Smells like… Teen Spirit? How to smell perfume oils

In my last post, I talked a little bit about trying out perfume oils. While I suppose there’s technically no wrong way to smell something, there is a right way. While I can’t claim to be an expert, I can tell you how I do it!

As a note, most of this advice applies to perfume oils. I’ll make some notes here and there about how this advice differs for EDPs (alcohol-based sprays). Likewise, much of this advice applies most directly to

Step One: Open the damn thing
You’d think this would go without saying, but in truth, this step might be a little more complicated than it sounds. Most indie perfume oil samples come in a bottle not entirely unlike this:

That little cap can be a real menace, depending on the bottle. Most houses advise you to grip the cap firmly while holding the vial firmly in your other hand (away from your face or anything you love), then to wiggle the cap until it finally pops free. That works for most of these tubes, but I’ve owned a few that require significant coaxing–and force. Again, the goal is to not spill the fluid everywhere once the lid finally comes loose, so work as slowly and carefully as you need to. This process will almost always get a bit of the fluid on your fingers. If you’re sampling more than once fragrance, it will be important to wash your hands between opening (and closing!) each vial. I recommend an unscented bar soap, as you want something really fatty to help cut the oil loose.

Larger bottles and EDPs tend to be easier to open, but the same advice still applies: proceed with care! If you spill the fluid, you may be stuck living with that scent for a long time. Oil-based fragrances are, well, oil-based, and can leave a grease spot behind. Likewise, many contain ingredients that will stain surfaces.

To me, the initial whiffs definitely form big judgements about the scent in my mind, but they’re not what really matters.

Smell it in the bottle–carefully!
It’s important to know first that the way the perfume oil smells in the bottle is most likely completely inaccurate. In my experience, what you smell in the bottle is very basic, with only one or two notes standing out.

But most reviews include this information, and it’s good to know: if what you smell in the bottle is a key component of the fragrance and it doesn’t appear later on the skin, that’s a good sign that the note was too volatile to really last.

Be sure not to touch the vial to your nose or you’ll be smelling it all day.

Apply it to your skin
If I’m opening a perfume sample, I usually use the plastic wand that is attached to the vial cap. I just swipe the wand down my wrist, and usually give it another dunk and swipe for good measure. If it has a roller ball, drawing a couple lines is usually sufficient. If the bottle has a dropper, one or two drops will usually do it–a little goes a long way!

If the bottle doesn’t have an applicator wand, dropper or roller ball, I usually apply directly from the vial. I press the vial to my wrist, then rotate my wrist with the vial still pressed into my skin, then rotate back ’til the vial is upright. I’ll usually do this twice per application.

Now SMELL! Or… wait?
Smelling a perfume oil while wet is fine. It’s still going to be an inaccurate look at how the fragrance will wear on you, but it will most likely be more accurate than the in-the-bottle whiff. There will probably be more detectable notes.

Smelling an EDP while it’s wet is a difficult proposition. It’s probably going to smell sharp and overwhelming until it dries. I recommend taking your wet sniff (yikes!) a good foot or two away from your wrist.

What’s a dry-down, precious?
As the perfume dries and warms on your skin, the scent will “open up” with more notes becoming present. As time passes, the more volatile notes will fade and heart notes will take over. The perfume you first smell isn’t the perfume you’re going to be wearing an hour from now, and that might even be different than the perfume you’ll be wearing in three hours.

There’s no definitive timeline for how perfumes morph–it depends on the individual elements, from the carrier oil to the fragrances themselves–but it’s a good rule of thumb to consciously smell the perfume immediately on application, after a minute, after five minutes, after half an hour, after an hour and every hour thereafter.

To me, the initial whiffs definitely form big judgements about the scent in my mind, but they’re not what really matters. If you’re wearing the perfume for a day, what’s going to be most important is how it smells 30 minutes – 3 hours after application.

While some perfume oils last longer than three hours, it’s pretty common for them to have mostly disappeared or settled down to something that smells mostly warm and comforting.

And try, try again!
I mentioned in my last post that skin chemistry, time and second-tries can change how you perceive a perfume. If you aren’t sure or think you outright dislike a perfume, give it time. Set it aside for a few weeks and then try it one more time.

For those with menstrual cycles or normal hormone fluctuations or pregnancy, it’s important to try the scent at different points in your hormone cycle. If you can consciously plan around that for your next sample try, do so. (When’s best to try a perfume? You can only know by trying, really.)

And while we’re talking about pregnancy? If you’re pregnant, trying to conceive or breastfeeding, some perfume oils are not safe to wear. I know everything about gestation is alarmist, but do with that info what you will.

So do I like this?
Smell is subjective. I know that perfume makers spend hours sniffing and tinkering with the ratios of fragrance notes, all to arrive at a scent they believe smells amazing–but when I get them, I’m wondering if their noses are on the fritz. I’ll go look at other reviews and find people who love the scent and people who hate it.

Dissect what you’re smelling. You know what hits your nose first, but what else are you smelling? Make notes. Smell it up close, smell it from far away. Wave your wrist by your face and see what wafts your way. What impression does it leave you with? Is it too strong, too weak or Goldilocks? Does it blow you away, does it leave you wanting, does it make you shrug? What weather, occasion, time of day or season would you wear this for?

What do I buy next?
Make a note of what you liked in the scent/s you tried. Make a note of what you disliked. Make a note of any sense of disappointment you feel, like if you think, “this kinda smells like cinnamon, but it’s making me wish this just smelled like a big ol’ coffee cake!”

If you tried a sample pack from one brand and none of the scents worked for you, try a different brand next time. If all of the scents had a common theme–say, florals–try gourmands or incensey scents next time. If they all felt a little boring, maybe take some risks with your next purchase.

If you have no idea what went wrong or why you’re not loving what you bought, perhaps let an expert pick your next purchase for you. Many brands will select samples for you based on your likes and dislikes–or even create a custom fragrance for you (a post about this incoming!)

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