There’s a lot more to finding the right fragrance than simply wafting it under your nose. Here with a complete beginner’s guide, we break down everything you need to know about shopping for a good scent.

Scent has meaning. Extensive research has delved deep into the emotional and psychological connections between a lone whiff and our ability to recall the past – whether that’s a devastating love affair, a mother’s gentle touch or the scorn of a teacher you couldn’t stand. More importantly, however, scent has a powerful sway over our emotions, leading us to form inherently closer bonds with those whose odor we find irresistible.

For all those reasons, how you smell plays an important part in who you are, whether you’re aware of it or not. While it may not be as immediately apparent, the way someone smells lingers far longer in the senses than the outfit they wore or the hairstyle they chose, and getting it just right can leave a powerful impression on those people you encounter each day.

Before you begin to dive into finding the right fragrance for you, it’s important to note that many scents smell different depending on the skin type they are applied to (dry, oily, prone to sweat, etc.). Because of this, trying on a fragrance before you purchase is absolutely essential, as is understanding the differentiations within the product itself…

To begin with, every scent has top, middle (or heart) and base notes. The combination of all these notes together is known as the “accord.” Due to evaporation, alcohol content and a number of other factors, a fragrance will smell slightly different over time; this is known as its “longevity.” In most cases the top notes will hit first, but often won’t linger in the same way a powerful base would. Most professionals use the terms “Fresh,” “Woody,” “Oriental” and “Floral” to describe the four scent families, and the spectrum of how our noses interpret a smell.

On top of the notes that go into a fragrance, there’s also four different strengths, or gradations, that effect how intense the aroma is. These tend to increase in price as with strength, correlating to the percentage of essential oils in each formula.

Eau de Cologne was invented in 1709 in the German city of the same name. Much like Champagne, true Cologne must originate from its eponymous region in order to be deemed authentic. Nevertheless, in the United States in particular, vendors have taken to designating most men’s fragrances cologne (with a lowercase “c”), owing to their weaker concentration of between 2-5% perfume oils. This configuration means the top notes in these fragrances will be the most prominent, and the scents themselves will last only a few hours.

Next up is eau de toilette – a name many falsely translate as “toilet water” in its most literal sense. In actual fact, toilette was the name given to the ensemble worn by the French aristocracy in the courts of the 18th century, which eventually came to mean the process of preparing oneself for polite company. Eau de toilette was a key part of this, splashed on the body or clothes for a more pleasant aroma. Nowadays, it is said to contain around 5-10% essential oils, and can be reapplied throughout the day without the overwhelming sensation of smelling like an Abercrombie & Fitch store.

Eau de parfum contains 10-15% essential oils and can last five or more hours at a time on one application. Middle notes flourish here, as the scent has a greater longevity, allowing the top notes to dissipate and reveal a more complex undercurrent. Eau de parfum is typically the strongest gradation you are likely to find at a conventional fragrance counter, and while some might consider this a staple of women’s fragrances, that’s far from the truth. Many popular men’s scents like Bleu de Chanel or Tom Ford Private Blend come as eau de parfum.

Lastly, perfume is the finest, most expensive and strongest formulation available, with essential oil content ranging anywhere from 25-40%. Perfume has a significant depth of scent, can last a full day on one application and allows the wearer to experience all three levels of fragrance. It should be applied sparingly and, in contrast to its high concentration, is intended to be a far more subtle aromatic experience. This, indeed, was a product originally created for and marketed to women, yet nowadays many brands are creating true perfumes designed explicitly for men. What’s more, James Dean was famous for choosing to wear a women’s perfume as his trademark scent, proving gender really is little more than a construct when it comes to what smells good.

When it comes to physically applying a fragrance, there are many myths and items of misinformation regarding the “correct” way to get the most out of your perfume. First off, while most people believe your “pulse points” (inside the wrist and behind the ears) are the best place to apply scent, on account of the fact the heat will aid their dispersion (or “sillage” according to the French), this is actually not such a good idea.

The insides of the wrists come into regular contact with all kinds of things that can dull or taint the scent of fragrance (watches, desks, mousemats etc.), while behind the ears there are oily glands that can sour the intended aroma. Applying perfume to the backs of the hands or arms and the front of the neck will offer a far more consistent olfactory experience. Likewise, there is no real reason to avoid applying scent to clothing, aside from the fact you might need to wash it before you’re able to wear it with another fragrance.

Whatever you do, however, don’t rub your skin after applying perfume to “activate” the scent. All you are doing is heating it up prematurely and eliminating the top notes, effectively reducing its longevity and removing an entire facet of its overall accord. Also bear in mind that the human nose has an uncanny ability to acclimatize to scent, and that just because you can’t smell something on you, doesn’t mean others can’t. Dousing yourself so thoroughly that you reek is never a good move. Trust in subtlety; a little goes a long way.

Stay tuned for our coverage of the most iconic fragrances.

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