As someone who can’t tell a proton from a pronoun, I have endless admiration for the men and women who work in the fields of science. The chemists, engineers and inventors of this world all have my enthusiastic respect. I refer to them, reverentially, using the collective “they” as in “they can send a manned space ship to the Moon,” and “they can make delicious fat-free potato chips” (although not, regrettably, without the unpleasant and inconvenient side effect of “oily diarrhea.”) But given the leaps that science has made in recent years, I don’t understand why they can’t make a natural cosmetic product that doesn’t smell like old man’s feet.
Recently I went to Sephora, my local mall’s shrine to self-beautification, and conducted a completely unscientific sniff-test of anything labeled natural, organic or eco-friendly. I am sorry to report that the results on the whole were, meh. Some products smelled better than others and one or two were actually not bad at all. Well, not terrible anyway. Most of the products were labeled as “fragrance free,” but it would be more accurate to describe them as “perfume free” because many had a fragrance – just not one that was pleasing to the senses. In keeping with the scientific theory that smells evoke memory and emotion more than any other sense, some of the products turned out to be major buzzkills. There was a stick of “natural” moisturizer that gave off a mild and not-entirely unpleasant odor of eucalyptus – but it reminded me of the Noxzema that I washed with twice a day all through middle school, so the smell brought me instantly back to an era of cliques, gym suits, and social awkwardness.
A couple of other products had no discernible odor at all, which was somewhat off-putting. I’ve been programmed to expect makeup to smell festive – to evoke images of dressing up and going out. But the no-aroma items were far less offensive than some of the funkier organic products I would eventually inhale.
A tube of all-natural tinted moisturizer had an aroma that was eerily similar to my dentist’s office. Then there was an eye shadow that smelled like clay, with a top note of what appeared to be rancid fruit. I sampled a lipstick that hit me first with a strong odor of beeswax, followed up by something that smelled like the flesh of a decomposing gerbil. An aggressively “eco” mascara smelled like a tattered pair of bowling shoes I rented recently. And one entire line of earth-friendly products smelled like the chronically ill turtles I had as a child.
I wanted to respond favorably to the smell of natural cosmetics but it was hard going. On the whole, they just couldn’t compare with the memory of the Angel Face compact I remember from high school. Even now, decades later, I can summon up the light, clean, smell of that pressed powder. That fresh, delicate aroma lingers as the sense-memory of my first real date. Angel Face smelled like being out after curfew on a summer night. It smelled like slow-dancing with Jimmy Palladino in front of my house.
Of course that was long ago, before we knew how important it was to create paraben-free products in compostable packaging. I feel it is absolutely right and proper that cosmetic companies try to be more responsible in their approach to makeup. But I also feel a deep and genuine sadness for a generation of girls who, years from now, will get a whiff of roadkill on a summer breeze and think “Oh – that smells just like Prom night!”