Scent is subjective, which means it’s a tricky thing to explain. Fragrances are often a complex blend of ingredients, or notes in fragrance lingo, and if you have a good nose, you can smell each one individually. These notes meld together to create another aroma entirely that morphs and evolves as it lives on the skin. This means the journey a scent takes on the skin is transient. On top of the evolving nature of wearing a perfume and the subjectivity of the ingredients, there is the fact that perfume smells different on different skin types.
“They’re abstract,” says Celine Roux, vice president of global fragrance development of Jo Malone London. “Brands want to take you into a universe or set a specific mood, so it becomes a little harder to express.”
I remember attending a dinner once with Procter & Gamble’s in-house perfume expert. He was saying that the fragrance industry desperately wants an easy-to-understand set of terms that consumers can relate to. A language that will help to unlock the often confusing world of aroma. This was about five years ago, and it hasn’t happened yet. So to help you understand what those descriptive words mean when you’re shopping for a new scent—we’re talking words like “animalic,” “fougere” and “accord”—we’ve called on two fragrance experts to offer up easy to understand definitions: Celine Roux and Lewis Peacock, fragrance expert on the Coty luxury fragrance design team.
The thing is, we’ll always smell fragrances differently—just the other day the Byrdie team spritzed Byredo’s new Rodeo, and two of us could detect a hint of parma violets while the other was adamant the sweet scent was not housed within the bottle. But at least if we’re all on the same page about how to describe perfumes, hopefully it will help to demystify the subjective world of scent.
Scroll down to see what these experts have to say about these commonly used, but often misunderstood, fragrance buzzwords.
“This refers to a single raw material, such as a Jasmine note, or can be an accord. This is just shorthand to refer to key signature materials within the fragrance such a hero flower," says Peacock.
Top, middle and heart notes
“The top notes are the most dominant on first spritz, the opening of the fragrance. Typically these are citrus, fruity, aquatic and light floral notes, and they dominate the character for the first 10 to 30 minutes,” says Peacock.
“Heart notes are your signature notes, such as flowers, green and aromatic notes (herbs, lavender, etc.) and spices. This is where the most memorable part of the perfume comes from. It will be the most dominant character from 20 to 30 minutes and for two to four hours.
“Base notes, or dry-down, are the rich heavy notes, such as woods, musky notes, ambery notes and vanilla that provide the enduring and lasting character on the skin all day. This is purely down to the size and weight of the molecules—small light citrus notes will come off the skin quickly and easily, and hence be more dominant. The larger, heavier molecules stay on the skin longer and will bloom much more slowly.”
"Dry-down is used to reference the rich, heavy materials that stay on the skin the longest. Typically, they are woody notes, such as cedar, sandal and patchouli; gourmand notes like vanilla and musk notes; and amber notes," explains Peacock.
“An accord is a mix of perfume raw materials that creates a new odour (i.e. they mix together to create one smell),” says Peacock.
“The best analogy is playing notes and chords in music. Three individual notes sound different. However, when played together, they make a more rich and complex sound, but you can’t define them individually. Typical perfumer accords would be fruits, florals and woody notes.”
This centres around citrus and green notes. Roux likens it to cooking: "For example, when you have a dish and you add the peel of an orange, you’re going to bring something fresh, or you can play also with [an] herb to bring freshness. If you do a quinoa salad, you add mint, coriander—you know, all of these notes are going to bring freshness.”
So what's the difference between a fresh and green scent if a fresh note can sometimes contain green notes? When you think green, think grass. “In general, when the fragrance is green, you can think of cut grass. You know when you just mowed the lawn and you have this very fresh grass, and you have this very green note? [The smell] is almost a bit sharp,” Roux says.
“Fougère literally means fern in French and is its own family of fragrances. Think about the traditional masculine smells through the decades, such as brut, kouros and drakkar noir. First created by Paul Parquet at Houbigant in Fougère Royale (1882) to represent the feeling of the forest or the ferns,” explains Peacock. "It was so popular and much copied that it created a whole new family of fragrances for men. Normally comprising citrus top notes, such as lemon and bergamot; green and aromatic heart notes such as geranium and lavender; and mossy (oakmoss) dry-down notes.”
“This refers to animal-like smells. Leathery notes can sometimes be animalic; other notes might include synthetic (man-made) musky notes that have a more animal smell.
“There are no animal-derived musks in modern perfumery. However, we do have many synthetics that reproduce these more dark, rich and sometimes barnyard-like smells,” explains Peacock.
If you like sweet fragrances, then you should look out for perfumes described as being a gourmand. “These are edible smells that will have perceivable sweetness or richness, that reminds the wearer of chocolate, vanilla and other more sweet, dessert-like smells,” Peacock tells us.
“When we say a fragrance is sensual, there is a warmth to it,” says Roux. The ingredients that are usually included into a scent like this include amber and warm, woody notes. You may also find a bit of spice and vanilla. She says all these notes create a warm base.
Musk is an animal-derived scent. For that reason, it is usually not taken naturally to make a fragrance. “It’s only a recreation of [the] scent,” says Roux. She likens the scent to something that smells like powder.
“A description of the feeling of freshness of a fragrance, coming from very bright and fresh notes that can evoke a fizz or even tingle in the nose,” describes Peacock. “These being very fresh citrus and/or fruit notes, or a sparkling wine type smell, or even pink pepper freshness that almost makes your nose tingle like you have just sniffed in a small amount of pepper.”
This is something subjective to what is popular in the market at a certain time. “Something like Chanel No.5 is considered a classic, but nowadays, I think our generation does not really wear those types of fragrances.” According to Roux, popular scents now include notes that are sweet and fruity smelling.
When you think dry, think of wood. “When you sharpen a pencil … that smell is very dry. When you actually smell [something like] cedar wood, most of the people say, ‘Oh, it smells like when you sharpen a pencil.’ It's the opposite of wet. There is no moist; it’s not damp,” Roux says.
“This is a family of materials. Think kitchen herbs—basil, sage, rosemary, mint, lavender. This family will also include some grassy notes and other green-smelling notes like geranium leaf,” says Peacock.
“Man-made materials that, in most cases, were once found in nature that can now be man-made, thus making them more broadly available," says Peacock. "Two classic examples are vanillin (a pure edible vanilla note), that was found in the vanilla bean and makes up 80% of its smell, and coumarin, that was isolated from the tonka bean. Both were discovered and re-created in the mid-1800s.
“Modern perfumery has always been a partnership with organic chemistry and with the advances of science, the perfumery palette (or materials we can use) has greatly increased. Some smells cannot be extracted from nature, such as soft fruit, orchard fruit (apples, pears, etc.) and even some flowers, but we have found ways to produce them. The perfumery palette contains around 4500 materials and approximately one-third are from natural sources—citrus fruits, flowers, woods and spices. The remaining two-thirds are man-made and even include materials such as the watery notes that give you the aquatic freshness that real water can’t give. So, in summary, I always say that synthetic notes allow much greater, almost limitless creativity.
“This an historic naming system that refers to the French toilet waters, meaning that they are more dilute versions of the perfume, or parfum. A modern eau de toilette is typically lighter than an eau de parfum and sometimes fresher,” explains Peacock.
“A more concentrated version of the fragrance with a very high perfume oil concentration—typically above 20% and designed to be very powerful and very long-lasting,” says Peacock.
"This is a more modern declination of the EdT\EdP parfum classification and often refers to the most special version within a line-up. It will have a very high oil level and is similar to a parfum; in many or most cases, there are more special materials (more expensive), and it is more of a nighttime or sensual positioning. It is often used in men’s fragrances as it sounds better for that audience," suggests Peacock.
Next up, check out what we know so far about the highly anticipated Glossier fragrance.