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How to find a signature fragrance

How to find a signature fragrance

Smell is our most magical sense. It can act like a time machine, transporting us back to childhood, to a first love or heartbreak. That’s because the areas of the brain that process scent are among its most primitive, relics from early in our evolution. The memories conjured up by smell skip the logical parts of our mind and plug straight into emotion. Which is why, if you want to be remembered, the right fragrance can be the most important thing you put on in the morning.

But for such a primitive sense, hunting down the right one can be frustratingly complicated. Scent is so personal that it's also impossible to describe, which is why the terminology is so vague. To cut through the confusion, we spoke to expert Steven O’Neill, from scent mecca the Grooming Clinic. These are his tips on how to find something that people will remember forever.

Step 1 – pick the right strength

Women wear perfume, men wear aftershave, or so many people believe. But those terms refer not to gender, but concentration. Fragrances range from cologne (the weakest) up through aftershave, eau de toilette, eau de parfum, all the way to parfum (the strongest). “Cologne needs to be applied more regularly,” says O’Neill. “For longevity, you should look between an eau de parfum or a parfum.”

An eau de parfum is the Goldilocks of fragrances, not overpowering but also with a decent amount of longevity. “An eau de parfum should last all day,” says O’Neill. “That’s why it’s important to find one that you like. You’ll be wearing it for hours.”

Step 2 – find your family

Fragrances fall into four distinct families. Floral scents, as the name suggests, use ingredients either sourced from or which emulate flowers. Oriental fragrances are heavier and rich in spices, like tobacco or oud. Fresh refers to fragrances full of citrus – because they’re lighter, they tend to dissipate more quickly. Woody fragrances sit between the two, and lean heavily on natural smells from things like cedarwood, pine and sandalwood.

Fragrances are created by layering together different ingredients, the molecules of which evaporate at different rates. “The top notes are the things you smell instantly,” says O’Neill. “They’re the first hit but they dissipate quickly too. The middle notes are slightly heavier and will last a little longer, but the base notes are where the lasting scent really comes from.” Mass market fragrances tend to be quite flat whereas niche fragrances can be highly complex, changing drastically from morning to evening. They can seem almost alive, and create a distinctive scent that's completely unique to you.

Step 3 – test and wait

“It takes time to find your family of scents,” says O’Neill. “It’s trial and error.” The only way to track down something you love is with your own nose. Either order miniature samplers, or go and test them in person by spritzing several onto different pieces of paper (it helps to write what each is on the back). “If you spray multiple options straight on your skin you’ll get confused,” says O’Neill.

Because the notes change over the day, you’ll want to smell each at different intervals to see how it’s changed. You might love something at first, then find that four hours later it’s morphed into something you can’t stand. “Find the base notes you like and search from there,” says O’Neill. But don’t invest yet. First, you need to try it on yourself. “The oils in your skin react with the oils in the fragrance, so to get the real scent you need to live with it for a few hours.”

Step 4 – choose the right size

Fragrances are made from natural ingredients, which decay over time. So that giant bottle from Duty Free isn’t as good a deal as it looks – by the time you’re halfway through, it will have gone off. “At first, buy a travel size,” says O’Neill. “It’s a good way to find out if you really like it without a big hit on the wallet.”

Some fragrance enthusiasts keep their bottles in the fridge. You don’t need to go that far, but somewhere away from natural light and temperature fluctuations is best (in other words, not in your bathroom). “The biggest mistake men make is wearing too much or too little fragrance,” says O’Neill. “If the first spray lingers then there’s no need to add more.”


Illustrations: Eric Chow
Words: Nadia Balame-Price