How to Talk About Perfume, Part 1: Structure

Scent is not easy to talk about, much less write about.  I've noticed, about myself and those around me, that there's a shared inability to describe a smell with confidence—we are always searching, stumbling, tripping over the words. It's not for lack of sensitivity: our sense of smell is actually 10,000 times more sensitive than our other senses, and far more immediate. The problem is, we haven't inherited a language that provides us with the tools to deconstruct it.

Because we lack the vocabulary to talk about scent in its own terms, we default to borrowing from our other senses, like taste and touch. We'll say a fragrance is sweet or heavy or bright, which we understand intuitively, but in reality there are very few adjectives used to describe scents that are actually rooted in our sense of smell. That's why we're here, and why we hope you're here: to learn to put smells into words, however we can.


We are at our most romantic when we talk about the structure of a perfume, which requires dipping into musical metaphors. A fragrant composition, a leathery accord, floral notes.  Notes and accords evolve over time; they reveal themselves in a progression and work in harmony to form the composition of the fragrance, with the whole process evoking a  mood or a feeling, not unlike music. Here's how the notes progress:

Top notes: also know as head notes. These notes make up the first impression you get when you apply a fragrance. They consist of small, volatile molecules that evaporate quickly, which means they hit your nostrils first. Most top notes are bright and airy, like citruses and other aromatic fruits.

Middle notes:  florals, greens, spices. These are the notes that appear when the top notes dissipate. Sometimes they're perceptible from the get-go, but they take about an hour to develop. Most fragrance decisions are made based on a perfume's middle notes, since they make up the body of the composition. They're also called heart notes, which is our preferred terminology for obvious reasons.

Base notes: these notes ground the fragrance. Unsurprisingly, they are also the most earthy: think woods, patchouli, vanilla, musk. Base notes have the heaviest molecular weight, last the longest, and act as fixatives for the lighter notes in the fragrance, which is to say they latch on to the lighter notes to slow down their evaporation rate. That's why a perfume with a focus on top notes will disappear within a couple of hours, whereas something heavy in base notes can last all day.


The concentration of a scent is the percentage of aromatic compounds (fragrance oils) to solvents (alcohol, water, or carrier oils), which gives you a vague sense of its lasting power and strength. Historically, it's been broken down as such:

Eau de Cologne (EDC): 2-5% concentration
Eau de Toilette (EDT): 5-10% concentration
Eau de Parfum (EDP): 10-20% concentration
Parfum / Extrait: 20-50% concentration

Don't take any of this as gospel, though—these labels are imprecise and loosely adhered to by the industry. They are, however, leveraged as marketing tactics to justify pricing discrepancies, with EDPs often costing more than EDTs (without necessarily having better longevity or more expensive ingredients). 

Take, for example, Narciso Rodriguez For Her in EDT and EDP. Based on the terminology, you might think that they are two concentrations of the same perfume. But in reality, they're two distinct compositions, designed to target different demographics and preferences. Here's a comparison:

EDT (black bottle): retails for $95 CAD / 50ml. Notes of honey flower, musk, orange blossom, osmanthus, vanilla, woods, vetiver. It smells sweeter, muskier, more youthful—and has more edge and texture than the EDP.  

EDP (pink bottle): retails for $112 CAD / 50ml. Notes of musk, iris powder, rose petals, benzoin balm. The musk plays a supporting role here, instead of being in the spotlight—this version is more refined, sophisticated and creamy, with a focus on the florals at the heart. A classic pretty smell. 

What I'm trying to say is: trust no one. Not even this website. This is a life philosophy, but it's particularly applicable to the world of perfume.  As something intimately tethered to our emotions, fragrance isn't something you can judge on paper. Don't make purchases based on the list of notes on a website or the romantic copywriting. Smell a perfume before you buy it. If you can, test out a sample on your skin for a few days in different settings before you commit to a full size. And if you're torn between an EDT and an EDP from the same line, don't assume that the EDP is better value; more often than not, it's just a different formulation. When in doubt, follow your nose. 


Photo credit: (one)(two)