Perfume is one of those things that everyone can appreciate, but a very select few truly understand. If you’ve ever nodded along in blind agreement as someone praised the strong, woody oud of a particular fragrance or the faint trace of ambergris in another, it’s time to school yourself on scent vocab.
From absolute to vetiver, keep scrolling for the perfume terms every fragrance aficionado should know!
Absolutes are similar to essential oils and also known as essences—they’re highly concentrated and the strongest material that can be extracted from a plant or flower.
Pictured: Balenciaga Rosabotanica (Discontinued)
A blend of two or more fragrances to create a new, completely different smell.
Pictured: Escada Joyful ($89)
Organic compounds present in many natural materials, that can also be synthesized artificially.
Pictured: Chanel No. 5 ($80)
We talked about ambergris in our strange perfume facts story, but in case you need a refresher, here it is: Ambergris is one of the most valuable raw materials in perfumery, with a smell that’s described as “ocean-y and sweet.” The interesting part is how it’s produced—it’s basically sperm whale excrement that floats in the water, gets oxidized by the sun, and turns into a substance that’s washed ashore.
Pictured: Bobbi Brown Beach ($72)
A base note is what it sounds like—the heaviest ingredients (on the molecular level) that people tend to notice well after smelling the top and heart notes.
Pictured: Guerlain Shalimar ($100)
Rich, sweet, resinous and warm notes produced by using plant balsams and resins. The Oriental fragrance category is characterized by these ingredients.
Pictured: Diptyque Volutes ($175)
The fresh, clean, cooling character displayed by eucalyptus but also descriptive of rosemary and other herbal notes.
Pictured: Comme Des Garcons Hinoki ($120)
This is the French word for the island of Cyprus and is pronounced “sheepra.” It refers to earthy, woodsy, and mossy base notes with top notes of citrus.
Pictured: Cartier Eau De Cartier Zeste De Soleil ($93)
An Eau de Cologne has the least concentrated perfume-oil-to-alcohol ratio, with around two to five percent perfume oil in the formula.
Pictured: Acqua Di Parma Profumo (Discontinued)
The heaviest of the Eaus, an Eau de Parfum is made up of about 10 to 15 percent perfume oil.
Note: There are also extraits (also called extracts), which have around 20 to 4 percent concentration perfume oil.
Pictured: Donna Karan Cashmere Mist ($85)
Slightly heavier than an Eau de Cologne, an Eau de Toilette has anywhere from a three to 15 percent perfume compound.
Pictured: Narcisco Rodriguez For Her ($78)
Another French word, this one means “fern.” It features oakmoss, coumarin, and lavender notes, and is based on an herbaceous accord.
Pictured: Tom Ford Violet Blonde (Discontinued)
The general term for the odors of grass, leaves, and stems.
Pictured: Memo Irish Leather ($300)
If you like smelling like your favorite dessert, a gourmand fragrance is for you. Edible notes like honey, chocolate, vanilla, or various candies make up these sweet-smelling scents and are often blended with base notes such as patchouli and musk.
Pictured: Hermès Eau de Merveilles ($140)
A strong, smoky scent that stems from ingredients used to tan leathers—it’s usually used in fragrance with the help of synthetic chemicals.
Pictured: Maison Martin Margiela Replica Jazz Club ($125)
This note makes up the body of the fragrance blend—it might take 10 to 30 minutes to develop on your skin. These notes are usually used to classify which fragrance family a certain scent falls in. Also called heart notes.
Pictured: Elizabeth and James Nirvana White ($75)
Aroma chemicals that are meant to mimic the smell of fresh air after a thunderstorm.
Pictured: Agonist Solaris ($195)
This is a major category of perfume and features sweet notes, like vanilla and amber, but also pungent notes like balsamic and benzoin. These scents are often linked to the Middle East because of notes of frankincense and incense.
Pictured: Bvlgari Omnia Indian Garnet ($82)
Also called Agarwood, oud is made with the resin of the Aquilaria tree and has a woody, earthy, shadowy quality. Usually, scents that feature oud use a synthetic version—real oud is expensive and difficult to harvest.
Pictured: Lancôme L’Autre Ôud ($180)
The trail of scent left behind by a perfume—perfumes with little sillage are said to “stay close to the skin.”
Pictured: Desigual Fun (Discontinued)
A soliflore is a scent that focuses on a single flower, a lily or rose.
Pictured: Christian Dior Diorissimo ($90)
Usually, the first thing you smell when you spritz a perfume. It’s the most volatile of perfume layers and evaporates first.
Pictured: DS & Durga Rose Atlantic ($175)
Vetiver is an essential oil that is steam-distilled from the roots of a tall Indian grass. It produces lemony, pepper scents.
Pictured: Viktor & Rolf Spicebomb ($90)