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.