The "Confounding Factor"

Or maybe she put hers on twelve hours ago, and yours was just applied.

On this page of yet another very lengthy Badger & Blade thread about vintage Old Spice, member "GoneRetroInOH" writes:

"There is a lot of speculation as to whether any reformulation across time (old Shulton vis-à-vis new P&G) or distance (USA / India) ever occurred. IMHO the most confounding factor is aging on the shelf. I have Shulton bottles that I used from time to time. A little always went a long way and I used them only intermittently, so they have lasted 30-35 years. Your 1956 bottle has outlived a lot of people who were babies at the time. Even though the classic bottle stores well, the product still may have subtle changes with age. It is entirely possible that there were no formulation changes, yet the old would seem somewhat different from the new."

This statement nails it. The reason vintage lovers can't reconcile their appreciation of classic formulas with their feelings for reformulations rests simply with the issue of time. For whatever reason, they chronically ignore the issue mentioned above. Time can do incredible things to bottled fluids. Supposedly superior vintage formulas are credited with being "more natural," and "made of better quality materials," and "more complex," but are these traits the result of superior manufacturing weighed against the "cheapening" of classic brands, or are they attributable to their age alone?

Time is the inescapable third variable in comparisons between the qualities of old vs new. When it comes to judging something against its older self, you must consider the discrepancies between the two sets of conditions. On one side you have the "new" stuff, and on the other the "old," but theoretically they're still the same item. Despite this fact, something about the old stuff usually smells better or worse than the new stuff. Why?

Let's think about the "better" part first. Here we suppose that the vintage smells richer, more complex, and chemically superior to its counterpart, based on smell alone. Is this assessment objective? Unfortunately it can't be, because interpreting odors is subjective (smelling odors, on the other hand, is quite objective). You and your buddy will likely agree that the residual odor of the loaf he pinched in your bathroom is vile, but you may differ in opinion on just how good a particular vintage perfume smells. Perfume is harder to interpret than shit.

The reasons for this vary. You may have a broader frame of reference for perfume than he does. Your nose may be more sensitive than his. Your idea of what smells "good" may be, in an abstract sense, somewhat different. The social nature of the perfume may be an influencing factor. If you've had bad experiences with someone who wears the fragrance in question, your association with any version of it may be negatively biased. Conversely, positive associations are made with fragrances that correlate with positive experiences.

Now let's consider the "worse" part. What if you think the fragrance smells "spoiled," and he doesn't? What happened there? Apparently one basenotes member has decided that there are specific issues that preclude fragrance spoilage, and that these issues require consideration by people who might otherwise mistakenly suppose a perfume has spoiled on them. Of course, most of his points aren't based on anything factual. They are assumptions one should never make, and I'll get to them in a bit.

The criteria for assessing whether "spoilage" has truly occurred are simple: you must know what the same vintage of a perfume smells like when it is both new, and not new. If you can identify changes between new and old, and these changes detract from the experience of smelling the old, you have spoilage.

Though simple, this criteria is difficult for people to utilize. It's pretty common to have an isolated sample of a scent that you're generally unfamiliar with. This makes interpretation difficult. How do you know if what you're smelling is "spoiled" if you can't accurately interpret it?

And even if you are familiar with the fragrance, you can't compare accurately unless you have an infallible memory of the way a vintage smelled decades ago. Reformulations change how perfumes smell all the time, making it impossible to trust a direct comparison of vintage to today's formula (they're different vintages). Since you're not Marty McFly, you'll have to settle for an understanding of degrees of spoilage, and how they inhabit the "performance patterns" of vintage fragrances in general.

There are two degrees of spoilage: "extreme" spoilage, and "slight" spoilage. The first degree is very easy to recognize; the second is trickier because it relies on the employment of an inexact methodology to determine quality.

First, the "extreme" spoilage - in this instance, we're right back into objective olfactory territory, the same realm as your loaf-pinching friend. You spray the perfume, and wow! That stinks! Instead of Fahrenheit, your arm wafts extreme odors of sour florals, with a rapid drydown to burnt shoe. You have a recoil reaction, and instinctively recognize the odors as being inarguably bad.

Now, the "slight" spoilage - here the perfume seems wearable. It doesn't offend, but also doesn't impress, at least not as much as expected. There are fuzzy textural qualities, limited movements, and a surprising linearity. The sample appears to be fine, and projects fairly well, with some pleasant qualities, but something's off.

This is where the inexact methodology of recognizing "performance patterns," (otherwise known as the "drydown arc"), is necessary to determine the true nature of the beast. For example: your vintage Fahrenheit smells okay, but its excessively bitter floral top notes segue into a dry, hissy base within thirty seconds, and then this relatively flat accord remains static. You don't know Fahrenheit well enough to make a judgment as to whether or not this smells correct, and you have no other samples of this fragrance on hand. What do you do?

You may not know how to interpret what you smell, but you're trying to interpret the wrong thing. Forget about how your Fahrenheit smells. How does it perform? Make note of the transitions - super brief and unpleasant top, rapidly followed by clumsy base, with no heart to speak of. The fragrance seems very smooth, but also very linear.

Check out a bottle of vintage Cool Water. Does it perform similarly? Same short top, followed almost immediately by a droning, smooth base accord of barely distinguishable notes? How about vintage M7? Vintage Zino? Vintage Drakkar Noir? Do these exhibit the same performance patterns? Some vintages will seem to perform in distinct and measured triads of top, heart, and base, while others will collapse in on themselves within seconds. Those with triads are well preserved and minimally degraded; those that collapse are more severely compromised.

Compare the qualities of performances across a wide range of vintages to the performances of an equally wide range of new fragrances, and make mental (or literal) notes of your experiences. Remember, you're observing performance qualities, NOT material qualities. From this you can create some semblance of a "standard" to hold vintage fragrances against.

This methodology requires extensive experience with fragrances of all ages. You'll probably have to become familiar with at least a few hundred perfumes to really fine tune your nose into spotting degraded performance qualities. Once you've gained this experience, recognizing deterioration in perfumes that you are otherwise unfamiliar with becomes easier.

Most degraded vintages display attenuated or nonexistent top notes. You have vintage English Leather, and you're expecting citrus at the start. Instead you get a bitter epoxy effect, immediately followed by dry, smooth woods. The top notes are gone. With time, that nondescript and usually acidic top note characteristic becomes recognizable in itself, as you encounter it again and again in older perfumes. It gets to the point where you immediately recognize that a fragrance is missing its top notes.

Overly smooth, monochromatic base accords are also common in degraded vintages. These can be the most misleading, because they often smell good. However, they lack note separation, and tend to remain "frozen" on skin. Once this base arrives, it just stays there, unchanging, for hours. Good smell, but no distinct complexity, and very little evolution. In most of the vintages I've encountered, this effect is usually musky/woody, like an invisible finger smudged a handful of wood notes and a couple of sweet synthetic musks into one semi-sweet wood note, which usually resembles sandalwood. I've experienced this quality in vintage Feeling Man, Zino, Grey Flannel, etc.

Balance issues are also a recurring theme. This is really a question of compromised movement, not elemental deterioration. I once had a vintage bottle of Green Irish Tweed, dated to 2001. The crisp violet, powdery iris, warm amber, and clean sandalwood notes were offset by an unbalanced musk note, which had somehow pulled free of its tether and plowed its way to the front end of the drydown. The result was something that smelled like a musk scent with some light green nuances shimmering in the background.

When you employ the inexact methodology of performance patterns, don't miss the forest for the trees, as our friend on basenotes has. Sure, liquid in atomizer tubes could spoil sooner than the rest of the juice, but there's no evidence that this happens, nor is there any evidence people have recurringly had this issue. Sealed spray bottles are no more or less prone to spoilage than splash bottles, though the latter are easier to tamper with. I'm not sure where the idea that splash bottles should be excluded from these considerations came from, but suspect it's another instance of this particular basenotes member "moving the goalpost" of how to assess spoilage.*

In the end, weighing the merits of a vintage rests with how accurately you know a fragrance. Those who have smelled and compared fresh perfumes to aged perfumes of the same vintage can determine whether degradation has occurred with the greatest ease. But even then, they must account for changes. This brings us to the confounding factor in any study, scientific or otherwise, of vintage against new: the simple test of time.

If the supposition is that yesterday's perfumes are chemically superior to today's, I suppose a simple CG analysis could shed light on the veracity of this claim, but it wouldn't convey the nature of the drydown arc, or its variables. It wouldn't compare "performance patterns." As the B&B member quoted above aptly pointed out, time may very well explain why an illusion of higher quality persists with vintage fragrances like Old Spice. I hope that an improved understanding of this confounding factor will one day, with great irony, render condemnation of recent formulas obsolete.

* This particular basenotes member seems hell-bent on proving to the world that I'm wrong in my assertion that perfumes spoil. The thread he participates in (link here) is full of firsthand testimonies by people whose perfumes have spoiled.


  1. I can't believe there are people in this world who spend so much time discussing banalities such as Old Spice.

    "Natural" ingredients are generally not very long lasting & very susceptible to degrade in high temperatures. Quite a few synthetics will readily degrade also.

    Creed & Annick Goutal use high quality 'natural' ingredients & are famous for going 'off' & 'turning'. That's why I don't buy them. They aren't going to survive the extreme temps of the monsoon here.

    As far as Indian products go-
    Look, for 9 months of the year 90% of India is a broiling, HOT, humid cesspit. Not very much of India has 24 hr electricity & so even if a store or warehouse even has AC they don't have the power to run it.
    Think of that bottle of Old Spice made in a STEAMY HOT 95F+ Mumbai factory riding in an uninsulated truck or train car to frying pan hot Delhi, or 100F HOT & HUMID Kolkata then sitting out on a sizzling tarmac to get to the US by air freight or sitting on a dock packed in an uninsulated 10"x40" container & put on a barge for 3 months to get to the US over the Arabian or Indian ocean- under those conditions that fragrance WILL DEGRADE. PERIOD. AMEN.

    I don't think Americans realize how bloody hot India is. I've shipped oil paintings by barge to the US through Singapore & had the paint & lacquer sealer melt off them.

    That's why I don't buy the duty free stuff at Indian airports, even the duty free stores are so hot the M&M's are melted. The makeup is 'goners' too. Most of the perfumes are spoiled or well on their way to going 'off'.

    I keep my perfumes & make up in the veg bin of the fridge during the monsoon, even way up here in the Himalayas. I've lost too many bottles of $$$$ perfume due to the heat. Now when I lived in San Francisco - a very mild climate my perfumes & make up were fine on my vanity year 'round.


    1. The funny thing is the glaring hypocrisy on the pro-vintage side. In one moment they'll tell you that vintage perfumes were more natural than their reformulations. In the next, they'll insist that most (if not all) vintages preserve perfectly across twenty, thirty, forty, fifty or more years. Oh, maybe top notes get funny, but otherwise the drydowns are fine. Please.

      If you were to ask them to name one organic "natural" material, other than maybe honey in the right conditions, that doesn't spoil, they'd end the conversation. You'd hear crickets chirping.

    2. Well, I laugh because they're right in a way.
      Indian Old Spice does probably smell more like vintage US Old Spice but not for the reasons they think.
      Indian Old Spice has probably degraded to a point where it does most likely smell more like the degraded vintage US Old Spice- but due to environmental insult not age.
      The Indian Old Spice aftershave & cologne I tried last month smelled a bit flat compared to what I recall my dad wearing in the 70's. No bright top notes like lemon, orange, nutmeg, & just a faint hint of star anise- more like straight cloves, cinnamon, cedar & musk with a vague hint of vanilla-ish tonka bean. That's exactly what I'd expect to smell in an aged & degraded bottle of Old Spice.
      If you don't like the top notes that's fine, OS is still a great classic scent even in it's degraded form.
      Shalimar ages to something nice also, I have my grandma's bottle from the 1930's. It doesn't smell like like Shalimar anymore, it is a lovely dark, resinous, deep vanilla though.
      I have many more perfumes new & old of varying price levels that did not age well AT ALL. My mom's 1940's bottle of Fame by Corday smells like mothballs & cat pee.
      I'd love to have these guys do a taste test between something natural & a synthetic to see if they can tell the difference. Just something simple like maple syrup- synthetic maple syrup tastes better than the real thing to most folks.

    3. Some people prefer vintage because they don't care about top notes and are just looking for a specific drydown with perhaps a very specific note or effect. This is perfectly fine and completely understandable. Where I lose patience is when reformulations that clearly have good note complexity, good contrast and dynamism, are put down in reviews and forums by people who have "confounded" noses, i.e., a very poor note detection ability. Also can't abide chronic "dab" samplers who try a miniscule quantity of a newer frag (or even an older one), and then have ten critical lines to write about it, when it's clear they haven't the slightest clue what they're smelling. Good point about the syrup, btw - it actually is very similar to the one I made last year about the two different versions of Coca-Cola, in that people "felt" Mexican Coca-Cola was better, even when their own tastebuds disagreed with them in blind tests.

  2. I agree with most of what you're saying, especially regarding top notes. I don't think it's any coincidence that so many criticisms of reformulatons go something like this: "The new version is a harsh, astringent, chemical mess!!" or, "The new version is so watered down". A lot of times, like you say, your old bottle of whatever has probably lost its top notes, which leaves you with a falsely "rich" smell of what is really just left over heart and drydown accords. Similarly, so many perfumes in old bottles slowly evaporate over time, which will result in a higher concentration of perfume. That's because it's the alcohol, not the perfume oils, that are evaporating.

    On the other hand, I think it would be very naive of us to think that perfumes aren't regularly reformulated, and that there is no detectable change in scent. What I don't like is how so many fragrance snobs feel they need to shit all over other people's enjoyment of a re-released fragrance. Is it really necessary to tell a newbie, "Hey, you may think you like that new bottle of Quorum, but it really sucks in reality. You haven't lived if you haven't tried the vintage version."

    1. You've summed up my argument perfectly. Reformulations have always occurred in the industry, but time can change all things. My metric for recognizing and understanding this is Grey Flannel. A few years ago I finished an older bottle and bought the newest version at Marshalls. Upon trying it, I was immediately let down by how thin it seemed. I thought they'd monkeyed with it.

      Fast forward to today. Since that initial wearing, the smell has intensified, and it's identical to my previous bottle. Now I can think of a few people who might argue that my "sensitivity" has changed. However, that would not explain the other thing that has happened since I bought this bottle: its color has changed! When it was new, the juice inside was clear as water. Since then it has become a muddy greenish-brown. Has my visual sensitivity changed with my nose? No. The fragrance has, since being exposed to oxygen, changed for better or worse. No reformulation no necessary!


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