Know Your Fragrance Notes

woman using perfume
All perfumes, even the most basic ones, blend three scents, or "notes."

Even if you consider yourself a complete perfume idiot -- even if you couldn't tell Chanel No. 5 from Shalimar if your life depended on it -- you probably know that perfumes are made of more than one scent. You won't find too many perfumes (at least none you'd want to actually buy) that consist entirely of sandalwood oil, for example, or patchouli.

You might not know, however, exactly how a fragrance is constructed. All the different scents aren't thrown together willy-nilly into a big pot and then funneled into dainty glass bottles. No, there's a science -- an extremely exact science -- to it, one that some people spend large chunks of their lives perfecting. We can't go into all the details in this article, but here's the general idea: All perfumes, even the most basic ones, blend three scents, or "notes."


The top note, which might last a couple of hours, is your first impression of the perfume. The heart notes are the foundation of the fragrance, and this lasts a couple of hours longer. So by the time only the base notes are left to linger, the perfume could (and probably will) smell 180 degrees different than it did at first.

There's really no limit to how many ingredients can go into each note. The specific arrangement of the base note, heart note and top note -- and their reaction with your skin -- is what gives a perfume its own personality and causes its aroma to subtly change.

On the next page we'll give you more insight into top notes.


Perfume Top Notes

As soon as you spritz a perfume onto your wrist and it reacts with your skin, you'll smell the top note, otherwise known as the opening or head note. The top note is like an introduction to the fragrance -- it might be fleeting, but it's your first impression, the first scent listed on the box, and often the selling point for the perfume. After about 30 seconds or so, you'll start smelling the middle and base notes and the fragrance will be noticeably different.

The top notes are meant to evaporate within a couple of hours, so they're usually made up of lighter oils. Citrus, herbal and lighter florals are common top notes, so you tend to notice lots of grapefruit, anise, lavender, chamomile and rose as you spray your way around the perfume department.


As we said, there's no official limit to how many ingredients go into each component of a perfume, but three seems to be the magic number for top notes -- at least that's how many are usually listed for a perfume. Chanel No. 5, a picture of which you'll find in the dictionary under "classic perfume," has top notes of ylang-ylang, neroli (which are actually more common as heart notes), and aldehydes (a synthetic compound). Joy by Jean Patou, another oldie but goodie, hits you first with peach, leafy greens and those aldehydes again.

Once the initial rush of the top notes subsides, the heart notes sneak in ...


Perfume Heart Notes

woman using perfume
The specific arrangement of a perfume's notes -- and their reaction with your skin -- is what gives a perfume its own personality.

The middle, or heart, note makes up the core of a fragrance -- it usually comprises around half of the oil in the bottle. The heart notes are generally composed of more robust oils because they need to hold up longer on the skin. But because they're the main fragrance, they also have to win you over -- this has to be a scent you'd be willing to live with.

The heart notes usually evaporate within two to four hours, leaving the base note to react with your skin. Heart notes act as kind of a buffer for the base notes, which might not smell quite as pleasant on their own. Even if a fragrance isn't officially recognized as a "floral" or describes itself as such, heart notes are overwhelmingly composed of floral oils. Lemongrass, geranium, neroli and jasmine are common ingredients.


Because the heart notes have the responsibility of being the perfume's backbone, they're often more complex than the top notes. CK One by Calvin Klein, the ubiquitous '90s unisex fragrance, lists hedione high cis (a jasmine derivative), violet, rose, nutmeg and "green tree accord" as its heart notes. Clinique's Happy, another best-seller from that era, has heart notes of boysenberry bush flower, morning dew orchid and melati blossom.

After the top notes and middle notes have disappeared into thin air, the base notes hang in there ...


Perfume Base Notes

The base notes linger the longest on your skin -- some essential oils can last for a couple of days. While there's a wild variety of scents that make up top and heart notes (hedione high cis, anyone?), there's less diversity among base notes. This is because there aren't all that many scents that are heavy enough to stick around for as long as base notes need to.

The base notes generally comprise about 20 percent of any given fragrance. They're often from the woodsy family -- sandalwood, amber, musk and vanilla are among the most popular -- but vetiver and patchouli are common, too. As top or middle notes, these oils might be off-putting, so they need a bit of help from the heart notes to be pleasing to the nose.


You should start detecting a hint of the base note about 30 minutes after the perfume hits your skin. The "dry-down period" -- when the top and heart notes are gone -- is when the base note takes center stage. The base note's reaction with your skin is the crucial element in how the perfume ultimately ends up smelling. It's what makes a fragrance smell differently on each person, and it's also what affects your satisfaction with the perfume.

Check out the links on the next page for more information about fragrances.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Base Notes. "Chanel No. 5." (Aug. 11, 2012)
  • Base Notes. "CK One." (Aug. 11, 2012)
  • Base Notes. "Happy." (Aug. 11, 2012)
  • Base Notes. "Joy." (Aug. 11, 2012)
  • Escentual. "Fragrance: Notes Explained." (Aug. 11, 2012)
  • McAlonan, Elsa. "The 20 Best Ever Perfumes." Daily Mail, Oct. 5, 2010. (Aug. 11, 2012)
  • Perfume Shrine. "Myth Debunking 1: What are Aldehydes, How do Aldehydes Smell and Chanel No. 5." Dec. 2, 2008. (Aug. 11, 2012)
  • Totilo, Rebecca Park. "Essential Oils: Understanding Notes When Making Perfume." Heal With Essential Oil, May 25, 2010. (Aug. 11, 2012)