Perfume Genius: An Intro to Fragrance

I recently learned of yet another type of crap I can spend ridiculous amounts of money on: fragrance! I have had perfume for a long time, of course, but up until a month or two ago I had only known about the basics regarding scents and about whatever products I saw in Sephora or department stores. Then I discovered this whole new realm of crap called “niche fragrance,” and learned that everything I knew about perfumes thus far was hella basic and that there is so much more out there that is way more interesting and unique (not to mention pricey). In the course of my self-instruction on all things nice and smelly, I realized there is a lot of lingo thrown out there that we plebs tend to just glaze over and not actually comprehend what we are reading. Here, I elaborate a bit on what you are looking at when you are checking out scents.

Perfume, Eau de Parfum, Eau de Toilette, Eau de Cologne: What’s the Difference?!

This movie/book is vaguely related to the topic at hand and the guy is sniffing something.

If you thought all perfumes were just liquids that smelled kind of nice, you would be correct, technically, but you would also be vastly oversimplifying things. It turns out that there is a method to the madness behind all the different names on perfume bottles: “perfume (extract),” “eau de parfum,” “toilette,” and “cologne” all refer to the concentration of aromatic compounds in a solvent (which itself is usually comprised of ethanol and water). Perfume (aka perfume extract or “extrait”) is the most potent formulation, with 15-40% (usually 20%) aromatic compounds; eau de parfum (or “eau de perfume”), between 10-20% (around 15%); and eau de toilette, 5-15% (typically 10%). Needless to say, the stronger the formulation, the more intense the scent.


In perfumery, the component scents that make up a fragrance are described as “notes.” The smells that emerge over time are designated as top, middle, or base notes. Top notes, also known as “head” notes, are the scents immediately perceived upon application; middle, or “heart” notes, are the compounds that form the body of a fragrance, emerging just prior to the fading of the top notes; and base notes, which, together with the middle notes of a perfume, make up the body of the scent.

More gratuitous use of One Direction gifs.


Perfumery has its own lexicon for describing the component scents of a fragrance; as such, reading about a perfume can pointless, not to mention frustrating, if one does not know what the hell is being referred to. Here are the definitions (from the glossary of the wonderful site The Perfumed Court) of some words commonly used in more intricate or upscale perfumery (which I myself had not been aware of until I looked them up, to give you an idea):

Aldehyde: A highly-reactive chemical compound made by oxidizing different alcohols to make resins and organic acids.
Chypre: Chypre is an ancient perfume, originally combining fresh citrus notes with oakmoss and some animalic notes. The Romans used to produce a perfume in Cyprus, the Greek Island; Cyprus in French is Chypre. It contained storax, labdanum and calamus and smelled heavy and Oriental. It continued to be manufactured throughout the Middle Ages in Italy and then in France, with oakmoss at its base. About 100 years ago, Coty made his famous Chypre fragrance in 1917 that was based on the contrast of a citrusy top note and the pungent, earthy oakmoss base note. The main ingredients of a Chypre are oakmoss, patchouli, labdanum or clary sage, with the addition of floral middle notes such as rose-jasmine and a bright sweet top note of bergamot or lemon. In order to qualify as a classic chypre, the basic cord must always be bergamot-oakmoss-labdanum. Today, however, many “modern” chypres do not share this accord and are classed as “mossy woods” in the Michael Edwards system. Pronounced: sheep-ra.
Galbanum: A gum resin that imparts a “green” smell.
Labdanum: An aromatic gum that originates from the rockrose bush. The sweet woody odor is said to mimic ambergris and can also be used to impart a leather note.
Oud: Sometimes spelled oudh or aoud. The Arabic word for wood. In perfumery it usually refers to wood from the agar tree.
Vetiver: A grass with heavy, fibrous roots, which are used to distill an oil with the scent of moist earth with woody undertones.


Fragrance is best applied to pressure points and/or places where there is a lot of blood flow. Behind the ears, the base of the neck, wrists, insides of the elbows, backs of the knees, and in the cleavage are good places to spritz. Putting on lotion or vaseline to wherever you plan to spray perfume may also help it last longer, as you are giving the scent something to stick to.

There you have it: a primer on all things nice and smelly! Go forth and spend lots of money on inventive perfumes!

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