If you’re like most people, your relationship with perfumes is uncomplicated. You may own a very small number of fragrances that you bought or received as gifts, and you probably know your significant other’s favorite brand. You might smell samples at perfume counters from time to time, but that’s basically it. After all, what else is there?
Apparently, a lot. There is in fact a hidden world of people and organizations obsessively devoted to perfumes: how to classify and describe them, how and when to wear them, who made them, and how to find just the right scent.
My father is a member of this world of perfume experts, and I invited him to share his knowledge with you. We hope that this guide to perfume will help you enjoy your sense of smell all the more, become a better perfume shopper, and even find your own signature scents!
Perfumes are mixtures of fragrant essential oils or aroma compounds with solvents such as water or alcohol. Some aromas come directly from natural sources like flowers, herbs, spices and wood. Others are completely man-made.
Parfum vs. Eau de Toilette
As we noted before, fragrances are a mixture of aromas and unscented liquids such as alcohol or water. Parfum, eau de parfum, eau de toilette, and eau de cologne all describe different concentrations of aromas in a perfume. While eau de toilette is 5-15% aroma and 85-95% water or alcohol, parfum is 20-30% aroma and 70-80% water or alcohol. Some fragrances work better as parfums and some work better in lower concentrations.
Notes are individual smells that you can discern in a fragrance, such as white flowers, spices, or musk. People are often drawn to particular combinations of notes, or note families. Common note families include citrus, floral, leather, and woody.
Phases of Perfume
Once you apply perfume, the scent goes through three phases: the top or head, the middle or heart, and the base or dry down. Some aroma molecules evaporate very quickly while others evaporate more slowly. As the mix of aroma molecules on your body changes, the scent changes too, sometimes dramatically. The very best scents are pleasing in all three phases.
Choosing a Perfume
When choosing a perfume, there are a few easy rules we swear by:
• Don’t judge by the bottle, which is often designed before the scent.
• Don’t use cost to infer quality either, as many acclaimed fragrances are inexpensive.
• Check reviews on Fragrantica, basenotes, or in the book Perfumes: The A-Z Guide.
• Before you buy, ask for samples at Sephora or, for harder to find fragrances, buy samples kits here or here.
• Wear the scent for a day or three to see how you like it as it evolves.
• Make sure your partner likes how it smells on you.
The Best Perfumes
To conclude our guide to perfume, we’ve gathered some of our favorite critically acclaimed scents for you to try out. While I’ve linked to department stores and Amazon here, we encourage you to shop around on eBay to see if you can find a better price.