Have you ever wished you could tell whether you like a particular fragrance just from its description alone?To the uninitiated, the way perfume brands and expert reviewers describe fragrances can feel like a foreign language. It’s not hard to understand why. Describing a smell is not an easy thing to do, and mostly we rely on comparisons with other smells.
Perfumes and other fragrance products are purposefully designed to be complex and stimulating, with lots of strong-scented ingredients carefully layered on top of each other to create a captivating overall effect. The skill of a professional writing about this effect is first of all identifying what all the different parts are, and then explaining how they relate to each other.
But isn’t this all a bit lah-dee-dah? Do you really need to know about the hints of bergamot and accents of citrus fruit? Surely all that matters in choosing a fragrance you like is going with your nose and smelling it?
That may be the case. But that depends on actually getting to smell a fragrance before you buy. As shopping habits have changed, we’re buying more and more fragrances online. With our increasingly busy lives, finding time to browse the perfume counters at our favourite department stores gets harder and harder. Buying online is quick and convenient. You can do it any time you like.
The one drawback is you don’t get that ‘try before you buy’ experience of inhaling a wide range of samples before you make your choice.
Without being able to smell a product directly, your fallback when buying online is to go with the descriptions and reviews. And to make sense of them enough to make an informed decision, that means deciphering the unique code used by fragrance professionals to capture the complexity of scents.
What are fragrance notes?
One thing you will notice on perfume product listings and reviews is lots of talk about ‘notes’. What are fragrance notes, and how do they help you imagine what a particular perfume smells like?
To understand fragrance notes, we have to dip our toes into the science of how fragrances themselves actually work. The reason we smell anything at all is because chemical molecules reach our noses and stimulate our scent receptors. Perfumes and colognes come in liquid form. The scent comes from molecules evaporating from liquid into a gas and travelling to our nose.
Have you ever noticed that the smell of a fragrance changes over time? That’s because the different ingredients and scents in the product evaporate at different rates. We call this their volatility. So some evaporate very quickly and are more pronounced as soon as you apply the fragrance. But they also fade fastest. Some linger for longer, maybe 30 minutes to an hour. And after these fade, you have the least volatile, slowest evaporating ingredients left.
Fragrance Notes explained
In fragrance circles, these are known as the top or head notes, the middle or heart notes and the base notes. They are used to describe how a fragrance changes over time, but also the complex interplay of different aromas.
Top notes are the ones you notice first when you apply a fragrance. Perfumers choose them carefully to create a positive first impression. It’s common to choose top notes that are bright and zesty, so citrus aromas like lemon and orange, but also floral scents like rose and lavender.
As the name suggests, heart notes are the real core of a fragrance. Once the initial wake-up whiff of the top notes has grabbed your attention, the heart notes are what give you that deeply satisfying olfactory experience that attracts us to perfumes. We’re talking heady and deeply appealing aromas. Lots of strong scented florals are used as heart notes, as well as spices like cinnamon, cardamon, pepper and clove.
The base notes are not only the scents that last the longest, they also serve to underpin and compliment the other aromas. Like the bass line in a piece of music, the base notes are the foundation, they add depth and resonance. Without the base notes, a fragrance would come across as lightweight and insubstantial. Popular base aromas include things like amber, musk, patchouli, sandalwood and other ‘woody’ scents.
Putting it all together
Of course, knowing the concept of what top, heart and base notes are won’t tell you about your own preferences alone. For that, you need to experiment by finding some fragrances that really appeal to you and analysing descriptions and reviews so you can identify the different types of scent that you really like.
Some people, for example, are much more drawn to bright, rich floral aromas in the top and heart notes than other people. Others much prefer deep, musky, earthy scents found in the base notes.
The best way to understand your own preferences is to compare several favourite fragrances, and then identify the common ingredients across them all – and whether you are someone who is more drawn to zesty top notes or deep bases etc.
A great tip for doing this is to buy a set of fragrance samples and work through them, practising identifying the top, heart and base notes given in the descriptions. This is an affordable and fun way to build some skills identifying and naming scents. After a while, you’ll find you have a good enough understanding of your own preferences that you can confidently pick out fragrances you will like from their descriptions alone.