Defining "Soapy" As It Applies To Perfume

I've come across more than a few people on the internet who are confused by the term "soapy" as it applies to masculine perfumes, and perfume in general. To be honest, I find phrases like, "Its development turns soapy," rather confusing as well. When we think of fine fragrance, we think of something considerably well separated from soap and soap-like products. Fine fragrance, as opposed to functional fragrance, serves to perfume one's body as a fashionable accessory, whereas soap is simply meant to clean and maybe leave a very light, lingering skin-scent fragrance for a few minutes after washing. For a fine fragrance to adopt the transient and uncomplicated demeanor of soap seems uncouth.

The connecting rod between soap and perfume is not found in the various aromas the two may share, but in the singular message being broadcast by them: "I'm Clean." When I was younger I always assumed that perfume automatically signaled cleanliness and good grooming. What guy would wear fragrance without bothering to shower first? I figured that if you were fastidious enough to spritz yourself with something sweet, you had the basic necessity of washing your body covered well beforehand. Then I got older and wiser, traveled, met a few Europeans and Middle Easterners, heard some cultures reference themselves jokingly (one girlfriend introduced me to the concept of the Puerto Rican Shower), and realized that fragrance was often used to cover-up bodily odors, rather than complement their removal. Nothing about perfume being worn by clean freaks like myself was a given. It's a stinky world out there.

Still, there are perfumes that seek to enhance that just-after-a-shower feeling of clean. They consciously embody fragrance profiles that resemble your typical bath soaps, like Zest, Irish Spring, Dial. Some hearken back to the days when bath soaps were stronger, richer, loaded with real essential oils. Others are intended to capture a kind of drugstore deodorant quality. Many masculines smell soapy, seemingly more so than feminines, though I'm not sure why that is. It could be because women don't want the subject of their wash habits being brought up by their perfume. Hard to say. Masculines, on the other hand, are not shy about communicating to bystanders that the wearer takes washing seriously. Again, I'm not sure why, but if I had to guess I'd say it's because there's a cultural sense, particularly in the West, that men are rugged and given to dirty activities, like fixing cars and digging sewage wells. Perfume can put that in perspective and help dirty guys tell their cleaner girlfriends that they're really okay to snuggle up to after all.

The soapiest fragrance I own is Sung Homme. It's a textbook example of a soapy masculine, and it even conveys the aroma of a specific brand of bar soap, the original Irish Spring. Sung Homme says, "I washed with green-smelling stuff." Another soapy fragrance, arguably next in line, is Grey Flannel. This one goes back to the seventies essential oil soaps, which were popular before corporations started cheaping out on mass-produced soap formulas. Grey Flannel is smooth, rich, spicy, and completely clean in both its structure and its execution. Two other super-soapy masculines are Original Vetiver and Mugler Cologne, both kissing cousins in terms of fragrance structures, but significantly different in their executions. OV is bright, green, grassy, and so achingly clean that it almost hurts to wear it. Mugler Cologne begins with a similar green-floral freshness, like an expensive niche shampoo, and then transitions into a hissy white musk note that wouldn't be out of place on a soap tray.

What do these perfumes have in common? Structurally they're based on natural elements, like citrus, aromatic spices (juniper, ginger), floral notes, and abstract "green" accords, suggestive of pine needles and grass. In execution however there's an even tighter common bond: their blending. These fragrances enjoy very smooth blending, with lower fidelity note separations. Sure, you can pick out the juniper, cinnamon, vetiver, and musk in Sung Homme, but only if you work at it. If you just let the fragrance do its thing, the experience is very abstract and vague, with many notes smooshed together into one or two bright, clean accords of no particular character, aside from smelling clean. It's that clean characteristic that gives soapy fragrances their moniker, because the enduring presence of indoles, civet, rubbery notes and hi-fidelity wood tones, like vetiver and agarwood, prevents a composition from smelling clean.

Civet doesn't kill soapiness if it's just in the top notes, and vanishes by the heart and far drydown stages, but if it hangs around for the entire life of the fragrance, you've got something other than a "clean" smell. Likewise for the rest. Kouros is rather soapy (in any of its formulations), as is Drakkar Noir. These aromatic ferns possess what could be considered "non-soapy" notes, especially in the clarity of their wood accords, but because their whole forms are rendered in "fresh" and "green" ways, their executions are more suggestive of soap. Kouros possesses a white sung-glare of musky citruses and heavily-blended wildflowers (with heather very prominent in the latest formula), while Drakkar has a deeply aromatic and equally-blended accord of super-bright lavender, bergamot, juniper, vetiver, and musk. Aside from Kouros' civet and Drakkar's leathery/smoky coumarin, the fragrances are very clean. Paco Rabanne and Rive Gauche PH, with their Barbasol shaving cream associations, are also somewhat soapy.

Another fragrance type that is often linked to the term "soapy" is the soliflore. Floral fragrances in general can adopt soapy tones - Hilfiger's Tommy Girl, Balmain's Ivoire, Chanel 19, Jacomo's Silences, and Lauder's Pleasures are some examples - and in every case the aldehydes and green resins (like galbanum) claim responsibility for those effects. Tea Rose, which I'm wearing as I type this, is a very pure soliflore, representing one flower and little else. Yet its form is so crisp, so unpretentious and literal, that I'm reminded of those little pink rose soaps sold at L'Occitane. When all is said and done, Tea Rose could easily be the fragrance for one of those soaps.

Bleu de Chanel (and to a lesser extent, Platinum Egoiste) smells very much like a high-end deodorant to me, and to others. It's a dry, ambery chypre, but from a distance you get a powdery, nondescript, and completely synthetic vibe from it. The use of aldehydes and fake citrus aroma chemicals works against its sophistication, but it still smells good in that generic, my-body-smells-fresh kind of way.

So the measure of "soapiness" comes down to how the fragrance interacts with your perceptions of cleanliness. If thoughts of bar soap, shampoo, or deodorant pop into your head upon smelling a fragrance from its top or heart stage, down to its base and far drydown, then you have a genuinely "soapy" fragrance on your hands. If your fragrance seems to broadcast to others that you've showered and completed your usual morning bathroom ablutions, that's great - you're wearing something "soapy." Pretty simple, huh?