Skip to main content

A thoroughly modern guide to fragrance

By Caroline Schaefer, Health.com
updated 12:18 PM EST, Mon December 10, 2012
No more grandma perfumes! Find out which fresh notes you're drawn to and what will make your signature scent linger.
No more grandma perfumes! Find out which fresh notes you're drawn to and what will make your signature scent linger.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Perfume fragrances can combine up to 250 ingredients
  • Alcohol helps blend and stabilize fragrances, water dilutes them
  • Perfume smells different over time; citrus scents permeate first
  • Floral, spice or amber scents are the "heart" of a perfume

(Health.com) -- Perfume may be the most influential item in your beauty arsenal. Sure, blush and lipstick wake up your face, but the spritz you're spraying has an impact on your mind like no other cosmetic.

"Fragrance can instantly change your mood," says Pamela Dalton, an olfactory research scientist at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. That's why it's so important to choose wisely and wear it in the lightest, healthiest way.

What's inside that bottle?

"There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to creating a perfume," says Carol Grant, a fragrance expert at Sensory Spectrum, a product testing firm based in New Providence, New Jersey. A fragrance can be made up of 250 ingredients in a lab, or you can whip one up at home with a few essential oils.

But no matter the recipe, every ingredient used in a scent falls into one of three categories: plant substances from nature (everything from flowers to bark); animal products (such as wax from bees or natural musk, though this category is becoming less popular because some consider it unethical); and the largest category, chemicals or synthetics (scents created in a lab).

Not enough bottles of Eau de Pizza Hut

Health.com: Find your feel-good fragrance

"Natural ingredients like herbs and fruit are extracted, distilled, or pressed to yield aromatic oils, which often become the base for the perfume," explains Sue Phillips, founder of the New York City fragrance firm Scenterprises and creator of perfumes for Burberry and Trish McEvoy.

Chemicals are used to create new aromas that aren't found in nature or to re-create rare ones, though most fragrances are a combination. Whether they're natural or synthetic, these scents are usually mixed with a combo of alcohol (to blend and stabilize scents) and water (to dilute), Grant says. The type of notes, plus the ratio of perfume to alcohol and water, dictates how concentrated a scent is -- and how fragrant it is.

Stay in touch!
Don't miss out on the conversation we're having at CNN Living. "Like" us on Facebook and have your say! Get the latest stories and tell us what's influencing your life.

Hit the right note

Top notes, bottom notes... Pros rhapsodize about your spritz as though it were a song. What's that about?

"Making a fragrance is like composing music. You use specific notes, or scents, to create the perfect melody or fragrance," says Pascal Gaurin, a senior perfumer at the New York City fragrance house IFF.

"Fragrances are constructed to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. The top notes are the initial aromas that you experience when you first try a scent. Usually they're the lightest, and often they're citrus scents which don't last very long."

Health.com: What your looks say about your health

Next up? The middle notes, or heart of the fragrance, which can often include floral, spicy, or amber notes. And finally, the bottom notes, or what Phillips calls "the dry down." Although these richer, heavier scents (think woods, moss, or vanilla) are the most long-lasting, they typically don't fully develop until at least 30 minutes after you apply the fragrance.

When perfumers blend three or four notes together, it's called an accord, says Gaurin, one of the noses behind such scents as Very Hollywood by Michael Kors and Tom Ford Black Violet.

"Just the way great music has a memorable melody -- like the opening chords of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 -- all successful fragrances have a successful accord," he says.

Health.com: The 2012 Health magazine beauty awards

There are scores of great scents on store shelves and perfume counters (fragrance sales in the U.S. and Europe hit $12 billion last year), but is there a way to categorize all those bottles? Most experts classify fragrances into one of seven types, although "there is a lot of overlap, as most perfumes are complex blends that contain notes from more than one family," Grant says. The key: The most dominant notes in your fragrance determine the category.

The secret to keeping it subtle

The most sophisticated and fresh way to wear fragrance is low-key and light. You want to smell amazing in an understated way (not like you spritzed every last inch of yourself). To avoid perfume overload, limit your application to two pulse points.

Or, for lighter fragrances like citrusy ones, Phillips says, start by dabbing behind your knees and work your way up (wrists, behind the ears). And, remember, your sensitivity to scent increases throughout the day -- so when shopping, save your swing by the perfume counter for the afternoon. The results will make you say, "Eau, yes!"

Health.com: Soft, sexy fragrances

Scent barometer

From light-as-air to full-on fragrant, find out how strong your favorite spritz is -- and how to dial it up or down.

• Splashes: "These are the lightest and typically have 1 to 8% perfume," says Eleanor Jane, creator of Tallulah Jane fragrances.
• Eau de cologne: Slightly stronger than a splash, you'll find 3 to 8% perfume.
• Eau de toilette: When you see this on the label, count on a fragrance that has 5 to 15% perfume.
• Solid perfume: These balms, which typically have a base of wax and oil, contain up to 15% perfume.
• Eau de parfum: A dab of this delivers between 10 and 20% perfume.
• Perfume or parfum: The strongest of the lot, this will be about 15 to 40% perfume.

Copyright Health Magazine 2011

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
CNN Living reflects your life. From advice for modern parents to the freshest news in food: It's all here.
updated 5:11 PM EDT, Mon March 10, 2014
Some classrooms are building in time for students to work on passion projects that teach students how to learn from failure.
updated 11:32 PM EST, Thu February 27, 2014
So many parents dread the teenage years -- the eye rolling, door slamming and lack of conversation. But there are ways to get a teen to open up.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Thu February 27, 2014
Shelves full of knickknacks, chairs piled atop tables, dusty toys dangling from the ceiling: That's enough for some to flee a flea market.
updated 11:37 AM EDT, Tue April 1, 2014
When Sarah Fox's boyfriend died, she was devastated just as a wife would have been. But others didn't always see her pain the same way.
Willow, a 12-year-old Labrador retriever, has watched over the vines at Long Island's Bedell Cellars since she was 10 weeks old.
updated 4:38 PM EDT, Thu March 27, 2014
martha stewart wedding costs
Weddings are a glorious celebration of the union of two souls. They're also a lightning rod for family drama.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT