"It's aggressively tangy, like Kool-Aid made from pine cones." That's how The Atlantic's Olga Khazan describes the smell of the men's body wash she used during a recent shower (it was her boyfriend's body wash; she'd run out of her own lavender-scented liquid soap).
Curious as to why almost all men's fragrances have a similar smell, Khazan reached out to Ann Gottlieb, a scent designer for Axe, to find out what the deal is. In short, floral/fruity scents are stereotypically considered more feminine, and woodsy/minty smells are considered more masculine. (See video below.)
In any fragrance, she explained, there are what are called top, middle, and bottom notes. The top notes diffuse right away and hit the nose first. The middle notes make up the majority of the fragrance and give it its character. The bottom notes are heavier and help the scent stay on the skin. "It all comes together in a magical concoction," Gottlieb says.
A scent relies on a perfumer expertly mixing 75 to 200 ingredients, most of them synthetic. In a women's fragrance, there's a large middle section filled with floral and fruity notes, and a bottom section that's more vanilla-y. Men's fragrances, meanwhile, are extremely "fresh" smelling, which is what gives men's products that sharp bite. Men's scents have notes of mint or "sea" or "fresh air" on top, followed by less prominent notes of leaves and flowers, all underpinned by woodsy bottom notes. According to Gottlieb, the most traditional male fragrances are in a category called fougère, after the French word for "fern." They're, well, kind of grassy. Fragrances such as Axe Apollo and Eternity for Men by Calvin Klein fall into this category.
Let me take this opportunity to put in a plug for one of my all-time favorite books, Chandler Burr's The Emperor of Scent: A True Story of Perfume and Obsession.