Understanding Perfume Terminology


Have you ever heard or read terminology about perfumes and wondered what on earth it was all about? I know I have.  Sometimes buying perfume can be a little overwhelming; there is a lot of choice out there, and some cost a small fortune. As sad as it sounds to admit this, one of my favourite things to do is to go into department stores, or Boots, and sniff away.  The perfumes that is.  I invariably find, though, that I get in quite a muddle.  Those little bits of card are all well and good, but to really get an idea of what a perfume will smell like it’s always best to spray it on your own skin.




Having said this, I have bought a few different scents this year, and some of those have been blind purchases.  A little risky possibly, especially considering I am exceptionally fussy when it comes to perfumes.  It’s not essential to understand perfume terminology, but it does help sometimes, even if it only to rule out perfumes that definitely won’t suit.



These are the different layers within the perfume.  The top notes (or opening notes) are those that you smell instantly upon spraying, for example this may be a burst of flowers or fruit. Being the lightest part (literally, the molecules are smaller and lighter), the top notes fade fairly quickly, hopefully blending in to the rest of the ingredients within the perfume. Essentially, the top notes are the first impressions, a ‘hello’, if you will.

Now that you have greeted one another, the middle notes could be compared to small talk.  You like each other, and want to know a little bit more (either that or you’re stuck with each other, and too polite to walk away).  These middle notes will hang around for a little bit longer, and are often flowery or spicy, such as Jasmine, Gardenia, Rose or Pink Pepper.   As the small talk fades, this paves the way for the base notes, which will now start to emerge.

The base notes are the deep conversation.  You know enough to know you want to see them again, now you’re looking for the real nitty-gritty.  Base notes are typically stronger and heavier, and will – hopefully – last throughout the day, and even into the next.  An example of base notes would be Cedar, Amber, Sandalwood, Tonka Bean, Vanilla or Musk.

Sillage – (see-arge)

This refers to the strength of the scent.  Do you want people to smell you before they see you? Then choose a perfume that has good sillage.  Perfumes with a weak sillage are often described as staying ‘close to the skin’.


This is the combination of two or more notes that, used together, create magic (or not).  The individual ingredients will be blended together, and will compliment each other.  Some fragrances will have similar accords, if a combination is found that works well.


This is the final phase, and refers to the scent that will be left behind when the top notes and middle notes evaporate. It will consist of the base notes, so choose these wisely!

Eau de Parfum, Eau de Toilette and Eau de Cologne

To put it simply Eau de Parfum (also know as Eau de Perfume, or Millesime) is the more concentrated version of a perfume.  The Eau de Parfum will therefore last longer and will be stronger smelling on the skin.  Eau de Parfums are more expensive, because of the higher levels of perfume oils (typically around 15%), opposed to water and alcohol.  Eau de Parfums are usually dabbed on, rather than sprayed, and will more than likely only need a drop or two to last for hours.

An Eau de Toilette will be a slightly weaker version (although confusingly, some may even have slightly different ratios of ingredients from their Eau de Parfum counterpart), and will contain a lower concentration of perfume oils compared to water and alcohol – often around 8%.

Eau de Colognes (or Eau Fraiche) are lower concentrations still, and are typically citrus scented.  Eau de Colognes will contain around 5% concentration of perfume oils to other ingredients.

Body sprays, splashes and mists will usually only contain top notes, and are not designed with longevity in mind.


So there we have it; a beginners’ guide to understanding perfume, and the terminology used.  This is obviously not exhaustive, but I was very conscious that the post was getting longer and longer.  I didn’t even really touch on the notes and olfactory groups, maybe that’s a post for another time.  I do love to talk (and buy – eek) perfume.

Do you love perfume as much as I do?  What’s your signature scent?



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2 thoughts on “Understanding Perfume Terminology

  1. I love perfume. I signed up to Bloom Perfumery’s yearly sample service in July and have tried some wonderful perfumes I’d never have tried otherwise. I also love The Perfume Society Boxes. Signature scent? Probably Watermelons from Shay & Blue.

    1. I haven’t heard of Bloom Perfumery. I have signed up for another – which I forget the name of – but haven’t received anything yet. Watermelons sounds like it should be fresh and fruity!
      Thanks for reading Sandra.

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