Certain habits are instinctual: You grab a dryer sheet to stop static, rub your lips together to spread chapstick, and apply perfume to your wrists and neck... right?
While we don't want to say we've all been living a lie (that'd be melodramatic), that last one isn't exactly correct. Turns out there's no actual science behind why we've been spritzing our pulse points with perfume and cologne all these years (besides the undeniable glamour of it all, that is).
Can You Smell Me Now?
Spraying your wrists and neck is purely tradition and has little to no effect on the scent or intensity of the perfume, says Perry Romanowski, a cosmetic chemist and co-founder of The Beauty Brains. "The traditional belief is that the pulse points are places where the body generates extra heat and this can intensify the fragrance. There's no evidence to support this."
According to Romanowski, heat can increase the volatility of ingredients in your perfume, leading the molecules to evaporate more quickly and come off as a stronger burst of fragrance. But that only holds up if the skin at your pulse points is actually hotter than elsewhere on your body—and as cardiologist Jeffrey Schussler, M.D., explains, that's not actually the case.
"You can feel your pulse where it’s fairly superficial, but the body temperature is pretty much regulated," Schussler says, meaning that even though your veins may be close to the skin's surface at your wrist, the actual temperature of your skin won't vary.
Perfume of the Past
The practice of spritzing your wrists and neck came about in the early 1900s, before atomizers (perfume bottles' spray mechanisms) were widespread, says Raymond Matts, a fragrance designer and instructor at the Pratt Institute's perfumery certificate program. Perfumes back then were highly concentrated and came in bottles with crystal stoppers (think Dior Poison), so women would wipe the stoppers on their wrists, and then rub their wrists on their ears. Due to the way those heavy perfume notes were structured, the fragrances were rich enough that the scent would waft from their bodies. But that was then, and this is now.
The Sprays of Today
These days, Romanowski says perfumes are structured with top, middle, and bottom notes. You smell the top notes—usually citruses and florals—first. Then they disappear after a few minutes, whereas floral, fruity, and green middle notes last for a couple of hours. Base notes—musks and pines—hang around and evaporate last.
Generally, perfumes with higher oil concentrations have a more powerful scent, Matts says. Essential oils have the highest concentration, followed by eau de parfum, then eau de toilette (the higher the concentration, the more expensive). And typically, spray products have more top notes, while rollerball fragrances and lotions last longer but have less intense scents.
To make the most of today's perfumes, Matts recommends spraying perfume across the top of your forearm, where it will catch the air, or on your hair and shirt collar if you want it to really last. "People just take the atomizer, put it really close to their wrist and give a little squirt," Matts says. "They hope that magically, because it’s a hot spot, it’s going to be like a furnace blowing air—but that's not what happens."
The reality: Spraying onto hair and fabric is a better plan, because the oils sink into the structure of the fibers and take longer to evaporate. Just be careful spraying onto silk and other delicate fabrics—that's one area Matts says you should stick with your first instinct.
While applying perfume to your pulse points may have made sense with fragrance's earliest iterations, there's no real science that says spraying it on your neck and wrist will enhance the scent. Luckily, today's formulas are advanced enough that perfume will "lift off" anyway (so people will be able to smell it), and where you put it won't really make a difference. Try spritzing your forearm, clothes, or hair if you really want people to smell the scent. Want to keep it intimate? Pulse point away.