Fragrance Notes Your Complete Guide
Perfume can play an important role in our wardrobe. Whether you prefer to apply your signature scent for a date night or for a workday in the office, fragrances help give us a certain aura and presence. Part of what creates this presence for each person is the use of fragrance notes. Similar to how musical notes make up a song, fragrance notes are the individual components that, when combined, form a unified, pleasing perfume.
We created a guide that explains what fragrance notes are and everything you need to know about them to better understand your favorite perfumes.
What are Fragrance Notes?
Fragrance notes are the ingredients that make up a fragrance. After you spray perfume, your nose starts to pick up and recognize certain scents, which we refer to as notes.
This carefully selected blend of ingredients forms the perfume accord, the basic character of a fragrance. Perfume makers carefully select notes to make sure a fragrance both smells pleasant and evokes a certain experience. Notes are classified in a fragrance pyramid.
A perfume’s notes can be separated into three basic categories: top notes, heart notes, and base notes. Notes at the top of the pyramid have higher volatility (they evaporate faster), while notes at the bottom are longer-lasting.
What Are Top Notes?
Top notes, sometimes referred to as headnotes, form the top layer of a fragrance. In other words, top notes are the scents you detect first after spraying a perfume. These play a role in setting first impressions and shaping a fragrance’s story.
Top notes usually evaporate quickly, lingering around for only the first five to fifteen minutes. Their main purpose is to give off an initial scent and then transition smoothly into the next part of the fragrance. As a result, top notes generally consist of lighter and smaller molecules.
Some common top notes include citrus scents – like lemon, orange, and bergamot – as well as light floral notes like lavender and rose. Basil and anise are also commonly used as top notes.
What are Heart Notes?
As the name suggests, heart notes make up the “heart” of the fragrance. Their function is to retain some of the top notes’ aroma while also introducing new scents to deepen the experience. Sometimes referred to as middle notes, the heart notes also serve as a buffer for the base notes, which may not smell as pleasant on their own.
Because they make up around 70 percent of the total scent, heart notes usually last longer than top notes. Heart notes appear as the top notes start to fade and remain evident for the full life of the fragrance.
These notes include full-bodied, aromatic floral oils like jasmine, geranium, neroli, and ylang-ylang, as well as cinnamon, pepper, pine, lemongrass, black pepper, and cardamom.
Along with middle notes, base notes form the foundation of the fragrance. They help boost the lighter notes while adding more depth and resonance.
Since they form the perfume’s foundation, base notes are very rich, heavy and long-lasting. They kick in after about 30 minutes and work together with the middle notes to create the fragrance’s scent. Since base notes sink into your skin, their scent lingers the longest and can last for six hours or more.
Popular base notes include vanilla, amber, musk, patchouli, moss and woody notes like sandalwood and cedarwood.
How Do You Identify Perfume Notes?
You can identify perfume notes based on the time passed after the application of the perfume. Top notes are those you smell immediately after the perfume first touches your skin. Once this initial burst fades, the heart notes kick in to form the essence of the perfume. Base notes are the scent that lasts the longest and is the one you remember most.
Every note adds a certain quality to the fragrance. Some of the most common fragrance note categories include fresh, floral, spice, fruits, woods, and musk, each of which is typically used in specific note categories. For instance, fresh and floral scents are almost always top notes while woody and musky scents typically appear toward the bottom of the note pyramid.
Here a list of the different types of perfume notes along with an explanation of how they’re used.
Fresh notes are light and citrusy in nature, making them popular as top notes. Notes like orange and bergamot give a fragrance its freshness and sweetness, while lemon and bergamot have a more bitter sharpness.
Floral notes add a natural feel to a fragrance. They are often used as top or heart notes and can be mixed with other notes for a more dramatic scent. Jasmine is another popular floral note with its fruity and white floral scent, while ylang ylang adds a more tropical touch.
Fruity notes are most commonly used as middle notes, as they blend easily with other notes and can add more depth to a fragrance. For example, blackberry adds a rich, musky scent, while notes like apple and strawberry give off a sweet and juicy vibe.
Spice notes are used to add warmth and potency to a fragrance, mixing particularly well with floral notes in the heart of a perfume. Notes like cinnamon and nutmeg add spice and sweetness, while others like rosemary and basil possess an herbal quality.
Sandalwood and patchouli are two wood notes that are often used in a fragrance’s base to strengthen the scent’s lifetime. While most wood notes have an earthy quality, some like cedarwood and oud provide a nice sweet scent.
The Musky notes are most frequently found in the base notes of fragrances. Their richness helps to fill in the foundation and increase the duration of the scent. The different types of musk, from black musk to cashmere musk, means that these scents can add a unique trait to any fragrance.
How to Pick Fragrance Notes
Fragrance notes play an important role in perfume’s appeal. The composition of the different notes of a perfume and their interaction with your skin are what make a perfume unique. Without combining different notes, a perfume’s scent would just not be as pleasant.
Since there are so many notes, it can be challenging to pick the ones that you like. One way to start learning your own preferences is to become familiar with the fragrance wheel. After you’ve determined your favorite notes, check out these collections of perfumes and colognes to find your unique scent.
What Is the Fragrance Wheel?
The fragrance wheel is a round diagram that displays the different scent families and subfamilies. The scents are grouped based on their similarities and differences to show their relationship to one another. The scent groups that border each other share common olfactory characteristics; while those that are further away from one another are less related.
This fragrance classification system developed by fragrance expert Michael Edwards; in order to help retailers suggest perfumes to consumers more efficiently. Each family consists of a prominent scent; while the subfamilies are blended versions of these fragrances.
What Are Scent Families?
Scent families are broken up into four main groups: Floral, Oriental, Woody, and Fresh. These represent the four main olfactory groups with each having distinct characteristics. More often than not; a person will gravitate toward one scent family over another and look for this collection of scents in their fragrances.
For this reason, it can be helpful to know which family you are attracted to; before you go shopping for a new scent. While most products aren’t labeled with the scent family; you should be able to find out which components make up the fragrance.
Experts who have been working with perfumes for years; can tell which family or sub-family a fragrance belongs to with one sniff. While there is some discourse in the fragrance community over the organization and description of each family; most agree to the following families and subfamilies.
The floral scent family is one of the most common families and is used in many well-known perfumes. Floral scents are most often used in women’s fragrances, although they are occasionally used in men’s as well. They usually smell like fresh-cut flowers or have a powdery note to them.
- Fruity: Sweet, edible and tropical-like peach, pear and apple.
- Floral: Smells like fresh-cut flowers — imagine rose and lily.
- Soft floral: Soft, powdery and sweet with a hint of creamy.
- Floral oriental: Florals with subtle spice notes.
Common Floral Family Notes:
- Orange blossom
The oriental fragrance family consists of rich exotic scents. When you think of oriental scents think herbs and spices or dry, powdery, resin notes. Opulent and heady, these notes are oftentimes softened with amber or sweet notes. It’s common to describe this family as exotic and seductive.
- Soft oriental: Soft, floral notes mix with incense and warm spices.
- Oriental: Sweet, warm notes like cinnamon, vanilla, and musk.
- Woody oriental: Earthy notes like patchouli and sandalwood mixed with spicy and sweet notes.
Common Oriental Family Notes:
These perfumes are usually warm and opulent, mixing incense-like fragrances like sandalwood and patchouli with drier notes like cedar. To tone down the warmth of these notes, fragrances will sometimes incorporate some fresh notes like citrus or floral. Notes in this family can be described as coniferous or woody and bitter.
- Woods: Aromatic scents like cedarwood, sandalwood, and vetiver.
- Mossy woods: Sweet, smooth and earthy scents like oakmoss and amber.
- Dry woods: Smouldering and smoky mixed with leather aromas.
Common Woody Family Notes:
The fresh scent family encompasses clean bright scents. Herby, citrusy and oceanic scents all fall into this category. More often used in men’s fragrances than women’s fragrances, fresh scents are paired with spicy notes to create a more robust fragrance. Aromatic, tart notes can also be found mixed with zesty or fruity scents.
- Aromatic: Clean and fresh herbs mixed with lavender or woody scents.
- Citrus: Zesty or tangy notes like mandarins or bergamot.
- Water: Aquatic scents that smell of sea spray or rain mixed with or oceanic notes.
- Green: Smells of freshly mowed lawns and crushed green leaves.
Common Fresh Family Notes:
How to Combine Scents
Much like color, certain fragrance families go together well. The scent wheel makes it easy to see this. Fragrance sub-families that are side by side on the fragrance wheel will almost always blend well.
You can also pick a sub-family to start with and see which note appears across from it on the fragrance wheel. This means that those notes are complementary to one another. For example, soft oriental will complement citrus, and oriental will complement water.
Finally, you can select three fragrance sub-families that create a triangle on the fragrance wheel. You’ll find that these will complement each other nicely. For example, if you know you like floral oriental notes; look for a scent that contains mossy and water notes as well.
After you’ve decided which families you like best and what secondary notes you’ll be looking for; it’s time to start researching the perfect perfume for you. You can either head down to the beauty counter at your local department store or order fragrance samples online. Be sure to test them on your skin so that you know you enjoy the scent; once mixed with your skin.