How Does the Nose Smell Perfume?

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Fragrance is the first impression you quietly convey, used to express your ever-changing moods, contrasting personas, and cherished memories. Does the invigorating burst of punchy citrus instantly revive your soul? Or do the depths of damp woods and zingy spices awaken your senses? Welcome to ELLE Noteworthies, a definitive guide to the finest fragrances we’ve encountered this year, poised to accompany you as you create new scent memories.

We’re going on an adventure today, kids. Before you dive—tester strips first—into our Noteworthies Editors’ Picks… how does it all work? As in, how does your nose take a perfume, candle, food, grass, anything, and smell it?

Hop on ELLE’s Magic School Bus with Tonia Farmer, a board-certified otolaryngologist and head and neck surgeon in Warren, Ohio. Can you feel us shrinking? It’s just like that episode where Miss Frizzle’s class went into Arnold’s stomach.


“Understanding how a scent works or how we smell a scent is complex and complicated,” Farmer says. “It’s part of the chemosensory system, like your sense of taste,” she explains.

A scent, regardless of where it’s coming from or if it’s good or bad, is just a complex blend of molecules. That little cloud floats through the air until it reaches your nose.

“When these scent molecules are inhaled, they travel to an area high in the nasal cavity that contains specialized sensory cells called olfactory sensory neurons,” Farmer says. You have several millions of these working at all times in each of your olfactory clefts, located at the top of each nostril. “The olfactory sensory neurons connect to receptors in the brain through tiny holes in the skull. Once these receptors are stimulated, a complex interaction occurs, sending a code to the brain allowing identification of the smell.”

These codes trigger your brain to react in your limbic system with messages like: “I like this,” “I don’t!”, “This smell makes me hungry,” or with a particular memory. From there, you decide what you’re smelling and react accordingly.

(If you’re interested in the topic of fragrance and memory, here’s my essay about my late mother’s signature scent.)

Hopefully, in regards to the Noteworthies, it’s all positive. But remember: Regardless of your reaction, this is all happening in less than a second—isn’t the body incredible?

Headshot of Margaux Anbouba

Beauty Editor

As ELLE’s beauty editor, Margaux wants to try it all and do it all…and she does. She’s not afraid to chop, slather, dye, swipe, inject, and more—and if it’s worth your time and money, she’ll rave about it here.

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