What is the Perfume Project?

This blog is a constantly evolving forum for thoughts on perfume, perfume-making, plants (especially orchids and flora of the Pacific Northwest) and life in general. It started out chronicling the adventures of Olympic Orchids Perfumes, established in July 2010, and has expanded in other directions. A big part of the blog is thinking about the ongoing process of learning and experimentation that leads to new perfumes, the exploration of perfumery materials, the theory and practice of perfume making, the challenges of marketing perfumes and other fragrance products, and random observations on philosophy and society. Spam comments will be marked as such and deleted; any comments that go beyond the boundaries of civil discourse will also be deleted. I am grateful to all of you, the readers, who contribute to the blog by commenting and making this a truly interactive perfume project.

Thursday, March 26, 2015


Have you ever had the experience of trying a sample of something, loving it, buying the full size version of whatever it is, and being terribly disappointed? It’s happened to me enough times to make me think that some samples are specially formulated to be better than the real product. It happens most often with skin-care products and cosmetics, less often with perfume, and less often still with food and beverages.

I can think of several benign explanations for the sample-was-better phenomenon. The first is what I’ll call “context enhancement”. If the sample was tried in a festive and/or upscale atmosphere that fits the nature of the product, it will make it seem unusually good. A fragrance sampled in an exclusive perfume boutique with a friendly and helpful SA will smell better than the same fragrance self-sampled in a discount warehouse store. The same goes for a wine tasted from a sparkling wineglass at a beautifully designed tasting room in the winery itself, presented by friendly and knowledgeable personnel versus the same wine self-tasted from a tiny plastic throwaway cup at Costco. Beautiful, congruent surroundings enhance the experience. We smell or taste what we see, hear and feel. When we get the full size home and experience it in familiar surroundings, it may well disappoint.

Then there’s the adaptation phenomenon. This may be especially relevant to skin-care products, which seem to be effective when first sampled, but then lose their effectiveness when used regularly. Homeostasis kicks in, and the skin becomes resistant to whatever the product is supposed to do. With a fragrance, our olfactory systems may well adapt to it after multiple uses closely spaced in time. With food or beverages, the novelty quickly wears off, and familiarity breeds contempt.

Then there’s the batch variability phenomenon. If you tried the 2010 wine and were sold the 2011 vintage, it’s not going to be the same as the sample. If you tried a sample of the original formula of a perfume but were sold a reformulated version, it most certainly will not be the same. Even without reformulation, natural materials vary from batch to batch, like vintages of wine, so there may be subtle differences from batch to batch of a perfume, skin care product, or food. It seems unlikely that these subtle variations would have a big impact on quality, but in some cases they might.

The less charitable explanation is that samples are actually different from the full-size product, designed to impress the person sampling so that they will spring for the big size. I’m pretty sure this is the case with some cosmetic products. The mascara that worked beautifully for months in sample form clumps horribly within a week of opening the full size. The skin cream sample that made my skin smooth and moist, is totally ineffective and even smells different when I buy the full size. One perfume in particular was lovely in sample form but horrible in full size. Why, oh why did I fall for the sample and buy a full bottle?

What is your experience with sampling? If you buy a full size, does it always live up to your expectations? If not, why not? 

[All images from Wikimedia except mascara samples from an old page of a retailer's website]


  1. I'm quite sure there are separate vats of sample perfume and regular bottled perfume, at least with certain lines. I won't name names (though they are big names), but I have tried sample on one hand, same age full bottle on the other, and they are different. The difference is usually that the full bottle juice is much thinner and weaker. I know IFRA regs have hollowed out and thinned out a lot of perfumes, but I would be interested to know if samples are not required to go by IFRA regs? In other words, can they be the full-bodied beauties they were meant to be, while their standard-bottle cousins are the pale imitations?? Or is it just a marketing ploy to get you to buy the big bottle? I have also noticed on ebay that cartons of luxury cosmetic samples go for big money. Is that because the product is superior to the full versions and savvy ebayers know this? I don't know!

    1. Marla, these are all good questions to which I do not know the answers. It's possible that in some cases samples are a higher concentration than a full bottle. That doesn't explain why other types of cosmetic samples seem to work better than the full size, though.

  2. Hi Ellen,

    We brought a really nasty bug back with us from San Fran. I know I am a little late to this post, but since I am up very early (4:45 a.m.) feeling yucky I thought I would distract myself pondering my experiences with samples.

    There is something precious about a tiny sample, even if totally free. Maybe that is why some of my samples smell (or work) better for me than the full sizes? I find it interesting that whether I sample first or blind buy a full size my satisfaction rate is still about the same, hovering around 80%.


    1. Gail, I'm extremely late replying to this post! I would have to agree with the 80% satisfaction rate with samples, but for me the satisfaction rate for full sizes is 50% or less.

  3. It only happened once in perfume sampling for me. In that case the perfumer himself mentioned a slight variety from batch to batch when I questioned about new bottles and the difference between old and new one. As you said it is inevitable in natural perfumery. Fortunately that full size impressed me more than the sample! I feel very lucky :)

  4. Farbod, you were indeed lucky in this case.

  5. I actively searched on Google for answers to the question whether samples are better than the real thing because recently I splurged on a full size Jo Malone perfume after falling in love with the Peony and Blush scent sample. As soon as I sprayed the full size product on my wrist I knew it wasn't the same formula; the biggest disappointment was the staying power, non-existent, half an hour at most for the full size, whereas the sample for the same perfume, I would spray beginning of day, and still catch notes and light scent at the end of day.