The Secret to Smelling “Hot” Has Been Right in Front of Us All This Time

If you’re wearing fragrances to attract someone else, try the opposite.

Fragrances That Turn You On

Stocksy, Getty Images / InStyle

You know that giddy flush that’s all “ooh, someone smells sexy nearby” that gets you a little light in the feet looking around to see who it might be? I experience that several times a day — and it’s not because I’m often standing in a crowd of above-average people (I stopped riding the subway daily in 2020). It happens all the time because I switched up my perfume game entirely. Now, instead of wearing scents that smell pretty, I wear ones that turn me on. 

If you’re used to spritzing on perfume, getting a whiff, thinking “hm, that’s nice,” and then going about your day, I implore you to try my method instead. Because you could be experiencing the fiery jolt of “alert! Someone hot nearby! Oop, it’s me. As you were, boss” — and the kicky little confidence boost that comes along with it. Why choose roses when you could have that? 

I haven’t always worn men’s cologne. In fact, I love a feminine fragrance, from the vanilla I spritz around my home, to the Ouai mousse that makes me swish my hair all day to get extra sniffs, to a perfume collection ranging from Carven and Tom Ford to Narciso Rodriguez, every one the scent of luscious and lovely women. But I like (like, circle one yes/no like-like) men’s fragrances. 

The Secret to Smelling Sexy Is Not What You Think

Courtesy Glossier, Getty Images

Ever since middle school, when the boys were sopped with Ralph Lauren’s Polo Green, or high school when Davidoff Cool Water took the scene (Can you smell it now?), there’s just always been something about the tonic, balmy, not-at-all-from-nature scents guys wore or the aggressive amounts in which they wore them that worked for me. 

“Smell is often more important than we think in determining our attraction,” says Carolyn Rubenstein, PhD, a licensed psychologist in Boca Raton, Florida. “There is evidence that we release pheromones, oxytocin, also called ‘love hormones,’ when attraction is present.” She adds, “The olfactory system, the sensory system in charge of smelling, is directly connected to the part of the brain involved in our emotional responses.” Therefore, “You're more apt to be drawn to a person's scent when attraction is present.” 

You may be nodding like, “Yes, we know this already.” Well, I did, too, but it never occurred to me to try it on myself. 

The first fragrance I wore that made me feel an iota of that first-crush excitement was Hugo Boss’s women’s scent, launched in 1997 after well over a decade of the brand making the men’s version. I convinced my parents to buy it for me in ninth grade and looking back now, it makes perfect sense. It was nothing like the Gucci Rush or Clinique Happy (or any saccharine Bath & Body Works experience) that dominated my friends’ collarbones back then. Of course, you had to wade through fruity top notes like apple and peach (this was the ‘90s, and it was for girls), but then came musky jasmine and orris root, cedar and sandalwood, resin and amber — it was a revelation. Wearing it, I felt strong and sexy, and like I had arrived. And since I weighed a cool 98 pounds and was a virgin who couldn’t drive, it clearly was doing a lot for me. 

Carolyn Rubenstein, PhD

Our brains are a blank slate in terms of scent. As we have experiences around smells, we begin to form long-lasting opinions.

— Carolyn Rubenstein, PhD

But I didn’t learn my lesson then; I spent years experimenting with every flavor of Jo Malone, a gorgeous English Pear & Freesia that smells like it should be eaten or Honeysuckle & Davana, that I think gave me allergies. “Hm, that’s nice,” I’d think every time I sprayed one on. Beauty-adjacent editorial jobs opened the world of freebies to me, and it became even harder to suss out what I liked versus what I’d be down to try since it had been delivered to my desk and was in a nice bottle or by a brand that was “having a moment.” And those were never men’s scents. How was I supposed to know that the feeling I’d get smelling cologne on a passerby, I could get by wearing it myself? 

Then, I packed up my perfume collection during a pandemic flee from Brooklyn to the ‘burbs, put them in a tote bag in my closet that I’d planned to unpack in a pretty way at some point, and never did. I’d married someone who, hygienic and perfectly clean-scented as he is, doesn’t like or wear cologne at all, so during the quarantine years, I didn’t encounter a smell other than my own. I started wearing Dedcool exclusively, and specifically the “completely genderless” L.A.-based brand’s Fragrance 01, called Taunt, which has bergamot, sandalwood, dew, and vanilla. I found myself surreptitiously sniffing my own wrists throughout the day, closing my eyes to soak in the “I smell good as hell” feeling each time. Like Hugo would’ve been if I were more aware at the time, this was a gateway scent. Soon, I’d be able to drop the vanilla.

I learned a lot when I sprayed Prada Luna Rossa Ocean on myself before interviewing Jake Gyllenhaal. I wanted to smell the fragrance before asking him to describe it, and I thought I owed it to the brand to smell it on skin, the way it was meant to be experienced. For days after, whenever I’d smell the bergamot, vetiver, and sage swirling around together with iris and lingering on my desk chair, I’d have a familiar flash of my amygdala lighting up because I smelled someone hot nearby. I’d assumed my subconscious was just doing its thing and connecting those notes to Jake Gyllenhaal, since I’d been staring at his face on Zoom when sniffing that scent most intensely. But then I Pavlov’s dogged myself by wearing it, getting the “someone’s hot!” feeling, and responding “Nope, brain, it’s just me.” E = MC². Now, when I wear men’s scents, I smell, feel, and believe I am hot. I have not achieved world peace, but this discovery does feel as if it will benefit humankind on a large scale. Also, there’s some science that suggests I’m onto something.

The Secret to Smelling Sexy Is Not What You Think

Courtesy Ded Cool, Getty Images

“Self-esteem is derived from many different factors, and people derive self-esteem in various ways,” explains Dr. Rubenstein. “There is no one-size-fits-all ‘magic scent.’ It's how your brain registers [a] scent and if it deems it pleasant or unpleasant, and how you emotionally connect to that fragrance. At birth, our brains are a blank slate in terms of scent. As we have experiences around smells, we begin to form long-lasting opinions.” 

So, my brain jumped from a Polo-scented game of seven minutes in heaven to my very own Hugo to a chat with Jake G. about pasta. Now, it knows the scent of being desirable and it won’t get out of bed for anything less.

“When you spritz on a fragrance that you connect to a positive state or memory, it can instantly boost your mood, sense of attractiveness, and self-esteem,” Dr. Rubenstein says.

Do you tend to buy candles with sandalwood, tobacco, or sage notes? Or, do you, like me, think  women’s deodorants have never smelled quite right until the natural deo boom brought all kinds of earthy — or, dare I say, masculine — scents? (Native’s discontinued sandalwood, how I miss you. Glossier’s brand-new Sandstone release: a resounding yes.) I’ve got a wild idea: branch out of the women’s section. At the very least, dip a toe into unisex fragrances. Once you find the right one, you’ll know. You’ll blush, you’ll do a double-take looking for the sexy stranger who belongs to that scent, and you’ll find it’s you. It is always you.

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