One of the most persistent myths in fragrance sales is the ‘coffee bean’ one – you’ll have seen pots of coffee beans on perfume counters to ‘cleanse your palate’ between trying out different scents. Turns out, sniffing coffee is just ‘another smell’. You’re better off popping out for a bit of fresh air, or sniffing your own, unscented sleeve (or skin).
There was even a study to check whether sniffing a) coffee beans, b) lemon, or c) air improved odour identification afterwards:
Fragrance sellers often provide coffee beans to their customers as a “nasal palate cleanser,” to reduce the effects of olfactory adaptation and habituation. To test this idea, college students smelled three fragrances multiple times, rating odors each time. After completing nine trials, participants sniffed coffee beans, lemon slices, or plain air. Participants then indicated which of four presented fragrances had not been previously smelled. Coffee beans did not yield better performance than lemon slices or air.
Avery Gilbert wrote about the coffee bean meme in his book, What the Nose Knows:
…the two founders of DigiScents, Inc. Joel and Dexster had come up with a small unit that could release innumerable combinations of scent when activated by a digital signal from a personal computer. Stanford graduates, with degrees in bioscience and engineering, respectively, they had previously started a successfull genomics company. Neither of them knew beans about smell. That’s why I had been hired a few months earlier – to bring a working knowledge of sensory science and the fragrance industry to the new venture. I thought their coffee stunt was silly. I’d seen beans at a trade show, but had never heard of a perfumer using them. Still, Joel and Dexster had an unnerring sense of publicity – a useful talent for founders of a Silicon Valley startup. So I sat back and watched with inward eye-rolling as the meme of a “reset button for your nose” was launched into digital culture.
The bean meme is now a fixture in perfume retailing. I toured the Mall at Short Hills, New Jersey, recently and marveled at how thoroughly it has taken root. At the Angel counter in Nordstrom a glass cone full of coffee beans was held aloft on a brushed metal stand. In Bloomingdale’s the beans were in a cocktail glass. The Jo Malone display in Saks had them in an apothecary jar with a metal lid. It’s all good fun and marketing, but there is not a jot of science behind it.
Have you ever noticed how you don’t smell what your home smells of until you come back from holiday? Have you ever wondered how people can work in smelly jobs – hauling refuse; at a fishmonger; in a fragrance factory…? Our brains are wired to mainly detect differences in our environment. So when you smell a particular smell for long enough, our brains decide that it’s safe and can now be ignored. In that sense, the idea of sniffing something other than perfume is actually not a bad punt for ‘cleansing the palate’ between trying out perfumes.
If you want to smell more than a couple of scents in one go, you could try to alternate between the types of scent you’re smelling to avoid encountering similar notes. So switch between citrus scents and oriental scents, or fougeres and fruity florals.
Drinking a glass of water and going for a bit of fresh air are probably your best bet.
Perfumers use ‘nose-blindness’ as a technique to decipher the structure of a fragrance they are trying to analyse. This can be done in a number of ways – one of which is taking a material you know to be in the scent, smelling it until you go ‘nose blind’ and sniffing the fragrance immediately afterwards – that note will appear ‘deleted’ from the scent. Another way is to sniff scents during different points in their evaporation curve.
When shopping for scent, go in with enough time to dip in and out of sniffing, and don’t let yourself be pressured into making an instant decision.
(Photo via MorgueFile).