Perfume bottle
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.

5. Does fragrance have a shelf life?
Absolutely yes: Perfumes go bad—they “turn,” as the French say—and bizarrely enough, I find that even if you have no idea what the perfume is supposed to smell like (and even if it's something as strange as a few of the Comme des Garçons perfumes), you can smell that “off” quality instantly. A perfume's life depends hugely on how you store it. Worst enemy? Light. Second worst? Heat. People tell me all the time, “I keep my scents on the windowsill because I like how they look when the sunlight hits them.” Great, but: Sunlight is destroying your perfume just as it destroys your skin. Because people do dumb things like this, fragrance companies try to help them out by putting sun-filter molecules in perfume. They'll prolong a fragrance's life, as will an opaque bottle (like the Tom Ford Black Orchid flask or the black glass of Fracas). But if you care about your Gucci Envy, you'll store it in a dark, cool place. And if you're really serious, there's only one place for it: the fridge. Just take over one of the vegetable crispers. A pound of carrots costs $1.57; your 100 milliliters of Envy ran you $85.

6. Do scents need time before they fully blossom, or are they at their best immediately after you spray them?
In the perfume section of a department store in Japan, you'll see something very strange. The Japanese dislike the way perfume changes over time, so they spray blotters at the beginning of the day, anchor the blotters under their respective perfume bottles, and by the time the store has opened, the top notes are gone and the perfume has settled down to its main story. That's what customers smell. But I think there's no right time to smell a perfume. After five seconds, you'll get the top notes; after five hours, you'll get the heart. If the perfume is good, both smell great.

7. How can I make scents last on me?
Ah, the fundamental question. You've found your true loves and now you just want them to stay. One faithfully spends the whole day with you, the other callously slips away before you even reach the office. Here's the bad news: There's nothing you can do to prolong scent on your skin. It all depends on what the French call lapersistance of the fragrance. A lot of the lighter citruses, flowers, and gentler woody scents are going to float away much faster than the heavier smoke, leather, and animalic ones. The rule is: Pretty is fleeting; heavy sticks around. Take the utterly genius Hermès Ambre Narguilé. Here's a perfume of such luscious perfection, you want to melt into it as if it were an expert beurre caramel. Ambre Narguilé will not only dance all evening with the one that brung it, it'll take you all the way home, too. But Fresh's new Sugar Lychee? You get half an hour of the ethereal, carbonated, fruity astringent loveliness—and then it's outta there. But it's a hell of a half hour. So keep the Hermès in the crisper, but put the Fresh in your bag and reapply periodically.

8. How often do I need to reapply?
As often as you need to keep the smell at perfect pitch. Hermès's 2003 Un Jardin en Méditerranée, one of the most insanely wonderful light scents in the world, disappears quickly, like almost all light perfumes. Reapply every 45 minutes. With Guerlain's 1929 Liu, a perfume of almost impossible glamour, you apply at 7:30 P.M. and when the limousine drops you off at 5 A.M., the last faint lovely traces are still on your arms.

9. Why do some people wear too much scent?
Because they simply like it strong—just as some people like the TV volume turned up high—and/or because their sense of smell isn't as acute as other people's. And the sense of smell diminishes with age, which is why older people often wear too much.

10. Can I layer light fragrances or somehow boost their scent?
You mean like wearing Bulgari Green Tea over Chanel Cristalle? What, are you kidding? Would you wear a Prada blouse over a Gucci blouse?

11. What makes perfume so expensive?
Sometimes you're paying for astonishingly wonderful raw materials, flowers and essences of rare roots and resins, and difficult-to-make expensive synthetic molecules with great scents. And sometimes you're paying for a $10 million TV advertising campaign or a bottle that turned out to be hard to make. You'll never know which.

12. Is it embarrassing to still love Chanel N°5?
Hell, no! I don't even think it's embarrassing to love Jean Naté. Chanel N°5 has remained more wearable than most, but it does show its age. This is not an argument against it. In fact, it's the opposite. There's a regal correctness to N°5 you're not going to get in a Comme des Garçons, and an edge in the Comme you won't get in N°5. Just understand what you're communicating with each one.

13. Why are fragrances classified by season? And should I change mine seasonally?
I think the classification is mostly marketing. I'll concede that there are a few seasonal scents: pine tree and cinnamon at Christmas, flowers and the scent of green stem in the spring, hay in summer, dead leaves in fall. The natural world can inform our choice of perfumes, but I'd actually argue for wearing the fragrance equivalent of a parka to the beach. Etro Messe de Minuit carries the scent of an old European church at holiday time—musty altar wood, incense, even mildew—and it might be just the thing to make everyone stop and say, “Huh!?...” on a hot day. All of Anna Sui's bursts of summery fizziness would have the same effect in the dark of winter.

14. Is it ever inappropriate to wear fragrance?
Yes, on an airplane. The best scent for a flight is a good deodorant. About restaurants: There's nothing wrong at all with a discreet perfume at dinner, and in some cases, it absolutely can enhance the meal. Hermès Ambre Narguilé is excellent for French cuisine; if you're going to a sushi place, either Bulgari's purified, crystalline Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert or Fresh Sake will be perfect. The Escada scents are great with Italian because they have a light fruitiness that graces the Mediterranean spices. Avoid Giorgio and Fracas with any cuisine; they demand way too much attention.

15. Do you think the idea of having a signature scent is dead?
Nope. But that's a different question from whether you should have one—which would mean wearing it and no other, decade in and decade out. With all the great, terrific, innovative, fun stuff out there, that's a tough choice. On the other hand, there's a seriously deep satisfaction in coming up behind someone who's wearing Guerlain Rose Barbare and saying, “I knew it was you. You always have that great smell.”

16. Can fragrance damage my jewelry?
It will have no permanent effect on silver, gold, or stones, although a layer of perfume will dull the shine. But never get scent on your pearls; it can eat away at the gems' surface.

Discover Chandler Burr's favorite scents


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