This is the era of the ‘fragrance wardrobe’. While some women are faithful for life to an old favourite, many more are discovering the joy of experimenting with scents that match their mood. But, since perfume is one of the most expensive beauty indulgences, getting it right is essential. Especially since fragrance develops differently on different skin types. Here’s our guide to finding your perfect scent – and to making the most of its mood-lifting potential.
How to buy a fragrance
Never be too impulsive when buying a perfume, advises Lorna McKnight, an independent consultant to the perfumery and cosmetics industry and former perfume buyer for Harrods. Always shop in a fragrance hall or store where you can try the scents rather than just buy bottles off the shelf, and preferably somewhere you can get individual advice from a trained perfumery sales assistant.
Before you start spraying fragrance on yourself, ask the assistant to spray the perfumes onto ‘blotters’ – absorbent strips of blotting paper. This helps you identify which fragrance you might like to try on your skin, and saves you from walking around drenched in something which is more a turn-off than a turn-on. (We’ve all done that.) You can now sample the scent exactly as professional ‘noses’ (the fragrance creators) do: hold the blotter at the non-scented end between thumb and forefinger, and place the scented end about two inches below your nostrils. Use your second finger to tap the blotter lightly so that it vibrates; this will help disperse the scent into the air so that you can smell it better. Once you’ve found a scent you’re attracted to, try it on your body.
‘You should sample one fragrance at a time,’ advises Lorna, ‘and really wear it before you make up your mind, rather than spray one on the back of your hand, one on the other, one on your wrist, which is what a lot of women do. You want to know how it develops on you, and you can’t tell if you’re being confused by other scents. Close your eyes, really smell it. Ignore the packaging and the marketing and concentrate on the scent itself. And ideally – to avoid any chance of an expensive mistake – go back and repeat the exercise a couple of times before you buy it.’ (Scent-strips in magazines are a good clue as to whether a fragrance is a hate-at-first-sniff or a ‘maybe’. But never buy on the basis of these alone. You must find out how fragrance reacts on your own skin.)
The top note – a perfume’s first impression – lasts just fifteen or so minutes. So, more important than whether you take to the initial smell is how you feel about the middle notes (lasting up to an hour) and bottom notes (which linger for several hours). Scents smell different on each of us; skin, make-up and diet are all an influence, which is why you should never buy a fragrance just because you love it on your best friend or on the scent-strip. Fragrances alter on your skin as your cycle progresses, too – and according to the time of year. Just as you don’t feel like eating heavy food or drinking red wine in summer, there are scents appropriate to different seasons. Good reasons, therefore, to build up a personalised perfume ‘wardrobe’ to match your moods. And the weather…
Your body’s scent spots
Next time you spritz on a scent, consider skipping behind the ears. Scientists have located no less than 16 pulse-points on the body, including the temples, crook of the elbows, wrists, (between) your bosom, either side of the pubic bone, the back of your knees and the front of your ankles. If you do apply scent to your neck, dab it either side of the throat about eight centimetres (three inches) below your ear. There’s another reason you might want to set your scent-sights a little lower: fragrance floats up on your body heat, so scenting below the waist will weave a head-to-toe aura for hours. Freshly washed hair is also a good fragrance carrier, as are clothes made of natural fabrics; try spraying under hems and collars. You could also spray or dab scent on a ribbon and tie it around your hair or wrist.
Too little – or too much?
We can’t go through life asking everyone, ‘How do I smell?’. But your own nose does start tuning out your scent after the first few minutes and, barring a deliberate sniff, stops picking it up completely after about 15–30 minutes. So the across-the-board rule of thumb is that whatever you can smell, others can smell more.
The strength of scent you wear controls the distance it can be smelled from, and how long it lasts. If the fragrance is alcohol-based (cologne, eau de parfum, eau de toilette), it will plummet sharply at first, then level off. But oil- or cream-based perfumes – for instance, body creams or bath oil, worn as perfume – taper off more gradually. If you ‘layer’ your fragrance (see opposite) you will achieve more lingering results.
Cologne typically lasts one to four hours.
Eau de toilette/eau de parfum usually lasts four to six hours.
Body lotion or body cream lasts from three to eight hours.
Perfume usually lasts from three to eight hours.
You can also spray scent on clothes, where it’s long-lasting – but harder to remove.
Top notes are the initial smells which hit you when you open the bottle and spray it onto your skin. They last for a very short time.
Middle, heart or soul notes describe the smells which evolve after about ten minutes exposure to oxygen and the skin.
Base notes are the smells which slowly develop to hold the whole fragrance together and which will linger at the end of the day. Never buy a fragrance unless you like the base notes; these are the ones which you – and everyone around you – will have to live with.
Layer upon layer
Most women apply perfume too lavishly on the pulse-points in the hope of making their fragrance last longer. This just makes the fragrance overpowering for the first few hours, before it fades away. By using complementary bath and body products, the fragrance is literally ‘layered’ on the skin: as the body heats and cools during the day each product ‘comes alive’, so ensuring a subtle, delicate aura which lasts consistently throughout the day or evening. The principle is this: start with a body shampoo/foam bath/bath oil/soap. Then use the matching body cream or lotion, with optional dusting powder or talc on top, and, a little later, apply just a light touch of perfume, eau de parfum or eau de toilette. As a ritual, it’s truly the last word in pampering self-indulgence.
- If you’ve sprayed on too much perfume and stepping back into the shower isn’t a viable option, dilute the scent by rubbing with a warm, soapy washcloth. But if you tend to be heavy-handed with fragrance, stick with eau de toilette, which isn’t as strong as perfume or eau de parfum.
- Estée Lauder, one of the grandes dames of the beauty world, recommends perfuming yourself by spraying the air, then walking through the fragrant cloud. She also suggests spraying your hair with scent, not just your pulse-points.
- High altitudes decrease the longevity of perfume as well as the potency of its aroma. So if you’re flying off for a romantic weekend in the mountains, you might apply your fragrance more often – or choose a stronger concentration.
- Women have a better sense of smell than men, and it’s particularly sharp in the first half of the menstrual cycle.
- It’s often said that you can’t wear more than one scent a day or it’ll ‘clash’. But Annette Green, of The Fragrance Foundation in New York, says that most fragrances don’t linger longer than about three to four hours, so you can wear several in the space of one day if the mood takes you. She’s been known to wear up to four in 24 hours.
- Each one of us has an ‘odour fingerprint’ – the sum total of many factors including heredity, complexion and even diet. Fragrance doesn’t last as long on dry skin as on oily skin, and perfume may smell stronger on someone who has just eaten a lot of high-fat or spicy foods.
- Avoid wearing your usual fragrance in the sun, unless it’s available in a special alcohol-free version. Many scents contain ingredients that trigger an adverse reaction in sunlight, causing rashes with itching or prickliness, or turn the skin brown. (You could apply it to your clothes, instead.)
- Never apply perfume straight after bathing; warm water causes pores to dilate, temporarily leaving skin more sensitive to any product applied to it; the alcohol in perfume can sting or burn. You can, of course, use a scented body lotion instead.
- Science has recently confirmed what we always hoped: women who sprayed themselves with a floral scent twice a day were found to have improved moods and less anxiety and fatigue.
Knowing how to look after your perfume will protect your investment. Air, heat and light are a fragrance’s worst enemies. Here’s how to exercise some scent sense.
- The lifespan of an unopened bottle of fragrance depends on its blend, but usually you can keep it safely for up to three years, as long as it’s away from heat and light. Bathrooms aren’t the ideal place to store fragrance, because of the temperature fluctuations.
- Limit your perfume’s exposure to air as much as possible. Once you open the bottle, it will begin to deteriorate – like wine, but not so fast. Experts recommend sticking to one or two scents and using them up quickly; if you like to have a wider choice, always buy the smallest size.
- If you do buy larger bottles of fragrance, which are more cost-effective, fill an atomiser with a very small amount of scent at a time, and keep the big bottle in the fridge.
- Alternatively, keep the bottle in its box, which limits its exposure to light.
- All fragrances have about a year to 18 months of shelf life. If they smell vinegary, go darker or orangey in appearance, or become sticky in texture, they are past their best.
For much more about fragrance, visit the comprehensive website Jo set up (with fellow perfumista Lorna McKay) in 2014 – described as 'the most authoritative perfume website in the world, by none other than Frédéric Malle himself – at perfumesociety.org.