Why Do Some Perfumes Smell Like Alcohol?

When a bottle of perfume smells like Friday night’s drink, the answer isn’t always in the ingredients.

Published Categorized as Fragrance
belchonock /123RF

The smell of alcohol is one we often associate with heavy drinking and late-night partying. So when you buy a bottle of perfume that everyone you follow’s been raving about and, from the very first whiff, it smells like Friday night’s vodka cocktail you had one too many sips of… you can’t help but raise eyebrows.

What can cause perfume to smell so much like alcohol?

All fragrances contain alcohol, some more than others. That said, if a scent smells overly alcoholic to you, it may be near its expiration date, or it may contain synthetic ingredients you’ve quickly grown anosmic to.

The key thing to know is that, even if a cologne or perfume smells like alcohol to you, that doesn’t mean you were sold a fake bottle or the scent itself is bad.

All Fragrances Contain Alcohol

Generally, fragrances consist of 80-90% denatured alcohol, 1-20% perfume essence, roughly 10% distilled water, and a number of solvents, stabilizers, preservatives, and UV absorbers.

That perfume essence—a blend of essential oils and/or synthetic fragrances—is what gives the juice its distinct scent. The alcohol and the water dilute it, making it more commercially viable, and the remainder of the ingredients maximize its shelf life.

Lower-priced fragrances contain more alcohol in relation to perfume essence, so they smell more alcoholic and their scent lasts less when spritzed on the skin.

Higher-priced fragrances, in contrast, have a greater concentration of perfume essence. For the same reason, their aroma is more intense, less vodka-ish, and typically longer-lasting.

Eau Fraîche1-3%1-2 hoursLowest
Eau de Cologne (EDC)3-5%2-3 hoursLow
Eau de Toilette (EDT)5-15%3-6 hoursMedium
Eau de Parfum (EDP)15-20%6-9 hoursHigh
Pure perfumeMore than 20%12-24 hoursHighest
Perfume concentration table

Store-brand, celebrity-name, and fashion-house scents smell more alcoholic because they’re more diluted. Conversely, niche fragrances smell intensely perfumy because they are more concentrated (therefore, they sell at a steeper price tag).

Synthetic Ingredients Sometimes Smell Sharp

Until the late 19th century, scents could only be made out of naturally-derived ingredients, such as the absolutes and essential oils from flowers and fruit, the secretions of wild animals, and dried herbs, raisins, and frankincense.

That all changed in the year 1868, when British chemist William Henry Perkin managed to isolate coumarin—the fragrant molecule responsible for the gourmand, multi-faceted scent of the tonka bean—reproducing it synthetically in a lab.

Today, all of the perfumes and colognes on the shelves of your go-to department store contain synthetic ingredients; some partly, others chiefly, and a few solely.

Synthetic, laboratory-made ingredients are not only cheaper and stabler but, in many cases, they are the only way to obtain animalistic notes for a fragrance (think musk, civet, and ambergris) cruelty-free and on a commercial scale.

But synthetic ingredients, like processed food, have a downside: experienced noses often describe them as bitter and pungent, in a way close, yet somehow far, from the original thing. Like leather pants on a hot model traversing the runway at a major fashion show, they take what is already good and augment it to the extremes.

For example, natural vanilla has an earthy, subtly floral, somewhat honeyed, and pronouncedly woody scent. Artificial vanillin, on the other hand, has a plain, sharp-worded smell of vanilla that’s been preserved in alcohol.

It’s like our senses can intuitively pick up on which aromas are natural and which have been manufactured by man.

You Could Have Become Anosmic

It’s not uncommon for a perfume’s wearer to become anosmic to one or multiple of the fragrant molecules that make up its scent. That’s usually when they trick themselves that A) a perfume has changed its scent when it hasn’t and/or B) the scent is too faint when it actually isn’t.

For example, Baccarat Rouge 540, a true favorite among the members of our editorial team and one of Maison Francis Kurkdjian’s best scents, is infamous for playing hide and seek with most of its wearers due to the fact that they quickly grow anosmic to its ingredients.

Anosmicity, also known as olfactory fatigue, happens when the scent receptors in your nose get overwhelmed by a specific sensation triggered by the fragrance, so they start to ignore it. Just like a new noise can annoy you at first, then simply become part of the background.

Though scientists are still trying to figure out exactly why and how this happens, the general consensus in the perfume community is that notes coming from synthetic ingredients are quicker and easier to become anosmic to than their plant-based or animal-derived counterparts.

When you suspect that that’s the case, avoid smelling and wearing the fragrance for a few days to a week. After you’ve given your scent receptors a break, try again. This normally does the trick.

How Old Was the Perfume Bottle?

There’s no shortage of discounted fragrances, no matter the time of year and whether you’re strolling through the aisles at a department store or sifting through the filter results at an online retailer.

This is especially true for aged fragrances from past seasons, which are dated and therefore should be sold before they start to go off as well as tester bottles, which contain 100% of the original juice but usually without the flair of the original packaging.

Normally, buying a discounted fragrance shouldn’t mean having to compromise the quality or the integrity of the scent. However, if a heavily discounted bottle of perfume from a lesser-known retailer just doesn’t smell right to you, think twice about buying from that retailer again.

It should almost go without saying that the same applies to a fragrance that you’ve bought from other consumers, be it on eBay, from a Facebook Group, or at a swap meet. Counterfeits are rare, but they nevertheless exist.

The Bottom Line

Some fragrances smell like alcohol because they contain too much alcohol and too little perfume, especially if they come in an Eau Fraîche (1-3% perfume) or Eau de Cologne (3-5%) format.

Others smell sharp, not necessarily of alcohol, because their notes come from fragrant molecules of synthetic origin that lack the mildness and, at the same time, complexity of their natural counterparts.

Other times, you may be anosmic to a perfume’s formulation and trick yourself that its scent is vague and alcoholic when, in reality, it isn’t. As a matter of fact, it may smell amazing on you—you simply can’t sense that.

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