Fragrance 101: The Guide You Need for Picking the Perfect Scent

You'll basically be a perfumer.

ouai perfumes in a row on marble countertop

 @theouai

There's something incredibly personal and powerful about fragrance. Scent has the power to evoke memories and feelings in a way that our other senses can't. (Plus, in this writer's opinion, there's no better compliment than being told that you smell amazing.)

That said, because scent is so intimate, it can be difficult to choose a fragrance. And that's where this breakdown comes in. In the fragrance world, perfume can be divided into seven different categories. If you know what type of fragrance you like, choosing one becomes a much easier task.

Meet the Expert

Here, we explain the seven major types of fragrances, plus share our fave products in each category. 

Woody

Reminiscent of a walk among the California redwoods or sitting around a campfire, woody scents are characterized by smelling like the great outdoors—but they can honestly be very sultry. If you like the smell of wet asphalt (which is called petrichor), you'll probably enjoy a woody scent. Also recommended for people who enjoy hiking 14ers, camping, and various other outdoor activities—or those who simply want to give off the illusion that they enjoy those things.

Store fragrances in a cool, dark place away from air conditioning or heating units to keep them from going bad prematurely.

The most important thing to look for with this or any type of scent, says fragrance expert Marian Bendeth, is how you plan to wear it. "Think of your fragrance choices as you would your makeup and the strength in application for the night as opposed to a day affair," she says. "Fragrance should be appropriated not only for your fashion sense before you get dressed but most importantly, how it makes you feel about yourself first and foremost. If it doesn't move you, move on."

Ojai Wild Redwood Leaves Eau de Cologne $98
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All the ingredients in this fragrance were ethically sourced in California. Extract from redwood leaves is paired with notes of blond tobacco and chamomile. 

Santal 33 Eau De Parfum
Le Labo Santal 33 Eau de Parfum $285
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A cult-favorite creamy, woody scent with notes of violet accord, cardamom, iris, cedarwood, leather, and sandalwood. 

Citrus

Citrus scents are crisp and clean, usually characterized by notes like lemon, grapefruit, orange, and bergamot. They're refreshing, like a Pamplemousse La Croix on a hot summer day.

"Citrus notes also pair beautifully with spicy notes for a juxtaposition of a tart and spicy feel," says Bendeth. "The permeations are endless and all depend on the blend."

Soleil de Capri Eau de Parfum
Montale Paris Soleil de Capri Eau de Parfum $140
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Don't let the sleek bottle fool you: This fragrance is actually super flirty, with notes of grapefruit and kumquat.

Gourmand

Gourmand fragrances are probably the most divisive type: You either love them or you can't stand them. That's because they're sweet—a good gourmand fragrance will be almost-but-not-quite cloying—and powdery. Think fragrances that smell like the top of a crème brûlée. Common notes include vanilla, chocolate, burnt sugar, and caramel.

"A good gourmand fragrance evokes a sense of something yummy, sweet and indulgent. Perfumers use notes like chocolate (dark or white), caramel, honey or candied hazelnut with more classical notes like vanilla and ambery resins to create the gourmand theme," says Ilolahia. "Thierry Mugler’s Angel is the gourmand icon that has inspired thousands of fragrances."

As Bendeth explains, gourmand fragrances are perhaps the most nostalgic of the bunch. "There are literally hundreds of notes in this category which has been a leader in fragrance families for the past decade," she says. "These notes stir our appetites are also used in many blends to tantalize our noses, as well. They are comforting and familiar."

CANDY 2.7 oz/ 80 mL Eau de Parfum Spray
Prada Candy Eau de Parfum Spray $126
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This super-sweet perfume by Prada is made for anyone who likes to smell like dessert (in the best possible way). 

Vanille Blackberry 1.0 oz/ 30 mL Eau de Toilette Spray
Comptoir Sud Pacifique Vanille Blackberry Eau de Toilette Spray $38
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Floral

Like a Spotify playlist of Boyz II Men in scent form, floral fragrances are unapologetically romantic. They're flirty and feminine and can range in intensity—some floral fragrances are full-on "walking the Brooklyn Botanic Garden during cherry blossom season," while others incorporate fruity elements for a sparkling, playful effect. 

Strange Invisible Perfumes Aquarian Rose $210
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Notes of rose, orange, marjoram, and sandalwood combine in this breathlessly beautiful fragrance. All the ingredients are certified organic, wildcrafted, and biodynamic. 

Daisy 3.4 oz/ 100 mL Eau de Toilette Spray
Marc Jacobs Daisy Eau de Toilette $108
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A whimsical floral fragrance that incorporates notes of jasmine, violet leaves, strawberry, and sandalwood. 

Waterlily Sun 1.7 oz / 50 mL Eau de Parfum Spray
Aerin Waterlily Sun Eau de Parfum Spray $185
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A delicate, bright, fresh fragrance that's floral without being overly flowery. 

Fruity

Composed of notes like cherry, pear, and watermelon, fruity scents are evocative of hot summer days. They can be sweet, but the best ones never get cloying, and can range from playful to sophisticated, depending on the other notes the fruit is paired with.

 

English Pear & Freesia Cologne 3.4 oz/ 100 mL Spray
Jo Malone London English Pear & Freesia Cologne Spray $144
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Fruity and juicy, with just a hint of floral for balance. 

Spicy

"Spicy scents will possess heavier base notes where the molecules are denser, providing longer lasting life on the skin," Bendeth says.

In other words, spicy fragrances are, frankly, sultry. Warm, sensual notes of cardamom, incense, and pepper are common. Basically, this is the perfume one would wear if they wanted to feel mysterious. 

"Aromatic spices provide a broad range of smells. Cardamon is a cool spice, which has a minty freshness. Clove and cinnamon are considered warm spices and are often paired with warm ambery resins and woody notes," Ilolahia says. "Think of classics like Guerlain’s Shalimar or Yves Saint Laurent’s Opium. Pink pepper is a trendy spice you will find in many contemporary fragrances. It has a fresh peppery note with a berry accent. This pairs well with rose and fresh floral notes."

Tom Ford Private Blend Soleil Blanc Eau De Parfum
Tom Ford Private Blend Soleil Blanc Eau de Parfum $163
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There's no other way to say it: This fragrance is just straight-up flirtatious. It's a little bit summery, a little bit spicy—like the "Lover Boy" scene in Dirty Dancing come to life via scent. 

Goop Eau de Parfum Edition 3 $125
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A minimalist fragrance that's smoky and spicy. 

Aquatic

This scent category conjures up images of drinking limoncello in Positano by a sparkling ocean or reading a paperback book on the beach. Aquatic perfumes, as the name suggests, are characterized by marine notes like algae, salt, and fresh sea air.

 

'REPLICA' Sailing Day 3.4 oz/ 100 mL Eau de Toilette Spray
Maison Margiela Replica Sailing Day Eau de Toilette Spray $135
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Replica fragrances are always evocative of a moment; this one brings to mind breezy summer sailing days with notes of aquatic accord and red seaweed essence. As with any scent, aquatic fragrances should be enjoyed — meaning "there are no strict rules on how to wear a fragrance," Ilolhia says.

"Wear your fragrance in a way that brings you joy. Fragrances can change over time as the 'juice' is exposed to light and air introduced to the bottle as the fragrance is consumed," Ilolahia adds. "We recommend storing your fragrances away from direct light and heat. Like wine, which changes as it ages, fragrances that have changed with age have not necessarily ‘turned bad’, but if you don’t like the way your fragrance smells as it ages, we recommend replacing your bottle every year."

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