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Time To Understand Fragrance Terms

Word cloud of fragrance terms

The fragrance world can be a bit confusing to understand even for those familiar with it. A mixture between eccentric descriptions, multiple languages, distinguished history, and chemical compounds sometimes even experts cannot agree upon.

Such language should not create a barrier for anyone to enjoy such a universal pleasure with strong links to mood and memory. Through my research, I’ve compiled a list of fragrance terms you may encounter on your fragrance journey with easy to understand definitions. Use this glossary as your olfactory reference and discover something new.

Basics

  • Accord:

     An accord is the combination of several notes that create a completely new scent indistinguishable from the individual components in a fragrance. The classic Chypre accord is created from a mix of bergamot, patchouli, oak moss, and rose. Even seemingly simple odors can be quite complex to recreate. Pineapple, a famed component in Creed Aventus, is composed of about 1-2 dozen volatile compounds yet strawberry is actually one of the most complex fruit aromas, made up of over 350 volatile compounds.

  • Atomizer:

    Most modern fragrances are dispensed using an atomizer, or spray nozzle, allowing the liquid inside the bottle’s reservoir to break up into small droplets, not individual atoms as the name suggests. It utilizes Bernoulli’s Principle of a high speed stream of air passing over the vertical tube to create a low pressure that draws the liquid up into the stream. Each atomizer is different but the average atomizer gets between 10-15 sprays per 1mL of fragrance. How long a fragrance bottle lasts depends on the atomizer, size of bottle, and fragrance concentration influencing how many sprays are used.

  • Designer:

    Designer fragrances typically come from brands that are not solely focused on fragrances (such as the fashion houses Dior, Chanel, and Gucci) and are tailored to appeal to the majority of consumers. Designer colognes and perfumes can be found in most retailers as these brands have large scale production – often several million bottles per year – which reduces the cost due to economy of scale. The large standard productions do not detract from the fact that designer fragrances are high quality, well respected, historically significant, and mass appealing. They just won’t generally be as daring as niche fragrances.

  • Drydown:

    The drydown is the lingering base to middle notes composing the body of a fragrance about 30 minutes after the top notes have dissipated, which will last the majority of the remaining fragrance life cycle. Every fragrance will perform differently so remember to experience the evolution of a fragrance throughout the day when testing a new scent so you don’t “love the opening, hate the drydown”.

  • Flanker:

    In the world of perfumery, a flanker is a new release that shares some common lineage to an existing fragrance in scent profile or ethos. This spinoff could be a winter version of a traditional summer scent, a more intense edition, a completely different scent capitalizing on the popularity of the original, or any other permutation of sequels. For example, Dior Homme Sport is a fresher take on Dior Homme while still retaining a similar profile to the original. Sometimes a flanker is revered more than the original and other times it’s a complete flop.

  • Fragrance Concentration:

    The fragrance concentration (all defined here) roughly indicates the amount of aromatic oils combined in a base of alcohol or water, though this is not regulated and can more accurately be thought of as guidelines on what to expect from a fragrance. Generally, the higher the concentration the more sparingly the fragrance should be sprayed. Most stores organize fragrances by gender, brand, and price, not by strength although each fragrance line (e.g. Bleu de Chanel) can also come in different strengths. Different concentrations are not just simply dilutions of the same fragrance though. The perfumer may focus on deeper accords for a powerful night time Eau de Parfum while highlighting fresh citrus top notes in a light Eau de Toilette.

  • Niche:

    Niche fragrances are smaller batch, unique scent profiles from brands that focus exclusively on fragrance products, which are not as commonly found in stores or worn by the masses. Niche fragrances may often push the boundaries into divisive scents you either love or hate – no middle ground here. A niche fragrance is not inherently better or worse than a designer fragrance, it’s just a matter of personal preference. Some respected niche fragrance maisons include Amouage, Creed, and Parfums de Marly. These are the craft breweries of the fragrance world. A few designer houses also create niche fragrance lines such as Tom Ford Private Blend and Giorgio Armani Privé.

  • Note:

    A note is a single identifiable component scent of a fragrance (think sandalwood, pepper, and vanilla) or the scent produced by an individual aroma chemical (such as Iso E Super). Notes are perceptible at different times throughout the life of a fragrance and are characterized as top notes, heart notes, and base notes. The note list on a bottle of cologne or perfume can give a partial perspective of the fragrance expectation but is also not a list of ingredients since the same scent can be produced through many different methods. Various notes combine to form accords, yet the two terms are often used interchangeably.

  • Olfactory:

    Olfactory is anything related to the sense of smell. The olfactory system is the human bodily structures serving the sense of smell or olfaction. The structure of a fragrance is modeled in the olfactory pyramid, or fragrance life cycle pyramid, comprising 3 levels of notes representing their respective strengths and longevity.

  • Projection:

    The distance a fragrance radiates off the skin is commonly referred to as projection. Think of it as a scent bubble. A fragrance everyone in a room can smell may be referred to as “Beast Mode” and a “Skin Scent” can characterize a fragrance that requires close contact to be perceived. A fragrance that is very strong but does not linger in the air when the wearer leaves can be described as having strong projection but weak sillage.

  • Sillage:

    The scent trail that lingers in the air behind someone that moves through a space is known as sillage. “Sillage” in French is the wake a boat moving through water makes and was adopted into fragrance vernacular. Sillage is different from projection because even a close skin scent can linger in the air when the wearer is gone.

  • Skin Chemistry: 

    Fragrances can smell and perform differently on each person and the belief is that individual skin chemistry plays a role. This can include how dry/oily the skin is, the pH level, hormone levels, and diet. This has not been extensively studied, so the important thing to remember is to test a scent on your own skin, not just a test strip or smell on someone else, and apply appropriately.

  • Volatile: 

    Volatility is how readily a substance evaporates and, in perfumery, relates to how fast a fragrance will be perceptible to others and last on the skin. Highly volatile compounds, such as top notes, are the first to evaporate and less volatile compounds, such as base notes, linger around longer. Heat also makes a substance more volatile, which is why scents are applied to pulse points and why a winter fragrance may become overpowering in the summer. Citrus scents are notoriously volatile, observed during the initial application and quickly fading. Alcohol is typically used to carry fragrances from the skin to the air because it easily evaporates. Vapor pressure is used to quantify the temperature a solid or liquid will form a vapor.

Fragrance Concentrations

Fragrance Concentration Number of Sprays
Perfume (Parfum) 20-40% 1
Eau de Parfum (EDP) 15-20% 2
Eau de Toilette (EDT) 5-15% 3
Eau de Cologne (EDC) 2-4% 4
Eau Fraiche 1-3% 5

  • Parfum:

    Parfum, also known as Extrait, Perfume Extract, or sometimes Elixir, is the highest commercial fragrance concentration of 20-40% aromatic compounds providing a presence that lasts at least 10 or more hours. Because of the high concentration of fragrance oils, Parfums produce deeply complex scents and the lower concentration of alcohol also makes them ideal for sensitive skin. Parfum is the most expensive fragrance concentration but can actually be more economical since only a small amount will supply excellent projection and longevity. Men’s, women’s, and unisex fragrances can all come in powerful Parfum concentrations even though “perfume” is commonly used to describe fragrances exclusively for women.

  • Eau de Parfum:

    Eau de Parfum, or EDP, is the second highest modern fragrance concentration of about 15-20% aromatic oils, which can last up to 8 hours on the skin. An Eau de Parfum is usually less expensive than a full Parfum but has better performance than the lower concentrations. Top, middle, and base notes are distinctly prominent but the focus here is on the base notes. An EDP is a perfect date fragrance whether you want to radiate a fun vibe or create an intoxicating aroma.

  • Eau de Toilette:

    Eau de Toilette, or EDT, is a common fragrance concentration with about 5-15% aromatic ingredients lasting typically 3-5 hours. The main features of an EDT are the fresh top notes and has roots back to the 14th Century. An Eau de Toilette occupies a happy medium between performance and not being too overpowering. An EDT may be the most accessible and budget-friendly introduction to a fragrance line, but it will also require more sprays per day if you’re looking to achieve similar performance to, for example, a Parfum.

  • Eau de Cologne:

    Eau de Cologne, or EDC, is a light fragrance concentration with about 2-4% aromatic oils, which typically lasts a couple hours on the skin. Men’s fragrances are commonly referred to as  “colognes”, but men’s, women’s, and unisex fragrances can all come in an Eau de Cologne concentration. EDC is a good concentration to not overwhelm others with an intense scent when in close quarters, such as at work or on a plane.

  • Eau Fraiche:

    Eau Fraiche is the lightest fragrance concentration with only 1-3% aromatic compounds and contains less alcohol than other concentrations. An Eau Fraiche is meant to be very fresh and effervescent, often containing citrus and herbal notes. They are perfect for a hot summer day or changing scents frequently as an Eau Fraiche typically lasts up to 2 hours. Having a mostly water, not alcohol, base makes an Eau Fraiche also a great option for those with sensitive skin. The famous Eau Sauvage was Dior’s first fragrance for men and one of the first colognes to be considered an “Eau Fraiche”.

Industry

  • FiFi Awards:

    The FiFi Awards are an annual event in New York City sponsored by The Fragrance Foundation since 1973 and are known as the “Oscars of the Fragrance Industry”. Categories include Fragrance of the Year, Best Packaging, Editorial Excellence, Technological Breakthrough, and more.

  • ISIPCA:

    ISIPCA is arguably the most famous premier post-graduate university for perfume and cosmetics in Versailles, France. Admittance requires a rigorous entrance exam and prior organic chemistry courses. It was founded in 1970 by Jean-Jacques Guerlain (yes, of that Guerlain family) and has educated many notable alumni including Francis Kurkdjian, the creator of Le Male and co-founder of the niche house Maison Francis Kurkdjian.

  • Noses:

    Perfumers are experts in creating fragrance compositions and are often, respectfully, called “noses” (or nez in French). A well trained perfumer with an expert sense of smell is able to combine the art and chemistry of designing a fragrance.

Ingredients

  • Ambroxan:

    Ambroxan is the brand name of a terpenoid naturally present in ambergris and believed to be the key component responsible for its unique odor. This molecule provides a silky, woody-ambery, sweet, musky, salty essence. Ambroxan is synthesized from sclareol, a natural byproduct of clary sage, so it is much easier and consistent to produce than ambergris, one of the most expensive fragrance ingredients. For this, ambroxan has almost completely replaced ambergris in modern perfumery.

  • Cashmeran:

    Cashmeran is another synthetic fragrance compound discovered by IFF that smells like a smooth, sensual mix of wood and musk. It conveys a soft feeling of Cashmere (inspiring the trademark name) and has a complex aroma used by perfumers to enhance woods, expand florals, or impart its own spicy, fruity, balsamic, resinous odor. Cashmeran is long lasting and doesn’t rinse out well, so the characteristic fresh scent may be recognizable from body washes and clothing detergents as well.

  • Iso E Super:

    Iso E Super is the commercial name for a specific long lasting synthetic fragrance molecule that provides a smooth sandalwood/cedarwood/amber aroma trademarked in the 1970’s. It is known to elevate different notes in a fragrance composition, increasing projection and longevity. Some people may permanently or temporarily be anosmic, or not be able to smell, Iso E Super and a small number may actually get severe headaches even if they can’t smell it. It is very common in modern fragrances and the infamous Molecule 01 by Escentric Molecules is essentially diluted pure Iso E Super that can be used on its own or layered with other fragrances.