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How to Know If a Perfume Is Right for You

Updated on December 29, 2016
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.


Choosing the Right Fragrance

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 cosmetics you've used.

Choosing fragrance is an art, and like any art, it takes thought, preparation and time.

Shopping for Fragrance Products

The sense of smell grows sharper as the day progresses, so the best time to shop for a new fragrance is in the afternoon or later. 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 avoid wearing perfumed toiletries and cosmetics—these change your natural body scent, which influences how fragrance smells on you.

Think About What Type of Fragrance You Want

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

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.

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

When Will You Wear the Fragrance?

Day or Night?

To help you decide on an olfactory family, ask yourself when you intend to wear the fragrance. 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.

Deciding Between Eau de Toilette and Eau de Parfum

An eau de toilette is less intense and, therefore, more discreet than eau de parfum. Choose the former for the day and the latter for evening wear.

Keep it Light During Summer

Not only should time of day be a decisive factor, but season too. Fragrances are more pungent and last longer on the skin during warm weather, so a light fragrance is appropriate for summer, and a heavier one for winter.

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.

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. However, all three notes 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.

Once the top and middle notes have faded, the base note continues to linger for up to 24 hours, 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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    • Jayne Lancer profile image

      Jayne Lancer 17 months ago from West London, UK

      Thank you, Rangoon House.

      Testing on the wrist is essential to establish how compatible a fragrance is with your body chemistry.

      The coffee bean tip is controversial. Some experts claim that it’s no more effective than sniffing a slice of lemon or the inner elbow, or going out into the fresh air for a few minutes. However, practically everybody I’ve ever advised at the perfume counter agrees that the coffee bean method works well, and certainly better than the inner elbow or fresh air methods.

    • Rangoon House profile image

      AJ 17 months ago from Australia

      Wow - great coffee bean tip - thank you. And I agree wholeheartedly about testing the two favourites on your wrist, rather than wholly relying on the paper strips, which are of course lovely to keep in your handbag for a while afterwards.

    • Jayne Lancer profile image

      Jayne Lancer 7 years ago from West London, UK

      Yes, Minnetonka Twin, I think some people don't know how much perfume to apply, or they have a problem with their sense of smell.

      It's also a good idea to take a friend along when buying perfume; two noses are always better than one :)

      Thank you for coming by!

    • Minnetonka Twin profile image

      Linda Rogers 7 years ago from Minnesota

      Thanks for that informative hub. I think many can learn from this as I have met so many people who don't realize their perfume is tooo pungent. It is a good idea to really check out a perfume before getting it. Great stuff, thx