How to choose a fragrance

Fragrances reflect a person’s style, personality and mood, so it’s no wonder that deciding on the right perfume can feel bewildering. Whether you like woody scents of the outdoors, feminine florals or a sensual musk, there’s an incredible selection of designer perfumes and celebrity fragrances to choose from.

Before you buy, find out which fragrance group you most identify with and read up on the main ingredients to determine your starting point. Perfumes are not just formed with one scent, but a combination of layered aromas, so it’s also a good idea to learn about top, middle and base notes to discover how fragrances work once they’re applied to the skin. Lastly, make sure you know the differences between various types of scent, from aftershaves, colognes and eau de toilette to more concentrated perfumes.

To help you make your choice, we’ve put together this buying guide with everything you need to know about perfume.

Find your fragrance personality

If you’re new to perfume or looking for the perfect gift, it can be difficult to know where to start. But, in fact, everyone has a fragrance personality, you just need to identify it before you make a purchase. Prepare by thinking about everyday scents that you – or the person you’re buying for – like, whether it’s crisp linen fresh from the line or the sultry, spicy aromas of burning incense.

Try to match up a signature scent with your lifestyle and look: energetic, adventurous people might want to obtain fresh, zesty fragrances, while those who like injecting a bit of glamour into their outfits might suit a warm-scented, vanilla-based perfume.

Special occasions and social events often invite scents that you would not normally wear on a day-to-day basis. Fragrance gift sets or collections offer the ideal solution in this case as they give you different perfume options for varying days, moods and even seasons – also a good bet when buying for someone you don’t know very well.

Here are a few of the main fragrance groups or ‘families’:

  • Floral: Some of the most popular women’s perfumes are floral in aroma – think Britney Spears’ Curious and designer perfumes like Daisy by Marc Jacobs and Chanel No. 5. Typical ingredients include magnolia, rose petal or hyacinth. Choose this type of fragrance if you want something sweet, feminine and infused with vintage-style romance.
  • Fougere: Fern scents or those under the French term ‘fougère’ tend to feel more masculine and turn up in woody men’s fragrances and colognes, with top notes of lavender and oakmoss inspiring strong associations with natural greenery. Paco Rabanne Pour Homme was one of the first fragrances for men to be classed as fougère.
  • Chypre or green: Another French classification, meaning Cyprus, these scents often blend patchouli, labdanum and bergamot and they were named after Francois Coty’s early-20th century collection. More contemporary, ‘green’ women’s perfumes can be a little sweeter and fresher, but still smell leafy and bring the outdoors to mind. Try DKNY Be Delicious for a free-spirited fragrance
  • Oriental: Sensual and musky, Oriental perfumes are perfect for nightwear and often have a passionate base note, with exotic spices like cinnamon, cardamom and pepper and a little bit of mystery thrown in. Dolce & Gabanna The One is a good example of this fragrance group.
  • Oceanic: Bridging the gender gap, designer offerings such as Davidoff Cool Water call to mind ocean spray and fresh breezes by the shore, while more feminine options include Dior Dune Eau de Toilette. These usually contain notes of peppermint, sea sandalwood or fruits like watermelon.
  • Citrus: Balancing citrus fruits like mandarin, grapefruit and bergamot – the original essential oil of the first Eau de Cologne by German perfume house Farina – these fragrances tend to be zesty. Great as part of your morning routine, spray on when you want to feel energised – citrus scents are good all-round, casual perfumes and they generally provide pleasing gifts.

Determining top, middle and base notes

Perfume experts often talk about top, middle and base notes when referring to perfume, just as wine connoisseurs refer to tasting notes in their favourite tipple. In fragrance terms, this mostly means the length of time certain elements of the scent last on your skin, or the three levels of scent that make up each full-bodied fragrance.

Top notes are the ones that you’ll smell as soon as you spray or dab the perfume on your wrist. These light aromas determine most people’s idea of what a fragrance smells like, but they also dissipate quite quickly (within 5 – 30 minutes), so that’s why it’s important to test a perfume for longer when you’re buying, to pick up on the other notes beneath.

Middle notes are actually the molecules identifying a fragrance as floral, woody, Oriental or any other classification, hence why they’re often called ‘heart notes’. It can take a while after you’ve applied the scent to really notice them (around half an hour) but they form the main body of the fragrance and should create a smooth transition to the final base notes.

Base notes last the longest of all, but will typically only be picked up once the top notes have evaporated. Heavier and more distinct, these scents stay on the skin for hours, during what’s called the ‘dry-down’ stage.

All of these different layers are still affected by one major factor though: you. Perfume will smell unique when it’s on your skin, as the ingredients will mingle with your personal chemistry and create a very subtly different scent.

Tips on buying fragrances

There’s a huge range of expensive and cheap perfumes, designer aftershaves and eau de toilette products available for every preference now, but the categories can be confusing if you’re not sure what you need.

  • Aftershave for men is often scented, but it’s an astringent and often a soothing balm as well, so it’s main purpose is to close pores and heal cuts after shaving.
  • Eau de cologne has no antiseptic properties like aftershave and is purely for scent, though it has the lowest concentration of essence, containing just 2 – 5% essential oil.
  • Eau de toilette means a concentration of 5 – 10% essence and it lasts longer, but can be re-applied throughout the day without overpowering.
  • Eau de parfum is typically 10 – 15% pure and it is a bolder option, but still lighter and more subtle than perfume.
  • At anything from 15 – 40%, perfume has the highest volume of essential oil and should be used sparingly.

Even if you’re buying online, it’s still important to test on your skin to find your favourite perfume. Try not to use any scented bath or body products before you head out, as this can interfere with the ultimate odour of the perfume once you apply it. Pick up in-store samples that you can take away with you, or test there and then by dabbing or spraying on pulse points such as your wrist or neck. Wait a few seconds before smelling the top notes.

Give it another ten minutes to allow the heart notes to develop and, to be sure, you should try wearing a scent for several hours, to see whether you like the more durable base notes. If you still enjoy the perfume after wearing it all day, then it will be an investment.