The only thing better than ordering from Sephora late at night, in bed, with a glass of wine in hand is that feeling when everything works and there are no returns to pretend you’ll make later. Despite the endorphin spike we get from unboxing packages, online shopping for beauty comes with risks — particularly when we venture into the category of fragrance. Product reviews and high-tech, try-on widgets have managed to close the gap for shade-matching foundations or understanding the right serum for your skin type. A scent, on the other hand, has the power to divide over a single note. “Rose can be done in a thousand different ways,” says Nick Gilbert, fragrance evaluator at UK-based fragrance consultancy firm Olfiction. “So, it’s subjective, right?” Even the most cult-loved scents, like Le Labo’s Santal 33 or Maison Kurkdjian’s Baccarat Rouge 540, can be divisive for some.
Since high-quality fragrances can run as high as $300 or more, blind-buying fragrances online are purchases you want to get right the first time. But with so many conflicting opinions on any scent experience, how can you avoid a required trip to the perfume section every time you want to test new fragrance waters?
To preserve your bedtime shopping ritual, Bustle asked fragrance aficionados exactly what you need to know to make your next online fragrance purchase a success.
Deciphering Fragrance Notes
You may have heard top, middle and base notes described as the first, second and third scent categories you’ll smell from a scent. Gilbert, whose expertise lies in interpreting perfumer language to help consumers better understand fragrance, clarifies that this common definition is an oversimplification. “You smell the whole thing and then over time that pyramid starts to flatten out,” he explains. “You lose the top and then you go down to the heart and the base. Then that’s just the base that’s left.” Molecular size determines where a scent lives on a notes pyramid and how quickly it evaporates off the skin. Citrus, Gilbert advises, is a popular note but doesn’t have lasting power. “When you’re looking at a notes list, you need to be taking into account the whole thing,” he says. Make sure the entire fragrance sounds appealing, even though you’ll be left with primarily base notes toward the end of your day.
Read The Right Reviews
We know scent is highly personal, but reviews can still be helpful if you know what to look for. This doesn’t mean you should buy perfumes because they’re buzzing across social media. Instead, pay attention to specific descriptions that mention standout notes or definitively explain how a scent feels. “I don’t want to hear people say ‘This is so pretty. I loved it. It was the best.’ That tells me nothing about the fragrance,” says Maiya Nicole, founder of the popular fragrance community Black Girls Smell Good. “If you’re saying the rose here or the geranium here came across a little bit medicinal, that’s when I would say, you have an understanding of where we’re going with this.”
Platforms like Black Girls Smell Good, Base Notes and Fragrantica are useful for finding detailed information from experienced scent enthusiasts, experts and perfumers to guide you while online shopping.
Build Your Nose At Home
You may not have aspirations of becoming a perfumer, but creating a mental scent bank will help you make more successful online fragrance buys. “There are a lot of really good, what I would call, solifleur fragrances, which are like ‘Hi, I am straight-up this [scent]’,” says Gilbert. Solifleurs are single-note scents or fragrances that directly represent notes you’ll find in more complex perfumes. For example, Gilbert suggests taking a whiff of Tam Dao by Diptyque if you want to know what sandalwood really smells like. “However, what I would do is start paying attention to these things in the real world. Put your nose into spices, put your nose into citrus, put your nose into flowers when they’re around, and you’ll start to form very good olfactive pictures.” When a notes list mentions jasmine or patchouli, you’ll now have a scent memory to refer to.
Becoming familiar with fragrance categories can also create reference points for understanding scents. “Gourmand, which is my favorite category, is a very fancy way of saying anything that has an edible note,” says Nicole. “Vanilla, marshmallow, chocolate whipped cream, butter, and even fruit — anything you can eat is considered gourmand.” Nicole explains that aromatic perfumes are strongly scented, spicy and herbal with notes like rosemary or sage. Aquatic fragrances mimic beaches or bodies of water and may contain sea salt. Green scents take inspiration from plant life, like grass and moss, and may contain notes of vetiver — an earthy, woodsy-smelling note.
Take Inventory Of Your Fragrance History
If you don’t know where to start, what you already have can tell you a lot about your scent preferences. Look for patterns in your favorite perfumes, body washes, candles and other scented products. “For my fragrance consultations, I [ask clients to show me] their entire collection,” says Nicole. “Most times I find a recurring theme. Every one of these fragrances has jasmine in it. You like jasmine. So, going forward we’re going to look for fragrances that feature jasmine in a way that the ones that you currently have don’t.”
In addition to thinking about what you like, be sure to get clear on what you don’t like. “I don’t like coconut because I was really sick on coconut rum once. So, I never want to smell coconut in anything — ever,” says Gilbert. “Pay attention to what you don’t like but also try to keep an open mind of things you don’t know. Fragrances are made of hundreds and hundreds of materials and just because something is there doesn’t mean it will be bad.”
Think About Layering
Consider how your daily soaps, hair products, lotions and other perfumes might influence your final scent. You can use this to your advantage to play up specific fragrance qualities, create an entirely different scent experience or even salvage a previous blind-buy fail. “KAYALI Utopia Vanilla Coco has jasmine and coconut. If you like jasmine, it may be important to extend the life of the jasmine, so I’m making sure the body lotion that I have on has jasmine or that I’m layering it with a jasmine perfume oil,” says Nicole. “It doesn’t have to be matchy-matchy.”
Nicole suggests following this same logic when it comes to the fragrances you currently own that haven’t met your expectations. “Let’s say I have this really sugary, sweet fragrance and I want to sober it up a bit or make it more unisex,” she says. “So, you pair it with something really musky.” Keep layering concepts in mind while shopping to dig further into your current scent profile or explore new terrority with notes that add versatility.
Your Body Might Change The Scent
No matter how much you know about fragrance, some things are up to biology. “I have put fragrances on people and they will wildly differ from what you expect to happen because of their individual skin chemistry,” says Gilbert. “Things like diet and hormonal state — all of these things play into how your skin smells.” Gilbert goes on to say that most mass-market fragrances smell similar because they are designed to avoid scent shifts from person to person. When buying from niche or smaller fragrance brands, it may be more difficult to predict how your skin chemistry will interact with the fragrance. The more you pay attention to the way fragrances wear on your skin, the better you’ll get at identifying how your natural smell participates.
Nothing is as foolproof as smelling a fragrance in-store, but buying new (expensive) scents online doesn’t have to be so much of a gamble. Take some time to smell the roses — literally — to build your scent memory and find your preferred scents. And when in doubt, always buy the sample size first.