfume, but I don’t want to be interpreted.” It’s the olfactory equivalent of keeping one’s face carefully neutral while waiting for a job interview to begin.

So does this perfume really make each wearer smell more like themselves? I put it on all three of my roommates and smelled them diligently. Yes, they all smell different. But of course they all smell different. And – to return to the way context affects perception – if the salesperson had told me it smelled like roses, would I be telling you that all three of my roommates smelled beautifully of rose? Maybe the marketing helps one pay attention not to the perfume, but to the person. I think that’s nice!

This smell is perfectly named, though. ‘Molecule 01’ – simple, and yet confusing.

P.S. I did some research: this perfume is made of one solitary chemical compound, called Iso E Super. The compound was first made in the 60s and has been used in smaller portions in many fragrances, but this was the first one to use it all by its lonesome. Fragrantica (the Wikipedia of perfume) says Iso E Super smells “dry, woody and cedarlike, with aspects of ambergris, vetiver and patchouli and a slight phenolic nuance. At the same time, it is amazingly transparent and neutral.”