Here’s Why We Have A Love-Hate Relationship With Vanilla Perfumes

For children of the ’00s in particular, we cut our cavity-ridden teeth on fragrance products like Aquolina Pink Sugar and Jessica Simpson’s dubiously “edible” (and now-defunct) body-care line, Dessert Beauty. These scents feature vanilla in its least nuanced and most food-adjacent form and we ate it up, spritzing them with abandon throughout gym-class locker rooms, in our parents’ houses, on the borrowed hoodie of some guy a grade above. And then, at some point, we move on — or feel like we should. Adults aren’t supposed to smell like cupcakes, right? 

“If you’re in your 20s and smelling a very heavily vanilla-centric fragrance, you might think,’I’m past that — that was my girly young phase, and now I want something more sophisticated,'” says Dr. Herz. Objectively, vanilla isn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, cognitive scientist Pamela Dalton, PhD, MPH, of Monell Chemical Senses Center, points to a recent study suggesting that, as she puts it, “While vanilla may not be everyone’s ‘favorite’ scent, it is uniformly judged as a pleasant association.” But now, it only “works” when it’s a background player balanced out by other, less gourmand notes — the same way you or I, as boring adults, might positively remark on a dessert as “not too sweet.”

Maybe it’s a case of overexposure, like eating so much fudge you make yourself sick and then can’t look at it for years, or maybe it’s our olfactory memory whisking us back in time to a period many of us would rather not return to. But for many women who came of age believing one’s choice of Victoria’s Secret body spray said a lot about your personality, having vanilla front-and-center as your signature is a non-starter. It suggests a certain youthfulness and unsophistication so acute that it’s best found vaguely alluded to in a base note, if anywhere at all, lest people judge you at first sniff on the basis of smelling like angel food cake

Until recently, I shared this thinking. My standing as both a longtime perfume lover who once considered Pink Sugar her “signature scent” and a person who, yes, would like to see the dessert menu stood directly at odds with my negative reaction to any fragrance with that sweet, syrupy note at the forefront. But then, something weird happened. One of my best friends and I, tipsy in the backseat of an Uber going straight from dive bar to bachelorette party, paused to reapply our fragrances. Mine was a roll-on of Nemat Amber oil, hers was a travel spray of something I didn’t recognize — something warm, rich but not cloying, decidedly sweet, and altogether delicious. “Ooh, what is that? It smells really good,” I said to her. “It’s just Flowerbomb,” she replied. Fucking Flowerbomb, Victor & Rolf’s über-popular, once-ubiquitous queen of vanilla fragrances that’s remained popular since its launch in 2005. Flustered and embarrassed, I lied and said I was being sarcastic, then went home later that night to browse vanilla perfumes in incognito mode.

Viktor & Rolf Flowerbomb

The vanilla renaissance is upon us, and not just because I decided for myself that vanilla is good, actually. There’s an entire world of vanilla out there, of different species cultivated in different parts of the world, like siamensis and planifolia and tahitensis. “Vanilla as an ingredient has stood the test of time because it’s so complex and malleable and pairs wonderfully with other notes,” says Malaika Jones, founder and CEO of beauty brand Brown Girl Jane. The ingredient’s history is, indeed, long: In the 15th century, in a region called Papantla located in what is now the north-central section of the modern-day state of Veracruz, the Totonac people cultivated vanilla alongside cacao and achiote to concoct a spiced beverage — widely regarded as the plant’s earliest recorded use. Colonialism introduced vanilla to Europe as a sweetener added to chocolate and coffee in the 1520s, and by the 18th century, the French couldn’t get enough of it in ice cream (or crème glacée, if you will). And just like that, the Western world’s love affair with all things vanilla was hot and heavy.