The Little Dictionary of Perfume Terms: An A-Z Guide on Scent Vocab

Updated 09/23/16

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 ($100)


A blend of two or more fragrances to create a new, completely different smell.

Pictured: Escada Joyful ($89)


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)

Base Note

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)


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)

Eau de Cologne

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 ($236)

Eau de Parfum

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)

Eau de Toilette

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 ($72)


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.


Examples of gourmand fragrances: Hermès Eau de Merveilles ($140), Thierry Mugler Angel ($68), Bond No. 9 I Love New York ($105)


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)

Middle Note

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.

Pictured: Elizabeth and James Nirvana White ($75)


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.


Examples of Oriental fragrances: Gucci Guilty ($77), Bulgari Omnia Indian Garnet ($65), Balmain Ambre Gris ($110)

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 expensie and difficult to harvest.


Examples of ouds: Lancôme L’Autre Ôud ($180), Byredo Parfums Oud Immortel ($145), Dolce & Gabbana Velvet Desert Oud ($280)

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 ($59)


A soliflore is a scent that focuses on a single flower, a lily or rose.


Examples of soliflores: Le Labo Iris 39 ($160), Christian Dior Diorissimo ($90), Frédéric Malle Une Rose ($230)

Pictured: Christian Dior Diorissimo ($90)

Top Note

Usually the first thing you smell when you spritz a perfume. It’s the most volatile of perfume layers and evaporates first.

Pictured: Marchesa Parfum D’extase ($85)

Vetiver is an essential oil that is steam-distilled from the roots of a tall Indian grass. It produces lemony, pepper scents.

Share below any special beauty vocab you know!

Scents with vetiver: Narcisco Rodriguez for Her ($),  Viktor & Rolf Spicebomb ($90), Balenciaga Florabotanica ($100)

Pictured: Viktor & Rolf Spicebomb ($90)

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