Stop in any perfume shop, and you’re bound to find small bowls of coffee beans set between various fragrances. A salesperson may advise you to sniff the beans in between smelling multiple scents. It is commonly believed that the smell of coffee beans creates some sort of palate cleanser for your nose, allowing you to continue to smell fragrance after fragrance.
But why would someone need to do that? Olfactory fatigue, or olfactory habituation, is a real thing, and it deserves some attention. Essentially, the olfactory glands in your nose begin to recognize smells after a period of time (like the perfume you've been wearing all day), and will stop alerting you to them, making you think there's no fragrance there. It is an example of sensory adaption; the body becomes desensitized to stimuli to prevent the overloading of the nervous system, thus allowing it to respond to new stimuli that are ‘out of the ordinary’. Do coffee beans have some magical little molecular component that resets our palate, allowing us to continue to smell things? Turns out, the answer is no! Dr. Alexis Grosofsky of Beloit College’s Department of Psychology has scientifically proven that coffee beans do nothing to cleanse or reset your olfactory palate. Read the full study here.
Maybe you’ve always wondered why the beans were there. This myth has been around for so long that it's nearly impossible to find a fragrance store without coffee beans! But, alas, they do not serve a purpose other than to psychologically distract you. Biologically, we could keep smelling things for hours.
So, what can we use to reset our palates when we’re feeling a bit of olfactory fatigue? The answer may surprise you. The best way to deal with olfactory fatigue is to simply smell your own skin. Perfumers will sniff the crook of their elbows when necessary. You are always performing olfactory habituation to your own smell, so it is a perfect baseline. Leave the coffee beans alone and keep sniffing.