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How to choose a personal scent like a pro: A primer on perfume

Top view of a flat lay of a row of perfume bottles on a beige blank background
(Source: iStock/Getty Images)

Sourcing a perfume can feel like falling into an alien landscape. From our difficulty pinning down scents (“What is that familiar yet elusive scent? What memory does it stir up?”) to the struggle to describe it in sheer words (aromatic? Add the push of an expectant salesperson, and it can feel more like a daunting task than a pleasurable moment of sensory exploration, but it doesn’t have to be that way, the better you understand the classifications and industry slang, the easier it will be to navigate this world and appreciate a fragrance find someone you will love.

Eau, what?

Essentially, perfume is a combination of fragrant materials and an odorless diluent. The scented materials can range from plant and animal extracts to synthetic chemicals, and some of the most common diluents you’ll encounter include perfumers’ alcohol and neutral carrier oils like jojoba or fractionated coconut oil. Different compositions have different ratios of fragrance to diluent – in other words, different concentrations.

The most popular – cologne, eau de toilette and eau de parfum – are alcohol-based. Eau de Cologne is the lightest of the three at two to four percent oil. It is refreshing, delicate and ideal for splashing. Eau de toilette has a concentration of five to 15 percent and stays on the skin for hours, while eau de parfum has a concentration of 15 to 20 percent and can linger all day.

Occasionally one comes across an eau fraiche with a barely-there concentration of around one to three percent. At the other end of the spectrum is extrait de parfum (or just parfum), which can contain up to 30 percent oil and is fairly persistent. This is not to be confused with perfume oil, which often comes in rollerball form – these are simply fragrances that use a neutral carrier oil as a base.

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When choosing a fragrance, think about your surroundings as well as your preferences. Maybe you work from home (where you don’t have to consider the sensitivities of your colleagues) and want to indulge in your scent all day – opt for a higher concentration of oils. Maybe you take the elevator a lot and don’t want to overwhelm others; In this case, go for water-based perfumes, which are less prominent than those formulated with alcohol.

Perfume as a pyramid

A framework commonly used in perfumery is the perfume pyramid, which consists of top, middle and base notes. The governing principle here is volatility. Top notes are the most fleeting: they are the first notes you smell and also the first to disappear, for example citrus and some aromatic herbs. heart notes persist longer; Think flowers and spices. The least volatile molecules form the final chapter of the story: the “dry down”. Here you will find musk, woods and resins, also known as base notes.

A note about notes

While fragrance notes read like an objective list of ingredients, they’re imaginative rather than factual—a tool used by brands to paint a desirable picture in a consumer’s mind. When buying fragrances, don’t be fooled by all the marketing hype and be skeptical of the adjectives. Ask yourself: is musk really sensual? What’s bold about leather?

A little-known fact is that some fragrances are built around what perfumers call a “fantasy accord” – a collection of raw materials that, when combined, create a distinctive scent that is greater than the sum of its parts , a fragrance that cannot be exactly derived from nature. For example, fig perfumes have flooded the industry in recent years but contain no raw materials derived from the fruit; To obtain a fig note, perfumers conjure up its essence. Add some green to something fruity, with a sprinkling of something milky, and suddenly you have something that might be remembered as a fig. (Fun Fact: The first commercial fig fragrance was created by Olivia Giacobetti 1994 for the French cult brand l’Artisan Parfumeur.)

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It’s all about chemistry

Forget impulse buying. A seasoned perfume shopper will always try first, and here’s why: the same perfume smells like one thing out of the bottle and another on your skin. Since perfume is essentially scent molecules that evaporate from your skin, everything matters: body temperature, humidity, hormones, time – even your skin’s pH level. A perfume can smell sweet to one and sour to another, or it can feel too heavy in the summer but just right in the fall.

Let a fragrance emerge throughout the day so you can experience the top, middle and base notes. Wear it in different environments to get a feel for how it responds to variables like heat and sweat. And if you love a scent in a bottle but hate it on your skin, apply it to a more neutral surface: your clothes.

Try before you buy

Perfume can be an expensive hobby, especially if you want to switch up your scent depending on your mood or occasion. To stretch your budget, always test perfumes first and opt for smaller quantities (like travel-size rollerballs) when you can. Some retailers sell samples for a fraction of the price of a full bottle; Some offer them for free with purchase or upon request. There are also online stores that sell decanters of discontinued and vintage perfumes and portion their rare scents into small flacons for collectors to purchase.

As you delve into this world, you will also notice patterns in your tastes. Do you prefer citrus fruits or more woody scents? Find the perfumes you like in fragrance databases such as Fragrantica and base notes, who will reveal their notes and olfactory families to you. From there you can develop a vocabulary for what you like. It’ll come in handy the next time you’re at a loss at the perfume counter or wading through the sea of ​​options online.

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There is also the sheer joy of learning the language of an underestimated sense, finding the words for what could not be expressed before. Suddenly your taste has a form, a feeling, a world. For me, that was the greatest reward of all.


Tracy Wan is a writer and fragrance consultant based in Toronto.

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