Over at Basenotes.net there was a recent thread titled, “Examples of a ‘synthetic’ or ‘cloying’ perfume.” My response was:
Cloying usually means too sweet, but is often used to mean unbalanced when it comes to scents, it seems. So for example a scent could have a huge amount of patchouli, and unless the person really likes that note, it will often be called cloying. I find a base that includes strong cedar, amber, and patchouli to be cloying, by this definition. Synthetic is much more difficult, because only small amounts of most scents are natural (if any). However, one way to think about it is if you like the listed notes but find the scent overbearing in some way that doesn’t make sense, it is too synthetic. An example of this, for me, is Dunhill Desire for a Man. I like all the notes but it has a kind of “sticky” feel to it and makes me feel ill after a few minutes.
I won’t speak to the notion of a cloying smell, because that obviously depends upon a person’s preferences. I think it’s more useful to point out if a scent seems well balanced or not – that may be the best one can do in terms of helping out the “newbie” (the person who started the thread described himself as such). By contrast, it may be a bit more difficult to provide the “newbie” when guidance when he or she can read all kinds of comments about scents being too “synthetic,” only to read that they’ve probably never smelled an entirely “natural” one and that natural elements may rarely be used in large amounts, even in niche! The best “short answer” may be that at some point you will develop certain boundaries that you use to perceive the “naturalness” of a scent. And not only will you come to think of some scents as “too synthetic” but you may also develop a sense that some are unbalanced, weak, boring, generic, and unwearable (meaning it might offend others) as well.
A major problem. though, is that a person’s sensitivities to a note or accord can change, even from one day to the next, and so you can’t be sure if that may be playing a role in someone’s review. I know this has happened to me quite often over the last several years. This is what I mean when I said that someone’s opinion may be “synthetic.” One thing I generally find irritating, for example, are some synthetic musks, but if used in moderation I don’t seem to mind, though the threshold, so to speak, can vary from one day to the next. A specific kind of musk, which I call “laundry” (because it smells like sections of supermarkets and major drug stores), by contrast, seems to bother me more than others. Clearly, some people enjoy it and to at least some of them it smells “natural.”
I remember reading somewhere a few years ago that many people today think that the artificial scents used in laundry detergents smell like a “natural clean,” even though these molecules weren’t invented that long ago! On the other hand, essential oils can come across as harsh and “chemical” to people who are not familiar with them, some vetivers being a good example. Moreover, naturals can come in different grades or varieties, so it’s certainly possible that someone who has experience with one kind of vetiver note, for example, might find a different kind to be “synthetic,” even if it is more costly. Since it seems impossible to get everyone to agree about which scents are “synthetic” and which are not, I think the best thing to do is to provide examples and let readers decide what it means. The great thing about this sort of situation these days is that the internet can function as a kind of “group mind,” though I pointed out on a recent post that there can be odd developments (such as how the “This perfume reminds me of…” feature at Fragrantica.com).
I think an example might be very helpful at this point For me, scents marketed to men with strong fruit notes tend to come across as very “synthetic.” One example is Baldessarini del Mar Marbella. I tried to wear it a couple of time but it was very irritating. However, Ciel, Mon Jardin!, with rhubarb and melon notes, does not bother me, even though I don’t find the scent especially compelling. The notes for C,MJ! are (from Fragrantica.com):
Top notes are bergamot, rhuburb, green notes and melon; middle notes are rose, jasmine and hyacinth; base notes are patchouli, vetiver, cedar, caramel and vanilla.
I look forward to trying to figure out why this is the case. At this point my guess is that less synthetic fruit notes are used in C,MJ! while other notes are stronger. Other than trying to “calibrate” your preferences to those of as many reviewers as possible, I’d also advise that you give a challenging scent some time. Only wear it in small amounts and when you are in the mood for something different. However, when I’ve tried this with scents that seem particularly synthetic, such as Dunhill’s Desire for a Man, I have consistently found it to be irritating (since I developed an apparent and strong dislike for ones like this). Therefore, I suggest you do this with scents that you think have a higher percentage of naturals, at least at first.