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How to Choose a New Fragrance: Tips for Picking the Perfect Scent

Fine fragrances are as complex as fine wines, but few perfume counters employ a sommelier to help with selections. So let’s start with the basics. You can use these steps to select and appreciate perfumes, soaps, and more. Use these tips and future reviews of new releases to choose a fragrance you and yours will love on Valentine’s Day and beyond.


Fragrance is an art. Fragrances—perfumes, colognes, eaus de toilette—are composed a lot like music. There are top notes, which you smell first, then mid-notes, and finally, bass notes, which linger on the skin at the end of the day. (Musk and civet extracts frequently show up here. We wouldn’t like them alone—the scents can be quite intense. Mixed with the top notes, though, they produce a full-bodied blend.) Fragrances are categorized into general families, like “orientals,” which are spicy, “florals,” “citruses,” and “waters,” and most people find they have a preference for one family of fragrances over another.

I’ve found that I prefer the deep, rich, oriental family of fragrances, which my sister says smell “gacky and sweet.” She, on the other hand, likes citruses, which I think smell sour. So while our tastes are polarized, there are a few fragrances we both love, and these are perfumes or soaps that have an artful blending of top, mid, and bass notes. Again, this can be paralleled in music: I sometimes find that while I generally prefer jazz over country music, there are country songs I love and jazz songs I switch off at the first smarmy note. With both fragrance and music, what appeals to us, what lingers in our minds, what is stored in a time capsule in our memory (of an afternoon at our high school boyfriend’s house or dancing with our fathers on our wedding day), is not the genre but a particular song or a particular fragrance. It is the specific sensual experience that can call us back in time and cause an emotional reaction, and that’s what makes a chart-topping hit or a successful perfume.

To determine whether I’ll like a certain fragrance, I find it’s best to do a few things while I’m shopping at my favorite fragrance boutique (or sprawling emporium, either will do).

  • First, I take a quick whiff. If I feel like my nostrils are being paid a visit by Terminix, I need explore no further.
  • Next, if I still like the fragrance, I linger longer. This is key: I breathe the fragrance deeply for 15–30 seconds. This allows me to smell the mid and bass notes and get an idea for whether I’ll like this perfume or bath gel or whatever it is once I’m actually using it. Here’s where I can smell if it’s an artful blending.
  • Last, I take perfume or lotion for a test drive by putting some on my wrist and smelling it while I walk around the store. Five minutes later, any alcohol added has had a chance to evaporate and the fragrance has blended with my skin’s natural smell, and I’ll know if I’d like to wear it all day.

There are a few fragrances I’ve loved for years and I think I will always love them. That said, it’s a good idea to switch things up now and then because variety is the spice of life and I like spice. Adding a new perfume to my fragrance wardrobe is like having an extra jacket in my closet—sometimes a leather jacket just works. You should also change fragrances if you have a change in diet or medication that causes your skin to smell differently and causes your fragrance to lose its harmony with your skin’s natural scent. A new fragrance might blend better.

The most important reason to switch fragrances? When you find you have to add more in order to smell it at all. It’s like if you listen to music with headphones and get used to the volume, so you have to turn it up a little more each day until you’re suddenly at a dangerous level. If your perfume seems to be less effective, it’s probably because you’re so used to it that you can’t detect it, and you’ll need to be aware of this so that you don’t overdose. Switching perfume will give you a chance to appreciate it again and will ensure that you don’t offend those around you.

Happy smelling!

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