In an ideal world, a signature scent serves as a personal scent memory to cherished friends and loved ones. A fragrance can linger on clothes, in rooms, over the air, causing thoughts like: Santal 33! Chelsea’s here! or Oh no, Santal 33. Chelsea is here. But getting to that point is difficult, thanks to the complications of finding a signature perfume. The short answer for how to find your elusive, signature fragrance is merely: Find one that you like. It sounds simple. But as they say in life, it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey. And the journey to finding a fragrance can feel a bit like a scent version of.
Perfume descriptions are useless for determining whether a smell suits you. “Our inspiration was a boudoir where unicorns copulate and their sweat creates a chypre musk,” reads the description of a fanciful fragrance. Meanwhile, you’re left wondering, What’s a chypre and why does this unicorn smell like a smoky fruit punch?
If you don’t know what a chypre is or can’t tell the difference between Curious and Chanel No.5, you’re not alone. But here are nine simple tips on how to learn to trust your nose, follow your instincts, and commit to a signature scent.
1. Try out only three scents a time.
Initially, especially if you don’t really have an idea of what you like, smell everything. But limit your explorations to sniffing only three scents per visit, suggest Erika Shumate and Christine Luby, the Stanford MBA founders of fragrance start-up Pinrose. “Your olfactory bulb is getting more of a workout than it’s used to. Give each fragrance its own proper shot.”
2. Start with lighter scents first.
Luby suggests, “It’s better to start with more aqueous or musky scents first; 50 percent of the population can’t even smell musk.” Muskier scents are more clean-laundry-type scents; aqueous ones are fresher (think Acqua di Gio). Go from musky to citrus to fruity florals into heavier woods.
3. It’s good to rebound with a fragrance.
Unlike rebounding with a bad boyfriend, if you keep returning to a sample and liking it, something about the fragrance is drawing you in. Request a sample of that fragrance and spray it on yourself, as body chemistry can affect how a fragrance smells. Shumate explains, “When I’m trying a fragrance, I’ll put it on the top of my hands or wrists or the crook of my elbow. They’re areas that aren’t getting constantly washed. I’ll check in every 20 minutes or hour to see if I like it.”
4. Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t like oud or other unfamiliar scents.
Everyone is talking about their love for oud like their love for kale, but don’t be concerned if you don’t like it. “Fragrance preference is often rooted in familiarity. If you smell an oud and have never worn one before, it’s not that you don’t like it, it’s that your nose is learning,” Luby clarifies. Shumate adds, “Do you get a headache when you wear the scent? Is it making you feel the mood you want to feel?” These are questions you should ask yourself as you’re trying out fragrances.
5. Try to understand what you are smelling.
This will help you ask for more of the same thing or vocalize what you don’t like. Shumate and Luby try to break down the scent categories in basic terms.
Musk: This may sound like the underwashed armpit of a college wrestler, but musk is actually a clean-laundry scent.
Smoky: It can smell like a campfire burning, fragrant cedar chips, or a blown-out match.
Citrusy: Lime, lemon, oranges. It often feels a little like a spa with a nice yoga studio.
Woody: These scents can range from a creamy nutty flavor (like pralines-and-cream ice cream), to sandalwood, to spicy and dank like a musky old closet (patchouli), to an old No. 2 pencil (cedarwood).
Green: Includes the chalky aftertaste of a wheatgrass shot as well as a dewy moss on a spring morning.
Floral: Floral encompasses everything from white florals (gardenia, lilies, ylang, etc.), to roses, to violets, to peonies.
Aquatic: Where 7 Up meets bubble bath.
Oriental: Incense sticks. It can be slightly powdery with a hint of spice or sweetness.
6. Skip the coffee beans.
Coffee beans are generally not too far away in every perfume shop. If you ask any clerk, they claim it’s because sniffing them “resets” your scent indicators. But Shumate and Luby suggest that this is an old perfumer’s tale. “It’s another strong scent,” they explain. Instead, they smell themselves. “Bury your nose in your own elbow that doesn’t have fragrance. It really works. Something about your own scent and pH recalibrates your nose.”
7. See how a scent evolves after four hours.
In scent nomenclature, people often talk about the “top note” and “dry down” of perfumes the way people talk about the legs of a wine. Luby and Shumate explain, “Fragrances are living organisms and evolve over time. A top note lasts about 20 minutes and is your first impression of the fragrance. The heart lasts for the better part of the day, about four hours.”
8. Understand why some fragrances cost $30 and some cost $300.
Cheaper fragrances tend to have top notes that are initially very, very strong. Or to some, like Shumate, they smell a little “metallic-y.” More expensive fragrances have the complexity of a heart and dry down, and also tend to have longer-lasting power.
9. Try a hair perfume.
No, not the kind of product billed as a hair perfume. When you do finally find a scent you like, Shumate and Luby suggest spraying it in your hair (which may not be hairdresser-approved advice since most perfumes contain alcohol, but is perfumer-approved advice). “Your hair waves around and creates this nest. Hair carries scent really well.”