Your guide to understanding scents

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Buying a perfume was a simple experience: spray it on, let it sit, then smell it. If you liked its scent after letting it penetrate your skin, you bought the bottle. Nowadays, however, between a rise of direct-to-consumer brands and an influx of options on the beauty shelves, understanding the base notes of perfumes can help you pick the perfect scent, even when you can’t test it.

There are three different types of notes in the scents that make up its overall scent: top notes, middle notes, and base notes. Having a basic understanding of these components can be a useful tool in determining what interests you, says Greta Pagel, fragrance director for the fragrance brand. Good chemistry. “The top notes give us a first impression and are smaller, lighter, more volatile and changeable,” she tells Bustle. “Middle notes can also be described as the heart of a perfume, the main body that is evident for the life of a perfume. The base notes are the slowest to appear and the most durable, bringing depth, comfort and warmth to a scented composition.

What makes a snippet fall into one category or another depends on the molecular weight of an ingredient, explains Alia Raza, perfume expert and founder of Flower Regime. “The lighter the weight of the molecule that makes up a given ingredient, the faster it will evaporate from your skin and into the air and then into your nose,” she told Bustle. The top notes are therefore the first you feel but also the first to leave. These are the base notes that accompany you throughout the day when you wear your perfume.

In cases where you can’t test a scent before purchasing it, or if you are overwhelmed by the sheer number of options, Pagel recommends experimenting with unexpected combinations and variations on your favorite scent themes. You can also sometimes get a rollerball to test a scent before committing to a larger bottle. Otherwise, if you are able to test the scent, experts recommend wearing it for 24 hours so you can see how the top, middle, and bottom notes smell on your skin.

While there are tons of base notes and scents used in perfumery, the six most common are musk, amber, vanilla, oud, sandalwood and patchouli, according to experts. Read on to understand how these notes can impact a scent.

We only include products that have been independently selected by the Bustle editorial team. However, we may receive a portion of the sales if you purchase a product through a link in this article.

Base notes of perfume to know

1. Musk

Musks are one of the most commented fragrance notes found in perfumes, explains Raza. It’s hard to describe, but think of musk as a scent that exists in the natural world – a scent reminiscent of animals, woods and the earth. It is often described as smelling like your skin but better. Although musk is historically derived from animals, Raza notes it is mainly of synthetic or plant origin today.

“Musks make everything better, smoother, rounder, more elegant and more sensual,” explains Raza, who describes it as a magical ingredient that turns ingredients into perfume. In addition, musk complements other notes in a fragrance and can extend the life of your perfume, Pagel said.

2. Amber

amber is not an actual ingredient, but a name that is given to a category of perfumes and scent notes, says Raza. It’s used to describe the blend of vanilla, benzoin, and labdanum, she explains. While you’re probably familiar with vanilla, which comes from the namesake bean, benzoin is a gum-resin made from the sap of the Styrax tree. And labdanum resin or cistus oil comes from the Mediterranean cistus plant, Pagel explains. “The ambler blend combines warm, rich, sweet and a little spicy notes,” she explains. It’s a combination that tends to smell like a slightly sweet cross between musk, spices, woody notes, and overall richness.

3. Vanilla

While vanilla may evoke a toothache sweetness, it’s actually a subtle and popular base note when used correctly. “Too much vanilla is hardly ever a good thing,” says Raza. “It can smell too sweet and start to look less chic. Otherwise, it’s used to create a sweet, creamy and comforting gourmet note that pairs well with other fragrance families, says Pagal, who cites citrus, fruit, floral and woody notes as examples.

4. Oud

Oud is a woody base note which tends to smell deeply and woody with varying notes of leather and spice. “It’s a complex, sweet, smoky and woody scent,” explains Pagal. “Natural oud is a highly prized aromatic material harvested from agar after its heartwood has been infected with a type of mold that causes the tree to produce a rich, musky resin.” While there is a wide range of oud-based scents on the market, Pagel says the base scent can range from “mysterious” blends to lighter interpretations that combine with floral, gourmet, or musky notes.

5. Sandalwood

“Sandalwood imparts incredible tenacity and richness, providing a creamy and subtle feel to a scent,” says LAFCO Founder, CEO and fragrance creator Jon Bresler from another common base note. You can expect a sandalwood based scent to give off a nutty, almost milky but still sweet scent. As a base, it’s known to pair well with other earthy scents, so expect to see it combined with middle or top notes such as cedar and vetiver.

6. Patchouli

Patchouli has been anecdotally associated with the hippie movement of the 70s, but it’s actually a complex and chic floral scent. “Patchouli creates a deep, earthy, warm, smoky and sultry undertone when used as the base note of a perfume,” says Bresler. “Its effect transforms the whole scent – it creates a very recognizable veil that you can smell throughout a day of wearing.”

It’s also a versatile foundation for perfume because it blends well with other essential oils, Bresler says, including vetiver, sandalwood, frankincense, bergamot, cedarwood, oils. of myrrh, jasmine, rose and citrus.


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