political correctness

Photo by Markus Spiske from Pexels


Like it or not, we live in an age where the most random things are being labelled as either offensive, insensitive or problematic. Last fall, Colorado State University advised students to make their social media “more inclusive” by “avoiding gendered emojis” and substitute a variation of the yellow smiley faces or object emojis. “God bless you” has been declared an anti-Islamic phrase. Even the size of chairs has been called out for microaggression; a professor in Australia has called small chairs in preschools “problematic” because they’re disempowering for teachers and small chairs in auditoriums and offices are victimizing those who are overweight. It seems like there’s a new political correctness violation popping up every day.


I don’t think I’m alone in thinking some of this has all gotten a bit over the top.


So where am I going with this little rant? So glad you asked! I just read an excellent article about how political correctness has affected perfumery. The article, entitled “Is Political Correctness Killing Perfume?” is written by Ingeborg Van Lotringen, Beauty Director at Cosmopolitan magazine . It just received top honors in the prestigious Jasmine Awards and examines how political correctness has impacted the perfume industry.


She talks about how tastes in perfumery have evolved and changed over time, starting with the ancients. Perfume has been around practically forever since the days of Cleopatra dousing herself in rosemary-and-myrrh infused ass’s milk. Way back when, perfume was used to mask the scents of life when proper bathing was a rare occurrence.


Perfume didn’t become a luxury item or a cultural gage of its time until much later. The joyous post-war era brought forth Miss Dior and Estee Lauder Youth Dew (I’m adding that one which wasn’t mentioned in the article).


Fast forward to the millennium culture where celebrity shows, magazines and clothing took over. Perfume was quick to follow with J Lo’s Glow and Britney Spears Curious groundbreaking best-sellers. Glo raked in $100 million its first year and Curious was the best-selling perfume in department stores when it was released in 2004. The common denominator of most celebrity scents was a formula of either gentle florals or irresistible sweets. The fact that these perfumes were easily and cheaply churned out also made big perfumes executives happy so no one was on a rush to stop the gravy train.



The financial crash of 2008 brought about many changes. The world was reeling from the worst recession since the Great Depression of the ‘30s and people needed perking up. Ethyl maltol, famous for the cotton candy praline scent ingredient used in perfume, started being marketed as happiness in a bottle. Even legendary scents like YSL Black Opium and Guerlain Le Petit Robe Noir came out smelling like cupcakes.


By mid-2018, 70% of new launches had sugary accords, 75% were housed in pink bottles and 7 out of the 10 most popular perfumes were sweet. For an industry known to provoke, innovate and seduce through scent this was a remarkable departure. It was as though femme fatale had morphed into Barbie.


The dramatic shift in perfumery is a combination of different forces at work here, according to Van Lotringen. Importantly, the current generation is a mix of millennials and iGenners (anyone born in the mid-90s and later, named as the first generation to spend their entire adolescence in the age of the smartphone). These are individuals known for being highly opinionated, dedicated to free expression and committed to progressive change with relation to gender and the environment.


The impact this mindset has had on perfumery has been far-reaching and not not exactly what you might expect.


The article quotes perfume consultant Nick Gilbert of “Corporately and socially, the acceptable spectrum of individuality and self-expression is actually tightly controlled.” He believes that, contrary to appearances, iGenners are far more conformist than previous generation. “And this is reflected in the scents people choose”.


The current generation is also more wary and circumspect in matters regarding sex. They are growing up in the age of #Metoo and The Everyday Sexism Project. Sure, there’s no shortage of hook-up apps like Tinder and Casualx  but this is also the age of some of the oldest virgins on record. One in eight millennials are 26 before they have sex according to a statistic quoted in the article.


People are now looking at what ingredients were used in the perfumes that they were purchasing. All-natural, vegan and cruelty-free animal testing have become boxes that need to be checked.


Photo by Mat Reding on Unsplash

Many commercial perfumers have shied away from the use of animalic notes like ambergris in their perfumes, even though today they are all synthetic versions with no harm done to animals. It seems easier to avoid using certain ingredients altogether than to face the wrath of those permanently poised to take offense.


While I’m certainly not knocking “all natural” perfumes, it may come as a surprise to many that all-natural isn’t necessarily better, safer and less toxic than perfume using man-made ingredients. In truth, at least some of the blame should go to the fragrance industry. It’s been slow to educate consumers about what actually goes into their scents, especially when it comes to the difference between natural and synthetic.


Perfumers today have to be careful even about how they describe their scents. Perfumes descriptions using the word “curvaceous” might be accused of sexism or “like radiant white skin” could be viewed as racist. 


Fear of crossing the line of political correctness seems to account for today’s dirth of bold and innovative scents designed to unleash emotion and provoke discussion. The vast majority of commercial perfumes you’ll find at places like Sephora all seem to smell alike, unremarkable clones of each other. While they’re not offensive, they’re not exactly intriguing or exciting either.


A growing trend which I’ve noticed but isn’t mentioned in the article is that of “unisex” scents. Perfumes labelled as “unisex” has been steadily growing and I can’t help but wonder if it’s partly due to the whole political correctness issue. Scents like Glossier You, Arizona and Escentric Molecules which are marketed as “ambiguous” and “not like perfume” have been growing in popularity.  I’ve always been a believer that all fragrances are unisex. Who’s to say that rose is for women and vetiver for men? But the number of scents out there claiming to be gender-neutral seems to be growing.

So how can we manage to save perfumery in this age of political correctness? According to Van Lotringen, the answer lies in niche perfumes (made by small, independent perfumers) and exclusive collections by big brands like Chanel and Dior. The biggest issue with this is cost. These perfumes frequently cost upwards of $150 per bottle which poses a problem for most of us.


Van Lotringen concludes her article with the following:


“Perhaps the real answer lies within us all. Free speech and expression needs to be just that – an acceptance (or certain tolerance) of all points of view. Perfumers need to be able to innovate without shame or reprobation, while consumers need to understand that “challenge”, whether in the form of diverse accords or imagery and language, is part of living in a free and diverse world. Because for all of the progressive bounds this generation is succeeding in making, wouldn’t it be such a shame if everyone smelt the same while doing it?”.


You can read the entire article here.


Happy reading!

















  1. Olanike says:

    Hi Erica, 

     I really like marine perfumes that smell like clean fresh water. I have tried Googling to find ones similar to my favorite (Acqua di Gio) but to no avail. Do you know of any? Sorry – I know this is off-topic!

    The age of political correctness which was originally meant to stop injustices from occurring. Now that everyone has to be so extra careful not to offend anyone it has gotten ridiculous, With perfume, what matters is that we are free to wear what we enjoy. Period!


    • Erica says:

      Hey Olanike,

      The first one that comes to mind is L’Eau d’Issey by Issey Miyake. I reviewed in on my site a while ago and it was extremely popular in the US in the 1990s. You might also enjoy Escape by Calvin Klein or Replica Sailing Day by Maison Martin Margiela. I really enjoyed Sailing Day when I sampled it at Sephora last summer. You really need to try and see for yourself though.

      Good luck!


  2. Wealthfather says:

    I share your sentiments about everything needing to be PC today. Enough already! I really never thought of it affecting the perfume industry but it makes sense. It’s probably a good thing that many are questioning the ingredients used in fragrance, since it is something that goes right on skin, but I’ve also heard that all-natural is not as you say necessarily safer. Interesting to hear about the new gender-neutral scents. What’s next?

    • Erica says:

      Well obviously I don’t have a crystal ball but I’m guessing that we’ll continue to see more of the same, with increasing numbers of niche perfumes added. I’ve discovered a few recently that aren’t uber-expensive too which is always a welcome thing. I’m hoping that higher end department store brands will be more innovative in creating exciting new scents instead of merely re-vamping tried-and-true fragrances that have mass market appeal.

      Hope to see you back soon!


  3. Jon says:

    This is an excellent article on how the perfume industry has changed in regards to political agendas. I think that people are entitled to their opinion but i’m not sure where to stand on the topic of perfume in regards to environment. What is your favorite perfume to wear and how do you like to wear it?

    • Erica says:

      Hi Jon,

      While I don’t have a “favorite” I tend to be drawn to the scent of gardenia. Some of the ones I enjoy most are listed in my post about “Best Gardenia Perfumes” where I listed my top 6.

      I wear perfume by spraying or dabbing on my skin but just as often (possibly even more so) I’ll spray it onto clothing I’m wearing. 

      Thanks for dropping by!


  4. Mary says:

    Wow, I came across your interesting article and see that you’ve reviewed quite a few perfumes on your site. I like perfumes which smell like fresh grass and flower. I checked out the link you suggested and there are many kinds to choose from. If you don’t mind, please recommend one that is made naturally and smells like grass. 

    I’m glad I discovered your site that!


    • Erica says:

      Hi Mary,

      I think what you seem to most enjoy is what’s called a green floral. In these types of perfumes notes of grass and leaves introduce freshness in a floral composition, which often leaves the impression of freshly picked flowers. None of those mentioned in the article are quite that type. One fragrance you might enjoy is Clover by Demeter Fragrance, which is very reasonably priced (under $30), or Replica Flower Market. Flower Market costs around $125 a bottle but is lovely.


  5. Destiny says:

    I used to think that some perfumes are made exclusively for women because that’s the way they’re marketed but I agree that most perfume can be worn by either sex. In today’s world it just depends on the type we want. Price is definitely a problem for some of the expensive niche perfumes. I’m not sure I understand how a fragrance can be racist. Can you please elaborate?


    • Erica says:

      Hey Destiny,

      I think the reference in the article was about a particular perfume mentioning lily-white. The term can be used to describe something as pure or untouched by corruption but could also be taken to mean white as in caucasian. Obviously that interpretation would be offensive too many.

      Thanks for dropping by:)


  6. Dany says:

     It’s so interesting how political correctness has affected the perfume industry.

    I used the same fragrance for years, but I am sad to say that I can no longer find it. I’m not aware of the cause, but I’m pretty sure it’s been discontinued. Ever since then I’ve been searching for something like it but it seems to be a lost cause. Do you have any suggestions where I can find something that is no longer being sold?

    Thank you for the lovely reading.

    • Erica says:

      Hey Dany,

      I feel your pain! Many of us have sadly experienced having a favorite perfume either discontinue or reformulated so it smells entirely different than what we liked about it. Have you tried looking for it on eBay? Another suggestion would be to see if you can find it on which carries a good number of retro fragrances as well as new releases.

      Good luck!


  7. walker2 says:

    What a fantastic article about perfume! I learned so much and it was a great read. I think you are right that political correctness sometimes is going a little overboard and I’m not sure if it is going to level out anytime soon. I never thought about that issue having anything to do with perfume, but I was sure wrong on that based on your article! I think what I’ve noticed most about perfumes these days is that they don’t smell as good as they used to and they cost a lot more. But maybe that’s just me! And honestly, I don’t want to smell like the guy next door so forget the unisex stuff for me! Again, I really enjoyed reading this article and I hope you write many more interesting ones! 

    • Erica says:

      I think it started out with good intentions but has created a society that walks on eggshells. I agree that some perfumes are too expensive for many of us but they are actually a number of really great ones that don’t cost an arm and a leg. If I knew what your taste in perfume is I’d be able to point you in the right direction. Feel free to contact me and I’d be happy to make some suggestions.

      Hope to see you back soon!


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