Hypnotic Poison Eau de Toilette by Dior Review
Today I wore Hypnotic Poison and asked my boyfriend if he liked it.
“I mean, it’s fine. What’s wrong with it?”
At its best, Dior’s Hypnotic Poison is a “what’s wrong with it” scent. At its best, nothing is wrong with it. It’s just about alright, without much of anything interesting or nuanced.
Forget the marketing surrounding this one. There is nothing hypnotic nor poisonous about Hypnotic Poison. It’s not dark or mysterious or elusively sensual. It is, at its best, a sugar-sweet synthetic marshmallow with almond flavoring and a hint of candied spice.
But I know what you’re all thinking: Is it sexy?
It certainly doesn’t match many traditional models of what’s seductive. Hypnotic Poison is not in the least mysterious. Nor is it outright suggestive of human bodies and fluids, the way so many musky and animalic scents are (or at least try to be).
At the same time, people are simple creatures, and there’s a carnal intrigue to simple, sugary, tasty things, regardless of how that tendency measures up to our societal ideals of sexuality across other senses. The sweet and nutty scent of vanillin is the world’s favorite scent, claims one rather self-aggrandizing Oxford study. It’s comforting and just about universally lovable.
To me, Hypnotic Poison is aesthetically sexless, devoid of animalic human smells or any other such raunch, but practically speaking it’s a safe sugar scent that no one will particularly mind and that most will feel mildly positive about. That’s as good as sexy for many purposes. If you smell good at all, you’re scoring points in the sexy department. If you smell like a universally palatable and cuddly pile of sugary vanilla-glazed fruit and nuts, that’s lots of universally palatable sexy points. Go you.
On my skin, Hypnotic Poison is capricious and volatile, or perhaps just multidimensional. At its lowest points I think the only reason Hypnotic Poison is iconic is because it was posited correctly at the right time to fulfill the big designer soft vanilla marshmallow niche. At its highest points, I can understand why this was an iconic powerhouse of a 90s designer perfume.
I suspect it’s partly to do with temperature. In the sunshine and in hot and stuffy rooms, Hypnotic Poison is at best synthetic marshmallow and at worst playdough. In the cool windy weather before a storm, though, or a chilly classroom, more of those delicious spicy smoky plum cake notes waft all around you.
The longevity of this iconic Annick Menardo and Christian Dussoulier perfume is fantastic. A tiny smidgen of Hypnotic Poison from the vial sticks around for 12+ hours, with better projection for the tiny quantity than most anything I’ve ever sampled. For an Eau de Toilette, no less. That’s practically unheard of.
But back to the scent.
After extensive sampling, I’ve realized there are two sides to the Hypnotic Poison coin.
On the head, the opening is a big, fluffy, synthetic vanilla marshmallow, with a touch of plasticky almond flavoring injected, and a touch of something a little prickly and spicy, with a timbre like light licorice. It reminds me of the licorice note in Xerjoff’s intensely gourmand Lira, which I described as “something fresh spicy and aromatic. It’s almost minty. It feels like a warmer, more brown sort of fresh mint note.”
I sense something like menthol, or perhaps camphor, in this opening, propping up one side of the marshmallow. This might be some olfactory accident of the caraway and rosewood, but I’m inclined to think some aromachemical in here is genuinely something mentholic or camphoraceous. I’m inclined to think this is an intentional licorice note.
This licorice note isn’t quite as fresh and prominent in Hypnotic Poison as it is in Lira, but it’s there. Were it not drowning in wave after wave of fluffy vanilla marshmallows, it would be more obvious. As it were, though, the licorice serves as a sort of diet spice to the whole vanilla panorama, dressing it all up like an old-timey cola or a root beer float.
Really, when I say licorice note, I think I mean two things here. The first is that brown-but-minty-fresh strange diet rooty over-sweet sort of scent that is the true smell of licorice. The second is an accompanying flavor many people associate with licorice candy: star anise. This spice has a flavor rather similar to licorice root, but warmer, spicier, sweeter. This is why it’s often added to black licorice sweets: it blends naturally with the flavor of true licorice but makes it cozier and more piquant.
So which one is this? Honestly, it’s a bit of a moot point. The aromachemical used is most likely anisaldehyde, which is described as both anise- and licorice-like. The nature of the licorice here is similar to me to that in Lira: fresh, bright, almost minty. But blended with an edge of spicy carraway, it could also be read as star anise seed.
There’s something particularly plastic and artificial-feeling about the almond and perhaps the tuberose. Even in its best moments, this side of Hypnotic Poison is a fake marshmallow you know you cannot eat. This is the side of Hypnotic Poison that warrants a “Sure, I like it. Nothing’s wrong with it.” It’s simple, a little cloying, a little dull, and quite a bit artificial, but it’s inoffensive, straightforward, and sweet enough. Not much is wrong with it.
This is also the side that turns playdough-y.
The tail is the side of Hypnotic Poison I really wasn’t expecting. Settling in to work in a chilly basement alongside a room full of computer racks, I kept getting whiffs of something more enticing, nuanced and tasty than any plastic marshmallow.
It’s a glorious smoky plum cake. Gauzy, hazy, and lightly spiced. The coconut, plum, and apricot all melt together into a gorgeous soft, fleshy fruity note. Accentuated by caraway, that unlikely and versatile spice, this feels, at times, like a gorgeous fluffy vanilla almond plum cake.
I love, love, love these moments in Hypnotic Poison. They remind me of the lovely festive spiced plum of Keiko Mecheri’s festive Umé. Umé is sweet, but merely in a pretty, fruity, spiced-fermented-plum sort of way. These moments in the heart of Hypnotic Poison are kind of like that, but drowning in an ocean of doughy sweet vanillin.
Regrettably, these brief moments of decadent gourmand fruitiness and subtle spice are promptly choked out by another heavy wave of almond-vanilla playdough.
The florals in Hypnotic Poison are secondary to the everything else in Hypnotic Poison. This perfume is vanilla-almond doughy sweetness first, then hints of spiced plum fruit, and finally a lasting sweet woody rosewood-sandalwood musk. Supposedly there’s jasmine, tuberose, rose, and lily of the valley in here somewhere, but they’re simply not prominent enough on my skin to be notable.
Indeed, I hardly hear anyone refer to the floral notes in Hypnotic Poison. I get the impression that they’re in there for fullness — back in 1998 when this came out, more designer releases seemed to prioritize this fullness, this blending of multiple types of notes into one cohesive and voluptuous perfume — but they don’t stand out on their own.
Now, at this point, well into this middling review, longtime Hypnotic Poison fans are likely growing increasingly annoyed with me. “That’s not the real Hypnotic Poison,” they might say. “The reformulations have gutted it. It isn’t what it used to be.”
And to that I say, well, maybe. I never got to try any pre-2020s Hypnotic Poison. Countless perfumes have gotten more cloying, synthetic, and one-dimensional over time thanks to a constant process of reformulations. It’s likely I would have liked vintage Hypnotic Poison a little more. Maybe it had more depth. But then, maybe not.
The point is that modern Hypnotic Poison is what we have now, so modern Hypnotic Poison is what I’m judging. That’s why the collage at the top of this post features the modern dark bottle instead of the original bright red one.
And now, a confession. Hypnotic Poison was one of the very first perfumes on my wishlist. As I’ve written elsewhere, my perfume-wearing nascency was the moment when, as a college student, I ate the bitter almond inside an apricot seed and became enamored with the taste and smell of it.
I might also say it was when I was gifted an ultimately disappointing sample of Wallpaper* Steidl’s Paper Passion as a bookish high schooler, or when my mother introduced me to essential oils at a young age, or when I woke up from surgery for a life-threatening respiratory condition and found myself able to breathe comfortably enough to pay attention to smells for the first time in a decade.
It’s all these things and none of these things, really. Who is to say when anything within any of us really begins? As Borges said, “Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.”
But anyway. Here I was, young and free and able to breathe, with a research job and pocket money and the sudden realization I can hunt down almond-centered perfumes so that I can experience that intoxicating apricot seed without the literally intoxicating dangerous levels of cyanide therein.
(Is that why it’s called Hypnotic Poison? Because bitter almond is an absolutely enchanting note, born of a bitter and poisonous nut? Much to think about.)
This search brought me to an excellent Escentual blog post by The Candy Perfume Boy and down a Fragrantica rabbit hole, and I came out the other side with a list of a handful of almond perfumes I was aching to try.
Among them was Guerlain’s L’Homme Ideal, which was not for me. But the granddaddy of almond perfumes I was most excited about? Hypnotic Poison.
And now here I am, pouring once again out of that years-old little Dior sample vial a certain almond-scented malaise. Somehow, as entranced as I was by the taste of bitter almonds, and the smell of almond extract in the kitchen and of marzipan made into colorful little fruit shapes, no decadent almond perfume has really quite delivered that effect for me.
It all gets to be too much, too fast, too monotonous. Too much of a good thing.
And, usually, they’re doughy. Incredibly doughy. Some people like playdough vanilla. More power to them. Regrettably, I do not.
The closest I’ve come to an almond scent I adore is Gucci’s strange, gutsy, and uncharacteristically dusty Mémoire d’une Odeur. There, the pairing of a uniquely mild and unsugared bitter almond note with a soft herbal chamomile delivers a quiet IV drip of almond rather than a Hypnotic-Poison-style doughy blast to the face. That’s more my speed.
So it turns out that loud, blatant almond perfumes aren’t my thing. I’ll leave the candy perfumes to The Candy Perfume Boy. But I won’t fault Hypnotic Poison for not being quite for me.
If you unabashedly love the aggressively cozy mixture of almond extract and cloying, doughy-sweet vanilla, Hypnotic Poison is for you. It’s comforting and marshmallowy and sugary with nary a hard edge in sight, save for the weird hints of plastic, playdough, and camphor wafting out the sides of Hypnotic Poison on my skin.
If you love the doughy smell of molding clay and playdough, Hypnotic Poison is absolutely for you. In fact, I cannot imagine a more perfect playdough scent. Hypnotic Poison is the quintessential one. This isn’t some weird photorealistic salty thing that will make everyone around you think “Ew, they smell like playdough.” Nope, this is the smell of soft childhood modelling clay elegantly folded into a complete perfume, one that is sweet and soft and comforting.
Another comparison I’ve sometimes heard is that Hypnotic Poison smells like flat soda. I don’t drink much soda, so I can’t really attest to how true this is. It certainly is quite sweet in an unmoving stillwater sort of way. There’s no fizz, no aldehydic carbonation at the top. I can see Hypnotic Poison being compared to a root beer float or cola that’s gone flat, with its thick syrupy dark brown sweetness and faint twinge of something reminiscent of licorice.
If you like sweet almond-vanilla perfumes and have pleasant childhood associations with dark brown sodas and playdough, I think Hypnotic Poison will make you incredibly happy. It was made for you. For you, Hypnotic Poison is hypnotic.
However, if you, like me, enjoy vanilla and almond but often find them too cloying or aggressive, stay away. Hypnotic Poison is not the delicate vintage vanilla-almond creature you imagine it to be. It’s a playdough-and-cola beast and it isn’t for the faint of heart. For you, and, alas, for me, Hypnotic Poison is poison.
Where to Find Hypnotic Poison Eau de Toilette by Dior
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