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!

How to choose your next fragrance

Fragrance shopping can be great fun, but it’s often frustrating. Among all the brands, sales staff, and celebrity ads, how can you find the ultimate bottle for you?

I’ve been pondering over this recently, and have ranked nine ways of shopping based on how useful and enjoyable I find them.

The first step is always to ask yourself some basic questions like “What I want to get out of this experience – a great end goal or a fun journey?”, “What mood of fragrance am I after?”, “How much am I willing to spend?”, and the like. This will set you up for a good start. Then pick one or more of the following, which are ranked from worst to best.

9. Shop with your eyes (a.k.a. the Instagram method)

I kind of hate this method – as a perfumer, smell is virtually all that interests me in a fragrance. However, for those of you who need some gorgeous bottles for Instagram, there certainly are some great ones out there. A few that come to mind are Guerlain’s gorgeous (and very expensive!) Bee Bottles, or anything by Chanel or Louis Vuitton. There are Frederic Malle and Byredo for the minimalists, and Comme des Garçons for the avant-garde. Plenty of options – just google ‘beautiful perfume bottle brands’. The biggest problem is that if you’re shopping for pretty bottles, you’re probably going to store them wrong (e.g., on a sunny bathroom windowsill – see my article How to store fragrances properly).

8. Blind buy online

Don’t do this. It’s just a frustrating and expensive way to get buyer’s remorse. Even the recommendation of a good friend isn’t enough to go off. Please try things in person before you buy them, even if it means buying samples online (see number 6 below).

7. Submit to the wiles of sales staff

This is particularly an issue in many department stores, where staff are encouraged to push newly-launched products regardless of customer tastes. If you’re tired or disinterested, you might end up buying something you don’t like just so you can make an easy exit from the shop. However, as someone who used to work in sales, I know that not all salespeople are like this (see number 3 below).

6. Buy samples online

If you’re an introvert who doesn’t mind spending money deciding what fragrances you like, this method’s for you. It provides an easy way to get your hands on samples of virtually any fragrance on the market, rather than being limited to the free samples handed out at stores. The benefit of samples is that you can wear something for a few days in a row to see how you like it in different weather and during different activities. And you can ask for others’ opinions if you want them.

5. Shop alone, without any staff help

Because I take such a long time in perfume shops, this is the way I usually shop. Two tips for this method, as well as a few others: Firstly, unless I genuinely believe I’ll be buying a bottle, I don’t normally take up the staff’s time. It’s also good to take bottle caps off and smell the sprayer before actually spraying it on a blotter or your skin, so you don’t end up wasting perfume and annoying the staff – particularly if blotters are in short supply.

4. Shop with a friend

This is a classic way to shop for fragrances, and definitely one of the most fun.

3. Let sales staff help you (if you’re in a nice store)

If you’re in a good perfume store (usually independent ones, or brand boutiques), your best bet is probably to let staff assist you – after all, they probably know a lot more about the products they sell than you do. If they get overly pushy, just say you’ll browse by yourself for a while. And like I said earlier, don’t waste staff’s time unless you’re actually in the market for a new fragrance.

2. Join a local fragrance group

Make use of these groups’ vast collections of samples and broad knowledge by signing up for fragrance events. Search Facebook for things like the name of your city followed by ‘fragrance’ or ‘perfume’. This is a big investment of time for a simple purchase, but I can almost guarantee that it will yield the best result for you, and you might make some great new friends along the way.

1. Blind smelling with a supportive friend

There is one method that transcends all others in its delightfulness and effectiveness, supposing that all you’re after is your ideal scent. Simply take a friend shopping, and have them spray a heap of tester strips without telling you what’s on each one (I recommend bringing a pen and writing under the papers). Eventually you’ll find something you adore, at which point your friend will tell you what it is. Presto – your new favourite fragrance!

    At the end of the day, you should shop however you see fit, but I hope you found this list useful. And as far as which shops, websites, and boutiques to shop at, I’ll leave that for another day. Subscribe to my newsletter below and I’ll keep you in the loop.

    How to store fragrances properly

    Some luxury goods, like gold and diamonds, require very little care day-to-day. However, the vast majority do require special treatment – wines need cellars, cigars need humidors, and leather needs conditioning. Why, then, do people treat their fragrances, their olfactory message to those around them, with reckless abandon, constantly exposing them to heat and light? Here’s how to store fragrances properly.

    Firstly, the single worst place to store fragrances is also one of the most common – the dreaded bathroom windowsill. Many a beautiful perfume has withered into a nose-scrunching mess through months or years of innocent bathroom windowsill storage. Wearers often don’t notice the subtle change until they buy a new bottle and smell them side-by-side, but even then, rarely seem to spot the cause.

    What’s wrong with my bathroom windowsill?

    Perfume bottles look so elegant sitting on a windowsill, which makes it all the more unfortunate that they simply can’t stand that level of heat and sunlight. There’s a proper term for this – photodissociation is a process where photons (i.e. visible or invisible light) break molecules apart, changing chemicals’ structure. Ultraviolet rays from the sun are a particularly strong example of this. The problem with photodissociation is that fragrances are made of dozens, hundreds or even thousands of chemicals, whether natural or synthetic (see my article What are fragrances made of?), and molecular changes alter these chemicals’ smells. Additionally, bathroom temperatures change a lot due to showers.

    An experiment

    Over the past month, I conducted a series of experiments on Creed Aventus and Santa Maria Novella Melograno (don’t worry if you aren’t familiar with them – the experiment would have worked with most fragrances). I stored 0.5mL bottles of them in both my freezer and on a west-facing windowsill where they regularly experienced full afternoon sunlight. The control samples for the experiment were my original full-size bottles, which I always keep in a dark cupboard at a temperature of between about 15°C and 25°C. Additionally, I had a fourth pair which I moved in and out of the freezer every 48 hours to test whether temperature fluctuations had a negative effect. After one month, these were the results:

    Fragrance testedFreezerFreezer – alternatingWindowsill
    Creed AventusCompletely unchanged.The citrus (bergamot) note is perhaps a tiny bit weaker, though I may be wrong.Aventus was severely changed, to the point where it was almost unrecognisable, smelling of chlorine and pickled olives.
    Santa Maria Novella MelogranoCompletely unchanged.Completely unchanged.Melograno was completely unrecognisable, and it smelled so bad that I actually recoiled when I tested it – it now smells like mouldy carpet and turpentine. Absolutely horrible!

    It’s worth noting that a month isn’t long enough to properly test the effect of low temperatures on fragrances. The good people at perfume.org (which hasn’t been updated in years) asked some experts at The Fragrance Foundation whether fragrances should be stored in the fridge. Their response was that only colognes and eau de toilettes should be refrigerated, while eau de parfums (I’ll explain the difference in a future post) should be kept cool but not that cool, as their notes are more delicately balanced.

    But Ethan, my fragrances haven’t changed in the sun like you said they would

    Perfume companies often put preservatives and ultraviolet filters into their perfumes to help combat the effects of people storing them incorrectly. However, these aren’t a perfect defence against photodissociation, and don’t guard against temperature changes. Synthetic molecules also tend to be more forgiving when it comes to poor storage conditions, so cheaper fragrances, which don’t smell as rich or interesting, essentially have less to lose. It doesn’t matter how you store synthetic flowers, but they’ll never look as good as a bouquet fresh from the florist.

    Osmothèque and cold storage

    There is one place that’s made a fine art of long-term perfume storage. Located in Versailles, France, Osmothèque is the world’s largest perfume archive, storing over 3,000 fragrances spanning the past 2,000 years (the older ones are modern recreations from ancient formulas). Normal fridges are too cold for long-term storage — Osmothèque keeps theirs at 12°C, whereas most household fridges operate at around 5 degrees or less. Osmothèque also injects argon into the bottles, as it forms a layer across the surface of the liquid and prevents evaporation and oxidisation. Additionally, they decant everything into amber glass bottles to further reduce the impact of light. Because of the issue with temperature fluctuations, I recommend only storing fragrances in the fridge if A) they’re vintage, or you want to keep them for decades, B) they’re really large bottles you decant from (i.e. 500ml or more), or C) you live in a hot climate (regularly above 30°C). And keep in mind what I mentioned earlier about different types of fragrances and refrigeration. Honestly, for most people refrigeration just isn’t necessary.

    The best place for your fragrances is on you

    The general shelf life of a fragrance in the real, non-refrigerated, world is only a handful of years. But even when stored in the most optimal conditions, they still won’t last indefinitely. What I’m trying to say is that the best way to make sure they smell good is just to wear them before time runs out – enjoy your ephemeral treasures before they’re gone.

    How to apply fragrances properly

    There’s a lot of nonsense and marketing out there about how to apply fragrances, which can make the whole affair quite confusing. However, this doesn’t need to be the case, so I’ve put together a definitive, expert-backed guide.

    I’ll start with the most common mistake people make…

    Don’t rub fragrances into your skin

    It’s not moisturiser! Lightly dabbing oily perfumes between your wrists is okay, but don’t cause friction by rubbing as this makes the top notes evaporate too quickly.1 The more physical rubbing technique is a leftover from the era when more highly concentrated, non-spraying perfumes were the norm. Because they were applied by dabbing the cap on your wrists rather than spraying, it was easier to just apply to one wrist and then transfer this to the other wrist and the neck. Such perfumes, with their higher ingredients costs, were also quite expensive, so conserving them in this way was commonplace. If you do have one of these, read on…

    Apply to the right places

    Here are the reasons why you should or shouldn’t apply to different areas:

    Wrists: Honestly, this is an all-round great place to apply your fragrances, as it’s low enough that warm air will bring it to people’s noses (and in the case of stronger perfumes, it’s not too close to yours), and it gets a lot of air circulation. If you find the perfume isn’t smelling quite right, though, try it on your upper forearms, where it is less likely to be in contact with things like tables and mouse pads.2

    Neck (below the ears): This is another good place to apply, as it will be noticed both by others walking near you, and by those at a more intimate distance. If you have oily skin, though, then the back of your neck is likely a better place (unless you wear pearl necklaces, which are very sensitive to perfume).2

    Hair: This is a controversial one, with a lot of support from perfumers but little from beauty editors or salespeople. The issue is that the alcohol in fragrances can dry and damage hair if used too much, but the benefit is that this method increases fragrance longevity and diffusion, particularly if you have long hair. Spraying directly works, but applying it to your hairbrush and then running it through your hair is the best way, so long as you only use one perfume on each brush to prevent mixing.3

    Clothes: You need to be careful here, as some fragrances will stain, particularly with extended spraying over time. Things like woollen scarves, shirts in dark colours, and jacket linings all work well, but avoid things like printed silk scarves, as the colours can stain or fade.4,5

    Chest: Due to its being directly below your nose, your chest is the best place to spray if you wear fragrances for your own benefit. You’ll enjoy getting lovely wafts of olfactory art throughout the day.

    Inner elbows and knees: These are best in really hot weather where scents rise so quickly from your neck and wrists that no one gets the chance to smell them. They’re also good if you’re wearing weaker fragrances and need to spray more than just the usual places, or a really strong one and don’t want it to be in your face all day (in which case opt for just the backs of your knees and nowhere else).

    All over: Some people like to spray a cloud of fragrance into the air and then walk through it glamorously. Like the inner knees and elbows, it’s a good way to wear stronger fragrances to maximise their projection, but unlike them you’ll be smelling it all day.2 And do avoid getting stray perfume onto things like timber (flooring, furniture and the like), as it will damage the surface if done often.

    Perfume jewellery: This is more of a left-field one, but it’s particularly relevant in cases where you want extreme fragrance longevity or for whatever reason can’t apply the fragrance to your skin. Some people get bad skin reactions to certain fragrances, but wearing them on perfume jewellery solves this problem. You can find these online in the form of necklaces, bracelets, rings, earrings, and pretty well any other jewellery you can think of. They come with absorbent stone or ceramic pieces that absorb any fragrance you spray onto them.

    Not sweaty places like armpits: I shouldn’t have to explain this, but sweat and perfume don’t mix. Think of it like this: When you buy a new toilet freshener spray, you like how it smells. But over time you grow to find it unpleasant, as you learn to associate it with the bad smells it is always mixed with. This is how people will remember your fragrance over time if you’re not careful.

    Don’t spray too much, or too little

    It is said that Napoleon Bonaparte used 12 litres of perfume every month. Cost aside, I wouldn’t recommend this kind of reckless perfuming because no one will want to be near you. Not spraying too much is a really important lesson that I think most fragrance-wearers understand, but it’s still worth mentioning. Pumping too much of your olfactory taste into the world is seen as an assault by some (there are whole books on the subject!), so tread carefully. Big brands want to encourage more spraying to boost sales, but generally four sprays is enough, though for weaker fragrances more is usually fine. And regarding too little, this is something I still find myself doing from time to time – you do want others to notice your scent, after all. If in doubt, take a bottle along with you in your pocket or bag (refillable mini atomisers are fantastic for this), and reapply once or twice a day, particularly if the weather is hot.

    Spray at the right time – ideally soon after showering

    Just after showering is the best time to apply, as your skin is moisturised and your pores are open, allowing the fragrance to absorb better and leading to better longevity. However, do not make the mistake of storing your bottles in the bathroom, or risk having them destroyed by heat and humidity. Alternatively, applying a matching or unscented moisturiser before spraying the fragrance will also do the trick.6

    Wear a scent appropriate for the occasion

    Like clothes, perfumes should be chosen with the occasion in mind, as well as who you will be with. For example, For example, By Kilian fragrances (sweet, rich, intoxicating) wouldn’t suit a board meeting, and I wouldn’t recommend Terre d’Hermès (citrus, woody, office) on a date. If in doubt, think of how the fragrance is marketed – it’s generally a good indicator of what kind of settings the it’s designed for.

    Only layer if you know what you’re doing

    Most people don’t layer their fragrances, but those who do bear a responsibility to the world around them, because bad blends can smell genuinely horrible. Mixing fragrances from the same family is usually best – for example, two gourmands work better together than a gourmand and a fougère (generally, anyway).7

    Well, there you have it! Go forth and enjoy the confidence that proper fragrance technique brings you. And if you’ve got a funny story about breaking these rules, or I missed something important, let me know in the comments.

    1 Molvar, K. (2018, December 10). 5 Mistakes Most Women Make When Wearing Perfume—And How to Fix Them. Vogue.

    2 Vosnaki, E. (2012, January 13). Frequent Questions: How & Where to Apply Perfume Effectively. Retrieved from Perfume Shrine: https://perfumeshrine.blogspot.com/2012/01/frequent-questions-how-to-apply-perfume.html

    3 Sullivan, K. (2012, February 8). Valentine’s Day at Home: Perfumer Frédéric Malle on Romantic Scents for Your Place and Yourself. Allure.

    4 Carre de Paris. (2016, February 7). How to Care For Your Hermes Carre. Retrieved from Carre de Paris: https://carredeparis.me/2016/02/07/how-to-care-for-your-hermes-carre/

    5 Gabiano. (2016). Caring For Your Beautiful Silk Scarves. Retrieved from Gabiano: https://www.gabiano.com.au/t-productcare.aspx

    6 Rozwadowska, F. (2020, September 28). Vaseline (and 10 Other Surprising Tips) to Make Your Perfume Last Longer. Savoir Flair.

    7 Forti, M. (2020, July 31). Goldfield & Banks Dimitri Weber Interview | Max Forti Podcast Ep. 06. Retrieved from YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cow_Gj5peTc

    What are fragrances made of?

    Picking up a bottle of perfume or cologne at a department store, have you ever wondered what’s actually in it? I’ve asked a bunch of people about this, and answers range from essential oils, to chemicals, to answers closer to the truth. Well, I’ve made a list that’s about as exhaustive as possible, though do let me know if I’ve missed something. Here’s the list:


    Usually ethanol but occasionally oil, this makes up most of what’s in the bottle – usually between 80 and 95 percent. It costs almost nothing to produce, but is necessary to dissolve and preserve the other materials, as well as to dilute them and prevent overly-strong odours and potential fabric staining.

    Synthetic molecules

    These are individual molecules that are created in laboratories from raw materials such as petroleum, lanolin, and pine wood. Most fragrances are primarily made of synthetic materials, owing to their stability, consistency between batches, low cost, flexibility, and ease of use in production. Natural materials contain hundreds of types of scent molecule, and so are more complex to combine, while synthetics are lab-made and are composed of just one molecule each. It’s kind of like the difference between painting and découpage, the former allowing for complete control but more work than the latter.

    Essential oils

    Less common than synthetic molecules because they cost more and are harder to work with. They are extracted from plants by steam distillation, which involves passing steam through fresh or dried plant matter to extract their volatile scent compounds. Essential oils can also be extracted through cold pressing, which is essentially just squeezing the plant matter and then waiting until the oil rises to the top of the juice. The term ‘essential oils’ may conjure images of bad health advice and not-quite-pyramid-schemes, but fear not, perfumers by and large don’t care in the slightest for theories of these oils’ supposed healing abilities or mystical qualities. It’s an industry that approaches fragrant art with a very scientific attitude, so you can rest assured that essential oils are only being used in the pursuit of olfactory pleasure.


    Due to their high cost, these are rare in most fragrances you’ll find at a department store, but will often be present in pricier niche perfumes. They’re extracted using solvent extraction, which involves mixing plant material in vats of a solvent (such as hexane), allowing the solvent to draw out the aroma compounds in the plant material. It also draws out substances such as pigments and waxes. At this point, the solvent is removed using vacuum processing, leaving a waxy substance known as a concrete. The concrete is then stirred into alcohol, which the aromatic molecules dissolve into, leaving the other substances behind. The alcohol can then be evaporated off in a low-pressure chamber, leaving the absolute.


    As mentioned above, these are a stage in the absolute extraction process. Because the wax won’t dissolve in alcohol, these are useless for standard perfumery, though they are sometimes used in soap making and solid perfumes.


    These don’t require any extraction, as they occur naturally in the form of sap oozing out of tree trunks. Examples are myrrh, frankincense, and benzoin. For the sake of consistency between perfume batches, they are often refined to remove impurities, but other than this do not require any processing.


    These are made by soaking a natural material (e.g. vanilla beans) in alcohol for a period of weeks, months, or longer. They aren’t used much because other methods of scent extraction are faster and more thorough. However, they still have a place in the independent perfumer’s palette because they are more subtle than essential oils and have a slightly different smell. Some can also act as fixatives, helping make top and middle notes last a little longer. Within this category is an interesting material called ambergris, an exceedingly rare material which for hundreds of years was found in lumps on beaches without any evidence as to what it was or where it came from.

    Carbon dioxide extractions

    Some natural materials lose their smell when exposed to high temperatures, which means that steam distillation isn’t possible. CO2 extraction is rather more technically complex than the other extraction methods, so I think it deserves its own post. Like absolutes, the cost of these mean they are not commonly used.


    This is probably the most labour-intensive way to extract oils from flowers and is only used on the most delicate blossoms. It works using a method called enfleurage, where flowers are placed gently on glass trays covered in animal fat for around one to three days, after which the fat is mixed and the flowers are replaced with fresh ones. This is done many times before the fat becomes saturated with the oil. It is then mixed with alcohol until the oil leaves the fat and infuses in the alcohol, at which point the fat is removed. This is more of a traditional method of extraction, and is so costly that basically all perfumes using extraits will mention the fact to drive customer interest and sales.

    Preservatives & other functional materials

    Preservatives and UV filters are often present in fragrances to protect against incorrect storage, such as keeping the bottle in the bathroom.

    In the end, what matters most is that the perfumer handling the materials is an expert. Quality ingredients alone won’t create a masterpiece, just as expensive paints in the hands of a child rarely yield positive results. I’ll write more in the future about the techniques that perfumers use when creating fragrances, but hopefully I’ve satisfied your olfactory curiosity for the moment.