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

Finally understand the types and terminology — and never be stumped at the fragrance counter again.

Finally understand the types and terminology — and never be stumped at the fragrance counter again

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

Procuring a perfume can feel like being dropped into an alien landscape. From our difficulty with pinning down scents ("What is this familiar but elusive scent? What memory does it spark?") to the struggle to describe them with mere words (aromatic? stinky?), expressing our preferences can be a challenge. Add the pressure of an expectant salesperson, and it can feel like a daunting task more than a pleasurable moment of sensorial exploration. But it doesn't have to be that way. The more you understand the industry's classifications and vernacular, the easier it'll be to navigate this world and find a fragrance you'll love. 

Eau, what?

At its most fundamental, perfume is a combination of fragrant materials and an odourless diluent. The fragrant materials can range from plant and animal extracts to synthetic chemicals, and among the most common diluents you'll come across are perfumers' alcohol and neutral carrier oils, like jojoba or fractionated coconut oil. Different compositions have different ratios of fragrant materials to diluent — in other words, different concentrations. 

The most popular — eau de cologne, eau de toilette and eau de parfum — are alcohol-based. Eau de cologne is the lightest of the three, with two to four per cent oil. It's refreshing, delicate and ideal for spritzing. Eau de toilette comes in at five to 15 per cent and lasts for hours on the skin, while eau de parfum has a concentration of 15 to 20 per cent and can linger for the whole day. 

You might occasionally come across an eau fraiche, with a barely-there concentration of around one to three per cent. On the opposite end of the spectrum is extrait de parfum (or just parfum), which can be as high as 30 per cent oil, and quite tenacious. 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.

Aside from your preferences, think about your environment when choosing a fragrance. Maybe you work from home (where you don't need to consider your colleagues' sensitivities) and want to revel in your scent all day — opt for a higher concentration of oils. Maybe you take elevators a lot and want to avoid overwhelming others; in that case, reach for water-based perfumes, which project less than those formulated with alcohol.

Perfume as pyramid

A common framework 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 volatile: they're the first notes you smell and also the first to disappear, for instance, citruses and some aromatic herbs. Middle notes hang around longer; think flowers and spices. The least volatile molecules form the last chapter in the story: the "dry-down." Here, you'll find the musks, woods and resins, also known as base notes.

A note on notes

While perfume notes might read like an objective list of ingredients, they're more imaginative than factual — a tool used by brands to paint an aspirational picture in a consumer's mind. When shopping for fragrances, try not to be seduced by all of the marketing-speak and be skeptical of the adjectives. Ask yourself: is musk really sensual? What's audacious 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, creates a distinctive scent that is more than the sum of its parts, a scent that cannot be accurately extracted from nature. For example, fig perfumes have flooded the industry in recent years, but don't contain raw materials sourced from the fruit; to get a fig note, perfumers conjure their essence. Add something green to something fruity, with a dash of something milky, and all of a sudden you get something that could be held in the mind as a fig. (Fun fact: the first commercial fig fragrance was created by Olivia Giacobetti in 1994 for the iconic French brand l'Artisan Parfumeur.) 

It's all about chemistry

Forget the impulse buy. A seasoned scent shopper will always sample first, and here's why: the same perfume will smell like one thing out of the bottle and another on your skin. Since perfume is, in essence, scented molecules evaporating off your skin, everything is a factor: body temperature, humidity, hormones, time — even your skin's pH balance. A perfume can smell sweet on one person and sour on another, or it can feel too heavy in the summer but just right in the fall. 

Let a scent evolve throughout the day so you can experience the top, middle and base notes. Wear it in different settings to get a sense of how it reacts to variables like heat and sweat. And if you love a scent out of the bottle but can't stand 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 like to switch up your fragrance based on your mood or the occasion. To stretch your budget, always give perfumes a trial run first, and opt for smaller amounts (like travel-size rollerballs) when you can. Some retailers sell samples at a fraction of the price of a full bottle; some offer them free with purchase or on request. There are also online shops that sell decants of discontinued and vintage perfumes — portioning their rare fragrances into small bottles for collectors to purchase.

As you delve into this world, start noticing patterns in your taste too. Do you gravitate toward citrus or are you more into woodsy scents? Look up the perfumes you like on fragrance databases like Fragrantica and Basenotes, which will tell you their notes and fragrance families. From there, you can develop a vocabulary for what you like. It will come in handy the next time you're stumped at the perfume counter or wading through the sea of options online. 

There's also the sheer delight of learning the language of an underappreciated sense, of finding the words for what previously could not be expressed. All of a sudden, your taste has a shape, a feeling, a world. To me, that has been the greatest reward of all. 


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

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