"My Old Spice Is Better Than Yours!" How A Classic Drugstore Scent Became The Most Contentious Reformulation Of All Time

The Ship Grand Turk

On February 22nd of this year, I stopped at a store and picked up a few things. On a whim, I grabbed some shaving items, and noticed they had P&G's Old Spice cologne in stock. It was the version with an atomizer. I'd never experienced this scent in spray form, so I bought it, also on a whim. One of the nice things about its plastic bottle is that it hearkens back to the mid 1950s, when Shulton first started exploring plastic for packaging, selling smaller travel bottles and ancillary grooming products in this material.

February was the coldest month for Connecticut in recent memory, and that day happened to be the coldest of the year, with evening temperatures dipping to around ten degrees below zero. It was eight o'clock at night, and I had to get gas, so I pulled into the station and mentally prepared to freeze to death at the pump. I imagined they'd find me there the next morning, my blue claw of a hand still clutching the metal pump handle, my frostbitten ass still leaning casually against the haunches of an icicle-encrusted Pontiac, my body a suburbanized version of Jack Nicholson's corpse in The Shining.

As the bitter cold attacked my face and hands, I realized that a good diversion would be to try the Old Spice spray. It's an excellent way to distract the mind away from black patches of dying flesh. Shivering, I primed the atomizer, and gave myself two sprays to the chest. The cologne practically crystallized in the air, but I used an extra puff for good measure.

A stunning accord hit my nose, a beautiful blend of orange aldehydes, cinnamon, and nutmeg. It was so clean and clear and cheerful that I wondered why I'd been wearing KL Homme all winter. The tank was filled, and I was on my way, still marveling at what I was smelling. By the time I reached my house, the car was full of musky cloves with hints of powdery, slightly vanillic amber wafting in the background.

This got me thinking about Proctor & Gamble's version of Old Spice, a formula much maligned in the wet shaver community as being the utter ruination of grandpa's only cologne. It is indeed a bit different from the "Shulton formula," but I'll get to that in a minute. The past few months have seen me ruminating on the strange dilemma facing today's Old Spice fan, as my experience with the current fragrance could not be more different from what many men on fragrance boards are claiming to smell. If you're someone who likes Old Spice, or is interested in trying it for the first time, you have to figure out which version is best to track down: the Shulton version, the "Shulton" version, the "Indian Shulton" version, or the Proctor & Gamble version.

You may be wondering why I keep putting "Shulton" in quotation marks. Shulton stopped manufacturing and formulating Old Spice when it sold the brand to American Cyanamid, a chemical manufacturing conglomerate, in 1970. This little factoid seems to elude many of the guys who complain about Proctor & Gamble's formula. They act as though the formula was sacred and untouched for seventy years, like the ultimate gesture of all-natural perfumery for the undiscerning male, until those evil assholes at P&G came along and cheapened it with their plastic bottles and vile synthetics. But this is simply not true.

In 2012 a man came forward on Badger & Blade with a headspace gas chromatography analysis of three Old Spices, a vintage Shulton, "current Shulton" (actually a generic, Indian-made aftershave), P&G's version, and the North American generic version of this scent, primarily made by Vi-Jon, with results clearly posted for everyone to see (click image to enlarge):

This analysis suggested four things about this fragrance:
1. An Indian reformulation of Shulton's Old Spice changed the formula, making it spicier (with far more variegated peak activity).

2. The volatility and balance of the oldest Old Spice is possibly a bit degraded after years of storage.

3. P&G's version of Old Spice is only notably different from vintage Shulton's in the tippy-top notes, possibly four chemicals in the early drydown phase, and apparently one base note (where one P&G chemical is noticeably stronger, probably eugenol).

4. Vi-Jon "Spice" aftershave is only mildly different from P&G's, and the significance of those differences is hard to fathom. (It shares more in common with P&G's formula than either of the earlier Shultons.)

Again, "Shulton" is in quotation marks, because the "current Shulton" was actually a Menezes Cosmetics formula, manufactured in India. Many people don't really understand what Menezes Cosmetics did with Old Spice. Let me clear that up.

"Old Spice" was a generic name for aftershave in India. In 1968, Menezes introduced the brand in India as a licensee of Shulton, and continued to manufacture and sell Old Spice for the better part of the seventies and eighties. They officially sold the license to P&G in 1993. Old Spice changed hands four times in twenty years through the eighties and nineties (Menezes, Godrej, Marico, Menezes), most notably to Marico Industries in 1999, until P&G returned licensing to Menezes in 2002, giving them a ten year contract to manufacture Old Spice. Until 2012, P&G permitted several corporate entities, including Rubicon Formulations, Colfax pvt (Menezes' original founding company), and MCPL India pvt ltd (the most recent incarnation of P&G's partnership with Menezes), to sell their aftershaves in India as Old Spice. Again, in India, Old Spice was the generic term for aftershave. ALL aftershave. Hence, several Indian companies made it under the watchful eye of Menezes, and eventually P&G, and were given permission to market it with "Shulton" printed on the bottles, which happen to closely resemble the original bottles.

In December of 2012, P&G reigned it all in when MCPL India's license expired, which means that, as of 2013, these smaller Indian subsidiaries aren't manufacturing and distributing their generic aftershave formula as Old Spice anymore - not legally, at least. Native Indians are now getting the same stuff we get here in North America. So much for Indian Old Spice.

This explains why there's so much confusion regarding Indian Old Spice, and who manufactures and distributes it. Guys are always getting bottles that look and smell different from each other, and with different markings. Yet they rarely investigate why this is. Well guys, now you know why. One word: "Generic." And in India, of all places, the outsourcing of a formula to a half dozen competing companies with access to a wide-ranging variety of raw materials would yield very strange, subtly different, and virtually untraceable formulas, some even coming in questionable plastic bottles, painted white to resemble Egyptian ceramic.

But I digress. My corresponding takeaway from the analysis results are as follows:
1. This is an excellent example of a reformulation that made a scent more complex and dynamic, not less, which refutes the notion that all reformulations are bad. The Indian version sampled is quite a bit more volatile than the vintage Shulton formula.

2. This is yet another fragrance that exhibits some degradation with age.

3. The differences between vintage Shulton and P&G are evident but negligible, clearly showing that the newer formula has better longevity via an added base note.

4. The difference between Vi-Jon and vintage Shulton is far greater than between Vi-Jon and P&G. It even has similar longevity to P&G's, exhibiting the same peak in the base (which is absent in Shulton's). To suggest using Vi-Jon's formula as a substitute for Shulton's version is misleading.

You would think that people who dislike P&G's version would read the gas chromatography charts posted in that thread and seriously question their assumptions about Old Spice. In 2012 (and for several years prior), Old Spice by P&G was lamented as being far inferior to "vintage Shulton." Yet the images of the analysis show a different story. The delicate citrus and spice accord of the top-heavy vintage is barely different from P&G's; the spicy heart accords are quite similar, and the base of P&G's formula is more complex than the nonexistent base of vintage.

Yet the fallacy remains: "P&G ruined Old Spice."

Not one single soul has ever offered a clear definition of those terms. In what way specifically has the scent been diminished? Which notes specifically were removed? Which notes specifically were replaced by nasty synthetics? In what way specifically has the drydown arch of the scent been degraded into something unworthy of eight or nine dollars at a drugstore? Examples are never given. Here is a typical complaint:
"Suffice to say, P&G destroyed Old Spice. It was so disappointing, I used the rest of the bottle while bathing my dogs. Thankfully we can still get the Shulton India Old Spice, which to me is the same as the original before P&G took over the USA operations."

Aside from being a grossly inaccurate statement, this comment reveals nothing about why this person thinks P&G destroyed Old Spice. Now imagine a hundred of these, all from men with the same level of ignorance. No wonder P&G has a bad rep.

We can see from the "headspace" gas chromatography analysis that the formulas have some basic similarities and differences, but unfortunately the analysis given isn't complete in its cataloguing of volatile elements. Had the poster given results of a gas chromatography/mass spectrometry analysis, a clearer understanding of how exact notes and accords differed might have been reached. As one member said,
"In examining the tracings closely, it appears that the current Shulton has 4 strong spikes (at 10.4, 11.3, 13.2, 13.7) that are either absent or much weaker in the vintage. The spike at 14.0 is much stronger in the vintage than in the current Shulton. The spikes at 14.1 are strong in both, but much stronger in the current. In addition there are other minor variations. The current and vintage do not appear to be the same formulation, and the observed differences could account for differences in odor. Such differences would also depend on the potency of those components, the identity of which are not known. This is not my area of expertise, but I'd like to know why do you feel that the formulations are identical. It might be worth doing a gas chromatography/mass spectrometry to actually identify those components that differ between the two, as they might be quite important parts of the overall aromas."

The gas chromatography charts clearly show that the Indian sample of Old Spice has more volatility than any other sample. There are more spikes in chemical activity at shorter intervals in the Indian version compared to the Shulton version. One might surmise that the Shulton version would match the activity shown in the Indian chart if it had been the same age, but according to the poster, this was an "older" sample. I attribute the wider and more numerous valleys in the vintage Shulton to its age.

The charts also clearly show that there is only a small difference in the top notes of Shulton/Indian OS and P&G OS, as the former reveal three small peaks, while the latter shows none. What is unclear is what those little peaks mean in the non P&G formulas. Are they showing us a difference in volatility between active, or inactive ingredients?

The poster made the crucial mistake of analyzing aftershaves, and not colognes. Thus, not all candidates for olfactory analysis are perfume odorants. There may be some skin conditioning esters with tertiary odorant effects in the formulas, and in P&G's formula these may have been eliminated, marking the absence of those three peaks.

Or it could just be that the castor oil in the P&G version wasn't sitting as long as in the other samples, which again makes sense with a newer product. Castor oil gets funkier the longer it sits. Since this is "headspace" chromatography, one has to wonder whether the slightly ashy funk of old castor oil was taken into consideration with the older samples. I know that the presence of this oil in OS accounts for why the aftershave smells a bit different than the cologne. Yet nobody mentions this element in the thread.

In the heartnotes drydown stage, about twenty minutes into development, it's clear that P&G's formula has a couple of spikes that vintage Shulton's lacks, and vintage Shulton's has a few spikes that P&G's lacks. However, the general "flow" of the drydowns are very, very similar. I can't help but wonder if comparing the two is splitting hairs. The pictures don't lie. Different formulas? Yes.

VASTLY different formulas? P&G's formula is blatantly recognizable as Old Spice.

The P&G formula has the most complex base of the three, which oddly doesn't get mentioned. I guess having a simplistic powder base with no real "spice" to it is preferred by members of B&B, because that's how Shulton's version actually smells. What the charts really show is that P&G's formula has longevity, a trait lacking in Shulton's formula.

Yet many members of the board lament P&G's formula as having "no longevity." The claim is that the new stuff is gone in minutes, while the vintage Shulton lasts and lasts.

Which is complete, utter, totally unadulterated hogwash.

The exact opposite is true. I have owned and worn vintage eighties Old Spice cologne by Shulton. It lasted all of five minutes on skin before vanishing completely. It really was all about top notes, that stuff. Smelled great, but gone in a flash.

P&G's version? Hours. With liberal application, the rich clove note in the base, combined with a few whispery resins, really maintains a presence throughout the day. I honestly doubt that any of the naysayers on Badger & Blade have actually bothered to give the stuff a full wearing. They're too busy assuming it sucks. They are apparently a group of "Feelers," not "Tasters."

But the most ridiculous and perhaps intellectually damning little tidbit to the analysis is that it reveals a major fallacy perpetuated by people online regarding Vi-Jon "Spice Scent" aftershave - that it is more like vintage Shulton Old Spice than P&G's formula. The analysis shows the opposite is true. There is a closer match between Vi-Jon's development and P&G OS's development, and aside from perhaps an airier spice accord in Vi-Jon's top, the two are basically cut from the same cloth. Even their drydowns are a closer match, although again, P&G's has more complexity and hold.

Amazingly, this has been a subject of debate for not weeks, or months, but years. The analysis thread is still active. Three years after it was posted, and about twenty pages later, guys are still talking about the reformulation of Old Spice. Isn't it time to just say "enough," and move on? All of the griping about P&G ruining Old Spice isn't borne out by fact, but by opinion only, and that's not enough to give it real legs. It just fuels conjecture.

I've noticed that "vintage lovers" like to exclude a certain consideration from their thinking, and use its absence to explain why their world is so unpleasant. They foam at the mouth about the destruction wreaked upon their favorite formulas by contemporary manufacturers, but dismiss without a second thought any suggestion that the differences detected between samples could be attributable to age. Refreshingly, one B&B member named "Hank Corbett" wrote in 2010 the following about Old Spice:
"I am one of the few who have changed their position on the OS 'recipe tinkering.' I had, until recently, been convinced that the new stuff was not the same water we all know and love. I now am on the side of P&G on the issue. I think it's a matter of 'freshness,' as it has been stated. A bottle of 30 year old after-shave or cologne is not going to smell the same as a bottle of juice manufactured last week. The Shulton stuff ages well and still smells fantastic after prolonged storage and I do enjoy wearing it. I am of the opinion that the P&G stuff will age just as gracefully. I have been wearing P&G Old Spice cologne exclusively for the past week find it to be the same stuff I wore back in pre-P&G days (but certainly 'different' than Shulton only because it has not aged for years and years). After a few hours of wear, it smells like Old Spice. And as I mentioned in an earlier post, one must actually wear the stuff; not smell from the bottle at the store. But I did sprinkle some in my baseball cap and the next day, it reeked of Shulton."

Is it possible that older aftershaves preserve better than colognes? Perhaps Old Spice has a generous maturation period of several decades, and not years? I couldn't tell you. But this post at least acknowledges the reality of the situation - you can't expect to make an accurate comparison between something made thirty years ago, and something put on store shelves yesterday.

A member named "Goss" responded in kind to Hank's comment:
"I agree and have changed my position on this subject also. I believe it has to do with aging of the 'recipe.' I have a brand new bottle of Old Spice AS and plan on tucking it away for the next 20 years. I'm sure it will age just like the Shulton O/S."

An even more prescient sentiment was shared by someone going by the moniker "WastedResources" -
"The average shelf life for a bottle of cologne or aftershave is about two years. After that, the ingredients break down, and the scent is no longer its original form, but it may still smell pleasant. This has nothing to do with evaporation. It has everything to do with the aging of chemicals in a bottle. It doesn't mean that the ingredients in the 70 year old bottle aren't different than what's in the new bottles. It just means that the 70 year old bottle doesn't smell the same as it did when it came off of the shelf."

It's possible that an older fragrance may smell somewhat pleasant, and certainly wearable, but as I've always said about this subject, would you really want to experience a fragrance that way? Wouldn't it bother you that you're not really smelling the composition the way it was meant to be smelled? That you're experiencing a faded, simplified, and relatively stale version of whatever scent you enjoy? Isn't it better to get a fresh bottle and, if maturation is a plus for you, let it sit for two years or so, and then enjoy, rather than letting it sit twenty or thirty years past its peak? And most importantly, isn't it a miscalculation to assume that Proctor & Gamble "destroyed" your favorite cologne if you've never had an issue with nineties P&G Old Spice, back when it was in glass?

I often feel this way about my bottle of Furyo by Bogart. I love the stuff with a passion, and it still smells good and quite wearable, but I always wish I'd found it back when it was still on the market, new. I wish to God that I'd worn it in the early nineties, and experienced what it actually smelled like when it was fresh.

If you dislike Proctor & Gamble as a company for some specific reason, state that reason when you complain about them as being some sort of "evil empire" that kills good products. Otherwise I'm left reading your thoughts in suspended animation. I have no idea why you hate them; you just do, and they don't give a shit how you feel anyway.

If you dislike P&G's formula for Old Spice, state why, exactly. Saying that they replaced the spices with "synthetic floral and powder notes" isn't saying anything. Yes, there's a synthetic carnation note in Old Spice. Guess what? There was always a synthetic carnation note in Old Spice. And you know what else? Old Spice always smelled like it was made with synthetics. There's no shame in that. That's what perfumery is. Recent batches have a very natural-smelling clove note in the base, which is unsurprising given that eugenol is a readily available, naturally-derived perfume ingredient that smells terrific, if you like the smell of clove. Actually nothing synthetic there, although to read people's thoughts on it, you'd think they distilled "eau de plastic" into the base. Hey, it's in a plastic bottle, so it automatically smells like plastic, right?

I can't help but wonder why nobody mentions this incredibly clear and potent clove note on any of the boards. Do they not know what eugenol smells like? Are they incapable of identifying clove in a composition? Are they even wearing this stuff long enough to smell it? Are they wearing it at all? The fact that clove is never mentioned as a prominent note in the drydown of the new formula makes me think that most of the complainers aren't really giving P&G OS a fair shake.

If you have a real beef with Old Spice as it stands today, I can only make one suggestion. Try it on the coldest day of the year. They say that a rock song's quality is measured by how good it sounds unplugged. The "Perfume-In-The-Cold Test" is a similar metric for fragrances. If it's really shit, it'll literally collapse under the weight of frigid air. But if it's a masterpiece, the cold can do nothing but enhance its beauty further.

I feel sorry for people who believe that Proctor & Gamble destroyed Old Spice. They're "vintage lovers," and are, unfortunately, their own worst enemy. They nix the potential of any new product, based on its association with an equally (and arbitrarily) maligned manufacturer, and deprive themselves of easy enjoyment by seeking out pricier and rarer vintages. Most insidiously, they spread misinformation about new products on the internet, discouraging people from buying them, putting products that the rest of us enjoy on the line. When confronted about it, some will even reject their own culpability in the commercial stakes, saying their words bear no influence on the fate of a fragrance.

But recent reissues of internet stars like Acteur and Red for Men suggest that the internet is very influential to industry decision makers, perhaps second only to sales. And while those are success stories, it's a two-way street; negative press, if repeated for years on countless threads, will eventually jeopardize the subject's commercial prospects.

Meanwhile, there's nothing stopping "vintage lovers" from just dropping the bullshit and accepting that a little change here or there isn't worth throwing an endless tantrum over. With Old Spice, it would behoove them to just enjoy the reformulation and move on, rather than dwell on an ever-dwindling past.

But I suspect this will never happen. It's tragic, really.