What is Perfume Sillage?

Perfume bottle


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Have you ever bought perfume, only to find people around you don’t really notice it? It might be, too, that you also don’t smell it after a while, in which case you should read more about how to make your perfume last. Conversely, you might feel smug, yet notice people wrinkling their noses as you pass by. That’s because perfume has “sillage.” But what does this term mean?

What is Perfume Sillage

"'Sillage' is the French word for the perfume trail left in the air when someone leaves the room, similar to the 'wake’ of a boat or the track of waves that it makes behind it as it moves through the water," explains Sue Phillips, CEO of fragrance and consulting firm Scenterprises. "It is the scent that lingers when the person disappears, and therefore the person really has not gone. Those who are left in the room are assailed by a question: Who was that?"

The term is pronounced “see-Yahzh” (trust me, it doesn’t rhyme with “village”) and, essentially, it means that if you have a signature scent, then your presence will act as a calling card and a sign of benign authority.

Mind you, magic happens when the ratio of trail to "volume" is tuned just right. You don’t want to gas the room. People will remember you, for sure, but likely in horror.

What you can do to smell enticing, not repulsive

If you want to go for the generally lighter eau de toilette concentration versus the denser eau de parfum, so be it. This is highly variable depending on how "heavy" your fragrance is to begin with. One option you might consider (and this is the most luxurious one, as it’s the costliest) is the pure perfume (sold as extrait de parfum), which leaves a subtler trail. That’s because sillage is dependent on diffusion, in turn aided by the alcohol content; in pure perfume the ratio of alcohol to fragrant oils is lower. 

Fragrance oils are another option; they usually stick to the skin, trailing minimally due to the lack of alcohol in the formula. It's therefore a more intimate way of wearing scent. 

Please note that the fragrance's lasting power isn’t the same as the perfume's trail. A perfume that trails behind for miles might actually dissipate quickly (many bright citrus colognes fall in this category), while a very lasting one with musk notes and woods might stay close to the skin.

The notes of a scent are an important marker of sillage, as well, says Phillips. "Every fragrance is different—some are more volatile than others. By volatile I mean that some of the lighter ‘top notes’—e.g. citrus, fruity, refreshing notes—leave a scent trail that might not last too long, but initially they are very pleasing. As the fragrance ‘dries down,' some of the floral and deeper woodsy and spicy notes last longer and those are the notes that usually leave the scent trail."

An easy trick to test your scent trail

"Most times we are not able to actually smell our own scent trail—because as it implies, it trails us, so we can’t really smell it," says Phillips. "However, other people can, and we can usually find out if it is too strong or ‘just right’. If people find it too strong, they will make a comment about fragrances giving ‘headaches’ and allergies, and will make a negative comment. If they find it to be pleasing, they will either not say anything, or they will say, 'Oh your fragrance is so subtle and discreet.'"

As Phillips implies, the trick is to know thyself. Choose a perfume among the fragrance families that is neither too “loud” nor too subdued. You can test this out easily: spray once into an empty, clean room and close the door. Ten minutes later, open the door and sniff the air. You will immediately know if your perfume of choice is too strong or not strong enough.

And what about increasing your scent's trail?

To heighten sillage, spray an item of clothing, a leather bracelet/strap (note it will stay with you for a while), or a wool scarf. If a trail of scent is important to you, you also need something that melds with your own skin chemistry, but not completely. High sillage might be attained via notes that are not totally compliant to skin and therefore, not “eaten” up by it, such as patchouli, caramelic/vanilla notes, berries, and melon.

This makes products such as Mugler’s Angel, Hypnotic Poison and Fahrenheit (both by Dior), Aromatics Elixir (from Clinique), Le Male (by Gaultier), Guerlain's Insolence, Givenchy's Amarige, Calvin Klein's Obsession, and others the “sillage monsters” they are. So go easy on the sprayer.

If you really want to wear heavy perfume in a subtle way, you can turn to the range's body products (body lotion especially).

And if you notice your sillage is accidentally monstrous, you can grab a cotton ball dipped in rubbing alcohol and swipe the area of skin where you have applied too much perfume. Your fellow commuters will thank you. 

Angel by Thierry Mugler
Thierry Mugler Angel Eau de Parfum $87.00
Bottle of cologne
Jean Paul Gaultier Eau De Toilette Spray, Cologne for Men $50.00
aromatics elixir
Clinique Aromatics Elixir $88.00

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