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Develop Your Sense of Scents: A Guide to Women’s and Men’s Fragrance

BY: Aimee Algas Alker | Mar 4, 2019

Woody, floral, gourmand—we help you discern the notes that make up women’s and men’s fragrance so you can find what you like

Who doesn’t like to smell great? But start strolling or scrolling through a purveyor’s perfume offerings, and it’s easy to get stymied by all the options. So however can you choose a scent you’ll like?

Describing a women’s or men’s fragrance is rather complex, but if you take a tip from perfumers and use their jargon, it helps to simplify things. Perfumers identify perfumes with specific categories that classify their scent. We’ve created a list below, which is extensive, but is by no means comprehensive, and you’ll likely see overlap. For example, is vanilla “gourmand” or “oriental”? This list should help you identify scents you like and those you’d 86 in a heartbeat, so when you’re perusing the aisles, you’ll know what you’re looking for.

Aquatics

The scent of saltwater in the air, the brisk ocean breeze—aquatics are described as “marine” notes. Because of this, they remind people of summer and being at the beach.

Examples: water, salt, seaweed, sand

Best for: casual weekends

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Animalics

Rich, musky scents, often characterized as sultry or earthy, they were once derived from animals, but today are typically synthetic. Far from smelling like wet dog, these fragrances have sweet undertones and are thought to trigger primal attraction, much like pheromones.

Examples: musk, amber, leather

Best for: date night, especially when blended with something woodsy

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Aromatics

Aromatics are akin to aromatics in cooking: herbaceous and often spicy. They’re often described as sensuous, and used in many men’s fragrances.

Examples: cinnamon, coffee, pepper, lavender, sage

Best for: casual weekends or date night, depending on the intensity

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Types of Fragrance

How long does perfume last? That depends on the formulation and how concentrated it is, which dictates the fragrance’s intensity. Different formulations will have a dramatic effect on the concentration and longevity of the scent, which in turn affects how to apply it properly.

Here are the formulations, from most to least intense (and from longest- to shortest-lasting):

  • Perfume (or parfum)
  • Eau de parfum
  • Eau de toilette
  • Eau de cologne

Citrus & Other Fruits

Sunny and bright, fruity scents lend delicious notes to a fragrance.

Examples: orange, bergamot, lemon, apple

Best for: casual weekends or work

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Florals

Flower scents are the classic fragrance—and can be the most simple and unobtrusive.

Examples: rose, lily, gardenia, sweet pea, jasmine, peony

Best for: wearing to work

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Gourmands/Sweets

Cupcakes, cookies, ice cream—these fragrances should remind you of dessert, and who doesn’t like to smell yummy?

Examples: vanilla, sugar, caramel, chocolate, maple syrup

Best for: casual weekends

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Composition of a Fragrance

A complete fragrance is made up of individual scent notes. Like a symphony, the final product is not merely the sum of its notes, but the way those notes interact with each other. Scent notes fall into one of three categories:

  • Top notes: what you smell immediately. Top notes are often sharp and distinct, lasting anywhere from a few minutes to an hour after application.
  • Heart notes: the lingering, most noticeable, and most characteristic notes. Hearts are often smoother and mellower than the top, and generally last four to six hours.
  • Base notes: often warm and slightly sensual (think woods, amber, vanilla, and musk), base notes come to the fore slowly, possibly many hours after the fragrance is applied.

Greens

Fresh-cut grass, a steamy greenhouse—”green” fragrances are sharp, refreshing scents.

Examples: green tea leaves, juniper, clary sage

Best for: wearing to work

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Orientals

Much like a steaming cup of chai or a burning stick of incense, these scents are often described as heady and sensual, and include spices and wood scents

Examples: patchouli, vanilla, cloves, masala chai, curry, sandalwood

Best for: date night, especially when blended with something woodsy

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Woodsy

Sniff a freshly sharpened pencil, and you’ll get the idea. Many men’s colognes have a woodsy element.

Examples: cedar, oak, vetiver, spruce, eucalyptus

Best for: date night, especially when blended

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