How to Find the Best Cologne for You, According to a Pro Perfumer
The easiest way to buy a fragrance is also the least personal. Wearing a scent regularly adds an olfactive element to your presence—and if nothing else, it’s the easiest conversation starter a guy can have (because being complimented on a good scent can happen just about every day). So why let that talking point be “Oh, I bought the one advertised at my subway station”, or “I learned about it from a billboard en route to work”? There are thousands of fragrances out there, which can make the work of finding the right one for you feel especially daunting, never mind assembling a portfolio of fragrances to wear on different occasions and in the varying seasons.
Which is why it’s worth it to understand how to find the best fragrance for you—and a unique one at that. It’s no knock to the big-name fashion houses, either: Even if you land on a mass-market scent as your go-to choice, it will be hard-earned and all the more meaningful.
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“Ultimately, the value of a scent is subjective and personal, so while factors like sillage, longevity, and shelf life can be important to some, the most important quality is how the scent makes the individual feel when wearing it,” says Su min Park, co-founder and COO of boutique fragrance and beauty brand Elorea. “Scent is the strongest of our senses and is the only one linked to memory and emotion, so fragrances have a strong association with well-being in that they can boost your mood and confidence.”
To help you unlock that exact feeling, we asked Park to weigh with the basics every guy needs to understand about fragrance, and to offer tips on how you can land on one (or more) scents that will turn heads for the right reasons.
1. Study up on concentration levels
One of the best ways to start your scent search is to think about how much power or longevity you want the scent to have, and this is often dictated by the concentration of perfume oils contained within. While two products with identical concentrations won’t ever have the same performance metrics—since that often boils down to the quality of raw materials used—understanding the nomenclature on the bottle serves as a great guide. (Our senior editor Justin Fenner explains these levels in the video above.)
People who want something light should shop for something under eight percent concentration, which includes Eau Fraiche (less than three percent concentration), Eau de Cologne (aka EDC, from three to five percent), or Eau de Toilette (EDT, from five to eight percent). An EDT might last through lunchtime, while an Eau Fraiche will be “barely there”—which is a benefit for many people. “A good opportunity to use Eau Fraiches would be after navigating through a crowded street on a hot day, and you need to freshen up before stepping into an office or a meeting,” says Park.
The sweet spot tends to be Eau de Parfums (EDPs) with eight to 15 percent concentrations—though that spectrum doesn’t indicate whether it’s a light EDP or a strong one; only a trial or trusted reviews can tell you for sure. “EDP typically has higher sillage and longevity—so you won’t need to reapply as often—making it worth the higher price tag if these are important factors for you,” Park explains.
Beyond EDPs, there are also Parfums and Extraits, which can range from 15 to 40 percent in the concentration of perfume oils. Those usually only require a single spritz for efficacy; anything more would be overdoing it.
2. Get familiar with fragrance families
The next thing to brush up on is your understanding of fragrance families. Industry darling Michael Edwards (at Fragrances of the World) developed a widely accepted “Fragrance Wheel” that separates scents into various large buckets and smaller categories—everything as broad as “Woody” or “Floral” or as specific as “Green” or “Aquatic” or “Aromatic”. These categories will help you hone in on something that best suits you, or to even classify existing scents that you have.
While this might seem frivolous, it’s useful to understand the big-picture classification, since on paper two scents might have the same notes with an entirely different expressions. By understanding how to describe which families you’re drawn to, you can zero in on a smaller list of options faster.
Also, give yourself permission to be surprised. Let’s say you like powdery musky scents; sure, you’ll be shopping under “aromatic” and “fresh” categories, but you might find something floral or woody that deploys musk and iris notes and has a terrific aromatic undercurrent despite being classified as something else. (More advice on browsing these categories below.)
3. Understand notes and layers
In fragrance, notes are the elements whose combination composes the final fragrance and generates the familial classification. These are your sandalwoods, musks, bergamots, roses, mosses, patchoulis, and so forth. A scent might have just a few notes, or dozens of them, depending on the complexity of the formula. Shopping by individual notes can be a dangerous game because they don’t typically pull enough weight on their own. Instead, you want to understand where each note is located within the three layers of dissipation. (The brand will usually do you a favor and point out the most prominent notes in each product, too.)
These layers are called the top, middle/heart, and base.
Top notes: “The top notes provide the initial impression and can make a strong impact,” says Park. They will be the first to evaporate, too.
Middle or heart notes: “The heart notes typically make up the bulk of the fragrance and last the longest, so they play a significant role in defining the scent’s overall character,” she adds.
Base notes: “Base notes anchor the fragrance and give it depth and longevity.” The gravity of the base notes will often dictate the classification because high concentrations of base notes will often overpower the others.
Pay attention to all three layers, Park says. It will also give you a more dynamic experience as you appreciate the artful layering the perfumer gave to the scent, since no fragrances will smell the same at the beginning of your day as they do at the end.
4. Start with a signature scent, then expand your portfolio
Keep your focus singular at the start: If you don’t have an established signature scent, spend some effort getting one. This is the scent that you wear most often, and which people associate (hopefully positively) with you. This is also the one that becomes your talking point—or maybe you want something so subtle that it barely turns heads, but still impresses quietly.
From there, you’ll build out a more dynamic portfolio—like one for date night, one for hot summer days, another for cozy winter weekends… “There might be a few you love,” Park says. “Fragrances can become ‘accessories’ that you can use to complete your look and convey [different sides of yourself]. I recommend having a few scents in different scent profiles and sillage to cater to various occasions and moods. Personally, I like to switch up the scents depending on the weather and outfit as well. I would say owning at least four scents in different scent profiles can give a good range of options.”
5. Ask people what they’re wearing
If someone is wearing a fragrance, then he’s basically asking you to compliment it. So don’t be shy: If you like something, ask about it. And if it’s somebody you work with or see frequently, then don’t just run off and buy the exact same one. Instead, use that product’s notes, classification, and fragrance family as a basis to find a similar fragrance.
“Most fragrance websites list the notes and category it belongs to, and there are even fragrance quizzes to narrow down the search,” Park adds. (More about that in the next tip.) You might even be shocked that the fragrance your colleague wears (and which you love) is something with mass appeal. In fact, there’s a good chance of it, because that’s exactly why it’s mass appeal—but again, use this as your launching point for the more personal pursuit of a signature scent. Soon, everyone will be asking you what you’re wearing.
6. Use the web’s best resources
Most people don’t think of this, despite how obvious it seems: The internet is your best resource for finding a new scent. Sites like Fragrantica, Basenotes, and Parfumo offer huge encyclopedias of knowledge, and you can browse picks based on notes, brands, and ratings, as well as see how the fervent and very vocal scent community rates each one’s sillage (its lingering effect), optimal seasonality and day or evening wear, value for price, and the like. Usually, the comments under each scent will also compare it to similar options, which can lead you to new and exciting pursuits.
7. Always try before you buy
If you’re shopping at a department store or fragrance boutique, then it’s easy to try a scent before paying for it. But buying scents online is a risk. That’s why you should never buy a fragrance online without trying it first. Luckily, many brands are happy to include a sampler of the product you purchased, so that you don’t have to unwrap the actual fragrance until you know you like it. Others, like Park’s own brand Elorea, offer discovery sets. “We provide a voucher (of equal value to the set) that can be used towards a full-size bottle purchase, so you can try them at your own pace before committing,” Park says.
Other services include subscription sample companies like LuxSB and Scentbird, which will send you a different scent in a large enough sample to last a month or so. (LuxSB has introduced me personally to dozens of incredible scents, my latest favorite being the exquisite Parfums de Marly Herod EDP.) Some people like the chance to switch up their scent each month, while others just want to play the field before committing. Other sites, like LuckyScent, will even sell individual samples (in this case, of niche/boutique scents) making it easy to make an informed decision.
8. Start with a light layer
When you’re trying that scent out for the first time, always start on the lighter side. Nothing kills the vibe like a heavy application; even the best scent can be repulsive in too large a dose. See how well a small spritz performs, and what kind of feedback you get.
When applying, be sure to target your pulse points; the neck is perhaps the most important (and will allow you to enjoy it more), while the ones on each wrist are also terrific at warming up the scent and helping it project further.
9. Wear it a few times before committing
Don’t just buy a $200 fragrance because it felt right on a single wear. Try to wear it in different settings, at different times of the day, as well as on weekdays and weekends. This is especially important with a signature scent because everyone you see regularly is going to associate this aroma with you. You want to make sure it’s the right fit and not just a one-off fluke.
10. Don’t shy away from synthetics
“There is a popular misconception that ‘natural ingredients’ and ‘essential oils’ are always superior to synthetic ingredients,” Park says. “However, this is not always the case in the fragrance industry. Many synthetic ingredients are actually safer and more sustainable to use, as they can be precisely engineered to create a desired scent without the need for harmful extraction methods, the overharvesting of natural resources, and the use of animal-derived ingredients.”
She adds that natural ingredients can actually cause more allergic reactions than synthetics, too. So, don’t doubt science; in perfumery, it’s usually better to have synthetics in the end.
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