Perfume 101 - The Scent of Beauty

Reviewed by James Brann, M.D.

The sense of smell is one of the most potent of the human senses. As the stories tell, scent alone can cause an onion to taste like an apple. Olfactory stimulus can conjure up images and bring back memories, even suppressed ones, linked to similar smells. Therefore the sense of smell is very closely tied to our emotional centers and by extension factors largely into our ideas of beauty and attraction. Such explains the appeal of perfumes, and justifies them as a critical element of a woman's cosmetic wardrobe.

However, what exactly are perfumes, and what are the differences between those we regularly see at the stores? Also, with the seemingly infinite array of options available, how does a woman choose the right scent or scents for her, or perhaps as a gift? Several factors contribute to a woman's selection of the perfect smell, and are largely tied to the image she wishes to portray, the mood she is in, and her overall personality. A good place to start in helping you decide on your scent is by describing the different manifestations of "perfume", and how they vary based on the particular ingredients.

The first means of categorizing "perfume" is by breaking it down into several different classifications based on the concentration of the actual scent vs. the alcohol content. While many question the necessity for the inclusion of alcohol, without it the scent would evaporate too quickly rather than bonding with the body's natural oils and emanating from your skin. The percentage of perfume oil itself is what determines how well it holds its potency, and whether it does so for a worthwhile duration of most of the day, or whether it instead lasts for a matter of only an hour or so.

The classifications are as follows:
  • Perfume: 15-30% oil. The most expensive, perfume usually lasts up to 6 hours. It is packaged in small bottles, and should be used sparingly.

  • Eau de Parfum: 8-15% oil. When accurately classified an Eau de Parfum contains a higher concentration than Eau de Toilette, although some companies use these terms as synonymous.

  • Eau de Toilette: 4-8% oil. Typically for everyday use, and reasonably priced, the lighter scented Eau de Toilette lasts between 2 and 4 hours.

  • Eau de Cologne: 2-5% oil. Usually inexpensive, Eau de Cologne typically lasts up to 2 hours maximum, and is available in some sort of spray bottle.

  • Splash Cologne: 1-3% oil. The extremely informal version of perfume, splashes or sprays tend to be very inexpensive, short-lived scents.

The scents themselves fall into five traditional categories, plus and additional category of more contemporary origin, some of which contain sub-classifications popular enough to almost constitute a separate category. The selection of the primary category of scent is a matter of personal preference, deciding what scents appeal to you, but how they actually smell when worn is something that only trial and error can tell you. Time of year, mood, and level of stress can all affect body chemistry, and thus determine how the perfume will smell on each person. Never select your own perfume based on how the same one smells on another person, as you can almost guarantee that it will smell different, sometimes significantly so, on you.

With that said, the categories are:
  • Floral: Usually containing a combination of different floral scents and intended to appeal to the true romantic, Floral also has a prominent subcategory known as Florential which is versatile enough for day or evening wear. Common ingredients include violet, carnation, rose, and lily, while Florentials include more exotic flowers such as freesia, jasmine, orange flower, moon flower, and gardenia, with strong undertones of musk, sandalwood, amber, and apricot.

  • Fruity: Traditionally the category known as "Fruity" is comprised of warmer fruit scents, however the subcategory Citrus tends to include lighter aromas. Common ingredient include warmer fruits such as peach, apricot, apple, mandarin, papaya, pineapple, and passion fruit, which the Citrus subdivision adds elements like lemon, lime, grapefruit, and tangerine.

  • Chypre: Woodsy or mossy scents, Chypre is a good choice for a lover of the outdoors. Common ingredients include lavender, sage, patchouli, and oakmoss.

  • Fougere: Often used in men's fragrances, Fougeres are often referred to as Greens. Composed of grassy and herbal scents, and tend to be refreshing and crisp. Common ingredients include rosemary, juniper, pine, lavender, and hyacinth.

  • Orientals: Heavily scented, and best for evenings, special occasions, and cooler weather, Orientals contain scents that fall into subcategories of spicy, woodsy, exotic florals, and musky. Common ingredients include amber, vanilla, woods, resins, cloves, vanilla, cinnamon, and ginger.

  • Oceanic: Composed of scents reminiscent of water, Oceanic perfumes are a contemporary addition, are light and airy, and are intended to represent smells of things that cannot be naturally bottled. Thus common ingredients are synthetic, but meant to simulate things like ocean spray, mountain air, or clean linen.

As previously mentioned, selecting a perfume scent is an extremely personal process, and should be done carefully. When selecting a perfume for yourself, keep the following in mind. Each perfume has several distinctive scents ("notes"), top, middle (or heart), and bottom notes, each of which manifests itself at different times subsequent to the initial application. Take the opportunity when trying out perfumes to wait for each of the notes to become apparent rather than making your decision simply based on the top notes. Also, be certain to test the perfume on your skin rather than on a paper test strip to allow yourself proper evaluation of how it will react with your body chemistry.

When buying perfume for a gift, it is impossible to gauge with complete accuracy how the perfume will react with that individual, thus expensive perfume purchases are not recommended unless the person has told you what he or she prefers. Therefore consider other things when buying gifts. Beautiful or interestingly shaped bottles can turn even a mismatched scent into a charming decorative piece or collectors' item. Purchase scents in lower concentration versions, or perhaps in home fragrances or shower gels, so that the chemical reaction will be eliminated or minimized. If the person ends up loving the fragrance, he or she can choose to purchase it, or request a more concentrated version of the perfume as a gift at a later date. Consider the individual's personality and lifestyle, and determine how those factors correspond with what you have learned about the different types of perfumes available. Lastly, you can choose to enlist the aid of a professional at a perfumery for suggestions, although avoid letting that person talk you into an expensive purchase without first making certain the gift will be a success.

An individual's scent can be one of the most potent (and primal) statements that he or she makes, therefore be in control of yours. Perfume can help you express your personality, so choose a small variety that compliments each of your moods. No more are the historic days of perfume as a compensation for poor hygiene, today's perfume constitutes a conscious statement to the rest of the world. Like seasoned wine connoisseurs, informed and practiced perfume shoppers can appreciate the subtleties of notes and categories, and use this knowledge to describe themselves to the rest of the world through an immensely powerful vehicle: the human sense of smell.