Living Well: 11 Secrets to Choosing the Perfect Perfume

February 6, 2013

Text and Images by Lindsey Johnson for Design Mom.

You’ve probably met a handful of people in your life whose scents have stayed the same for so long that they’ve somehow become part of their very essence. Your mom, who smelled of vanilla and dark chocolate. Your boyfriend-turned-husband who smelled of whichever Ralph Lauren cologne was current and cool. Your ballet teacher who smelled…French. Signature scents are more than pretty; they’re your calling card to everyone you meet and comfort for everyone you love. Finding yours is our goal today. I know it’s out there, and I’m going to break down the basics of perfume to help you sniff out the perfect scent for you.


Before you head to the counter, here’s a little guide (and some terminology) that will help as you’re choosing a perfume and keep you focused on what you want amidst ever-spritzing aromas!

Perfume Terminology (or ABCs)

Absolutes

Pure, natural extracts and oils from flowers and other vegetable materials. Very expensive for a small amount. Example: pure rose oil.

Note
An odoriferous element in the perfume or cologne. When we smell a composed fragrance, we smell different notes within it. When the first scent — or top note — dissipates, we smell the middle note, also known as the bouquet. As that fades, we are left with the basic note, which is the third element of a composed fragrance. It’s like a symphony, right? Secret Number One: Don’t commit to a scent until you smell the final note.

Eau de Cologne
Eau de Cologne is three to five percent oil in a mixture of alcohol and water. It tends to be lighter and refreshing, typically with a citrus oil component.

Eau de Toilette
Containing about the same amount of perfume oil or a little more — somewhere between four and eight percent — than Eau de Cologne, Eau de Toilette is mixed with alcohol instead of water.

Eau de Parfum
A higher percentage of perfume oil — roughly 15 to 18 — mixed with alcohol makes up Eau de Parfum. It is more expensive than Eau de Cologne and Eau de Toilette.

Perfume
Perfume is 15 to 30 percent perfume oil mixed with alcohol. Because it contains such a high percentage of perfume oil, it is far more expensive than Eau de Cologne, Eau de Toilette, or Eau de Parfum.

You’ll also hear other terminology from your helpful scent-spritzer to describe scent families. For a woman, these will be citrus, fresh, floral, oriental, sweet, spice, or wood. Fragrances for men include those and also other more masculine scents like leather, tobacco, musk, and mosses. Secret Number Two: Learn which scent family you enjoy the most. You’re going to be spending a lot of time together!

Fragrance Families for Women

Fragrances are classified according to predominant scent characteristics. Let’s get to know the four basic families that make up most feminine fragrances. Dividing them up this way helps you decide which scents you love and which ones you’d rather avoid. As you’ve shopped for perfume, chances are you’ve probably seen the different notes listed for a particular scent; those coordinate with the family to which the composed scent belongs.

The official fragrance family chart was updated in 2010 — Did you even know there was an official fragrance family chart? Me, neither! — to include four basic fragrance families: Floral/Sweet, Citrus/Fruity/Fresh, Oriental/Spicy, and Woody/Chypre. Within those families, there are sub-groups. Aromatic Fougère, a masculine scent family, used to be its own category, but was recategorized as a sub-category in the 2010 change. It has notes of lavender, fresh herbs, and moss.

Secret Number Three: Keep a few different perfumes from different fragrance families. It’s kind of lovely to switch up your signature scent  according to season, occasion, or mood that day! Floral and Sweet for daytime, and perhaps an Oriental/Spicy scent for date night. In cooler weather, stronger scents can be worn without overwhelming everyone around you. Conversely, lighter scents are better in warmer weather. Think of how summer smells like fresh cut grass and scoops of vanilla ice cream. December smells like evergreens and gingerbread. You can evoke those same wonderful emotions and memories with your own aroma.

Floral

Think bouquet of freshly cut flowers. Rose, carnation, lavender, orange blossom, violets, and every other bloom on the front lawn. Floral is the most widely used scent in feminine fragrances. Very sweet and easily recognizable.

Citrus/Fruity/Fresh

Orange, lemon, lime, grapefruit, and other citrus fruits. Apricot, apple, peach, etc. Clean, light, and invigorating.

Oriental/Spicy

Warm vanilla, spices and incense resins. Reminiscent of the Far East. Also ambery and musky. Kind of mysterious!

Woody/Chypre

Scents like bergamot, oakmoss, labdanum, and patchouli. Mossy and very earthy smelling.

Choosing The Perfect Perfume

Perfumes and colognes are made up of many different accords to produce a harmonious scent. Because our body chemistry is unique to us, the same perfume will smell slightly different (or completely different) depending on who is wearing it. Further, it will smell different in the bottle or sprayed on a card than it will on your skin. Secret Number Four: Spray it on a card first. After five or ten minutes, smell it again. See if it still speaks to you. Then and only then, spray it on your skin.

Secret Number Five: Take your skin type into account. Is your skin dry or oily, or in-between? If you’re drier, the scent will dissipate more quickly. And so a highly concentrated perfume will have more staying-power for you than an Eau de Toilette.

Where a scent is placed on the body also effects how long it will last. And because fragrances are made up of those different notes or layers that wear away with minutes and hours, the scent you are wearing will change as time passes. As I mentioned earlier, wait until the fat lady sings. Or, more accurately, wait until the fragrance evaporates! Secret Number Six: Our sense of smell is keener as the day wears on and also in warmer weather. Shop later in the day so you can truly and best smell the different perfumes.

Secret Number Seven: Don’t try out a bunch of different perfumes or colognes at a time, no matter how persistent your spritzer is! Spread it out over a few different trips to the perfume counter. Have you noticed how perfumeries have tiny jars of coffee beans scattered here and there? Take a sniff. It serves the same purpose as sorbet between dinner courses and cleanses your palate — or olfactory perception — in between scents.

If the task of choosing a perfume for yourself seems too daunting, take a fragrance finder quiz beforehand, or enlist the help of a knowledgeable salesperson who will help answer all of your questions. And refrain from from sending you back out into the world smelling like a spring garden watered (or flooded!) generously with patchouli and frankincense.

How To Wear It

If you are using heavily scented deodorants, lotions, or powders, it will interfere with perfume and alter its scent and lasting power. Secret Number Eight: Once you find your scent, choose complementary toiletries that will coordinate perfectly and never clash.

Secret Number Nine: For optimum performance, perfume should be applied to your pulse points: center of the neck, behind the ear, inner wrists, and behind the knee. If you place perfume in one or more of these places, you won’t have to reapply it during the day. For a lighter scent, try spritzing the perfume into the air and walking through it. And try to only spray perfume on bare skin as there is a slight possibility of it staining clothing.

Secret Number Ten: To keep perfume lasting longer on your skin, rub a bit of petroleum jelly on your skin where you place the perfume. Or apply it immediately after showering or bathing when skin pores are open and will be absorbed more intensely into the skin.

As for Secret Number Eleven? It must be said. Don’t overdo the spritzing! You don’t want to be the one who walks in a room to be met with scrunched up noses. Or coughing.

I hope these tips will help you find your one true signature scent! Do you already have one? Please share, and tell us all about its notes and family, will you? Also, I’d love to hear your own memories of the best-smelling people in your lives! Oh, how I wish blogs came with a scratch-and-sniff feature!

P.S. — Love secrets? Find all the Secrets to Living Well posts here.

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{ 42 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Val February 6, 2013 at 8:15 am

Wow! What great information in this post! I have never chosen a signature scent before, but with your information I realized that I really like citrus/fresh scents in the spring/summer and more woodsy scents in the winter. I can’t wait to take this new info to the perfume counter and figure out what really works best for me. Thanks so much!

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2 Lindsey Johnson February 6, 2013 at 10:31 am

Hooray! So glad this can be useful to you. :)

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3 Rebecca Alexis February 6, 2013 at 8:24 am

Perfect. Just the advice I needed to smell more loverly! xo

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4 Lindsey Johnson February 6, 2013 at 10:32 am

Thanks, Rebecca!

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5 Maria @ the Paris Busy Bee Blog February 6, 2013 at 8:32 am

not only good advice that i am going to eagerly re-read as soon as i get a minute, but the photography is superbe!!!! wow! so so pretty, i can almost smell the different perfumes! way to go lindsay, you never cease to amaze us!

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6 Lindsey Johnson February 6, 2013 at 10:33 am

Thank you, my sweet friend! You live in the perfect place to perfume shop. :) The first real perfumerie I visited was in Mont St. Michel. I bought my mom some Tresor. It was heavenly. Thus began my love affair with fine perfume.

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7 Shannon { A Mom's Year } February 6, 2013 at 8:52 am

So much great information! And it made me smile, thinking about signature scents. My mom wears Lancôme–she loves it, but it’s also the only perfume she’s not allergic to! Calvin Klein’s Eternity is fantastic on my husband. :)

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8 Lindsey Johnson February 6, 2013 at 10:34 am

I love Lancome! Oh…Eternity. I had a boyfriend in college that wore that exclusively. Such fun memories!

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9 Carina February 6, 2013 at 9:12 am

Great post! I have the same scent in both toilette and parfum forms (I use one for every day and one for special occasions.)

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10 Lindsey Johnson February 6, 2013 at 10:36 am

The bottles in the Oriental/Spicy section are my matching parfum and eau de toilette. I wear it all the time in the fall and winter. I love having it in two forms.

You always smell nice, what is your favorite scent?

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11 Kelly February 6, 2013 at 11:37 am

I love perfume too much to have 1 signature scent. My 2 reliable go-to’s: Jean Paul Gaultier Original, and Flower, by Kenzo. (But I own many more!)

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12 Valerie February 6, 2013 at 11:57 am

Very detailed! I’m in love with Angel which was a passed down love from my mother. I’m now going back and forth trying to decide what category it falls in as there is definite chocolate to it and definite orange. Mmmm, it’s divine.

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13 Lindsey Johnson February 6, 2013 at 12:08 pm

Hi Valerie! The perfumes that smell like desserts (!) belong to the Gourmande sub-category, or I’ve seen it as its own category also. I’ll bet it is divine! :)

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14 Rebecca February 6, 2013 at 1:26 pm

Reading your post has nudged me again to try and find something that’ll work. Sadly, I have no idea why, but my ‘unique chemistry’ is disastrous it seems. I have tried many perfumes, eau d’ whatevers and have never had anyone say, ‘Hmm! What fragrance is that, it’s divine!’ I only get wrinkled noses :-( I actually have been thinking about googling a swab test service for fragrances. It’d help folks like me…

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15 Heather June 21, 2013 at 8:04 am

Rebecca, me too! Let me know if you find anything out. I know here in London there is a shop that will find a perfume for you. Not sure how they do it maybe I will investigate and let you know.

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16 Stefanie February 6, 2013 at 1:30 pm

Fracas by Robert Piguet. It is just heavenly – I think it is Floral Oriental – tuberose, jasmine, orange blossom, musk, cedar, sandalwood. Just an explosion of sophisticated aromas. And I love the no nonsense bottle.

I also like Hermès Calèche for when I want to feel like a grand old dame (but I am only 32!). I imagine it is what all of the fancy ladies who carry Birkin bags and wear fur coats must wear although it does smell a little like a grandmother (albeit a fancy one with lots of diamonds!). I think it must be a Floral Chypre – it has a nice soapy, powdery quality to it, I think that is due to the aldehyde. Or maybe I like it because my husband bought it for me without the need for a special occasion and that was the first time he had ever given me that kind of gift…so when I wear it, I think of him.

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17 Karen F February 6, 2013 at 1:38 pm

great post – I especially love the photography – these pictures are SO beautiful!
My signature scent is Ginger Essence by Origins – I guess that would be in the spice family?

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18 Karyl February 6, 2013 at 1:47 pm

Thanks for this post! Didn’t know the petroleum jelly trick, that’s new to me, can’t wait to try. I love clean scents–L’Occitane’s Green Tea and any of their Citrus Verbenas. Also Elizabeth Arden Green Tea.

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19 Lindsey February 6, 2013 at 2:04 pm

This is completely awesome! I have wanted a calling card scent for years and I have such a hard time perfume shopping. I have a lot of allergies and it can be hard to find one that doesn’t make me wheeze! :( Michael Kors is my absolutely fave, but it definitely makes me a bit wheezey. Boo. Thanks for the tips. I’ll definitely be using them. :) xo

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20 Bryony February 6, 2013 at 3:33 pm

Such a nice post: it’ll make me give more thought to the next scent I buy.
Sadly, I lost my bottle of Lanvin’s Eclat d’Arpege over the holidays! :( I bought it as the scent I wanted to wear for my wedding and when my first bottle ran out, my husband replaced it for me as a birthday present. It has lilac, wisteria, peach blossom, osmanthus, and cedar notes according to the website.

Some of my favourite scents are the Calvin Klein my grandfather always wears and my husband’s Boss by Hugo Boss. That last one always makes me think of London and late nights trying to miss the last Tube home!

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21 Pam December 4, 2013 at 8:12 am

I have so enjoyed reading this blog. I used to wear my mother’s Arpege when I’d go on dates in my teens (I’m 60 now – but still a teen at heart sometimes). I’ve often thought I’d like to get a bottle and now your post reminded me of it all over again. God bless you ladies!

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22 Amy February 6, 2013 at 4:04 pm

When I was very young (middle school into early college), I ALWAYS wore a simple lilac oil (I think it was from the Body Shop :) and I remember how it used to make me smile when people would say “I walked by a lilac bush and it made me think of you.” I’ve since stopped wearing any perfume, but I do so love the idea of a “signature scent.”

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23 Bek February 6, 2013 at 5:16 pm

This is great. I have signature scents that evolve. I used to love Hanna More… Then moved on the Angel ( smells of chocolate) and lately it’s been Flower Bomb. The one fragrance that I smell, love and then ask what it is is Light Blue. Might be time for a new one. Perfume is fun!!

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24 Emily February 6, 2013 at 8:27 pm

I have been using lacoste touch of pink for years. It is citrusy and to me smells clean and fresh. These are great tips and I think I might start to change it up for different seasons

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25 Alexis February 6, 2013 at 8:36 pm

Interesting. Found on Pinterest and learned much. Love the scent of Angel but only when it’s worn on other people. Is that strange, when I wore it, it gave me headaches. I lean towards woodsy most so the time but do mix it up here and there.

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26 Cari February 6, 2013 at 9:33 pm

I’ve had a really hard time finding a new signature scent since Armani Sensi was discontinued. Any tips on other similar scents?

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27 chrissy February 7, 2013 at 4:04 am

every year for my birthday, i shop for a perfume.
sometimes, it defines that year and i move on with the memory of having
worn it for (fill in the blank) occasion.
other years, i buy the same as the previous year several years in a row.
(i wore bulgari eau de the for many years)
this year, i bought tom ford’s tobacco vanilla and i think this may be my signature scent! it’s only been a week, but i am completely in love with its unique and warm smell.

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28 Danielle February 7, 2013 at 5:06 am

I’ve been wearing Tiare by Comptoir Sud Pacifique for 15 years. Everyone says it’s my signature scent. I never meant to have one, it’s just that I wouldn’t wear anything else. It is the most perfect eau de parfum for me and I feel so lucky I found it. It’s hard to find in the states but we discovered a little apothecary that carries it in Cambridge, MA.

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29 Kelly February 7, 2013 at 5:59 am

Awesome list of tips, thank you!

That reminds me – I found out a year or so ago that my favorite perfume was discontinued. ACK. So I set up a watch on eBay and it FINALLY popped up!

I paid $42 for the tiniest bottle imaginable, but it’s so worth it.

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30 Jenny February 7, 2013 at 10:40 pm

For my 30th birthday I was determined to find a signature scent for myself that my husband was not repulsed by because that is something one should have at 30, no? I ended up with Bond no 9′s High Line and I call it “better smelling Clinique Happy for people over 18 “. I was convinced everyone would compliment me on how fantastic I smell now and I’ve had maybe one compliment on it the past 7 months. Maybe I need to use more of it? Or less? Or stand closer to people? I I love it regardless.

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31 Kate The Great February 8, 2013 at 8:05 pm

This post brings out a whole new world to me. I’ve always been drawn to darker scents than my friends. I remember in high school, the perfume I loved the most was something that all the other girls cringed at. None of us knew any of this terminology, so all I got from them was , “Ugh, that’s too strong.” I suspect now it was a woody scent or an oriental scent.

All this makes me want to take my favorite scents– sample vials of perfume, watered down over the years, or nearly full bottles of perfume, rarely used because I don’t want to run out– to a perfume counter in a department store and ask for a consultation using these terms.

The only other scent I’ve found that I love is lavender, although I’m drawn more and more to lemon.

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32 Melissa w February 11, 2013 at 2:37 am

Bravo! Such a great post! I learned so many new things!

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33 Bonnie February 12, 2013 at 11:41 am

I LOVE Avon’s Secrets to Keep perfume, and a lot of other people think it wears off too quickly. However, I think it’s still there but your brain blocks it out so it doesn’t become distracting. I like perfumes like Secrets to Keep because it doesn’t have an overly floral/musky scent.

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34 Adrienne March 21, 2013 at 12:29 pm

My signature scent since 5th grade is Must de Cartier. It smells awful out of the bottle, but 15 minutes on my skin and it changes to a delicious musk. It is rather dark and rich, so these days I only use it in winter. Top Notes: Mandarin, Neroli, Galbanum. Middle Notes: Rose, Jonquil, Jasmine. Base Notes: Vanilla, Vetiver, Musk. That said, I always come to the same notes for my warm season perfumes. If you want to know what notes are in your perfume, to help find that essential perfect YOU: check out basenotes.net. Their explainations can help you recognize what note haunts you in all your favorite perfumes, so that you can find the one perfume that has it all!

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35 Tonette June 13, 2013 at 5:16 am

Hi Gabrielle. This is a very beautiful and useful post for us women who is fond of perfumes. I learned from your secrets, thank you. I’ve chosen a photo of yours form my perfume hub and link back to you. My friends would very much love to learn these secrets, as well. Thank you once again and more power to the lovely mom in you. Hugs :=)-Tonette

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36 Jasmine August 23, 2013 at 6:07 am

I have a few scents that I wear. These scents depends on my mood, the season, and the weather. My main scent is musk/woody. I have not used it in many years. The second scent is spicy and third scent is between citrus/floral. I just started to rewear my musk and my new husband does not like it and my children (17 and 18) who never been around me when I did wear musk, likes it on me. Now the questions are it because of his nose? Or should I ditch the musk?

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37 pomysł na album ślubny September 6, 2013 at 4:25 pm

You’ve made some decent points there. I looked on the web to
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38 Dana Buchmiller September 16, 2013 at 4:42 pm

I loved your post so much that I included it in my “Link Love” post here: http://colorfulglamour.wordpress.com/2013/09/16/blog-posts-im-loving-2/
- Dana

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39 Kerri October 5, 2013 at 12:39 am

Great post!! I am an admitted “smell good” addict. My husband is constantly complaining about the dozens of perfumes and body sprays cluttering our bathroom cabinets, but I just cannot help myself! For several years now, I have been plagued with the loss of my absolute favorite scent: Magnolia Blossom by Bath & Body Works. It was my signature scent–literally the only fragrance I wore, until it was discontinued by B&BW. According to a couple of Internet pages, top notes were peach blossom and pear; mid notes were magnolia petals, honeysuckle, jasmine, and rose; base notes were amber, musk, and white sandalwood. The product can still be found on eBay, Amazon, and the like, but the perfume or body spray will cost you no less than $100. Since the devastating news that the fragrance line was being discontinued, I have been searching far and wide for a comparable scent. To date, I have been totally, frustratingly, unsuccessful. If anyone familiar with the scent has any advice, or alternatives, you have my full attention. I am going to check out the basenotes.net page referenced in a comment above. However, if anyone else has any advice as to an alternate fragrance to try, based on the notes listed above, please let me know.

I have always described my fragrance preference as “clean,” “powdery,” “fresh.” After reading your fantastic post, I understand I lean more towards soft floral and aromatic fougere. Some of my favorites are “Inner Grace” by Philosophy (“clean” is the best way to describe this scent–very much “fresh from the shower”), Cashmire Mist by Donna Karan (powdery) , Very Irresistible by Givenchy (this is the scent on which I most often receive compliments), Daisy by Marc Jacobs, Brilliance by Jessica McClintock (very floral–this scent is much more rose-scented than my norm, but I have inexplicably loved it from the start), and Heavenly by Victoria’s Secret (old go-to from my college days that I have just recently begun wearing again). Glad to know there actually are people out there as fragrance-oriented as I am!

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41 Maria December 30, 2013 at 3:45 am

I applied the same principle finding my signature scent many years ago and finally found my way to Coco Chanel. I love it and it loves me. I wear it day and night, summer and winter. But my secret is one short spray after my shower, never ever heavy. I like my perfume to be only noticeable when someone is close enough to kiss my cheek – and they always comment how lovely my perfume is.

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42 Amelia January 1, 2014 at 8:26 pm

This is such a helpful post! Thanks so much for sharing. And the pictures are so pretty too!

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