A “Cliffnotes” Guide to Perfume Terms and Tips on Choosing a Signature Scent.

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I’m writing this for AccordingToKristinSite as she kindly asked me to share some of my perfume thoughts with her readers. There is so much more to perfumery than most people imagine. Therefore, I’ve decided to write a “cliffnotes” version of the things I’ve learned over the last 5 years of my perfume journey. I think it best to cover some general perfume knowledge first then proceed to choosing a signature perfume.

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First, lets talk about concentrations. I’m sure everyone has noticed fragrances marked with “EDP” or “EDT” before, but what do they mean? Well, perfume is, quite simply, fragrance oils diluted in alcohol and these tell you how concentrated the perfume oil is. “Eau” is the french word for water. So “Eau de parfum” literally translates as “water of parfum”. While there are no rigid standards set for defining concentrations, they generally fall within the following percentages, give or take about 5%.  The least concentrated are usually marked EDC, or “eau de cologne”  and contain around 3%-5% perfume oils, so they are mostly alcohol. The next one up is EDT, or eau de toilette and is around 5%-10% oils. Next is EDP or eau de parfum at 10%-15% oils to alcohol. Lastly, we have the most concentrated, which are called “parfum”, (pronounced “pa-fum” not “per-fume”), they are also called “extrait”, and contain 15%-30% oils. Extraits are often much more expensive, since they contain more precious oils.  Some perfume ingredients can be incredibly rare and very costly, such as ambergris, which is a natural ingredient that comes from sperm whales. Ambergris can fetch up to $50,000 a kilo depending on the age and quality! Because extraits are stronger, they typically come in very small “flacons“, which is a fancy word for a fancy bottle. Most extrait flacons are typically 30ml (1oz) or less. Extraits are usually dabbed on, not sprayed. Similar to heating potpourri oils in a burner, extraits release the aroma oils when warmed on the pulse-points. The more concentrated the perfume, the longer it lasts, the more depth, and the richer the fragrance. While extraits can last a solid 12 hours, the EDT version may only last 4 hours and will smell much lighter and more transparent. Many popular fragrances are offered in a variety of concentrations with prices to reflect. For example, Chanels website offers their iconic No 5 perfume in a 50ml EDT for $82.00, the EDP 50ml for $100.00, and a 7.5ml extrait for $125.00. The price differences get significantly higher per/ml the stronger the concentration. So when shopping for a perfume and one seems to be either way more expensive than expected check to see if it’s an EDP or extrait. Or if it’s way less expensive than expected, check to see if it’s an EDT, or worse, a FAKE

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Next, let’s talk a few terms used in the fragrance community. We generally group perfumes into 4 main groups based on where they are sold: niche, designer, drugstore, and dupes, aka fakes. Niche are either super high end perfumes, sold only in luxury stores like Barneys, Neiman Marcus, and Saks or they are “indie” fragrances from independent perfume houses and typically have very few points of sale. Creed, for example, is a high-end niche house with very expensive perfumes that are sold at Neiman Marcus whereas Dame is an indie niche house with very affordable high quality perfumes sold only in a few boutiques and online via Dames website. Niche doesn’t always equate to super expensive but they are more difficult to test. Niche are considered niche because they are usually made in much smaller batches compared to mass-marketed perfumes. Since they are smaller batches, they do not fall under the IFRA ingredient requirements that are imposed on mass marketed perfumes.  Designer perfumes are mass marketed perfumes that are sold in department stores, like Donna Karen, Chanel, and Lancome. These groups sometime crossover though. For example, Chanel makes designer fragrances that can be bought at Macys like No 5, Chance, and Coco Mademoiselle but Chanel also makes an exclusive high-end niche collection called Les Exclusifs that can only be purchased at full offering Chanel boutiques, online, or the select Neiman Marcus’ that carry the collection. Pretty self explanatory, drugstore frags, are very often celebrity perfumes, or “celebuscents”, Coty, and Revlons. Stuff you would find in Walgreens or CVS. Also, some of the lower end designer frags might be found in drugstores, like Shalimar’s Eau de Cologne and Marc Jacobs Daisy. Many perfumistas refer to them as the “cheapies”. Lastly, dupes are fakes, knock-offs, and outright counterfeits. They are sold on the black market or passed as authentics in the grey market. You’ll find these at flea markets, discount stores, import stores, and even out of the trunks of peoples cars. Beware of these! While you may think you are saving yourself a few bucks, you may actually be putting your health in danger and applying some real nasty stuff! They have been known to contain unregulated, dangerous chemicals,  some even carcinogenic and even very disgusting ingredients, like urine. 

Regardless of where a perfume comes from though, there are three things that all fragrances  judged on: sillage, projection, and longevity. Sillage is a French word that refers to the fragrance trail that is left behind when one is wearing a fragrance. Projection refers to how far away a fragrance can be detected when wearing. Is it a “powerhouse” that can be smelled several feet away? Or is it a light “skinscent” that can only be smelled if you put your wrist right up to your nose? Longevity refers to how many hours the perfume lasts. Longevity has a lot to do with “notes” and ingredients. For example, citrus fragrances are known to be quite fleeting. Citrus molecules are much more volatile as compared to heavier, more oily molecules like musks. So citrus evaporates faster than musks. 

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Perfumes are read according to “notes”, just like musical notes are read on sheet music. Perfumes consist of top/head notes, middle/heart notes, and base/foot notes. Top notes are what you smell on the initial spray, it’s highly alcoholic and usually citrus and lasts about 15 minutes, give or take. Heart notes start developing as the top notes are drying out. This is the real “heart” of the perfume, what we are wanting to smell when we wear it, and usually lasts anywhere from 4-12 hours. Base notes are the very tail end of the perfume and what you smell on your clothes the next day. Base notes can last weeks when sprayed on clothes. Perfumers almost always list the notes so one can get a general idea of how a perfume smells. But don’t confuse perfume notes with ingredients because, while the notes sometimes are the ingredients, that isn’t usually the case, especially with the availability of synthetic aroma chemicals these days. Smell is a very abstract and subjective experience but listing notes help to materialize the smell into something recognizable. So lets practice by making an imaginary 3-note perfume, something most everyone can imagine. The top note is mandarin orange, the heart consists of roses, and the base is vanilla. Since these are simple and very common notes, I bet you can picture what this perfume will smell like. And after reading these notes, you won’t be surprised by the fragrance when you smell it because most people know what oranges, roses, and vanilla smells like.

The impact of expertise in olfaction

Then you have fragrance families, also known as olfactory groups. Most people think of floral perfume for women and cologne for men. But in the fragrance community, that’s a cliché generalization and men wear perfume too lol. There are many families and sub-families. The main groups are florals, citrus, herbals or “fougere”, orientals, acquatics, woods, gourmands, and chypres. Orientals are perfumes based on vanilla.  Chypres are all based on variations of bergamot, a very common citrus top note, oakmoss, and labdanum, which is a plant sap. Gourmands typically smell like desserts. It’s a perfume family where the sense of smell collides with taste as these frags smell like foods and candies. Fragrance families very often cross over with sub-families such as “fruity florals” or “floral chypres”. You can read more about fragrance families here.

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There are also fragrance seasons. For example, many perfumistas like light fresh fragrances for spring and summer and heavier, darker fragrances for the winter. I probably wouldn’t wear a heavy myrrh, incense, and woodsy perfume in the summer. The Texas heat would make it unbearably suffocating, but divine in the winter time. In the summer I crave fruity florals and zesty citruses. You can read more about perfume seasons here.

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So now you have some background on perfumes, let’s get to choosing a perfume. There are literally thousands of fragrances on the market: where the heck to start!?! Well, first thing I advise is to determine your budget. Perfumes can range anywhere from $15 – $ 1,500 (or more) with the high-end niche averaging around $300 a bottle, designers averaging around $100 a bottle, and drugstore fragrances averaging around $30 a bottle. I recommend starting low and working your way up to avoid buyers remorse.

Once you have your budget in mind, then you should determine where you are going to wear it and around whom. Are you looking for a “going out” perfume? Something sexy and provocative? Or perhaps something casual, for day-to-day wear? Some perfumes are very strong and offensive. For example, oud is a tree resin that, to many Americans, smells like body odor. It’s a very heavy wood scent and most oud based frags are very potent, enough to fill a room. Or tuberose, which is a very distinct scent of tuberose flowers, that many people love but can be headache inducing to others. Neither ouds nor tuberose are very office appropriate to say the least. If you want an office friendly fragrance for example, look for clean and lighter fragrances like light florals and citruses.

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Once you have an idea of where you want to wear the perfume, it’s time to get to testing! Until you have experienced a range of perfume notes, I don’t recommend ordering blindly online without testing first. Go to your local drugstore or department store and see what testers they have available. Make notes of which ones you like and which ones you dislike. Find out what notes are in them, so you know which notes you enjoy, and which notes you dislike.

I love using fragrantica as a reference for notes when choosing perfumes. Not only do they offer an open board for reviews so you can get all kinds of feedback on a perfume, good and bad, from people who have worn it, they also have note pyramids, breaking down the top, mid, and base notes, plus you can get an idea of how strong it is and how long it lasts. Here’s a screenshot of Chanel No 5 Edp’s info as listed on Fragrantica:

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I recommend testing on skin and wearing the frag for an entire day before determining whether or not you like it. Top notes can sometimes be tricky, harsh, and even off-putting but they can lead into the most amazing fragrance if you give it time to develop. I almost wrote off a perfume as a dislike based on its very harsh top notes but it has become my very favorite perfume. I consider it my “signature” fragrance! Once you have an idea of some of the notes you like or dislike, then you will be a bit more prepared if you decide to “blind buy” a perfume without testing it. For testing niche perfumes that are not readily available to test, I always recommend buying samples first. Most all niche houses offer sample size testers either through their own website or though sites such as LuckyScent or The Perfumed Court. There are also many sellers on eBay, including myself, that sell samples from their full bottles. Sometimes eBay is the only option for rare discontinued fragrances. Always check seller feedback scores though. If the seller has enough good feedback then it’s usually ok to buy. Be wary of sellers with no feedback and especially negative feedback. 

After sniffing my way through hundreds, if not thousands of perfumes, I’ve determined that some of my favorite perfume notes include Iris, Vanilla, Benzoin, Labdanum, Tonka Bean, resins such as Frankincense and Myrrh, Aldehydes, Ambergris, and Peach. And that I very much dislike anise/licorice, heavy animalic musks, and super sweet sugared perfumes. So while I may “blind buy” a perfume online without testing it first if it has my favorite notes listed, I will altogether avoid a perfume if it lists notes I know I dislike.

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You may sniff a hundred perfumes before you find the one for you, but when you find it you’ll know without a doubt! That eureka moment is similar to hearing a song that gives you goosebumps and makes you want to cry. It can be an emotional moment! And a fun byproduct of testing is the random memories that can be triggered by perfumes. I once broke down into tears after testing a perfume I believed beforehand that I had never smelled before but once I smelled it, I realized it was the perfume worn by my 4th grade teacher that I hadn’t seen in over 25 years and I was flooded with memories in that one instant!

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Which brings me to the final point and my conclusion:

Our sense of smell is very much tied into our memories. How many times have you been reminded of a long forgotten memory that was triggered by a smell?  Perfumes can be used to intentionally impress upon memories, whether it be yours or those around you. I collect perfumes and wear many fragrances. There are certain ways I wear perfumes to enhance memories or the opposite, to avoid creating associations. For example, I will not wear perfumes to funerals. I don’t want any sad emotions tied to any perfumes I wear first of all, but also, I don’t want to impress a fragrance on others that are grieving, so if they were to smell the perfume in the future it might trigger thoughts of a deceased loved one and funerals. If I’m sick I avoid perfumes as well for basically the same reason: I don’t want those associations.

Wearing perfumes is a very personal and intimate thing. And while not everyone will be pulled “down the rabbit hole” into full-fledged perfumistahood, it’s still very helpful to be armed with some basic knowledge when shopping for a perfume or seeking a signature scent. One should be aware of how their own fragrance affects their daily life and how it affects those around them. And if you DO happen to fall down the rabbit hole you will quickly learn that this article is just the very tip of the iceberg and there are many fascinating  histories to be read, notes to be learned, and a seemingly infinite number of perfumes to be sniffed! 

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