The 12 Most Recognizable Scents (of 1982)

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IStock

In the early 1980s, psychologist William Cain asked a bunch of people to sniff lighter fluid—for science. Working with students at Yale University, Cain and his cohorts took 80 common scents and asked participants if they could identify them.   

The resulting paper, “Odor Identification by Males and Females,” was published in the Chemical Senses journal in 1982. Thirty-three years later, it’s both a snapshot of what our noses were once commonly exposed to and an example of how certain smells never go out of style. Go on and take a whiff.      

1. Coffee

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Few of Cain’s subjects had any problem naming the sweet aroma of ground coffee, and it’s unlikely things would be any different in today’s Starbucks-dotted world. “Even people who don’t drink coffee often love the smell of it,” says Cain, who now a senior scientist at the Chemosensory Perception Lab in San Diego. “There’s a pleasantness to it that puts it categorically aside. There are other things on the list at least as familiar in terms of frequency, but this is somehow different. I think even kids like the smell.”

2. Peanut Butter

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Yes, Cain had students sticking their noses in jars in a pre-peanut hysteria climate. No one died. But it is surprising a comparatively low-key smell was so easily pinpointed in the study, especially when different brands of peanut butter can have their own distinctive scent. One explanation might be that peanuts produce over 200 airborne molecules, a kind of olfactory symphony that’s easy to recognize.

3. Vicks VapoRub

Procter & Gamble

A mentholated cream, Vicks is actually designed to be pungent—a good way to stay memorable. It’s also able to assert itself into your sense memory with a brand name that can help word retrieval. “It has stability based on the name of the product,” Cain says. In his study, subjects who could use a specific name to recall products could repeat it 80 to 90 percent of the time. If they gave a more generalized term, their chances plummeted to 50 percent.

4. Chocolate

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For this one, subjects were given a little leeway. “I can give you Hershey’s chocolate, and with good justification can say 'this is what chocolate is,'” Cain says. “But I can also give you other kinds of chocolates. It’s the kind of category in which you’re permitted a certain amount of variation, using the same name for variants of a product.”

5. Wintergreen Oil

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A common scent (and flavor) in oral hygiene products, wintergreen is practically rammed down throats in the form of toothpaste, mouthwash, and candies like Life Savers—as well as cigarettes and chewing tobacco. Next to coffee, it might be the most common high-exposure item on the list.

6. Johnson’s Baby Powder

Austin Kirk, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

One outcome of the study that surprised Cain was the dominance of fabricated, manmade smells as opposed to organic scents. “Items that are not natural are incredibly stable in terms of perception,” he says. “One of them is baby powder that comes from Johnson’s. Even off brands are made to smell like it.”

7. Cigarette Butts

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While people were certainly aware of the health risks of cigarettes in the early 1980s, it was still a relatively common habit indoors and out. “[The study today] would certainly change,” he says. “Smoking was ubiquitous then.”

8. Mothballs

As an insect deterrent, mothballs have fallen out of favor in recent years due to health risks associated with inhalation. Children are especially susceptible to DNA and red blood cell breakdowns when exposed to naphthalene, one of the active chemicals. (Don’t inhale mothballs, kids. And don’t eat ‘em, either.)

9. Dry Cat Food

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That oddly processed, industrial odor of cat food is a good example, Cain says, of what he calls “decontextualizing” smells. “When you give someone a jar, they probably don’t expect it to be full of cat food,” he says. “It’s unpleasant.” Cain likens it to smelling ketchup on a hamburger, which is less odorous and potentially more enticing than smelling the condiment by itself.

10. Beer

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Most all beer has a distinctive yeast smell, which researchers speculate may be due to its need to attract fruit flies so the fungi can hitchhike to other rotting pastures. In the case of Cain’s study, the reason for recognition may be far simpler: his subjects were college students.

11. Ivory Bar Soap

Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Like baby powder, Ivory’s distinctive smell provided subjects with stability. “These products are made with such high precision that they’re virtually identical every time,” Cain says. “The errors in odor identification come from fluctuations in stimulus.” One apple is not like another, or may be less ripe—but millions of bars of soap are engineered to mimic one another.

12. Juicy Fruit Gum

Will Culpepper, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Strangely, the women in Cain’s study were far more accurate in detecting Juicy Fruit than the men, though they weren’t any more likely to chew gum. But a large portion of Cain’s study was devoted to the fact that women are generally far superior to men in identifying smells, including supposed male-leaning scents like motor oil. They outperformed the men in 66 of 80 samples, though it may have more to do with being better at verbal recall than actual scent memory.

The one time men showed clear nasal dominance? Identifying Brut Aftershave. “Men were better at that,” Cain says. “Maybe it had something to do with [then-spokesman] Joe Namath.”

What scents do you think would dominate a list today? Let us know in the comments below.

14 Retro Gifts for Millennials

Ravi Palwe, Unsplash
Ravi Palwe, Unsplash

Millennials were born between 1981 and 1996, which means the pop culture they grew up with is officially retro. No matter what generation you belong to, consider these gifts when shopping for the Millennials in your life this holiday season.

1. Reptar Funko Pop!; $29

Amazon

This vinyl Reptar figurine from Funko is as cool as anything you’d find in the rugrats’ toy box. The monster dinosaur has been redesigned in classic Pop! style, making it a perfect desk or shelf accessory for the grown-up Nickelodeon fan. It also glows in the dark, which should appeal to anyone’s inner child.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Dragon Ball Z Slippers; $20

Hot Topic

You don’t need to change out of your pajamas to feel like a Super Saiyan. These slippers are emblazoned with the same kanji Goku wears on his gi in Dragon Ball Z: one for training under King Kai and one for training with Master Roshi. And with a soft sherpa lining, the footwear feels as good as it looks.

Buy it: Hot Topic

3. The Pokémon Cookbook; $15

Hop Topic

What do you eat after a long day of training and catching Pokémon? Any dish in The Pokémon Cookbook is a great option. This book features more than 35 recipes inspired by creatures from the Pokémon franchise, including Poké Ball sushi rolls and mashed Meowth potatoes.

Buy it: Hot Topic

4. Lisa Frank Activity Book; $5

Urban Outfitters

Millennials will never be too old for Lisa Frank, especially when the artist’s playful designs come in a relaxing activity book. Watercolor brings the rainbow characters in this collection to life. Just gather some painting supplies and put on a podcast for a relaxing, nostalgia-fueled afternoon.

Buy it: Urban Outfitters

5. Shoebox Tape Recorder with USB; $28

Amazon

The days of recording mix tapes don’t have to be over. This device looks and functions just like tape recorders from the pre-smartphone era. And with a USB port as well as a line-in jack and built-in mic, users can easily import their digital music collection onto retro cassette tapes.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Days of the Week Scrunchie Set; $12

Urban Outfitters

Millennials can be upset that a trend from their youth is old enough to be cool again, or they can embrace it. This scrunchie set is for anyone happy to see the return of the hair accessory. The soft knit ponytail holders come in a set of five—one for each day of the school (or work) week.

Buy it: Urban Outfitters

7. D&D Graphic T-shirt; $38-$48

80s Tees

The perfect gift for the Dungeon Master in your life, this graphic tee is modeled after the cover of the classic Dungeons & Dragons rule book. It’s available in sizes small through 3XL.

Buy it: 80s Tees

8. Chuck E. Cheese T-shirt; $36-$58

80s Tees

Few Millennials survived childhood without experiencing at least one birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese. This retro T-shirt sports the brand’s original name: Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre. It may be the next-best gift for a Chuck E. Cheese fan behind a decommissioned animatronic.

Buy it: 80s Tees

9. The Nightmare Before Christmas Picnic Blanket Bag; $40

Shop Disney

Fans of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas will recognize the iconic scene on the front of this messenger bag. Unfold it and the bag becomes a blanket fit for a moonlit picnic among the pumpkins. The bottom side is waterproof and the top layer is made of soft fleece.

Buy it: Shop Disney

10. Toy Story Alien Socks; $15

Shop Disney

You don’t need to be skilled at the claw machine to take home a pair of these socks. Decorated with the aliens from Toy Story, they’re made from soft-knit fabric and are big enough to fit adult feet.

Buy it: Shop Disney

11. Goosebumps Board Game; $24

Amazon

Fans that read every book in R.L. Stine’s series growing up can now play the Goosebumps board game. In this game, based on the Goosebumps movie, players take on the role of their favorite monster from the series and race to the typewriter at the end of the trail of manuscripts.

Buy it: Amazon

12. Tamagotchi Mini; $19

Amazon

If you know someone who killed their Tamagotchi in the '90s, give them another chance to show off their digital pet-care skills. This Tamagotchi is a smaller, simplified version of the original game. It doubles as a keychain, so owners have no excuse to forget to feed their pet.

Buy it: Amazon

13. SNES Classic; $275

Amazon

The SNES Classic is much easier to find now than when it first came out, and it's still just as entertaining for retro video game fans. This mini console comes preloaded with 21 Nintendo games, including Super Mario Kart and Street Fighter II.

Buy it: Amazon

14. Planters Cheez Balls; $24

Amazon

Planters revived its Cheez Balls in 2018 after pulling them from shelves nearly a decade earlier. To Millennials unaware of that fact, this gift could be their dream come true. The throwback snack even comes in the classic canister fans remember.

Buy it: Amazon

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10 Great Gifts for Teens

Fjallraven/Polaroid
Fjallraven/Polaroid

If it’s been a few years since you were a teenager, you might be feeling at a loss when it comes to finding the perfect gift for the teen in your life. But you don’t have to worry—we’ve culled the internet to figure out what’s cool these days, and we found 10 items to suit any teen (and any price point).

1. Fjällräven Kånken Mini Classic Backpack for Everyday; $70

Fjällräven/Amazon

Fjällräven’s Kånken backpack was originally introduced in 1978 as an affordable and comfortable bag for Swedish schoolchildren, but it recently took off as a trend among American high schoolers and college students. With 43 different color options, chances are you’ll be able to find the perfect trendy backpack for the teen in your life.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Hydro Flask Standard-Mouth Water Bottle; $30–$35

Hydro Flask/Amazon

Hydro Flasks aren’t only trendy, they’re sturdy and environmentally friendly. Plus, they keep hot drinks warm and icy drinks cool for an absurdly long amount of time. The standard-mouth water bottle is currently available on Amazon in 17 different colors, but the brand also offers tumbler cups and coffee mugs depending on your niece/nephew/cousin/friend/child’s preference.

Buy it: Amazon

3. Polaroid Originals OneStep+ Bluetooth-Connected Instant Film Camera; $140

Polaroid Originals/Amazon

Teens can kick it back old school with this Polaroid camera that hides some surprisingly contemporary features. Using a special app, users can fine-tune their camera settings to suit their personal tastes. Plus, this camera makes it possible to capture two scenes in a single frame, so it's that much easier to create uniquely artsy Polaroid pics.

Buy it: Amazon

4. 4th-Generation Echo Dot with Clock; $60

Amazon

Tech-wise, the fourth-generation Echo Dot is almost identical to its third-generation predecessor. But the updated spherical design seems poised to make the Echo Dot a worthy contender for traditional alarm clocks—the speaker face shows the time and it even includes a tap-to-snooze function for drowsy sleepers.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Bubble Tea Kit; $38

Uncommon Goods

Part of the reason bubble tea is so popular is that it’s customizable—and what could be more customizable than making it yourself? This kit, made by an Atlanta-based couple, comes with two reusable straws and enough supplies to make up to eight servings.

Buy it: Uncommon Goods

6. Mixtape Card Game; $20

Uncommon Goods

This party game challenges players to find the perfect songs to suit specific prompts. Some cards might prompt players to use Spotify or Youtube to search for the songs with the best guitar solos, while other cards call for participants to play their “favorite slow dance love jam from junior high.” This game is sure to be a hit at any high school sleepover or house party—or, in true 2020 style, at any digital hangout or Zoom meeting.

Buy it: Uncommon Goods

7. Giant Flour Tortilla Throw Blanket; $18-$35

Mermaker/Amazon

This goofy double-sided blanket turns any human into a giant-size burrito, and it comes in four different sizes to suit any height. One reviewer even went so far as to say that “once you wrap yourself in it, you will be convinced that you are a burrito.”

Buy it: Amazon

8. The Cup of Destiny; $22

Shelter Harbor Press/Amazon

Here’s a prediction: Your hunt for the perfect gift is almost over. This kit is ideal for the teenager who is fascinated by the supernatural and loves exploring new ideas. Included, you’ll find a 96-page illustrated instruction book along with a cup and a saucer marked with patterns and symbols.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Wreck This Journal: Now in Color; $9

Penguin Books/Amazon

This journal is not intended to be pretty. It’s made for messiness and exploration and a little bit of chaos. Artistic-minded teens will love filling out pages that prompt them to catalog various stains or poke holes through the paper. Reviewers say it’s not only a source of creative inspiration, though—it’s also a stress reliever. And considering that the middle-school and high-school years aren’t exactly known for being relaxing, this journal could be a welcome reprieve from the daily pressure of managing homework and a social life.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Therapy Dough; $15

Uncommon Goods

Some teens focus better and relax more easily when they have something to fidget with. If the teen in your life fits that description, this therapy dough may be the perfect gift for them. Each 4.5-ounce container is infused with essential oils like lavender, eucalyptus, orange, or pine, making relaxation smell delicious (and all natural!).

Buy it: Uncommon Goods

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