Perfume Glossary

Shopping for natural perfume online can be difficult, especially if you don't know the lingo. Don't worry though, you are definitely not alone. I've been making perfume for 5 years and I'm still learning how to write and what to say about what it is that I'm smelling. (I get the feeling that this is a lifelong process!) Here are my takes on a few key words you might be curious about... I'll update this post as necessary. 

Absolute - A natural scent material extracted by using a chemical solvent and ethyl alcohol to separate the aromatic material from the plant. Absolutes can contain a small amount of alcohol leftover from the extraction process and can be either viscous and liquid, or somewhat solid. Absolutes are the preferred extraction method for fine perfumery materials because the chemical extraction process leaves most of the plant's aromatic properties intact for a more true-to-life scent. However, absolutes are not recommended for aromatherapy or skincare purposes.  

Accord - An accord is a blend of two or more perfume ingredients. When making a perfume, instead of blending every ingredient together all at once, accords are made first to organize and combine the different types of notes (kind of like a musical chord,) and then the accords are blended together to make a perfume (also much like a musical composition.) If you're wondering what a note is or why they call them that (don't worry I get this question all the time,) scroll down.     

Aldehydic - Aldehydes are scent compounds that occur in many different natural ingredients and can also be created in a lab. (I don't use any lab-created ingredients here.) Aldehydic notes can be fresh, sharp, bright, alcoholic, citrusy, spicy, forrest-y, metallic, or reminiscent of gasoline or fuel, and they usually appear at the very top of a fragrance, being one of the very first things you notice or smell in a fragrance. Chanel No. 5 is a famous example of a synthetic "aldehydic" scent. I don't use this term very often because it's mostly for synthetics, but I personally tend to think of aldehydic scents as the ones that start off very sharp and bright in a way I can't really explain (like, not with common words like zesty or green or spicy, although those are also all examples of aldehydic notes!) I most often use words like sharp, sparkly, and arial to describe aldehydic scents. No. 3 is probably my most "aldehydic" offering here, which, funnily enough, people have told me is reminiscent of Chanel No. 5!   

Animalic - Animalic scents traditionally refer to scent materials that come from animals, like musk, civet, or ambergris. Obviously, my brand is vegan and cruetly free, so I don't use any animal derived ingredients, and instead use the term "animalic" to refer to plant derived ingredients that evoke the same kinds of smells that you'd find from animal materials. (I hate the term earthy, but they are usually pretty earthy, sometimes even in a barnyard kind of way...) Labdanum, vanilla, jasmine, black currant bud, ambrette seed are just a few examples of plant materials with animalic qualities.   

Aquatic - Another vague perfumery term that I don't enjoy using but you'll see often when shopping for fragrances. Aquatic is obviously referring to water, but ideally water doesn't have a smell. Aquatic is a term usually reserved for synthetic fragrances that smell like the "ocean," which, if you've ever smelled the ocean, you'll know that they're obviously dreaming up a pretty, fantasized version of what the ocean would smell like if it didn't smell gross. Aquatic-type fragrances can be citrusy, mineral, salty, and are usually on the lighter side. 

Balsamic - Not a vinaigrette. Balsam-ic in perfumery refers to the scent of resins extracted from trees and shrubs. There are many different balsam notes to explore in natural perfumery - from sweet, powdery balsam of peru, to jammy balsam fir, to leather-y labdanum, to dry, peppery frankincense - and many more. Overall, think warm, sweet/sticky, and woody.  

Camphoric - Camphor oil is derived from the wood of the camphor laurel tree, and it has an extremely sharp, medicinal smell. (It's the main ingredient in Tiger Balm, if you're familiar.) Many different plants have camphoric qualities but usually they're herbs. Rosemary, sage, lavender, and eucalyptus are some of the most familiar plants fragrances with camphoric notes. 

Champa/Nag Champa - A traditional Indian fragrance with champaca or plumeria distilled with sandalwood. Nag Champa is most famously associated with that ubiquitous cheap incense smell, but real champaca (a variety of magnolia) and plumeria (also known as frangipani) are sweet, lush, warm florals. Combine them with mellow, nutty sandalwood plus whatever else you wish, (spices, citrus, jasmine, etc.,) and you've got your own take on nag champa.  

Chypre - In 1917 François Coty created a fragrance called Chypre, containing bergamot, labdanum, and oakmoss, and apparently it inspired a whole new genre of fragrances. Chypres are characterized by their fresh, citrus-y top notes, and warm, woody, mossy bases, but there can be a lot of variation in between. (They can be floral, fruity, green, etc., etc.,) I don't have any true chypres in my collection yet. No. 6 would probably be the closest, although technically it contains petitgrain instead of bergamot and lacks the labdanum. 

CO2 - A CO2 is a natural fragrance material that has been extracted by using pressurized carbon dioxide (as opposed to a chemical solvent like an absolute, or being distilled or expressed like an essential oil.) Because it's a low-temperature and completely non-toxic extraction method, CO2s retain many of the plant's therapeutic properties and are a welcome addition to both perfume and skincare formulas.  

Drydown - The end of a fragrance - what lingers on your skin after the top and middle notes have dissipated. I use this word a lot in my scent descriptions. Some times I also use it as a verb - like, "You want to let the top notes dry-down a bit..." I'm not sure if that's allowed, actually. Hopefully the perfume police aren't reading this. 

Essential oil - Essential oils are volatile (meaning they're easily evaporated in case you can't access a normal dictionary,) aromatic molecules produced by plants. Called "essential" because they encapsulate the "essence" of the plant. However, they aren't technically "oils." In nature, the essential oils produced by plants serve a variety of purposes - from protecting a plant from predators, to providing immune support for the plant, to attracting pollinators - and some even say the aromas are produced to attract humans who will help propagate the species. (There's one upside to natural perfumery for you - maybe we are actually helping to cultivate plants that might otherwise die out!) Essential oils can be extracted from plants by a variety of different methods, from cold pressing, to steam distilling, to hyrdo-distilling, to molecular/vacuum distillation. These are the preferred materials for aromatherapeutic purposes because the chemical makeup of the plant material remains intact.

Fougère - French for "fern" and the name of a family of scents that contain coumarin as a main note. Coumarin is a grassy scent compound found in many different plants in nature. Much like Chypres, Fougère fragrances are inspired by a perfume made in 1882 called Fougere Royal by Paul Parquet for the house of Houbigant. They usually contain notes of lavender, geranium, moss, and wood. Again, I'm not sure that I have any true fougère scents in my collection. I guess I know what to put on my list of things to make!   

Gourmand - Gourmand fragrances are scents that are reminiscent of food. They can be vanilla, cocoa, spice, citrus, coffee, tea notes, or anything that smells good enough to eat. I personally love making (and wearing) gourmand fragrances because I find them so comforting (and I also love to eat and cook.) In this collection, Cream, Tea, No. 5, and No. 9 are the most gourmand scents I have to offer at this time, but I'm sure there will be many more to come.    

Herbaceous - Herbaceous is a term used to refer to herbal scents. They can be fresh, sharp, green, bright, or even musky. Lavender, tea, No. 4, and No. 8 are my most herbaceous offerings, although there are herbaceous notes in many of my other scents. 

Indolic - Indole is an aromatic compound found in many different things in nature, from flowers to fecal matter. Indolic scents fall under the "animalic" category and are usually very rich and earthy. Jasmine is the most notably indolic floral note, but rose, tuberose, ylang ylang, orange blossom and surely many more florals have indolic qualities. Don't let "fecal matter" scare you off. People love to postulate about the "sexy" connection between fecal matter and fragrances online, but please don't read too much into that. Instead, just know that in perfumery, indole is mostly sweet and floral, like, um, all of the floral examples I just listed.  

Isolates - Isolates are single scent compounds that have been "isolated" in a lab. I don't use isolates in my perfumery (I don't get why things can't just smell like what they are?) but many natural perfumers use naturally derived isolates to enhance certain qualities of their compositions. To each their own! 

Musk - This word is often used to describe anything that smells "earthy," (such as in, "I was looking for something fresh and clean but all of your natural perfumes are too musky for me!") but I'd love it if we could all expand our scent vocabulary beyond that a bit. I'll start by trying to clear up what "musk" actually is for you. Traditionally musk is a perfume ingredient extracted from the anal glands of a musk deer. Obviously this will land musk in the animalic category, however, many plant smells also have "musky" qualities, and musk can even read as a "clean" smell. That ubiquitous (and AWFUL) "clean laundry" smell is actually a synthetic musk, so the joke's on you, "clean" fragrance lovers! As you can see, musk is a very complicated, complex perfumery note. In plant based, natural perfumery, ambrette seed (derived from the hibiscus) plant is the queen of "musk" and it has a nutty, fatty, sweet, then sparkly herbaceous floral, almost laundry-like, dry down. Musk is like sweet, clean skin. I'd say that that "new baby" smell is a musk, if you're familiar. Jasmine, sage, clary sage, cannabis, agarwood, and patchouli are a few other plant fragrances with musky qualities. See No. 2, No. 3, No. 8., and also Tea for a lighter take on musk.  

Notes -  Oh ho ho, what you've all been waiting for! What is a note? First of all, I can't find any information on why notes are called notes, so I'm sorry to say that I can't solve this burning mystery for you today. If I had to guess, I'd say that they're called notes because composing a fragrance is like composing a song. You take many individual ingredients (like single musical notes,) and arrange them together into "accords" (like musical chords,) to compose a whole tune/symphony depending on how fancy you get. Basically, notes are the different ingredients, or scents that you're smelling when you experience a fragrance. They're categorized into top, middle/heart, and base notes, which I'll define separately for you below. Also note (sorry,) that each individual note (whether it's a top, middle, or base) will have its own top, middle, and base note. So, yeah. There's a lot to take in and analyze when you're smelling a perfume. If this feels overwhelming, keep in mind that over analyzing your fragrance is always optional!    

Top notes - Top notes (also sometimes called head notes,) are the very first things that jump out at you when you experience a fragrance. (Personally, when I smell something I smell it all - top middle and base notes - at once, but the top notes are usually only present in the first few moments.) Top notes are the most volatile (remember, that means they're easily evaporated) scent molecules, which means that they disappear quickly, leaving the middle and the base notes behind on your skin. Some top notes are very light, while some can be quite overpowering. Unfortunately (?) in natural perfumery it can be quite difficult to extend the wear time of a top-note ingredient without adding something that will change the scent into something more heavy. I can make a light, refreshing fragrance full of fleeting top note ingredients, but it won't last all day. If that's what you're looking for, you may be in the wrong place. Mint, citrus, some woods, herbs, spices, are typical top note ingredients, although many of these also cross over into middle note territory.   

Middle notes - Middle notes, (also called heart notes,) are what's in-between the light, fleeting top notes and heavy, lingering base notes of a fragrance. They're sometimes called "heart notes" because they're the "heart" (like, main part) of a scent and they also bring harmony and balance to the top and base notes. Aw. These are your florals, mostly, but herbs, spices, and some some woods also work as middle notes. Side note - there are actually no cut-and-dry rules to what's considered what when it comes to sussing out top, middle, and base notes, and different people interpret different ingredients differently. I guess that's probably why I get so many questions and curiosity from customers about perfume notes!      

Base notes - This is what's left to sniff after the top and middle notes have evaporated. Personally, I think the base notes should be considered the "main part" of a scent, because it's what you're going to live with, wear, and smell the longest. These are rich, heavy, long lasting scent molecules that can be derived from woods, resins, grasses, and some flowers or herbs. They're usually pretty intense, although something doesn't necessarily have to be strong to also be long wearing. For example, vanilla is soft and mellow, but still lasts a long time on the skin. I hope this sufficiently answers your questions about notes?!    

Oriental - A very problematic and racist term that needs to disappear from perfume vocabularies. It's 2021. Traditionally, this term refers to rich, spicy, florals that can be woodsy and earthy and/or sweet. There are a million other ways to describe these types of smells so let's do better. 

Resin - Resins are hardened sap that's collected from a tree or bush. They can be distilled in a number of ways to make aromatic ingredients for natural perfumery. Frankincense, benzoin, styrax, labdanum and some of the most popular resinous ingredients, or notes.   

Silage - The scent trail you leave behind when you wear a fragrance. This is what most people who are drawn to natural perfumery are trying to AVOID, although sometimes it's fun to get all dolled up in a scent that people are going to smell coming and linger behind at the end of the night (or next morning.) ;) If you're looking to really make an impression, go for the spray bottle over the roll-on and apply liberally. It's perfectly safe and acceptable to spray these fragrances in your hair and on clothing - although I'd avoid spraying on light fabrics because darker scent materials can leave stains. Disclaimer, I am not responsible for stained fabrics nor am I a laundry expert, so take those questions elsewhere!  

Vegetal - Refers to scents that smell of or are derived from vegetables! Celery, tomatoes, carrots or other roots, seeds, and herbs can have vegetal qualities. They can be grounding, green, refreshing and/or earthy. Yum.

White florals - Typically when a scent is a "white floral" it contains jasmine, orange blossom, tuberose, plumeria, champaca, ylang ylang, etc. Not all of these flowers are white, but they do all have a certain kind of similar something going on. These are your "classic" perfume smells that are fancy, diffusive, rich, and sweet. See Nectar, No. 7, and No. 9 for "white floral" fragrance examples.