Perfumes are more than just a way to smell good. They are a way to explore the intersection of art and science and discover our own personal style and taste.
As someone who has been collecting perfumes for over a decade (and writing about it in recent years), I have gained a lot of knowledge about how they work. I have also learned what distinguishes fakes from the originals—and why we, as consumers, should pay attention.
A reader asked, “Do fake perfumes smell differently?”
Fake perfumes smell less complex than their originals. They tend to have a very strong opening, which then quickly fades away, leaving a faint smell of perfume essence strongly dissolved in bitter alcohol.
Counterfeits also have a strong sillage. When you walk into a room, they can easily overpower everything else, but with one peculiarity: no matter how hard their makers try, they never seem to imitate the exact smell of the original.
So not only do they not smell like the original, but anyone who knows a little about perfume will be able to tell that you’re wearing a fake.
Although some of our readers may be tempted by the idea of buying imitations of expensive perfumes at a fraction of the price, knock-offs are never really a good deal for the reasons we will share with you below.
How Fake Perfumes Are Made
All perfumes consist of a fragrant mixture of naturally-derived oils (from the roots, rinds, leaves, and petals of plants or animal secretions) and lab-made chemicals.
This mixture is called “perfume essence.” It is dissolved in various concentrations in alcohol, water, and additives that prolong the shelf life of the juice by preserving the ingredients and protecting them from oxygen and light.
It is impossible to identify the ingredients of a perfume just by giving it a whiff and observing the color and consistency of the liquid.
However, with modern-day equipment and an analytical method called GC-MS, which stands for “gas chromatography-mass spectrometry,” anyone can do an exhaustive analysis of a perfume’s ingredients.
The equipment used for this type of analysis is pricey: according to Kwipped, an equipment marketplace, the average gas chromatograph costs $29,951. For a small maker of knock-offs, that can be a lot of money. But for a large fake-perfume operation, it’s the equivalent of pennies.
Once counterfeit perfume manufacturers know the key ingredients and formula of a particular perfume, they can decide which ingredients to keep and where to cut back. They may not have access to certain ingredients at all, so they have to get creative with substitutions.
That can be an art form, if crooked, by itself.
Most perfume houses are owned by beauty, cosmetics, and fragrance conglomerates such as Estée Lauder and L’Oreal, which use ingredients from some of the world’s leading ingredient manufacturers (Givaudan, Firmenich, Symrise, and others).
Lacking access to these ingredients, copycat manufacturers have to rely on their cheaper and weaker counterparts from ingredient manufacturers in the Asia-Pacific region. Many of them don’t even come close to the original and haven’t undergone the required safety testing and certification.
Are Fake Perfumes Unsafe?
Considering that perfume is something you spray on your skin—and something that your skin reacts to—the safety of counterfeits can be a real concern.
So does that make fake perfumes unsafe?
The long and the short of it is that you have no way of knowing before you spritz them on your skin, and the price you pay to find out could be a visit to the dermatologist after you have compromised your skin’s health.
Counterfeit perfumes are not safe for direct contact with the skin. Most counterfeit fragrances, as a matter of fact, contain harmful active ingredients that are known to cause irritation and dermatitis.
“Active ingredients found in counterfeit fragrance include things like urine, bacteria, antifreeze,” Senior Vice President and Publisher of Harper’s Bazaar told ABC News in a 2010 editorial on the topic.
While original fragrances use ingredients that undergo safety testing, imitations are not regulated because they are illegal and therefore must be manufactured, packaged, transported, and sold off of authorities’ radar.
Years ago, a good friend would buy counterfeits and use them as air fresheners for his truck and garage. When we talked about it and I told him the facts, he stopped. For the same reasons, you should never use fake perfumes as air fresheners for your home because there is no guarantee what you’d be breathing in.
Spotting Fake Perfumes
Always buy your perfumes from department stores and reputable e-retailers you can trust, such as Bloomingdale’s, Nordstrom, Sephora, and Ulta. If you’ve never shopped in a store before and the price of a scent looks too good to be true, compare the current price to competitors; it may as well be.
Avoid buying unopened bottles from shady characters selling perfume bottles on eBay, in the back of their truck at sporting events, as well as from flea market merchants: at best, you will buy an expired perfume that’s lost its top notes; at worst, you will end up with a fake.
Collecting used perfumes, especially if the formula has been changed or the fragrance is no longer made, is a game in itself. For those of you who want to get into it, take the time to learn before buying pre-owned fragrances at every opportunity.
The Bottom Line
Fakes are never, ever a good idea. They never smell as good as the original, don’t last long on the skin, and can contain harmful substances that cause a nasty rash. Considering all these risks, counterfeit perfumes are just not worth it at the end of the day.
Dupes are a better and safer way to enjoy fragrances that resemble, at least partially, some of the most expensive niche perfumes at a fraction of the cost.