How do you know when a fragrance is right for you?

Aitor Ocio, CK One Shock
Just because it's endorsed by a cute celebrity like Spanish soccer star Aitor Ocio doesn't make it the right fragrance for you.
Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images

Choosing your fragrance can be as complicated as choosing the right jeans. Options are overwhelming, so let's have some Perfume 101 to break things down.

Perfume, like music, is made up of notes. Your top note is the light scent, like citrus. It's the first one noticed and the first one to dissipate. The middle note is the heart of the creation and the one that comes to mind when you think of a perfume's scent; it's often a floral/fruity combination. The base note is the lingering scent like musk or patchouli.


Next, there are fragrance families. These are great starting points because people often like scents in the same families. Here are examples of the primary families:

  • Floral – popular for women's fragrances, these are great for your everyday scent or a special occasion. Versatile choices include rose and jasmine.
  • Woods – Encompassing aromas like sandalwood and patchouli, it's good for an outdoors, sporty type.
  • Fresh -- Grassy, citrus, or marine, these notes create a crisp, clean scent, good for everyday wear or a professional environment.
  • Oriental – The combination of sweet and spicy, like vanilla and musk, is a great special occasion or out-on-the-town scent.

Perfume isn't just about understanding notes or families; it's an intimate, emotional reflection of you. Master perfumer Elizabeth Barrial of Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab, in North Hollywood, Calif., says when she's creating perfumes for new clients, she prefers to interview them face-to-face to get to know them as well as possible. Questions she'll ask include their hobbies, job, favorite color, time or day, texture; fondest and possibly most horrific memories, and also their personalities: "Not only who you are but who you want to be," she says.

Barrial also asks about favorite scents. Ironically, a customer may love patchouli or juniper, but discover that in a perfume, it's not for them. She'll also ask if there are particular herbal vitamins or prescriptions the client uses as these change his or her body chemistry.

If you're shopping in a traditional department store, a well-trained sales associate will ask similar questions and use this information to steer you toward a certain family or type of scent. It's also good to let her know what fragrances you've liked or disliked in the past, as well whether this is to be a seasonal fragrance. Like fashion, fragrance preferences change with the weather, and a deep musk may not work in July.

When sampling, remember a few guidelines to avoid a monster headache or smelling like a brothel:

  1. Start clean and perfumeless.
  2. Apply scents lightly at pulse points since perfumes interact with body warmth.
  3. Don't sniff the bottle – you'll mostly get top notes and won't experience the fragrance interacting with you. If you prefer a scent strip, brush it across your wrist to gain the full effect.
  4. Give it some time – you want to get to the middle note, at least.
  5. Stop after three or four fragrances. After that, your nose won't know.

Perfume is personal, so you like what you like. An ULTA sales associate told me she once had a customer come in, wanting a scent that smelled like the incense stick he was carrying!


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Barrial, Beth. Master Perfumer, Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab. Personal Interview. August 25, 2012.
  • Bourne, Leah. "Should You Wear Perfume to Work?" February 7, 2012. (August 14, 2012).
  • Cohen, Lauren. "Find Your Best Fragrance." October 18, 2009. (August 20, 2012).
  • Contreras, Emilio. Sales Consultant, Ulta. Personal Interview. August 23, 2012.
  • Fragrances of the World. "Top 100 questions." (August 13, 2012).
  • Harper's "The Best Perfumes for Work and Play." (August 21, 2012).
  • Matthews, Melissa. "Find the Right Fragrance for You." (August 14, 2012).
  • Ministry of Fragrance. "Signature Fragrance versus a Fragrance Wardrobe." (August 13, 2012).
  • "How to find a perfume that is right fo you." (August 15, 2012).
  • "What are top notes, heart notes and base notes? Fragrance notes explained." (August 15, 2012).