Perfume For Dummies: Decoding The Mysterious World Of Fragrance, From Top Notes To Signature Scents

My favourite scent is Black Orchid by Tom Ford. I’ve had the same incredibly pricey bottle for years, spritzing it on for nights out and dates and weddings and dinners. So much so that it instantly makes me feel ready to go out, and smelling it during the daytime gives me a phantom hangover (bleurgh).

Do I know why I like it? Other than ‘it smells good’, no, not really. Do I have a clue what the notes are, or what type of fragrance it is? Not a one. Would I be able to describe it, if asked? Never. I don’t know anything about perfume, but I want to learn – so I consulted the experts to decode the mysterious world.

The Burren Perfumery

What is the difference between an Eau de Parfum and an Eau de Toilette?

This is one of the first decisions you’re confronted with when choosing a perfume, written as it is right across the front of the packaging and the bottle itself. But what does it mean? Well, according to Sadie Chowen, founder and ‘nose’ of The Burren Perfumery, fragrances are categorised by their strength but also by the types of aromatic oils used in the blend.

Eau de Cologne is the least strong, containing four to seven percent perfume oils, while an Eau de Toilette is a little stronger and longer-lasting, containing around ten percent of perfume oils. Eau de Parfum is the most concentrated form of perfume readily available, containing between 15 and 20 percent of perfume oils.

“As well as lasting longer on the skin, it will tell more of a story… An Eau de Parfum contains more precious oils, and is generally richer and more complex than an Eau de Toilette or Cologne,” she explains.


Can perfumes be classified by ‘genre’, like music?

Yes, actually! And figuring out which one you like is the next step on your perfume journey. “Fragrances can be classified into different odour families and sub-families. A good way to figure out what you like in a perfume is to identify its family,” say Katie and Jane O’Connor, founders of Jenny Glow Perfumes. The traditional perfume families are as following:

  • Chypre: Firstly, it’s pronounced ‘sheep-ra’. These fragrances are generally quite warm, dry, and mossy, with a hint of oral.
  • Citrus: These scents are fresh and fruity – summer in a bottle.
  • Fougère: is kind of fragrance is considered to be more masculine, and smells very ‘green’. ink ferns and moss, and you’re on the right track.
  • Floral: Exactly was it says on the tin. These can be ‘single flower’ (based on just one flower, say rose or jasmine) or a ‘bouquet’ (a mix of several flowers).
  • Woody: Again, this is pretty self- explanatory. Woody fragrances smell earthy and intense, and are quite masculine.
  • Oriental: Spices, musks, incense… Oriental perfumes are rich, grown-up, and sexy. Perfect for nighttime.
  • Leather: You thought the Fougère and Woody families were masculine? Meet Leather, with its smoky, tobacco- like scents. e manliest of them all.

This is in no way an exhaustive list – there are vast amounts of sub-categories, where everything is mixed and mingled (my Tom Ford is an ‘oriental chypre’, apparently). More modern families have sprung up with the advancement of technology, such as ‘gourmand’ (sweet scents that are almost edible) and ‘water’ (clean, androgynous scents inspired by the ocean).

What are the ‘notes’ of a perfume?

So now you have a small idea what perfume ‘family’ you’re interested in. What’s next? For the lay perfume buyer, hearing about a scent having top notes of this and base notes of that can be bamboozling. What do you care about jasmine or sandalwood or whatever it is?

All you want to know is if the perfume smells good. But you should care about the notes, because they’re the key to understanding the fragrance as a whole and pinpointing what you like about it. This is where it starts getting a bit tricky, so I turned to Emma South, fragrance and lifestyle expert at Jo Malone London, for advice.

A fragrance can consist of many ingredients, and these different ingredients evaporate at different rates. This process is made up of different stages: top, heart, and base. A fine fragrance will develop evenly and harmoniously from the top notes, through to the heart notes and then onto the base notes.

The top notes are the ‘first impression’ of a scent – they’re lighter fragrance molecules that are more volatile, which makes them evaporate quicker than the others. Top notes are generally more fresh and ‘sparkly’, and are often composed of citrusy, fruity, green and herbal notes.

The heart notes are what Emma calls the ‘true personality’ of the scent, and emerge just before the top notes disappear. They are more rounded and full-bodied, and it can take anywhere from two minutes to an hour to appear after the fragrance has been applied. Heart notes are often oral, fruity, spicy or woody.

The base notes, finally, are the ‘lasting memories’ of the scent. These bring “depth and solidity” to a fragrance, and are not usually apparent until about 30 minutes a er application. Examples include vanilla, musk, amber, spices, and woods. When you catch a whiff of your perfume on your clothes days a er application, these base notes are what you’re smelling.

How do you figure out what you like about a certain perfume?

It’s all well and good to have the list of the notes in your favourite perfume, but how can you figure out which of these notes are speaking to you in particular? “My advice is patience,” says Sadie.

Keep smelling the same perfume many times without any other distractions or smells, take a break and keep coming back to it. The list of ‘notes’ that are given for a perfume are like being given a list of ‘scenic points’ on a road map. They are to guide you and help you recognise those key notes.

If you’re not the best smeller (that’s a thing), it is possible to improve and train your nose, kind of like a perfumer would. “The best way to improve your sense of smell is to smell three things each day,” Sadie suggests. “Any three distinct things from your kitchen cupboards or garden. Practice with smells as you would learn the vocabulary of a new language.”

How can I find my signature scent?

Having a ‘signature scent’ is such a romantic idea. “I will wear it for the rest of my life. When people smell it, they will think of ME. My grandchildren will get a whiff of it and weep for their dear granny,” you say to yourself, peering at perfume bottles in the airport duty free. But when it comes down to it, actually picking one can be overwhelming.

“You have to try a new fragrance on clean, bare skin. Just like a dress, you have to wear it for some time and really live with it,” advises Emma South. “It is the only way to know if it perfectly fits you. All fragrances evolve differently depending on your skin type.” Sadie agrees:

The ideal is to wear a scent in one’s own home and surroundings before deciding. The most difficult place to buy a perfume is in a busy perfume hall with all those different smells going on. Ask for a sample to take away, but at least try it on the skin and leave it for more than 10 minutes to experience how it develops and reacts on your skin.

“At The Burren Perfumery we spray a favourite perfume on the customer’s skin and send them off to the herb garden for a while to let it settle in the fresh air,” she says.

If you’ve fallen in love with a friend’s perfume, take the time to spritz it on yourself before committing. “The same perfume is very different on different people, depending on your skin chemistry, what you eat and even your stress levels at the time,” Sadie explains.

The most important thing to remember? Have fun! Explore all the different scents and choose one that makes you happy. “Wearing a fragrance is something really personal,” says Emma. “You can create a wardrobe of scent, picking and choosing depending on your mood, whether it’s something for a casual weekend, an evening out with friends or a holiday. It’s an intimate choice and an experience.”