A Quick Note On Cheap Scents

Sometimes I get asked about whether a "cheap" scent that by all measures smells good is worth buying in the place of something similar but more expensive.

Ninety-nine percent of the time I recommend the better fragrance. I know, you're wondering what I mean by "better." It's not difficult to define the term: the fragrance that smells better is the one you should consider first. If cost is a concern but not a deal-breaker, why not wait and save for it? A few weeks, or even months can't hurt. I firmly believe that price should only be factored in when there's indisputable parity in both quality of construction and legibility of performance.

Many cheap fragrances that can be purchased for fifteen dollars or less per 100 ml are solidly constructed and very good performers. But beware. Always keep this phrase in the back of your mind: "cologney baloney."

We've all done it. We spot a cheapie, 50 or 100 ml bottles of some obscure drugstore thing that samples nicely and seems to be an apt addition to the wardrobe as a "novelty purchase."

We wear the frag and enjoy it, but in the back of our minds wonder, what's the catch? Did I really just get a fresh-fruity cheapie that I like? Or am I paying for its cheapness somehow, in some manner less obvious to me, but not others?

It's what I call the "headspace test."

Always have a large fruit handy, like a smooth melon or even just a large apple. Spritz it with your new find, and let its skin simulate yours. Sit several feet away from it. Walk past it quickly.

Is what you're smelling on the fruit the same as what was on your hand in the store?

With very cheap fragrances, there's a higher chance that the headspace off the fruit will emit something bland, clean, and nondescript. Close up, with your nose mere millimeters from where you sprayed, you may get a very complex blend of lucid accords and individual notes.

But from a natural social distance of four to six feet, you may get a very blobby, washed-out "cologney baloney" chemical smell, as faceless as a Swedish guy at the Winter Olympics. All of those perky green-woods and musk notes may become Bounce dryer sheets. A few ounces of extra air between the scent and your nose may reveal where the fragrance company's budget fell short.

Cheapies like Caron Yatagan and Krizia Uomo don't suffer this fate because their profit margin is modest. In fairness though, Caron charges premium prices for their scents at retail, and only grey market prices are reasonable. Ditto for Krizia.

This fact makes typical internet sales for them excellent deals, and the kind of "cheapie" one can buy without second guessing their judgment.

Stuff by Jovan, Playboy, Nautica, and Avon are not as likely to fare well in the headspace test. This isn't to say that all scents by these brands are "cologney baloney" in nature. But some are. If you want a super cheap "cologney" effect, and don't mind smelling like ivory-white laundry, you may as well just wear 4711. For that effect, the fault is exclusively found in any and all pretense.


  1. I agree with you completely on this. A few days ago, I tested Adidas Victory League. It smells nice at first but develops into a cheap and headache inducing mess. I would never wear this, but I'd use it as laundry freshener.

    1. With perfume there are many terrific cheapies and even more that aren't worth being used as air fresheners.

  2. Thank you so much for giving us the phrase 'cologney baloney chemical smell' - which I sense may approximate to what I had been struggling to describe as 'generic gym 'n' tonic' scent.

    And thanks too for the ingenious melon / apple spraying test. I am so going to try that!

    1. 'Generic Gym 'n Tonic' is even better, Vanessa!

  3. Top notes are what sells today so sometimes that's all your getting.
    I'm amazed at so many of the not so cheap brands that are short lived or have generic or obnoxious dry downs-
    L'Occitane - over in an hour, not even a dry down, poof!
    Santa Maria Novella- dries down to powdery nothingness
    Estee Lauder- "affordable" fragrances that start out well that dry down to the most rank and vile thing I've ever smelled
    Avon- same as Estee Lauder
    Crabtree & Evelyn- dries down to cloying powdery incontinence/feminine hygiene product stench
    I tried Creed's Virgin Island Water, nice for what it is but gone in 45 minutes.

    I tried Sauvage at Delhi's IGIA Duty Free to see what all the fuss was about. On a blotter I got top notes of a brisk lemony pepper, nondescript woods, sitting on a pared down very ambergris-like base. ( I did not research the notes before trying it so as not to bias my opinion.) It's nice, you aren't going to offend anyone wearing Sauvage, and it would be an appropriate gift for any male from teenager to Grandpa. It doesn't smell overly synthetic to me, certainly not any more synthetic than the equally safe & popular Terre d'Hermes. I'm guessing the "cleaned up" ambergris missing it's dirty hair & seaweed notes along with the nondescript woodsy effect is the Ambroxan. I like sichuan peppercorns' brisk lemony pepper because I like brash, sharp notes in masculine scents. This is exactly the "clean," warm, woodsy, and conservative sort of scent my husband loves and I'm ok with (but find a bit boring). I'll probably buy him a bottle for Eid actually.

    1. It's a very good fragrance but nothing exciting, so I have to agree with you there. Personally I feel that many cheap frags pander to teenagers and overemphasize sweetness and "freshness" - but you make a good point about them being front-loaded.

  4. Hey Bryan,

    Seeing as you haven't done a list in a while, would you please consider compiling a "top bang for buck frags" list sometime?
    I couldn't tell you how many frags I've purchased on your and Shamu's recommendation (some blind buys!) and I haven't regretted a single one.
    As i've gotten older, "value" has become more important and I suppose there's also a security blanket aspect to buying something that a third party (who knows what they're talking about) thinks is good.
    Love this blog... Keep up the good work!

    1. Hi Nolan, check out "karlovonamesti" on Fragrantica and peruse my reviews. Most of what I've tested is average to positive and you'll get the full range of my opinions. I'll try to boil it all down on this blog but there's a chance I'll forget a few things, so I think you'll be better served to read my Fragrantica page. Thanks for reading!

  5. Stuff by Jovan, Playboy, Nautica, and Avon are not as likely to fare well in the headspace test.

    Where does Nautica Voyage fall? Cologney Baloney or good scent at bargain price?


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