Perfume for the Wary Novice

I was going to write about some scents I recommend for summer, but then I thought I’d better back up and talk about fragrance in general. While a small number of people can’t wear it due to sensitivities, lots of people are scared of it. And with good reason: they’ve been around people who wear too much, which can trigger headaches or at least revulsion. It’s very inconsiderate to overdo it.

Older women occasionally make this mistake because their olfactory sense has declined. Some people associate classic perfumes with age for just this reason, and things like Chanel No. 5 frighten them because age frightens them. What could be worse than smelling like an old lady? Many things, actually, including insulting old ladies wholesale. Personally, I love some of the classics, and suspect they did not become classic by chance.

If you don’t have a sharp sense of smell, or if you just haven’t cultivated it yet, traditional perfume can smell like a synthetic haze rather than a symphony of separate notes. Less complex formulas may register as more “natural” to you, whether they are or not. And that’s fine! Simpler formulas are often cheaper. I don’t buy and taste really good wine, because I know it would ruin me for the inexpensive stuff.

On the other hand, good perfume stays true for decades if you keep it out of bright light. I keep my new bottle of Boucheron in an antique wooden box I bought at a flea market, and I can’t tell you how fabulous I feel about that. And it’s fun to develop a good nose for fragrance. It sharpens your awareness of smell in general, like you’re some kind of awesome shapeshifter. You walk outside and your brain is going, mowed lawn, blacktop, honeysuckle, garbage, dirt, hot car tires.

When you smell a fragrance you used during a good time in your life – a season, a vacation – you mentally time-travel right back to there and feel everything all over again. Music mixes can also do this, but to a lesser extent. In my experience, the positive emotions cling more stubbornly to scents (and songs) than the bad ones, though your brain may work differently.

For most of us, modern life doesn’t require a strong awareness of smell, so it’s easy to forget how a wonderful scent can satisfy our senses in the same way a gorgeous sunset or a gooey grilled cheese sandwich can. If you’re still reading this, perhaps you are convinced, so let me give you a few tips for trying perfume!

If you like it, it’s good. I think the associations we have with various scents are intensely personal. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, it is 100x more in the nostril or olfactory bulb of the smeller. Our culture more or less continuously feeds us opinions about what is visually beautiful and what is not. With scent, however, we fend for ourselves in a wilderness of impressions and memories. This is one of the reasons fragrance fascinates me so much. An experienced critic or industry professional may appreciate things in a perfume like structure or innovation (even if she doesn’t actually like the smell), but take anything anyone says about fragrance with a big ol’ salt lick of salt, because she hasn’t lived your life. If a party guest goes into your bathroom, smells your perfume, and comes out and tells you she hates it, smile and say, “It’s not for everyone.” (Seriously, why did you invite her?)

So obviously, try before you buy. If a nearby department store doesn’t have something you’re interested in, you can order samples from The Perfumed Court, a quirky but knowledgeable resource. Most trial vials cost $3. (If they are more than that, a whole bottle will be extremely expensive.) The more you sample, the better your nose will become.

Start with a smell you like. Roses, grass, coffee, caramel, your favorite fruit, whatever. At The Perfumed Court, you can type this smell in the search phrase, and it will show you some perfumes that include it as a note.

Don’t trust your first impressions. The way it smells on a paper strip or at the first moment it hits your skin will often be quite different than what it smells like one minute, one hour, or four hours later. I know of one amazing perfume that has a godawful opening, and I’ve tried several that seem nice at first but then bore me. It’s kind of like making friends, right?

Speaking of friends, do y’all have any other suggestions? I’d love to hear!

By Bryn Donovan

Romance writer, poet, quilter, and dog cuddler.

21 replies on “Perfume for the Wary Novice”

I love perfume so much! These are really great tips and The Perfume Court is such a good idea! I can’t wait to get some samples! I wear such a variety of scents– Dior’s Dulce Vita (smells like clove), Clinique’s Simplicity (smells like licorice to me) and Juicy Couture’s Couture, Couture (kinda like strawberries). And who can forget Calvin Klien’s original Euphoria! It’s one of two perfumes that I have ever used and entire bottle of!

God, I love perfume!

This was a lovely read, and those are really important pieces of advice, too. A site I like – and can lose hours to – is Fragrantica. I’ve also learnt not to make assumptions about perfume based on who makes them. The primary example of that, for me, is Avon’s In Bloom. They’re not somewhere I would have thought to look that, but I’ve fallen in love with In Bloom. Also: Gorilla Perfume. Awesome and simple. I love Dirty and The Smell Of Weather Turning. And, uh, I may on occasion use Mr. Juniper’s Hugo Boss, too.

What a lovely article. So true about perfumes reminding you of certain times.. Also got to add to the Chanel for Mother’s Day crowd. Me and my sister just went halves on a vial of No. 19. Mum said it was the only high brand she really liked, and it was one of her first few luxuries she bought herself when she first started working full time, but she’d never splash out on it now, so we got it for her.

For those who have sensitivity issues, try looking into “clean” fragrances, i.e. ones without synthetic chemicals. The fragrance industry is widely unknowable, since their formulations are protected, and you might not know they put in crushed beatles or whatever else that’s making you sick. (Though pretty much anything can irritate you, even natural oils, so take this advice with a grain of salt.)

I really enjoy Spirit Beauty Lounge‘s selection and FutureNatural — both sites offer sample kits.

HIGHLY RECOMMEND checking out Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab which is probably up your alley!

I should really check those guys out–I do love the Victorian/goth vibe. They do use some synthetics, so the misleading marketing has rubbed me the wrong way. Maybe they didn’t use synthetics at first if they had a smaller product line, I don’t know. Some scents they use are basically impossible to extract naturally from the plant. But I imagine the lack of aldehydes and the oil form may make BPAL a lot easier for some people to deal with. And a lot of oils last a long time on the skin, which is nice.


I don’t like perfumey perfume. I get so sick of it quickly. I like simple scents. I love honeysuckle, orange blossom, and sometimes I like rose.  I tried those GAP perfumes once (don’t know if they still have them) that are just one note and you can layer them to create mixes. I really liked that, because I could just choose one scent.  And to have orange blossom scent with a sundress and sandals in the summer was super fun.

You already hit my biggest piece of perfume advice, which is to make sure you still like it after three of four hours. I love perfumes and scented lotions, but I’m allergic to a lot of the scents that get used for base notes. I can’t tell you how many times I have loved something for a little while, only to have a splitting headache four hours later when all the lighter notes have faded.

 I love perfume, it puts me in a good mood in the morning before work (though I’m very careful about applying it sparingly, one of my coworkers is sensitive to scents). My all time favorite is Chanel Chance Eau Fraiche but I’ve also been loving Citron De Vigne (Fresh), English Pear and Freesia (Jo Malone), and Aqua Di Gioia when it’s really hot outside. Can’t wait to hear your summer scent recommendations!

Ooh, you like fresh scents :) I haven’t tried any Jo Malone yet, and I’ve tried the Chance Chance Eau Tendre but not the Eau Fraiche. They all sound great for summer to me actually. I know what you mean about putting it on in the morning–it gives you a little lift!

I’m one of those oversensitive folks who can’t wear it- which is sad, because I love smelling perfumes in department stores. But every time I try to wear one I put a tiny bit on, feel awesomely pretty smelling for about 15 minutes, and then get slammed with a horrible headache and the desire to stop breathing. I’m hoping this will go away eventually :-/


I find it fascinating how perfumes change scent with time- the “top” notes that you smell immediately fade into the deeper notes which will only come out after hours. How cool is that?

Ah, that sucks you can’t wear it. I apologise in advance for any other perfume articles. I read somewhere, and I don’t know if this right, that the headache is from sensory overload–the same way super bright lights or very loud noises can give you a headache.

And I’ve also heard that more people have sensitivities than in past generations, because contemporary life is so smell-free. So for some people, it’s like walking out into the noonday sun when you live most of your life in semi-darkness. I’m not sure what one is supposed to do to overcome that: get a couple of golden retrievers and get into making sauerkraut?

I know one person with sensitivities who uses perfume on the fabric of her clothes…like she’ll spray a tiny bit on a dress, but not on a part that’s too close to her face. I would have thought that would damage the fabric, but she says no. I have never tried it!

I’ve been wearing Jo Malone’s Vanilla and Anise for a while now.  It’s odd, as synthetic vanilla gives me the dry heaves and generally I don’t care for anise or anything that reminds me of black licorice.  Somehow the two together are so freaking lovely.

My greatest irritation in life, which hits me on a regular basis working on a college campus, is hitting that invisible Axe Body Spray wall three seconds after a college boy has walked by me.  You can actually taste that crap when you walk into it.  Then I feel like I smell like a fraternity boy all day.  blech.

I really do need to try some Jo Malone. That sounds like a fabulous gourmand.

I’m never around anyone who wears Axe, but what is UP with the Ambercrombie and Fitch at my mall? I have to hold my nose when I walk by! It’s a terrible smell. Do they pump it into the air like a mist? How anyone works there, I can’t imagine.

People who overdue it make me so angry. One of my preschoolers’ parent bathes in cologne and I can’t stand it! It definitely is very inconsiderate.

I tried Chanel No.5 on my skin and hated it. I liked it at first but I could not stand smelling it throughout the day. On my mom it smelled lovely. So now that’s what she’s getting for mother’s day. It happens a lot with the stronger scents with us. She will always smell so nice and I just can’t stand them on me. Perfumes are so interesting. Thanks for that website! I am going to browse right now.

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