powder fresh 👶
June 28, 2018 6:26 AM   Subscribe

Who decided babies are supposed to smell like that?

A recent, fruitless search for powder that doesn't smell like a baby's ass led me to wandering the baby aisle of Target asking this question. EVERYTHING, even the VASELINE, has fragrance added so it has "that" baby powder smell.

Personally I find it choking and awful, and shouldn't sensitive baby skin be given things that aren't loaded with fragrance? Anyway, THAT'S not my question.

My question is WHY this smell. WHO decided babies are supposed to smell like that, and WHEN? What's the dark, sordid history of baby fragrance?

Thank you.
posted by phunniemee to Grab Bag (12 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Cornstarch baby powder smells pretty dang similar to talc-based powder though, probably because they use the same fragrances to match the scents added to the original talc and give customers what they expect. Pure talc would smell chalky, so that’s probably considered undesirable back in the original market.

I agree with floam that floral and vanilla are the main parts.

Phunniemee could use culinary cornstarch as baby powder though, and that would avoid the scent problem.
(Oops, a deleted comment mentioned cornstarch)
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:17 AM on June 28, 2018

Seconding floam - it's a low-level blend of floral scents. I have a couple of DIY body care books and they suggest rose and chamommile as the scent to replicate "baby powder smell"; these are safe-bet "pleasant" scents, which appeal to the widest number of people, so that's what they deemed baby powder should smell like. I hear you on the "frangrance free is better for baby bottoms", but consider that your average baby's bottom is probably exposed to less-pleasant smelling substances on a quasi-regular basis, so they probably need to put in something.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:18 AM on June 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: actually - that smell is very very regional. i.e French babies smell like Orange Flower water mostly.

The answer is whichever fragrance house helped J&J fragrance their talcum powder all those years ago.
posted by JPD at 7:18 AM on June 28, 2018 [12 favorites]

"The earliest Baby Powder was in a metal tin with an orange and white label, which stated it was “For Toilet and Nursery.” JOHNSON’S® Baby Powder was a success, and the Company began expanding its line of baby products to include creams, soaps, and more. Over time, JOHNSON’S® Baby Powder, with its instantly recognizable scent, became one of the most familiar and trusted products in the world."
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:19 AM on June 28, 2018 [2 favorites]

There is nothing intrinsic to talc to make it smell like that. Its just we as Americans are trained to associated it with Baby. Its like how any Ketchup that isn't Heinz tastes off to most of us.

If you buy the Mustela (french) products at BBBY they smell quite different. My wife works in the fragrance industry and hates "Baby Powder Smell" as well.
posted by JPD at 7:22 AM on June 28, 2018 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Issues with bandages were the precursor to Johnson & Johnson's baby powder: "Within a few years, a doctor complained to J&J that their bandages caused skin irritation in his patients. In response, J&J’s scientific director Dr. Frederick Kilmer sent the doctor a packet of scented Italian talcum powder to help soothe the irritation."
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:31 AM on June 28, 2018 [3 favorites]

It turns out babies make their own stank! But it wears off in six weeks or so. So the WHY of it may be that serendipitously when Johnson&Johnson began selling the stuff as part of a babykit, the smell of the powder became associated with "baby" the same way the natural smell produced by the baby in the first six weeks did. So the sickly sweet perfume smell gradually replaced the pleasant smell of freshly born child? Not that babypowder smell is necessarily anything like the newhuman smell, but even if the two smells are totally different, they would definitely both be babyadjacent, so perhaps Johnson&Johnson gradually replaces babywhiff/occupies the same neuronal space as babywhiff in the parental brain?
posted by Don Pepino at 8:22 AM on June 28, 2018 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Agree with JPD, this is regional and cultural. In Austria everyone associates baby smell with chamomile generally as this is the fragrance used in the popular Penaten baby products.
posted by 15L06 at 9:02 AM on June 28, 2018 [2 favorites]

Yeah, I can't even find the unscented baby soap I used to use on my own sensitive skin in stores anymore. It's now a choice of cloying lavender or overbearing "baby powder scent." I guess manufacturers are trying to rope everyone into our current perfume-overload culture from day one.

I use straight cornstarch whenever I need powder.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:20 AM on June 28, 2018

Best answer: My unsubstantiated theory is that Johnson and Johnson's original baby powder product was intended to smell like laundry that had been dried outside on the line in the spring/summertime (floral), and then brought into the house where mama has also been baking (hence vanilla).
posted by vunder at 9:49 AM on June 28, 2018 [3 favorites]

Mod note: Couple comments removed, gentle reminder: question is about the history/context of the fragrance, not about baby care suggestions or alternatives.
posted by cortex (staff) at 12:29 PM on June 28, 2018

I always thought that it American baby smell is more like calendula than anything else. Some of the "natural" baby products use it.
posted by fiercekitten at 11:17 PM on June 28, 2018

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