What are fragrance notes? | T3

Finding a good perfume that really suits you, your style and your personality is no small feat. It can take a good few hours of sniffing perfume test strips at perfume stores before you find a scent you really like. Even then, you won’t know until it’s settled on your skin if it’s really the right one.

One way to make this perfume research exercise easier is to understand what a perfume is made of, the different layers involved and how they complement each other, for example, knowing what the top, middle and base notes are, how they work and why they are important.

And so we speak to the Perfumery (opens in a new tab)‘s Senior Brand Manager, Hollie Race, and the founders of virtual perfumery FIAL (opens in a new tab)Samuel Gearing and Josh Carter, for more on fragrance notes – all to help you choose the right scent.

Once you’re done reading this guide and need help deciding which perfume is right for you, check out the T3 guide to the best perfumes for women and the best perfumes for men.

But first, let’s clarify the difference between all the different terms we hear to describe a perfume or fragrance.

The difference between cologne, perfume, eau de toilette and aftershave

Let’s start with the term “eau de cologne”. This is usually used as a generic word for men’s fragrances in the United States, but when used in “eau de cologne” it actually refers to a light concentration of fragrance oils, usually 2-4 %. That means it’s probably cut with more alcohol and therefore doesn’t last as long, making it less ideal for all-day wear.

Eau de toilette differs in that, although it is still a diluted perfume compared to pure perfume, it generally contains more concentrated oils, usually at 5-15%. The amount of concentrated oil affects the duration of the aroma, which can last up to eight hours in pure fragrance. A less concentrated eau de toilette will last about two hours.

According to Gearing and Carter, modern men looking for something that others will notice and that lasts better buy an “eau de parfum.”

“It’s a perfect middle ground that will last a good while but have great projection,” the pair say.

And the aftershave? Well, it’s traditionally been a scent that focuses on soothing the skin after shaving, with a pleasant smell on top of that. Yet many men in the UK still use the term ‘aftershave’ to refer to all perfumes in the same way men in the US use the word ‘cologne’.


(Image credit: Getty)

What are fragrance notes?

Simply put, “notes” are the ingredients used in the perfume. However, perfumes are made up of different notes and by understanding your scent notes you will be able to find the perfect scent every time.

“Fragrance notes are basically the different layers of fragrance that make up the final scent. These scents are divided into three distinct elements: top notes, middle notes, and base notes,” Race explains.

This composition is called “notes” because, when used in a perfume, they are more than just components.

“Each note has a different character and can be used for a multitude of reasons – to play a leading role in the fragrance, to increase its lasting quality, or to create effects and add nuance, for example,” Gearing and Carter.

Still struggling to figure out how exactly fragrance notes work? Ruth and Nic Mastenbroek, Master Perfumer and Perfumer of Ruth Mastenbroek Perfumer London say that it is easier to represent the perfume notes in the form of a triangle.

“Top notes are the tip of the iceberg and what you will smell when you first spray the perfume, while middle notes are at the heart of the pyramid; they provide much of the character of the fragrance and often encompass floral and herbal ingredients,” the couple explain.

“The base notes then provide the supporting structure at the bottom of the pyramid; the ingredients that will last the longest. It’s easy to be won over by the first spritz when you smell the top notes, but the magic lies in waiting for the middle and base notes because that’s the lasting impression that will linger.

Let’s dig deeper into what each note represents and why they are important.

Top notes

A perfume’s top notes are sometimes called opening notes or top notes because they are the fragrance notes recognized upon immediate application.

“Top notes are the lightest of all notes. Because of their lightness, the top notes are also the first to fade, but that doesn’t discount their importance,” says Race.

“Top notes are also the first impression. It may not be the most long-lasting element of a perfume, but it’s the first thing you’ll smell when trying a new scent.

Typical top notes include citrus elements (bergamot, lemon, orange peel), light fruits (anise, berries, grapefruit) and fresh herbs (basil, sage, lavender).

heart notes

Heart notes – also called heart notes – are at the heart of the perfume. This perfume layer is the base of all perfume and is known to constitute around 40-80% of the final perfume.

“The middle notes begin to appear just before the top notes fade away and will strongly influence the base notes to come,” says Race. “The heart of a perfume must be pleasant and round.”

For this reason, scents such as cinnamon, rose, ylang-ylang, lemongrass, and neroli are all common and recognizable middle notes.

Background notes

Finally, we have base notes. These notes will begin to glow once the top notes have completely evaporated. The base notes alone represent 10 to 25% of the final perfume. However, the base notes also mingle with the heart notes to deepen the complexity of the fragrance.

“Where the top notes make the initial impression, the base notes are associated with the drying period of the perfume and so the base notes will create the final, lasting impression,” says Race.

“The base notes are often rich and sweet, as well as being the longest lasting of the three notes.”

Common base notes include cedarwood, sandalwood, vanilla, patchouli and musk.

Now, if you need more help choosing the fragrance that’s right for you, check out T3’s guide to the best perfumes for women and the best perfumes for men.

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