Determining a signature fragrance is a lot like accepting someone as your soulmate: When you know, you know. “Fragrance is so visceral—you often know if you love it or hate it very quickly and can't quite put your finger on why,” says Dana Schmitt, a perfumer at Givaudan. But how do you arrive at that point? As in what smells good to you, and which of those chosen smells should be included in your signature fragrance? After all, a signature scent plays several key roles: it captures your essence and helps form your identity; it enters the room before you and tells your story in the enigmatic way only a fragrance can. “To wear a perfume is to communicate invisibly, and your signature scent tells exactly what you want it to say about you,” says Catharina Bergelin, co-founder of 19-69. Kilian Hennessy, founder of the renowned Kilian Paris fragrance house, shared a similar sentiment: “To me, in general, fragrances serve a lot of functions. It can be to feel protected, to feel confident, to comfort.”
Most guys start by focusing on a formula, as in eau de toilette and aftershave versus cologne and eau de parfum, and sniffing until they find one they like. But there’s so much more to it. After all, fragrance is about way more than just smelling good. Our bodies respond to fragrance with a bloom of biological processes that can impact both our mood and the moods of those around us. According to a study conducted by the Harvard Brain Science Initiative, smell is directly linked to the limbic system, which includes the amygdala and hippocampus, the regions related to emotion and memory. “Scent is the sense that is most closely linked to memory, meaning it can help create connections in your mind and to those around you to different moments in your life,” says Schmitt, who concocted a fragrance specifically for her wedding day that instantly transports her back every time she sprays it.
Fragrance can also affect cognitive function, rippling across both stress levels and our capacity to get stuff done. This may explain why catching a whiff of Polo Sport sends you reeling back to your high school locker, or why keeping a scented candle on your desk can help you get through your daily to-do list.
When it comes to choosing a signature fragrance, what you smell is only half of it; how you process that smell is ultimately what determines your attraction to it. There are, of course, other important details to consider—such as concentration (the old aftershave versus cologne debate), scent profiles, and a unique concept called sillage—so we asked Schmitt and Bergelin to explain everything you need to know before choosing a signature fragrance.
Meet the Expert
Before we get into the heady stuff, let’s do a quick breakdown of the various concentrations of fragrance on the market that ultimately determine how they’re sold. According to the Fragrance Foundation, based on strength and in descending order, they are perfume, eau de parfum, eau de toilette, cologne, and aftershave.
Perfume is the purest, most concentrated form of fragrance, and intended to be applied sparingly to the pulse points, defined as “…wherever one feels the beat of the heart behind the ears, the nape of the neck, at the base of the throat… the inside bend of the elbows, at the inside of the wrists, behind the knees, at the inside of the ankles.” Basically, the points at which body heat is at its most intense in order to disseminate the fragrance.
Eau de Parfum
Eau de parfum is a newish concept that contains slightly lower concentrations of the pure stuff than perfume (18-25 percent, according to Schmitt), making it ideal for spraying or dabbing on larger areas of the body. Eau de parfum packs a potent fragrance punch, making it ideal for those in search of a scent that’s both intense and long-lasting.
Eau de Toilette
One of the most common types of fragrance sold today, eau de toilette comes in at 15-18 percent concentration, providing a generous volume of fragrance at a slightly more approachable price point, explains Schmitt. But that doesn’t mean eau de toilette is of lesser quality: “Some people like an EdT just because they want a lighter amount of fragrance as they go about their day,” she says. “It's really up to personal choice.”
Although cologne is a blanket term used to describe fragrances marketed toward men in general, it’s also a specific concentration, falling somewhere between eau de toilette and aftershave. According to the Fragrance Foundation, cologne is usually the most concentrated and lasting form of fragrance available for the men’s market (besides perfume or eau de parfum, which aren’t always marketed toward men), comprised of a huge blend of ingredients—sometimes several hundred—including essential oils, aroma molecules, and fixatives.
Usage-wise, cologne is most commonly sprayed or dabbed on the body’s pulse points. Due to its potency, cologne maintains the complexity of the core perfume and is a great way to get plenty of fragrance for your buck, both in terms of intensity and lasting power.
Aftershave is unique because, like cologne, it’s also made from perfume oils in a hydro-alcoholic solution, albeit at a much lower concentration (5-8 percent, according to Schmitt). But, thanks to the inclusion of astringent ingredients, it’s intended to be splashed onto the cheeks just after shaving to help soothe any nicks and cuts rather than sprayed on the body—a la the famous “Ahhh!” scene in Home Alone.
Nowadays, however, the verdict on shaving is that alcohol is a big no-no, as it tends to dry skin out rather than soothe it. So when it comes to aftershave versus cologne, think of the former as a great way to get a decent amount of fragrance that’ll last well into the morning—ideal for guys who just want a light smattering of scent, rather than a knock-you-over wall of fragrance.
How to Pick the Right One for Your Needs
To start, Bergelin recommends casting aside the outdated notion of masculine and feminine fragrances. “What you find attractive is individual," she says. "Something that smells feminine to one person can smell masculine to another, and that’s up to the individual to decide, not for the maker to categorize." Schmitt submits new clients to a list of questions, including how they want to feel when they wear the fragrance, where they plan on wearing it, and how much they’re willing to spend. “These are all important questions to gauge how [interested they are] in having something unique, different, adventurous, or simple and safe,” she says. Then there are four other areas to consider: scent profile, notes, sillage, and drydown.
Bergelin explains that a scent profile classifies how a fragrance smells, rather than what it contains. Knowing which scent profile you identify with most will help hone your choices and make finding your signature fragrance easier. Additionally, she says that certain scents are known for certain qualities, such as the aphrodisiac properties of tuberose, vanilla, jasmine, rose, and musk, referring to an Italian legend in which tuberose was banned from religious gardens so as not to excite the nuns. Schmitt broke down the six main scent profiles:
- Citrus: The oldest family of fragrances, they’re centered around a blend of citrus notes including bergamot, lemon, and grapefruit. “People usually see these as very fresh and clean fragrances that are universally appealing.”
- Fougere: This accord contains lavender on top, geranium in the heart, and coumarin as a base note. Geranium is classified as rosy and coumarin is a sweet vanilla/almond-smelling molecule, which is the main component of tonka bean. “These are not materials that the average consumer has much connection to on their own, which is why the accord itself is often described as abstract,” she explains.
- Floral: The floral profile is one of the largest families because of the many varieties of flowers that comprise it. The most popular tend to be rose and jasmine, as well as tuberose, gardenia, and orange blossom. A floral fragrance can be direct and simple, or a blend of various flowers.
- Chypre: Schmitt says this family is named after the perfume that launched the structure into the market in 1917—“Chypre" by the perfumer Francois Coty. It is a complex blend of citrus notes on top, a heart of floral notes, and oakmoss and patchouli as the base notes.
- Woody: This family is strong, powerful, and with a distinct signature, focusing on woods like cedar, sandalwood, vetiver, and oakmoss.
- Ambery: While it's made primarily from a blend of cistus labdanum, vanilla, and soft resins such as benzoin, this category also is often seen in tandem with the sweet gourmand sub-family.
Every fragrance can be broken down into three levels of ingredients—top, middle, and base notes—that Bergelin says influence how long a scent lasts. However, each level has a specific purpose. The top notes, Schmitt explains, are what you smell first, the hook that draws you in. The middle notes (or heart) are the signature of the fragrance, and the base notes act as the anchor to help prolong the fragrance and provide a cushion (or a contrast) to the middle notes.
Sillage is the trail of fragrance you leave in your wake as you go about your day. “This is what someone who stops you on the street to ask what you're wearing is smelling,” Schmitt says. Some fragrances have a stronger sillage than others, so if this is an important aspect of choosing your signature fragrance, you'll have to test it out by walking past friends to see if the sillage is strong enough. Schmitt says that sillage also plays a role in rebuying a fragrance: “If you get stopped often and complimented on your scent, you are much more likely to rebuy it.”
It’s especially important to consider a scent’s drydown, or the notes that are left after you’ve worn it for a few hours—which may end up smelling quite different from how it smelled at first. “This is the reason I recommend buying small bottles or trying a fragrance before buying a full bottle,” Schmitt says. “Sometimes we like how a fragrance smells at first but, as it evolves over the day, we find we don't love the notes that come to the forefront.”
What Else Should You Look For?
Once you’re ready to source your signature fragrance, Schmitt advises forgoing any research and simply trusting your instincts. Rather than show up to a fragrance counter and start asking questions, just start sniffing and see where it takes you. “Typically, you will know quickly if you like a scent or not, so once you find one that you're interested in, you can then ask the sales associates if they have any information on it—such as the story behind it.” She also says to ask for a sample so you can try it at home.
One thing both experts agreed on is what not to do when shopping for a signature fragrance, and that is to rush. “It is important to take your time when selecting a new fragrance: You need to explore all the layers as the scent will present itself differently as it develops on your skin and work with your unique body chemistry,” Bergelin says.
And who says you have to decide on only one signature fragrance? If you want scent to play a major role in your life, do as Hennessy does and surround yourself with as many as you like. “I personally love so much wearing fragrances that I actually have a wardrobe of scents. Depending on my mood, the occasion, the way I am dressed, the season,” he says.
The Final Takeaway
Although essentially invisible, fragrance is a powerful thing. Aside from directly affecting our brain’s emotional center, it can help us curate an identity for ourselves that’s shared and perceived by those around us. So, when choosing your signature scent, don’t just start with some rudimentary "aftershave versus cologne" approach and go with whatever smells nice at first. Rather, give yourself time to embark on some serious exploration until you discover a scent that truly speaks to you. Fragrance is not one-size-fits-all, and when you find yours, you’ll know it.
Writer CWHS. How Scent, Emotion, and Memory are Intertwined — and Exploited. Harvard Gazette.
Sowndhararajan K, Kim S. Influence of Fragrances on Human Psychophysiological Activity: With Special Reference to Human Electroencephalographic Response. Sci Pharm. 2016;84(4):724-752.
Different Forms of Fragrance. The Fragrance Foundation.