What are perfume notes?

Someone recently asked me what the ‘notes’ in fragrances are. It’s a little complicated, but I’ll keep the answer brief.

1. Ingredients

What probably comes to mind for most people is the actual ingredients in a fragrance. This used to be mostly true in times past, when formulas were quite simple (I’m talking well over a hundred years ago). But today, accords are probably more common (see point 2 below).

Sometimes synthetic ingredients are completely abstract and not found anywhere in nature, meaning that they aren’t mimicking any natural aroma. An example is the aldehyde family of ingredients, made famous largely by Chanel’s fragrances over the years.

2. Accords

A lot of scents can’t be created using ingredients from natural sources, so they have to be recreated using a combination of natural and/or synthetic ingredients. Some examples are lily of the valley, which doesn’t produce a scented oil, and musk, which is extracted from musk deer but is now made synthetically instead to protect the species.

It’s often also cheaper to create synthetic imitations of natural materials, or sometimes this is done as an artistic choice (like to recreate the scent of jasmine without the pungent compound indole).

3. Marketing

Sometimes I will see a note listed for a fragrance that is clearly just there for marketing. These are things like ‘clean air’ (which should smell of nothing), ‘red leather’ (which smells the same as any other colour), and ‘vitamin c’ (need I elaborate?).

These notes aren’t typically added by perfumers, but rather by marketing teams who decide that they will make the fragrance more appealing to the target customer. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, as long as you know to take the official list with a bit of salt.

4. Personal interpretation

Almost every fragrance has an ‘official’ list of notes, but since they mostly aren’t linked to specific ingredients (and because the full list of notes given by the perfumer is usually too long to use in full), if your nose detects a note in a fragrance, it might as well be there.

Happy smelling!

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