Fragrance Q&A: Making Scents of it All

Get ready to up your aroma I.Q. We've found answers to the fragrance questions you've always wondered about, plus plenty of new blends to try -- on you and your guy.

Excerpts from a fragrance editorial, Making Scents of it All, in InStyle Magazine, Nov. 2012 issue.

New Blends You'll Love

Floral perfumes
Marchesa Parfum d'Extase perfume
Marchesa Parfum d'Extase

As girlie and romantic as a chiffon Marchesa gown -- thanks to flowery freesia, jasmine, and iris.
Eau de parfum $85 / 1.6oz Sephora
Stella McCartney Lily perfume
Stella McCartney L.I.L.Y.

This fresh lily of the valley scent is deepened (just a bit) by truffle.
Eau de parfum $80 / 1.7oz Sephora

Dolce and Gabbana Pour Femme perfume
Dolce & Gabbana Pour Femme

Eau so feminine, with soft jasmine, orange blossom, and the faintest trace of vanilla.
Eau de parfum $98 / 3.3oz Saks

Did You Know? The idea of sniffing coffee beans to "clear" your nose while sampling perfume is bogus, says perfume expert Ann Gottlieb. It only fills nostrils with another strong scent. Smell your sleeve instead.

Spicy perfumes
Hermes l'Ambre des Merveilles perfume
Hermes L'Ambre des Merveilles

Amber is paired with vanilla for a sensual - and surprisingly subtle aroma.
Eau de parfum $149 / 3.3oz Hermes
Chanel Coco Noir perfume
Chanel Coco Noir

The mix of patchouli, tonka bean, and rose is a little woodsy and beyond sexy.
Eau de parfum $130 / 3.4oz Chanel
Reem Acra perfume
Reem Acra Eau de Parfum

Orange blossom lightens up this rich amber-infused blend.
Eau de parfum $125 / 3oz Saks

Did You Know? Layering is the trick to making your fragrance last all day. Apply a body wash or lotion in the A.M., then follow with a perfume in the same scent. Slip a roller-ball in your purse for touch-ups.

Fruity perfumes
Layering perfumes
Guerlain La Petite Robe Noire perfume
Guerlain La Petite Robe Noire

Black cherries, rose, and patchouli are bold but sweet.
Eau de parfum $80 / 1.6oz Sephora

Diane von Furstenberg Love Diane perfume
Diane von Furstenberg Love Diane

Delicate jasmine and a yummy dose of red currant make for a sparkling combination.
Eau de parfum $65 / 1.7oz DVF
Isaac Mizrahi Fabulous perfume
Isaac Mizrahi Fabulous

Make your fragrance last by layering.
Perfumed body lotion ($30/6.7oz), roller-ball ($20/.33oz), and eau de parfum ($78/3.4oz), Bloomingdales
Natural perfumes

I've seen so many "natural" fragrances lately. How do they differ from regular ones?

Traditional perfumes commonly contain essential oils plus any number of synthetic fragrance molecules. These chemicals can be used to mirror aromas that can't be extracted from -- or are simply too expensive to draw out of -- plants, flowers, and fruit, or to produce unique scents that aren't found in nature. Natural perfumes, on the other hand, are typically composed of essential oils and naturally derived extracts. "There have been reports that some synthetic ingredients in fragrances might be potential hormone disrupters," says obstetrician-gynecologist Jennifer Ashton, author of Your Body Beautiful. "The bottom line is we don't fully understand what physical effects these perfumes might have on us. But I don't believe there is any evidence to say one type of blend is better for you than the other." Allergic reactions, she notes, may occur after applying either variety. To be safe, always dab a little onto a small patch of skin to make sure it doesn't cause any irritation before spritzing away. If the more natural route appeals to you most, we love the two sophisticated juices below.

Honore des Pres Vamp a NY perfume

Honore des Pres Vamp a NY
Sweet and Spicy natural perfume.
Eau de parfum $98 / 1.7oz

Red Flower Ambrette Organic perfume

Red Flower Ambrette Organic
Earthy Floral natural perfume.
Perfume concentrate $186 / .5oz

Office friendly perfumes

What type of scent is appropriate for the office?

Your best bet is to play it safe with a cologne, which is the least potent form of bottled fragrance. "Apply it onto areas of your body that are covered by clothing," says perfumer Olivia Jan. "The fabric acts as a barrier, making the aroma less intense to those around you." Check out Atelier Cologne's lines of light sprays. They come in a variety of scents, from neroli and vanilla to rose (their newest creation, above). No matter how much of the fresh juices you spritz, they never overpower.

Atelier Cologne Rose Anonyme perfume

Atelier Cologne Rose Anonyme
For work, play it safe with a cologne.
Cologne Absolue $195 / 6.7oz

Men Colognes

Any ideas of picking out a fragrance for the man in my life?

If you're planning a surprise, do some snooping first. "Find out which scents he's worn in the past, then ask a salesperson to see modern versions of those," says Ann Gottlieb. Or bring your guy to the counter, explain what type of blends he usually likes (musky or spicy, for example), then test a few options on blotting paper before dabbing the two favorites on his wrists. "You want to be sure the bottled scent is compatible with the aroma of his skin," says Gottlieb. Keep in mind that heat causes fragrances to smell stronger, so you may want to consider lighter citrus or marine-like blends in the summer and, say, something deep and woodsy in the winter. And if you're going to be spending a lot of time together, don't forget to try the fragrance on your own body to see whether there's an off-putting note in there that bugs you, suggests Gottlieb.

Calvin Klein Encounter fragrance
Calvin Klein Encounter

SPORTY - Fresh and clean -- with a hint of pepper to give it a sultry edge.
Eau de toilette $58 / 1.7oz Macy's

Dolce and Gabbana Pour Homme fragrance
Dolce & Gabbana Pour Homme

MINIMAL - This lavender blend has a soft, soap-like quality that makes you want to snuggle close.
Eau de toilette $73 / 4.2oz Saks
Tom Ford Noir fragrance
Tom Ford Noir

SPICY - Patchouli and pepper are tempered by powdery rose and iris. The result: a modern and sexy mix.
Eau de parfum $90 / 1.7oz Nordstrom
Fragrance Q and A

Sephora Fragrance Sampler

How can I sample fragrances at home before buying one?
Commintment-phobes, rejoice! Sure, you can spritz on hundreds of scents at your local Sephora, but did you know that the salespeople are happy to fill up tester vials (about .05 fl. oz. each) of your faves for you to take home ... free of charge? They can pour three per visit -- all you have to do is ask. Snagging the brand's Fragrance Sampler is another cool option: It's a box filled with 12 mini tubes of current popular perfumes, like Prada Candy and Marc Jacobs Dot, and a certificate for a free full-size bottle of the one you like best. For more niche brands, go to, suggests scent critic Chandler Burr. The Web site has more than 1,000 fragrances from smaller labels, such as Calypso St. Barth and Etat Libre d'Orange, and for about $4 you can order a glass ampule (about .02 fl. oz.) to test-drive.

Why does fragrance smell one way on me and totally different on someone else?
Your nose isn't playing tricks on you. Everyone's skin has a distinct odor, which comes primarily from your hormones and your diet (pores can secrete aromas from strong foods, such as garlic). "When you put on a fragrance, it mingles with your skin's scent and alters slightly," says perfumer Olivia Jan. So before you copycat your best friend's signature blend, test it on yourself.

Fragrances come in a lot of forms, such as eau de parfum and eau de toilette. What do all the various names mean?

  • PARFUM   (the French word for "perfume") is the purest -- and priciest -- form. It has the highest concentration of fragrance compounds and essential oils (about 20% to 30% of total blend), which makes it the most aromatically intense and longest lasting.
  • EAU DE PARFUM   has about 16% to 18% concentration, says Jan. Though it is almost as potent as parfum, it tends to be less expensive.
  • EAU DE TOILETTE   usually sold as a spray, has about 12% to 15% concentration, says Jan. Since the scent is lighter, you can use is more liberally than the aforementioned formulations.
  • COLOGNE   tend to be the lightest of the fragrances, with about a 6% to 8% concentration. You can use one generously from head to toe without worrying about coming on too strong, says perfume expert Jan Moran. Just keep in mind that the scent won't linger, so it will probably need to be reapplied several times during the day.

Help! I've applied way too much perfume. How can I tone it down without a full-on shower?
Grab a towel (or paper towel), run it under warm water, then rub it over the areas that were doused, says Jan. "This reduces the concentration a bit." To get rid of the aroma completely, try working up a lather. "Fragrances' essential oils are greasy, so you need soap and water to remove them." Unscented oil-based makeup remover works too. Just dab it over your skin and wipe it off with a tissue, she says.

I've never worn perfume before. How do I shop for one?
It's easy to feel overwhelmed by all those bottles. Read this advice before walking up to the counter.

Do your homework
Before you head to the store, park it and research a bit. "Go on perfume blogs (like or and start reading," suggests Chandler Burr, who is currently highlighting his favorite blends in an ongoing series of posts on "See what people are saying about the latest launches. Think of it as leafing through your favorite fashion magazine. You're looking for ideas of what to try on in the store."

Consider your preferences
Focus on the scents you already know you like. If you adore roses, for example, ask the salesperson for fragrances that showcase that floral note in high quantities, says Olivia Jan. Love the smell of fresh berries? Request fruity blends. If you like deep earthy aromas -- brewed coffee, patchouli oil -- seek out spicy creations. (Review our favorites for fall, above.)

Narrow it down
First, use blotter papers to sample scents -- six at the most. "More than that and your nose may not be able to easily distinguish among them," says perfume expert Ann Gottlieb. Once you find a few fragrances you like, try them out on your skin. "Put one scent on the left wrist, another on the right," says Burr. "Dab the third on your left inner elbow, the fourth on your right inner elbow."

Take your time
Don't decide on a scent the second you spray it on. Fragrances develop in stages, says Jan. "The first top notes you smell will fade after about 10 minutes." Monitor how each blend develops on your skin: "See what it smells like after 60 seconds, then after five minutes, 30 minutes, and an hour," says Burr. If you love a scent at every phase, then that's the one!

Is it possible for perfume to go bad if left in the bottle too long?
There's a reason you won't find a market for vintage scents. "Heat, light, and air can all lead to the deterioration of a fragrance," says perfumer Pierre Negrin. "They cause ingredients to oxidize and the scent to change over time." Some pros say you can keep blends for a year; Negrin likes to use one up in a few months. Resist the urge to hoard your elixirs, and stash them in a cool, dark space. To really stretch a bottle, store it in your refrigerator, says Negrin.

(Serrano, Angelique. "Making Scents of it All. Beauty: Fragrance Q&A." InStyle Nov. 2012: 205-210)

Learn about all the latest perfumes and home fragrances! Perfume Articles