Photo: Kate Sears
Sixteen things about using, choosing, buying, and wearing fragrance you'll be very glad to know (including why some people wear too much). One part mystery, two parts seduction—even the act of applying fragrance can be gloriously provocative. A scent critic sniffs and tells.
1. When you're fragrance shopping, is it better to use those paper testers or your own skin?
There's nothing wrong with blotters for browsing (but make sure you don't touch the blotter to your nose; getting the fragrance on your skin will adulterate all other scents). Don't inhale steadily over it; lean into it, get the scent, and then move it away for a second. Repeat this several times. Wait a few moments between different scents. I don't use those ubiquitous coffee beans to clear my scent palate—they're just another smell that will fatigue the nose. Once you find a few fragrances you're ready to get serious about, you must try them on your skin. You can ask for a sample vial to take home; apply the fragrance in the morning, wear it all day, reapply in the afternoon, and perhaps at night. You're finding out how it performs, how you feel about it at every hour (and in every mood). Repeat the next day. Then, if you like it, buy it.
2. What are top, middle, and bottom notes?
It's all about molecular weight. A perfume freshly sprayed on your arm is like a box of balloons of different sizes that's just been opened. The balloons lift off from your skin; the first ones that zip up and hit your nose are the top notes, the smallest and lightest (citruses, powdery scents, or light florals). And then they're gone. Next to come off your skin are the middle notes, the medium-weight molecules (heavier florals, most often). The last to lift off (and they cling to your skin) are the base notes, the heaviest (smokes and leathers).
3. What's the difference between parfum and eau de toilette? Parfum and eau de toilette are simply different concentrations of the raw perfume—called "concentrate" or "oil" by the industry—in an alcohol solution. There's a loose rule of thumb: Perfume is a 20 percent concentrate, eau is 10 percent, but the actual percentages can vary quite a bit. As to whether they smell different: It depends. Sometimes they smell identical—and sometimes you're able to discern a notable qualitative variation. There's no science to it (or rather, there may be, but it's extremely arcane). Try both and see which works for you—and your budget (the parfums are often twice as costly, if not more).
4. Is it better to spritz or dab, and which method applies more scent?
You're asking two questions, and I'm really glad you asked the second. The first—spritz or dab—is simple: doesn't matter. At all. I don't care what the fanatics tell you. But as for the other—I suspect companies use spray heads because they want to sell more perfume. With the average spray, as much as 50 percent of your precious juice is winding up on the carpet. If that bugs you as much as it does me, toss the spray head.
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