7 Reasons Not to Give Perfume or Cologne as a Gift

Collage of an empty open red gift or present box, a white lily, and a bunch of white pear blossom flowers.

‘Tis the holiday season, and affiliate-link-littered perfume gift guides by aspiring bloggers abound.

After all, what’s a more perfect, quintessential department store luxury gift than perfume? It’s pricey, it’s fancy, it’s useful, it’s beautiful, and it’s a convenient size for gifting. On the surface, fragrance just might be the perfect present.

In the face of all that, allow me to raise a contrary proposition: most of the time, gifting fragrance is a pretty bad idea.

A hot pink gift box with pale blush pink and red ribbons and a pair of gift-wrapping scissors.

But Sophie, you might ask. Isn’t this a perfume blog? Shouldn’t you be panegyrizing the wonders of giving someone the perfect bottle of cologne?

And, dear reader, I humbly answer you: Nah. Giving perfume or cologne is usually a bad move.

Now, I’m not telling you that you absolutely shouldn’t ever gift someone perfume again. I’ve certainly done it myself. But, in the spirit of holiday critical thinking, I thought we should discuss some of the reasons to pause before buying perfume as a gift.

I’m writing this article partly because the idea of receiving fragrance as a gift myself makes me quite nervous. Ironically, because people know me as a perfume person and a fragrance writer, I’m sure the likelihood of them surprising me with perfume is only ever creeping up. And while I’m always grateful for the opportunity to try something new, the prospect mostly fills me with dread.

Therefore, dear reader, allow me to propose the following reasons not to gift someone a bottle of perfume or cologne:

You Don’t Know Their Tastes

Look, I know it’s tempting to just get some random fruity scent at Sephora for your niece you know nothing about and call it a day. But people’s fragrance tastes vary widely, and the likelihood of giving someone a scent they hate is just as high as that of giving them one they love.

A pair of red lips.

If you know them deeply and they’ve opined at length about what they like and dislike in a scent, fine. If you’re both super into cologne and have shared your wish lists or favorites with each other, great. But when it comes to gifting perfume to people that don’t talk (or write) about perfume all day, it becomes a bit of a minefield.

The best way to mitigate this risk is by studying the gift receiver’s existing fragrance collection to see what they already like. This doesn’t just have to be perfume or cologne, either: what sort of candles and room sprays do they have around their house? What kind of deodorant do they wear? Are they into essential oils or wax fragrance cubes?

Even so, this isn’t a foolproof strategy. Lots of people have scents they like decorating their home that they wouldn’t want to wear themselves. Or maybe they’re looking to branch out, and don’t really like what they currently wear anymore. And there’s always the possibility they just picked a random deodorant off the shelf at Target and don’t feel one way or the other about it.

It’s Hard to Get Rid Of

In the event they don’t like the fragrance you’re giving them, the gift receiver is faced with the colossal headache of what to do with it.

A bottle of perfume is an expensive enough item that dropping it off at Goodwill just feels wrong. Regifting it brings the same perils outlined in this article around the original gifting, except threefold, because the gift wasn’t bought with this new receiver in mind at all, and, considering that the initial receiver didn’t like it, possibly just isn’t very easy to love.

Letting it sit on a shelf, taking up valuable space until its contents inevitably go bad, taunting the receiver with its inutility, feels like a waste.

A single purple crocus flower with rounded petals and an orange center seen from above. Saffron spice comes from crocuses.

The best course of action is selling or swapping it with someone else. But you really have to be established with the fragrance community and trusted by its members to find opportunities to swap, and selling something online is a whole ordeal. You have to set up an account somewhere, take pictures, write up descriptions, put together a listing, and hope all the while the person that gave you the gift in the first place doesn’t somehow find out, and then you wait indefinitely, hoping for an offer, as the poor unloved bottle takes up space in your home.

I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a colossal ordeal to me.

It Takes Up Precious Space

A necklace you were gifted that you don’t particularly like can easily be squirreled away at the bottom of a jewelry box. A lackluster sweater can join its comrades side-by-side in a packed and overutilized closet of underutilized things.

The Eiffel tower bathed in golden light.

But a bottle of perfume or cologne? It isn’t flat or small or easy to fold up and put away. I mean, sure, it’s better than getting someone the almost-five-foot-tall LEGO Eiffel tower set, but a bottle of fragrance demands room on a vanity or in a bathroom cabinet. And its precious, fragile nature and the sensitivity of its contents mean this is a gift that demands care — at least, in how you transport and keep it.

Assuming the giftee isn’t a huge Perfume Person with their own giant wardrobe or minifridge (or full-sized fridge…) just for fragrance, finding a place to put the bottle is going to be a bit annoying, especially if it’s something they don’t like or don’t reach for often. You can only have so many things sitting on top of your chest of drawers, and if they don’t end up loving it, the sight is going to be grating.

Perception is Unpredictable

Have you heard of the sweater curse? In the yarn crafts community, it’s the idea that crocheting or knitting a romantic partner a sweater as a gift will make them break up with you.

A pile of neutral-toned chunky-knit cashmere sweaters on a wooden stool.

The reasoning goes that, to a yarn craft hobbyist, making a sweater is a joyful activity and a hobby they want to do anyway, while to a gift receiver unfamiliar with yarn crafts, it simply looks like an incredible amount of work. This supposedly leads the receiver to question whether they like their partner enough to do such a colossal amount of work on something for them. It can make them feel like their own gift was inadequate, and can get them thinking about who might care for whom more in the relationship, and whether it might not be best just to break things off.

It’s all anecdotal, but there are dozens of stories out there from people who swear it happened to them. But consider: this sort of overthinking fallout can happen from any gift, not just a homemade sweater.

There’s a particular set of weird perceptions around gifts that are perceived to be luxury items. I had a friend in high school who gifted her boyfriend a watch for his birthday. It was something random and inexpensive from TJ Maxx, but the boyfriend and his family seemed to be under the impression that it was something fancy and expensive because it’s a watch, and, well, those are usually fancy and expensive, aren’t they?

It put a weird strain on their relationship, and they broke up a few months later, with the boyfriend repeatedly expressing guilt about breaking up with her after she had given him such a nice watch.

I’m not saying something like this is certain to happen. Not at all. But people’s reactions to luxury goods like jewelry, watches, perfumes, and colognes can be strange.

Two gold rings, as are customary for wedding rings in some cultures.

Even if the price tag on your gift is comparable to that of theirs for you, they might feel that you must have spent more money, or that you took this whole thing more seriously than they did. They might wonder what you were implying by giving them the perfume — whether you think they don’t smell good as it is, for instance, or whether it might be too romantic of a gesture for a gift between friends or people who are casually dating.

If you don’t know someone well enough to be able to say for sure they wouldn’t be offended, put off, or unsettled by a gift of fragrance, you don’t know them well enough to gift them fragrance.

Pretending to Like It Is Exhausting

I’m sure you’ve been given a gift you didn’t care for before. I’m willing to bet you’ve also pretended to like a gift you couldn’t stand at all.

It’s an annoying little performance to have to put on. But pretending to love a candle or video game is one thing. It’s even worse when the gift is clothing or jewelry or perfume or a watch, and you feel like you have to wear it around the gifter for them to know that you’re enjoying their gift.

A yellow wax tea light candle with a single lit wick.

The obnoxiousness of this whole dance is multiplied tenfold with perfume. Because you really can’t tell much about a fragrance gift without actually spraying it, often that’s the first thing that happens immediately upon opening. (Though, as a receiver, you can thwart this by saying you’re actually wearing something else right now, but look forward to trying the scent later.)

Dear reader, having to put on a perfume you don’t like and then pretend you love it in front of a room of eager distant relatives doesn’t exactly sound like fun, does it? And then you’re stuck wearing it all day. It’s more of a commitment than a piece of jewelry or even an itchy sweater.

And then comes the long-term game. As the receiver, do I have to wear the perfume the next time I see you, or even regularly? Will you even notice?

Often, fragrance feels like a serious gift of great significance. It’s simultaneously pricey and deeply personal. That makes for a weird obligation concoction when your friend gives you something you don’t like.

Allergies and Sensitivities Exist

Sure, IFRA has been very proactive — some would say too overzealously proactive — in banning any perfume ingredient that could possibly incite an allergic reaction. But allergies, rashes, and weird physical reactions to fragrance still do happen, and it’s an uncomfortable risk to give someone.

A small vintage glass bottle labeled Chanel Eau de Toilette No. 5, from 1970. It is one-quarter filled with yellow liquid.

In addition to physical reactions, you never know when someone might simply feel very sensitive to a particular smell, or to perfumes generally. Love it or hate it, there’s a reason the fragrance-free office is such a popular thing now: lots of people dislike fragrance and find it headache-inducing or distracting. Maybe your receiver is one of these people. Or maybe their mother or boyfriend or cat just can’t stand a certain scent. You never know.

Besides these, there might be other considerations at play you never would have thought of. Maybe the receiver feels deeply uncomfortable with the brand that produces the perfume for a social or political reason. Now more than ever, consumers are becoming aware of facts such as carbon emissions and political donations made by companies, and these can put gift receivers off.

For instance, some people are uncomfortable with the Chanel brand because of Coco Chanel’s Nazi past, such as this reader who received a bottle of Chanel No. 19 as a gift. That story is just one example of how a perfume gift can go incredibly wrong based on factors the giver never even considered.

They Might Just Not Want Any

Plain and simple. If you’re getting fragrance for someone you don’t know very much at all, be aware of the very real possibility that they’re just not interested. Plenty of people don’t wear any sort of perfume or cologne most days. They’re just not into it. If they haven’t worn fragrances in the time you’ve known them, the odds that they start now simply because of your gift aren’t great.

In 2020, about 27% of women and 21% of men used perfumes and colognes several times per week. That means the overwhelming odds are that your receiver is not a fragrance person.

If this is a gift for a hazy acquaintance or distant relative or even a mystery person through a game like White Elephant, consider this the most likely outcome.

In short…

There’s a lot of risk at play when giving anyone any sort of surprise gift, but something as actively experiential as perfume requires extra careful consideration.

Am I saying you definitely should never gift anyone perfume or cologne? Absolutely not. But I do think that a sizeable percentage of perfume gifts are regretted by the receiver, and that’s an uncomfortable position to be in. Think carefully and choose wisely before proceeding.

Giving a great fragrance gift can certainly be done, but it’s a craft that requires great thoughtfulness and care. You can find five outside-the-box ideas for giving a great perfume or cologne gift here.

Not Convinced?

After reading this article, do you want to buy someone a bottle of fragrance anyway? Then honestly, hats off to you for carefully considering the potential downsides and making the decision you think is best. I trust you. But you’ll want to make sure you find a great deal on your perfume or cologne gift. And you might want to get creative with what you get them.

When you’re not sure exactly what someone wants, a set of samples or decants can make a great gift. Some companies that sell samples and decants of various perfumes are Scent Decant, Scent Split, and MicroPerfumes.

If you’re ready to buy a full bottle, there are lots of places you can look, including Scent Decant, Palm Beach Perfumes, HottPerfume, Scent Split, The Perfume Spot, Jomashop, StrawberryNet, and MicroPerfumes.

You could also consider gifting a subscription to ScentBird, a monthly decant subscription service. It’s a great creative way to give a fragrance gift while still allowing the receiver to make selections based on what they like.

These are affiliate links. If you click on them and buy something, the seller pays me a commission, at no extra cost to you. You can learn more about them here.

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