The Perfume Handbook: Fragrance FAQs

fragrance perfume glossary of therms

Agoratopia shares its know-how on everything you ever wanted to know about fragrance in this Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) on fragrance. How can you find your perfect perfume? What’s the best way to take care of it? Where should fragrance be applied to get the most out of every spritz? Most people do not necessarily know these things, so we’ve put together answers to dozens of the questions we’re regularly asked.

If you still can’t find what you’re looking for, don’t hesitate to contact us or come and visit our boutiques.

Perfume Shopping

It can be difficult. “Finding the right fragrance is almost as hard as finding the right man,” complained Allure magazine. You may feel that there can be no logic in your choice of perfumes because your sense of smell is so emotional, but the fragrances you most enjoy will probably belong to just one or two of the fourteen different fragrance families. Like most good things, it takes a little effort to find a new perfume that is just right.

Start by understanding the difference between the fragrance families. Explore the Fragrance Wheel & Olfactory Families here.

Preferably, no more than three at a time. Although you will find your sense of smell tires more quickly from similar fragrances than fragrances of very different character, you risk confusing your sense if you test more than three different scents at one time.

Your physical make-up can have an impact, but there are many, many exceptions… This is a very broad rule-of-thumb… Blondes with fair skin may find they are happiest with rich florals, as their skin may have a tendency to dryness, and subtle/citrus fragrances will evaporate quickly. Brunettes often have medium/dark skin which tends to contain higher levels of natural oils, allowing scents to last longer; they may find orientals work well. Redheads tend to have fair and delicate skin, and sometimes this turns out to be incompatible with perfumes dominated by green notes.

Blotters, also known as scent strips or mouillettes in French, are used by perfumers in the process of creation and by consumers in order to test a fragrance (as an alternative to applying it to one’s skin).

Fragrances are designed to react with the skin’s heat so blotters only reveal a glimpse of a fragrance’s character. However, they allow you to test a wide range of fragrances as you’ll have unlimited cards. The only barrier is your nose’s tolerance, which can become overwhelmed with nasal fatigue over time.

No. When you sniff an open bottle, your nose inhales the sharp bite of alcohol and the volatile top notes. A fragrance needs your skin to come alive. It blooms as it reacts with the warmth of your body to create a fragrance that is unique to you.

Apply a few drops or the lightest spray to your wrist or the back of your hand. Don’t just sniff a flacon because perfume comes to life only on your skin. Wait a few moments. Give the fragrance time to bloom on your skin, to let the notes ‘talk’ to you.

These descriptions are used to identify the strength or concentration of oil in a fragrance. The concentrations can vary from fragrance to fragrance but here is an average guide. In general, the higher the percentage, the higher the price – but be aware that different concentrations may also have different notes in them, and not simply be weaker or stronger. So when you like a fragrance, we suggest you explore its different concentrations:

  • Extrait de Parfum (20-40%)
  • Eau de Parfum (15-20%)
  • Eau de Toilette (7-15%)
  • Eau de Cologne (3-7%)
  • Eau Fraiche (1-3%)

Other fragranced products concentrations are: After Shave (2-4%), Perfumed soap (2-4%), Perfumed body cream/lotion (3-4%), Perfumed candle (10%). For detailed information on fragrance concentrations read The Handbook: Perfume Strengths & Concentrations.

Designer fragrances are what you will see in most stores. These fragrances, made by companies like Armani, Chanel, Burberry, and other designer brands. These fragrances tend to be mass-produced, and are designed for mass consumption. They are made for a wide-reaching audience. They also tend to be made from cheaper materials to save costs and enable volume production.

Niche fragrances are made from more expensive/higher-quality ingredients. These are the perfumes created by industry artists, made for a more selective customer who wishes to wear something distinctively bold or unique. These fragrances will not always have the universal appeal of a designer fragrance. Instead, they accept not everyone will like their bold scents. They are sought out by the fragrance aficionado who wants to push the boundaries.

In hot weather, you may find your fragrance seems ‘stronger’ or more overpowering. This is exactly why brands sometimes offer lighter versions of bestselling scents, for the summer. Some people prefer heavier more full-bodied, comforting, almost ‘cocooning’ scents in the winter – but again, this is individual. Personally, at The Perfume Society, we have richer fragrances that we love to rediscover at around the time when we reach for our opaque tights, our socks (and vests!), switching to airier perfumes for the warmers months. Just do what feels right for you, personally – in fact, follow your nose…

Some do have the name ‘Night’, or ‘Nuit’ – which can be a clue that they’re intended for evening wear. But really, there are no hard and fast rules that have to be followed. This really is all about you. What you may want to do with a favourite fragrance, however, is choose a lighter concentration for daytime – an eau de parfum, or eau de toilette – and apply the perfume version, at night, which is basically a more intense version of the same scent.

Some perfumes – like Estée Lauder Beautiful – have been advertised over the years on a model dressed as a bride, but it would be pretty uncommercial of a fragrance house to market a fragrance for special occasions only. What many, many people like to do, though, if there’s an impending big day – a wedding, an anniversary, maybe even an awards ceremony – is to choose a new fragrance which will forever bring back memories of that important occasion. To read about how to do just that, click here.

Always, always buy from a reputable retailer or a respected name in online retail as you must have confidence the stock is not old, and is not counterfeit. Perfume has a life and must have been “looked after” properly during storage. There are many perfume “fakes” around and buying from a street vendor, anywhere in the world, is simply throwing your money away. Should you buy online? If you’ve tried a sample and you like it, certainly – but we would never recommend buying before you’ve tried. You can find fragrance samples of almost all fragrances, as well as discovery boxes available by most niche brands.

Rule #1: Your relationship matters. If you’re shopping for a family member or best friend, chances are you know them fairly well — in which case, you can pick a more bold, nighttime-appropriate scent. But if you’re not too close, a general rule of thumb is to choose something lighter, which will have less room for error. And if it’s a significant other you’re shopping for, you’re in luck: simply pick a scent that you’d love for them to wear.

Rule #2: Consider their personality. Before shopping, about the recipient’s overall demeanor. If they’re typically louder or more outgoing, they generally like to be noticed — so a bold fragrance for day or night is doable. On the other hand, someone with a shy, more quiet personality might prefer a lighter scent during the day, and a mildly rich scent at night.

Rule #3: Choose a time of day. It’s important to know when they’ll wear the fragrance.Is it for daytime, nighttime, or something more versatile? For daytime, go for something on the lighter floral side, whereas a heavier, spicy or musky scent is great at night.

Rule #4: Think about their everyday style. The more understated someone’# style, the less likely they are to go for a deep fragrance, so keep it fresh — while someone who loves sumptuous clothing will love rich notes like wood.

Wearing and Storing Fragrance

This is personal – but enough so you can smell it, and not too much that it overpowers the surrounding area. Your ‘scent circle’ should be your arms’ length and only when people come into your circle should they smell your perfume. If you’re unsure about whether you tend to ‘overdo’ your fragrance, ask a (good) friend. And take into account the occasion, too: you would certainly want to wear more for a romantic night out than to the office, or lunch with a future mother-in-law.

Perfume can last four to six hours (or even longer), depending on the ingredients – and how dry your skin is. (Perfumes dissipate much faster on dry skins, or when the air is particularly dry.) From the moment you apply: the top notes, or ‘head’ notes last around 5-15 minutes before they disappear. The middle notes last from two to four hours, and make up most of the fragrance. The base notes(very occasionally referred to as ‘fond’) usually last from four to six hours.

That depends on the type of fragrance and on your unique odour footprint, as well as the oiliness or dryness of your skin; perfume likes to ‘cling’ to oil, and perfumes last longer on oilier-complexioned people. The strength of the fragrance is also a factor, and so are the notes: deep, smouldering base notes – the woods, resins, leather and tobacco etc. – last longer. So a fresh cologne will never last as long as an Oriental. That might mean the natural oil of your skin – or it might mean, if you have dry skin, that you would do well to smooth on a body lotion or a rich cream, before applying your perfume, to give it something to ‘cling’ to.

The secret to long-lasting fragrance is ‘fragrance layering’. Build up layers of scent on the skin by using different forms of the same fragrance – perfumed soap, bath oil or gel, body lotion or cream, dusting powder and eau de toilette. Each reinforces the impact of the other to quadruple the life of your favourite scent. Layering or “fragrance dressing” as it’s sometimes called, is also a clever way to wear a fragrance that’s too overpowering for daytime use.

Not necessarily: sometimes it works out cheaper as you may find you need to use less perfume.

Keep your fragrances in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight and heat sources (such as radiators). Extreme heat or cold will upset the delicate balance of the oils and change their scent. Once a bottle of perfume is opened, use it. A spray lets in less air and evaporates slower than a bottle with a cap but even the finest essence fades with time. The best place for opened fragrance is in a closed drawer or wardrobe.

Where the skin is especially warm and where there is good blood circulation. This is because heat helps diffuse and magnify the aroma of fragrance. The “pulse points” on the body (see below) are the perfect activators for perfume. Because fragrance rises, it should be applied to several pulse points – not just, for instance, at the base of the throat. Consider the small of your back and your navel. If you prefer to have your fragrance trail you, apply it at the nape of your neck – just on the hairline – the heat and movement will diffuse the fragrance.

Inside the wrists. Inside the elbows. At the temple. Below the ear lobes, not behind. At the base of the throat. Behind the knees. And anywhere else you feel a heartbeat.

Spray about 20cm away from your skin. An even spray over a wider area will help your fragrance last longer than a generous amount in a small area. Should you rub one wrist against the other to dry the fragrance? No, because you’ll bruise the notes, dull their development.

Try the lightest spray through damp hair before you blow dry, or mist your hairbrush and comb with fragrance before use. Add a few drops of perfume to the water in a steam iron to lace clothes with fragrance, or rinse lingerie in scented water. If fragrance can make you feel so good, why not use its power?

Preferably not because each perfume is a balanced, complete creation. If you wear one fragrance on top of another, you may create a scentsation but, more likely, you’ll produce an odour.

Diffusion is the ability of a scent to reach out from your skin and surround you and others with its aura. The ability of a scent to travel through the air – its effusiveness – is the test of a great perfume.

Depending on the fragrance, from six to 18 months, if stored correctly. Once a bottle of fragrance has been opened it should be used because all fragrance deteriorates with time: light, citrus-based perfumes in as little as six months; floral scents in about a year and a half.

If you’re taking a fragrance with you on a trip, never decant it into a smaller plastic flask, because the plastic may react with the fragrance. Pack a small spray instead. Another suggestion, pack any fragrance into your carry-on rather than in your suitcase because air pressure changes in the baggage compartment may cause sprays to leak.

More Fragrance Information

All perfumes are classified by the perfume world according to their overall aroma, and the ingredients. These ‘families’ have expanded, over the years: where once there were orientals, now you may find ‘fresh orientals’, or ‘floral orientals’ – which are like brothers or sisters to the original family. For more about the different families, click here. It’s good to know which family your perfume falls into – because it is a simple fact that most of us have quite narrow preferences. But because perfumes aren’t categorised by family in stores, and there isn’t always an expert sales consultant on standby, it won’t necessarily help you.

Perfume is composed – literally composed, with different notes – to create a complex blend, from different raw materials… These include natural materials, distilled or extracted directly from fruits, herbs, flowers, blossoms, barks, leaves, twigs, roots, resins, bulbs, rhizomes, seeds, woods and more. Perfumers also use synthetics – man-made molecules, including the famous aldehydes which give Chanel No. 5 that initial ‘whoosh’, but nowadays almost any smell can be synthesised. Violet, for instance, is always synthetic, as it cannot be extracted from the plant. Musks are now mostly synthetic, because of conservation concerns. Even lily of the valley must be synthesised, because – perversely – those intensely-scented nodding white flowers will not give up their fragrant beauty to a perfumer. Many of your favourite fragrances could not exist if the perfumers didn’t weave together natural ingredients and man-made synthetic chemicals. The extraordinary skill of the ‘nose’, or perfumer, is to combine these seamlessly, to take us on an emotional and sensory journey…

Very few perfumes are 100% natural. One reason perfumers like to use synthetics is to enhance their staying power, as some of the naturals have a short lifespan on the skin, and the man-made ingredients act like a fixative.

A note in a perfume is an individual element – for instance, lemon, jasmine, rose, apple, sandalwood, and the many thousands of other flowers, herbs, spices and woods that perfumers use. Together, combining the individual notes, noses create harmonies and compositions. The language of perfumery borrows heavily from the language of music, and has never really evolved its own vocabulary.

In classical perfumery the perfumery will arrange his ingredients/notes in a pyramid shape. Top Notes/head are evident as soon as your perfume touches your skin; these are usually lighter – citrus, herbs, fruits… They are followed by the middle notes/heart notes which tend to be floral – rose, jasmine, ylang ylang. They may be sensed at the start – but really they make up the heart of the fragrance, which develops after 10-15 minutes They stay longer on the skin than top notes… Finally the base notes/fond come through, with a direct relation to the staying power of the perfume. They help slow down the evaporation of the perfume and help perfumes last longer. There’s a comparatively small range of base notes for a perfumer to work with – sandalwood, musk, vanilla, oak moss, patchouli – because only a (generous) handful last long enough on the skin to ‘fix’ the smell. NB Nowadays, in an increasingly fast-paced world, there is a trend for what’s known as ‘linear’ perfumes: a what-you-smell-is-what-you-get construction, designed to give the wearer the true, overall impression of a perfume from the get-go – which might mean the moment you stop at a perfume counter, on your way to a meeting… That perfume doesn’t then change very much, over the time it’s worn. Personally, we would always encourage allowing perfume time to develop, rather than choosing on the basis of a first impression – even with one of these ‘linear’ fragrances.


Sources: Fragrances of the WorldThe Fragrance Foundation, Luca Turin, The Secret of Scent, Richard Stamelman, Perfume – Joy, Obsession, Scandal, Sin.


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