Coffee beans at the perfume counter?
You’ve probably seen them at just about any Sephora, Ulta, or department store fragrance counter you can imagine. Look closely, and you’ll see, nestled amongst the glamorous bottles of Chanel No. 5 and Jean Paul Gaultier Le Male, little jars – the same jars that you might find full of grated Parmesan or chili flakes at a pizza joint – of coffee beans.
What’s up with that? Are they running some promotion for coffee beans in the food section? Do they want to make you crave a good ol’ cup of joe?
Coffee beans in perfume stores are intended to be used as olfactory “palate cleansers” and ward off olfactory fatigue, also known as “nose blindness”. It’s thought that a customer’s nose might get overwhelmed by smelling too many perfumes, and sniffing coffee beans will help recalibrate your sense of smell.
But does sniffing coffee beans actually work? Let’s take a closer look.
What Is Olfactory Fatigue?
Olfactory fatigue, also known as “nose blindness” and sometimes as anosmia (though anosmia usually has to do with permanent loss of smell), refers to a condition in which one’s nose becomes “blind” to certain smells. If you experience olfactory fatigue, you won’t be able to smell certain scents, at least not for a period of time.
Take, for instance, the case of “house smell”. When you go over to someone’s house, you’ll smell their unique “house smell”, but you’ll never be able to smell your house smell unless you’ve been gone for a while.
That’s because you are anosmic – nose blind – to the smell of your house.
Olfactory fatigue is actually a useful tool. Processing a smell with your olfactory system takes up a lot of brain power – brain power which could be better used for other things. Once olfactory stimuli have been processed by the brain, those stimuli can be put to one side, so long as they’re not too powerful, so that the brain can focus its energies elsewhere and prevent “overheating” of the nervous system.
Olfactory fatigue occurs when there are a lot of smells present in the air – take, for example, an Indian restaurant redolent of garam masala, or, in this instance, a department store fragrance counter.
When you first walk into the fragrance department of the store, you probably get bombarded by a relentless fusillade of fragrance. As time goes on, the full-frontal nasal assault that you experienced when you first walked into the door decreases in intensity, but only because your brain has adapted to it, put it to one side, and left your neurons open in order to react to fresh stimuli.
You can see where this becomes a problem when testing perfumes.
The new perfume you’ve just sprayed on your skin or on a strip is a new stimulus, and so your senses are open to taking it in. But remember, that perfume is just one voice in a vast olfactory choir. After a bout of fragrance testing, your nose will probably feel tired, just like your ears might feel tired after a loud rock concert.
So, what to do? How can you go on testing fragrances when your nose just won’t sniff?
That’s where coffee beans come in.
Spill the (Coffee) Beans
So, we’ve got an idea of what olfactory fatigue is and why it might be a problem in perfume stores.
Now, let’s spill the proverbial beans – coffee beans, to be exact.
The idea behind coffee beans in perfume stores is simple.
Coffee beans, it is reasoned, offer a strong olfactory stimulus: more raw, more pungent, and just different from all those light, airy perfumes you’ve been sniffing. Smelling some piquant beans, in theory, should give your olfactory system a shock to the senses, a call to action for your nose to sort itself out and get back to sniffing.
The beans are considered an olfactory “palate cleanser”, kind of like how pickled ginger is eaten between pieces of sushi. The idea is that your nose gets “reset” and “recalibrated”, so that you can smell more accurately.
The Fault in Our Beans
Unfortunately for ardent sniffers of perfume store coffee beans, research has shown that sniffing coffee beans doesn’t really restore your sense of smell – at least, not to a greater extent than other methods.
According to a 2011 study, coffee beans are no more or less effective at restoring one’s olfactory receptors to tip top shape than lemon slices or plain air.
Sure, coffee beans might have somewhat of an effect, and anecdotally I can say that I have had positive results sniffing coffee beans in my own home while testing out a number of fragrances. However, I’m not sure to what extent I was “recalibrating” my olfactory system.
While you might be clearing out some of the lingering smells of perfume from your nose, when you sniff coffee beans, you’re also filling your nose with the smell of coffee, an odor that is just as powerful as perfume.
Furthermore, the coffee beans in fragrance departments are often left without refreshment for weeks on end, making them stale and saturated with perfume. In that case, really, the whole purpose of having coffee beans in the perfume department in the first place is kaput.
What To Do?
If you’re experiencing olfactory fatigue while testing out fragrances, there are a few things you can do besides sniffing coffee beans to give your nose a little bit of a refresher. Of course, they’re not foolproof, but hey, it’s something.
1. Give Your Nose a Break
Simply giving your nose a little bit of a break from sniffing in many cases can be the best course of action. You could either go outside and get some fresh air, or go into, less fragrant part of the store. Since olfactory fatigue is not anosmia, and therefore not permanent, your sense of smell will come back naturally in a relatively short period of time.
2. Smell Wool
Smelling some pure, real wool, such as a 100% lambswool sweater or a cashmere scarf, can help give your olfactory system a bit of a reset. Apparently, the scratchy, lanolin (sheep fat) rich natural fibers can act as a soothing balm to overtaxed noseways.
3. Smell Yourself
Smelling a clean, (more or less) odorless patch of your own skin can also help restore your olfactory system to normal operating conditions. I’ve also heard that smelling your stinky armpits can help, but I’ve always found that just sniffing an unperfumed part of my skin is enough, and will also get you fewer weird looks.
4. Smell Fresh Coffee
Sigh…I suppose I have to say this one. If you are truly a zealous devotee of the cult of fragrance store coffee beans, you could, for the raw, unalloyed, nostril-scouring experience, bring a bag of fresh coffee beans or ground coffee with you to sniff.
Just remember, coffee beans, while having a marginal effect, are not necessarily any more or less effective than any of the other methods above. If it really works for you, then go for it. But you have to be the weirdo who brings a bag of coffee beans to a perfume store.
The Final Word
So, let’s hope that the proverbial air (and the proverbial nostrils) has been cleared about coffee beans in perfume stores.
Coffee beans are put in perfume stores as a means of dealing with olfactory fatigue. The beans are said to be a “palate cleanser” for your nose, giving you a nasal reset that will allow you to keep on sniffing.
But the beans are often old, stale, and saturated with perfume. For best results in dealing with olfactory fatigue, give your nose a break, smell some wool or clean skin, or, if you really want to, bring a bag of fresh whole bean or ground coffee with you to the store.