Most people appreciate a good fragrance, but very few can truly describe it accurately. Scent has a language and vocabulary all its own. However, it’s a vocabulary that’s crucial to understand as you delve into the world of perfume. Having the right words helps you appreciate and express the nuances of the art of fragrances.
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To help you in your search for the best perfume or cologne, we’ve covered the commonly used terms every fragrance aficionado should know – from ambergris to ylang-ylang.
Fragrance notes are scent compounds used to make up the perfume or cologne and can range from flowers to synthetically created molecules. These are usually grouped into the key fragrance families below.
Rest assured when you are shopping for fragrances knowing which family your favorite scents are in can make finding that perfect perfume so much easier.
You might find that some fragrances fit into more than one fragrance family and that’s okay. There is no need to choose your scents based off of which family they are in, but if you’re looking for something new and want to make the search a little easier, you might find it’s good to know the fragrance family which you are most drawn to.
The Four Fragrance Families
Floral Fragrance Family
The floral fragrance family is the largest and most popular women’s fragrance family and it is also gaining popularity in men’s fragrances. They can either focus on a single flower or have a bouquet of harmonious flower scents.
You will find that scents in this family range from very sweet and strong to light and sophisticated. The floral group is said to be more youthful and feminine. Examples include Chanel No. 22, Estee Lauder Pleasures and Joy by Jean Patou.
Common Floral Notes: Roses, jasmine, lily, frangipani, geranium, iris, patchouli
Oriental Fragrance Family
Oriental fragrances are the seductive end of the fragrance chart, also often referred to as ambers.
Based on rich and exotic spices, these are warm sensual fragrances. They can range from powdery to dry, and yes, they are certainly spicy, sometimes even gourmand.
This scent group often combine woodsy scents with flowers and vanilla and you will often find notes of cinnamon or nutmeg.
Within this family lives the musky scents which are strong, sexy and seductive. These are perfect for a romantic evening with that special someone. Musks can be found in Caleche by Hermes, Dolce & Gabbana for Women and Shalimar by Guerlain. If you’re wearing musks, remember that less is more so there’s no need to overdo it with these.
Other oriental bold and heady scents can be found in Tresor by Lancôme, Organza by Organza, Still by Jennifer Lopez and Opium by Yves Saint Laurent. These certainly aren’t fragrances for the meek and so are more popular for evening or in the cooler months with men.
Common Oriental Notes: Cinnamon, Sandalwood, Vanilla, Myrrh, Anise, Cloves
Woody Fragrance Family
If floral fragrances are the go-to standard for women’s perfumes, woody fragrances are the most popular base for men’s colognes. For women these scents are often worn by those who appreciate nature and love to be outdoors.
There’s a wide range of scents in this group with patchouli and sandalwood being good examples of warmer woods. Cedar and vetiver are good for a drier cologne. Woods are frequently paired with other aromatic headnotes to create more complexity — for example, citrus or chypre.
This more earthy, family named after the island of Cypress in the Mediterranean, that offer notes of bergamot, jasmine and oakmoss. You’ll find it in Chanel No. 19, Miss Dior by Christian Dior, Michael Kors and Romance by Ralph Lauren.
Common Woody Notes: Sandalwood, Oakwood, cedar, vetiver, patchouli, pine
Fresh Fragrance Family
The fresh fragrance family is probably the most varied and least well-defined. It ranges from fruity, green, aquatic, citrus and aromatic. As you can tell, unlike the other categories, it’s not based on one defining characteristic but rather fresh, lively, organic scents, these tend to be popular in summer fragrances but not exclusively.
You’ll find these beautiful fresh scents in Burberry London, Calvin Klein Truth for Women and Chanel No. 5 as well as Romance by Ralph Lauren.
Common Fruity Notes: Peaches, pears, apples, guava, mango, passion fruit
Common Green Notes: Green leaves, tea leaves, fresh cut grass
Common Aquatic Notes: Marine, Calone, Seawood, driftwood
Common Citrus Notes: Lemon, Neroli, Mandarine, Lime, Bergamot, Grapefruit
Common Aromatic Notes: Thyme, Rosemary, Eucalyptus, Lavender, Sage
Fragrance Notes Dictionary
Absinthe – Is a potent green aniseed-flavored liquor made with the shrub of wormwood. It smells like licorice, slightly dry, bitter and medicinal.
Algae – Is a kind of seaweed which smells like a blend of seawater and fresh leaves.
Amber– Is an aromatic resin produced by forest trees and smells like warm caramel.
Animalic – Refers to animal-derived notes which smell primal and seductive.
Aquatic/Water Notes – Refers to the smell of an ocean breeze that is a blend of fresh, dewy, and salty air.
Bergamot – Is a tree of the orange family which gives a citrusy scent that is crisp, refreshing but slightly herbal.
Cardamom – Is a kind of spice made from aromatic seeds of a plant from the ginger family which smells slightly earthy, minty and sweet.
Cedar – Refers to a type of timber with smells like fragrant wood.
Civet – Is a nocturnal mammal of the cat family found in parts of Asia and Africa. This animal produces a pungent scent in its anal glands which can be extracted to give a sultry, musky and warm scent.
Clover – Is a plant in the pea family which smells of freshly cut grass.
Cypress– Is a kind of coniferous tree like pine or fir which smells like the forest, green and woody.
Daffodil – Is a kind of flower that is usually yellow which smells like spring. Fresh and sweet.
Driftwood – Refers to wooden pieces which have been washed ashore. Hence it smells like a blend of dry wood and seawater.
Frankincense – Is an aromatic gum resin of the Boswellia tree which is usually burned as incense. Hence it smells smokey and woody but is also slightly sweet and citrusy.
Freesia – Is a floral African plant of the Iris family which is fragrant, green and slightly peppery.
Green Tea – Refers to unfermented leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant which is pale in color, slightly bitter and smells earthy.
Herbal – Refers to the smell of herbs like basil, rosemary, tarragon.
Honeysuckle – Is a kind of shrub which smells like spring and sweet florals.
Incense – Quite similar to frankincense, it is smoky, slightly sweet, deep and rich.
Lily-of-the-Valley – Is a kind of flower of the lily family which smells fresh, sweet and dewy.
Metallic Notes – Refers to the scent produced by metal or minerals which smell slightly earthy, cool, clean and sharp.
Musk – Refers to glandular secretions of the male musk deer which smells sensual, warm, rich, deep and slightly animalic.
Neroli – Is an essential oil from orange peel which smells fresh and citrusy, but can be slightly bitter.
Oak Moss– Is a kind of fungus found on the floors of mountainous damp forests which smells earthy and can be slightly bitter.
Patchouli – Is a bushy herb of the mint family which smells sweet but earthy and can be slightly pungent.
Saffron – Is a kind of reddish-purple flower native to Eurasia which smells leathery, warm, rich and intimate.
Sage – Is a kind of herb which smells hazy, woody and slightly peppery.
Sandalwood – Refers to a kind of timber from the Santalum tree which gives off a woody, warm and earthy scent.
Tonka Bean – Is a black seed of a South American tree which has a vanilla-like scent but is slightly nutty.
Vetiver– Is an essential oil extracted from the root of Indian grass, giving it its slightly musty, woody and earthy scent.
Wisteria – Is a climbing shrub of the pea family with blue-ish flowers which smells sweet and rich, but can be slightly spicy.
Ylang-Ylang – Is a kind of flower native to the South East Asia region. It is a tropical plant which smells sweet, fragrant and slightly fruity.
Yuzu – Is a citrus fruit from Japan which smells like a blend of sweet, sour and floral notes.
Top Notes, Middle Notes, Base Notes
Just as a combination of musical notes make up a song, fragrance notes are blended into three note scales to create the perfume’s or cologne’s fragrant accord. The purpose of each level is explained below:
Top notes are sometimes referred to as an opening, or headnotes and consist of small, light molecules that evaporate quickly. The top notes represent a fragrance’s first impression. Citrus, berries, lavender, and ginger are common top notes.
Middle notes or heart notes are considered the heart of the fragrance which appears after the top notes evaporate. The scent in a fragrance’s heart is usually pleasant and ‘rounded’ and lasts anywhere between two minutes and one hour after application. Common middle notes include rose, lavender, ylang-ylang, nutmeg, and jasmine.
Base notes or the dry down mingle with the middle notes to bring depth and solidity to a fragrance. It consists of large, heavy molecules that evaporate slowly and is typically associated with the dry-down period. Base notes are usually deep and rich and provide a lasting impression. Common base notes include sandalwood, vanilla, patchouli, and musk.
Concentrations and Longevity
How much essential oil is included in a fragrance also has an effect on the potency of the scent, sillage, longevity, and price. Here are some of the most common classifications. Note that sillage and longevity are also based on a number of factors such as what essential oils were included, temperature, etc. This guide is only a rule of thumb. Your mileage may vary.
After Shaves or Splashes: 0-1% Concentration, lasts up to 1 hour
Eau Fraiche: 1-3% Concentration, lasts up to 3 hours
Eau de Cologne (EDC): 2-4 Concentration, lasts 3-4 hours
Eau de Toilette (EDT): 5-15% Concentration, lasts 4-6 hours
Eau de Parum (EDP): 15-20% Concentration, last 6-8 hours
Perfume (Parum) Extrait: 20-30% Concentration, lasts up to 12+ hours
Hopefully, you’ll now be able to navigate the perfume or cologne aisles like a pro!
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Selena Marc is a fragrance enthusiast, freelance writer, and dog mom living in Houston, Texas. When she's not writing about her favorite new perfumes, you can find her enjoying yoga or a morning hike.