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How to Know If a Perfume Is Right for You

Updated on February 25, 2019
Jayne Lancer profile image

From behind the beauty counters of some of London's most renowned department stores, Jayne advises on skin & hair care, makeup & fragrance.

There’s more to choosing fragrance than just spraying it on your wrist and deciding whether or not you like it. It takes thought, preparation and time to know if it's really right for you.


You can't decide in an instant if a perfume is right for you, because the way it smells during its first 15 minutes on your skin might be quite different to the way it smells two hours later. And it might smell very different on you tomorrow than it did today, depending on what you've eaten and which skin care products you've used.

Choosing fragrance isn't just a matter of taste; it's a skill that takes thought, and time. This article will tell you all you need to know before heading for the beauty counter, and how to make the best choice once you're there.

Making the Most of Your Sense of Smell

Sense of smell sharpens as the day progresses. Therefore, plan your shopping trip for later in the day. But before you head off to the nearest perfume counter, make sure you haven’t eaten garlic or spicy foods during the past 12 hours, and don't wear scented toiletries and cosmetics—these will change your natural body scent, thus influencing how fragrances smell on you.

Chanel Number 5 has a floral-citrus fragrance.
Chanel Number 5 has a floral-citrus fragrance. | Source

Think About the Type of Fragrance You Want

Before arriving at the beauty counter, it's a good idea to know the type of fragrance you're looking.

Olfactory Families

Fragrances are categorized into what are called "olfactory families." There are many to choose from, including floral, fruity, citrus, aquatic, oriental, and combinations of these. For instance, Chanel N°5 has a floral-citrus fragrance.

Time of Day and Season

To help you decide, consider when you intend to wear the perfume. For example, if you want it for going out in the evening, something musky or oriental would work better than a clean, aquatic fragrance, which is more suitable for the day.

Think, too, about the season. Fragrances are more pungent and last longer on the skin during warm weather, so a lighter fragrance is appropriate for summer, and a heavier one for winter.

Eau de Toilette or Eau de Parfum?

Another consideration is intensity. Eau de toilette is less intense and, therefore, more discreet than eau de parfum. Choose the former for the day and/or warm weather, and the latter for evening and/or cooler weather.

Describing the Type of Fragrance You Want

Anything you can tell the salesperson about your preferences will help her direct you to the type of fragrance you have in mind. Don't worry if you don't know the correct terminology. It should be enough if you just use words like "heavy," "light," "fresh," "exotic" etc., but be as descriptive as you can. The aim is to avoid testing perfumes that won’t appeal to you—it's best to limit yourself to no more than five in order not to confuse your nose.

If you do confuse your nose, an old trick is to sniff into some coffee beans to clear the nasal palate. You can take a few with you in a small paper bag or pouch, since many perfume counters don’t offer them.

How to Test Fragrance

Use Paper Test Strips

All perfume counters provide paper test strips. Use these to sample the perfumes you think might interest you.

When to Test on Your Wrists

Once you’ve narrowed your choice down to two, test directly on your inner wrists.

You’ll find they smell a little different to the way they did on the paper strips. This is because they react to the unique chemistry of your skin and body temperature, which is what makes fragrance so very individual and personal. It also explains why a perfume that smells great on your best friend doesn't work for you at all.

Leave the Store

With one perfume on each wrist, leave the store and allow their characters to unfold. This will take a couple of hours. Rubbing the perfumes will not speed up the process; instead it will alter their molecular structure, which impairs quality.

In case you're wondering why you should leave the store: the luxurious combination of fragrances you smell in a beauty department makes it impossible to judge perfume accurately. If you can't leave the store, at least go to another (unperfumed) department before making a decision.

Before arriving at a perfume counter, it is a good idea to know roughly what type of fragrance you are looking for.
Before arriving at a perfume counter, it is a good idea to know roughly what type of fragrance you are looking for. | Source

How Fragrance Unfolds

A fragrance consists of three notes: a top or head note, a middle or heart note, and a base note. But all three are not instantly or constantly evident, which is why it takes time to choose properly.

The top note is the one you smell first, and it’s the one manufacturers rely on to sell their product.

The middle note shifts to the forefront after 15 to 30 minutes. This is when you smell all three notes or the "whole" fragrance, as it were.

The base note continues to longer for up to 24 hours after the top and middle notes have faded, so it's important that you like it.

After two or three hours have elapsed and you’ve decided which of the two perfumes you prefer, go back to the store and buy.

How to Tell If a Perfume Is Right for You

If you like the way a perfume smells on your skin right down to its base note, you can be sure you’ve made the right choice.

To recap, here are the most important points to remember when choosing a new perfume:

  • Shop for perfume later in the day when your sense of smell is more acute.
  • When shopping for perfume, never wear fragranced toiletries and cosmetics, and avoid garlic and spicy foods for at least 12 hours beforehand.
  • Decide roughly what sort of fragrance you'd like before arriving at the perfume counter, considering the season and time of day you intend to wear it.
  • Test perfume on paper strips before applying to your skin. Test on your wrists only after you've narrowed your choice down to two.
  • Test no more than five perfumes.
  • In case you confuse your nose, sniff coffee beans before trying another perfume.
  • Never rub perfumes when testing.
  • Wearing the two perfumes you favor most on your wrists, leave the store for a couple of hours in order that they can unfold—then you can make a final decision.

© 2010 Jayne Lancer


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