In the world of Hollywood, there’s a pretty well-known fact among some of our fave celebs: Rihanna smells amazing. As in, like a-tiny-slice-of-heaven amazing. Over the past few years, everyone from Jennifer Lawrence and Ryan Seacrest to Cardi B and Lil Nas X (who said in a 2019 interview that the singer is his favourite smell) has revealed that the best thing about RiRi may not actually be her killer pipes and keen eye for fashion but rather the fact that she’s probs the best-smelling celeb in the game. According to Harper’s Bazaar, the Fenty Beauty founder’s signature scent is brought to us by Kilian’s Love, Don’t be Shy, a floral fragrance with notes of orange blossom, vanilla and marshmallow. Honestly, Rihanna sounds like a damn treat.
And can we be faulted for wanting to smell the same—or at least elicit the same reaction as Rih does when *we* walk into a room? “Fragrances truly become a signature for you—it’s a part of who you are,” says Guerlain International Beauty Expert Maxime Poulin. “[Whether] you’re a person who likes to wear perfume only for yourself or you want to announce your presence [with your scent], I think you’re not truly ready if you’re leaving the house without a fragrance.” But finding the best scent for you isn’t as easy as you may think. Have you ever *tried* walking into a Sephora fragrance section alone? Who among us hasn’t naively walked in only to leave confused 30 minutes later, nostrils clogged with miscellaneous scents, smelling like a contestant from Toddlers & Tiaras and having probably spritzed at least one perfume directly into our eye? It can be super overwhelming, and there can be so many Qs: Why does this perfume smell different on me than it does on my BFF? How do I know if this is the right scent for me? And, primarily, what am I even smelling??
We chatted with some fragrance experts to give you the 411 on everything you need to know to find the best fragrance for you. (Hint: It has a lot to do with your lifestyle.)
First of all, don’t just spray and sniff
If you’re anything like me, the extent of knowledge you have when it comes to testing fragrances is pretty simplistic. You walk into a store, pick up a white testing strip, spritz and place strip directly under your nostrils. Donezo, right? Well, actually, no. It turns out there might be a reason I’ve had trouble finding the perfect scent for me, and it has a lot to do with patience. “When people come to Creed to purchase a fragrance, we don’t want it to be a rushed experience,” says perfume expert Michelle Carlone. Instead of just spritzing, sniffing and deciding whether or not you want to buy ASAP, Carlone, an account coordinator for luxury perfume brand The House of Creed, recommends spraying a scent onto a blotter and leaving it to sit for a few minutes. When you’re ready, the key isn’t to stick said blotter (and scent) directly into your nostrils but to waft it towards yourself so you get a feel for the scent.
Once you’ve settled on a few scents you do like and want to get more personal with, the most important thing to do? Get those molecules on your skin! Choose two fragrance-free spots on your skin (Carlone suggests your inner forearms), spritz…and wait. “It’s important to let the [perfume] dry down,” Carlone says. Which definitely means no rubbing the fragrance once you apply it—as tempting as it may be—because, as Carlone explains: “What that does is alter the molecular structure. You’re rubbing off the top notes, and that could make it smell different.”
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Allowing the perfume to settle on your skin also allows you to get the full scent because it gives the different ingredients time to settle. “All fragrances have a top, a heart and a base note,” says Erwin Creed, the seventh-generation French perfumer at House of Creed. “So when you first spray the fragrance, you’re going to always smell the top note, which is fresher or has a citrus base. With the heart, you’ll get something like a Bulgarian rose or flowers. And then on the dry down, we’ll use something like a sandalwood.”
Creed recommends leaving the scent on your body for an hour to fully get the scent. (But don’t worry—for those of us who don’t have *that* much time on our hands, Carlone says 10-15 minutes should do the trick.)
And only try two or three scents at a time
And as tempting as it can be to go seriously ham while testing out any and all scents (there are just so many nice things to smell!), the truth is that going overboard with scents can ultimately leave you feeling straight up confused. “I would definitely recommend narrowing it down to three fragrances,” suggests Carlone. “[Just] so you don’t overwhelm [yourself]; because once you start spraying 10 different scents, you’re going to forget [how each one smells].”
And while Carlone says lots of people in the fragrance world suggest smelling coffee beans between testing out different scents (as a palate cleanser, not for the caffeine high), she suggests simply smelling an article of your clothing as an easy way to cleanse the palate between fragrances.
Another pro tip? Creed suggests making your way to the fragrance counter in the a.m. “In the morning it’s nice [to test our perfumes] because the nose is less permeated and we smell better,” he says.
It’s important to know what you’re smelling
While it’s important to make sure your nose is in tip-top shape before trying out fragrances, once it is good-to-go, discerning what *exactly* you’re smelling can be pretty difficult. Because what does vanilla really even smell like? According to Guerlain’s Poulin, there are four main olfactive families (or basic scent categories) that exist in all fragrances: fresh, floral, spice and woody. “Within these four families you’ll find a lot of sub-categories (or scents that combine families, like spice/fresh), but when it boils down to it, there are these four original olfactive families and all perfume falls more or less in one or another.”
Characterized by citrus notes, like lemon and grapefruit, this category can also have aromatic notes, like rosemary, basil or lavender. Think: your grandma’s clean laundry hanging on a line in the backyard.
“The floral universe [category] is the broadest,” says Poulin. “It’s the most iconic [and] the most feminine because, of course, it’s the one that puts in rose, jasmine and all these beautiful feminine essences that we’ve worshipped for so long.” The floral universe, according to Poulin, is one that’s “really romantic and very tender.” In addition to rose and jasmine, you’ll find ingredients like violet (more vibrant and youthful) and berries. Think: the massive flower crowns in Midsommar.
While most perfum brands continue to use the term “oriental” to describe this category, as FLARE writer Madelyn Chung argues that the use of “oriental” as a perfume category is harmful and offensive, so we’re choosing to call it “spice” here. “The [spice] universe has, of course, existed forever,” says Poulin. This scent family is associated with incense, smoke, warm spices and leather. In addition, fragrances classified as “oriental” can have notes of vanilla, “but vanilla that is not like a cupcake,” (aka sugary sweet), Poulin clarifies. “A true vanilla is really earthy, like tobacco.” Think: a smoky wood scent.
This universe is pretty self-explanatory. Classified as more “masculine,” these notes are chock-full of smells associated with nature, like cedar and dry wood. “But you can also think about when you walk into a church or you walk into old libraries, where you have this impression of wood that has been there for a hundred years,” says Poulin. Think: the smell of undergrowth when you walk in the forest in the fall.
And, FYI, the difference between eau de parfum and eau de toilette has to do with the concentration of fragrance oil and the amount of alcohol in the fragrance: A higher alcohol content means there’s more diffusion of the scent, so more people can smell it. With a higher concentration of fragrance oil, eau de parfum “is only for you and your [partner] that’s going to kiss you,” says Poulin. “They’re the only person who’s going to smell it because there’s not going to be a trail.” And with eau de toilette (which Poulin recommends spritzing on your clothing), less fragrance oil and a higher alcohol concentration means that those around you will be able to pick up your scent.
Your lifestyle plays an important role in choosing your scent
When it comes to actually choosing a fragrance that suits you, surprisingly, it’s not just about saying you like the smell of vanilla and going with a fragrance that has hints of that note; it’s about figuring out how a scent will function and fit into your current lifestyle. Carlone says that the first thing House of Creed employees ask new customers is to tell them a bit about themselves. “We ask about their jobs, where they live, if they’re travelling anywhere soon,” she says. All of this—as well as the message the customer wants to send out into the world and the story they want to tell—informs the type of fragrance they’ll recommend. For example, for a young, female magazine editor who lives and works in a large city and is physically active, Carlone recommended Creed’s “confident and irresistible” Aventis for Her perfume, which, with its fresh floral fragrance, embodies power and stands out in a room. While it may seem kind of hokey, there’s something to be said for crafting an image you want everyone to consume—we do it with our clothes, our hair and the way we walk and talk, so why not our smell too?
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Lifestyle factors aside, choosing a fragrance can be a more sentimental experience than one might expect. Because our olfactory memory is so strong, scent plays a powerful role in our lives. And your fave fragrance should take you back to a happy memory and make you feel the same way you did in that moment. Both Carlone and Poulin have customers recall a smell linked to a significant memory. “So that every time that you smell this [perfume], you’re immediately transported back to a place, a time, that feeling and emotion,” says Poulin. While these olfactory memories can run the gamut depending on the person, it’s universal in that everybody has some sort of scent memory they can refer to. “Sometimes it’s very obvious, like the client can answer, ‘When I was young and there was a Christmas party and all the aunts’ and uncles’ coats were on a bed and it smelled like all these beautiful perfumes,'” says Poulin. For other people it can be more complex. “[They] can say, ‘This was when I was a child and I was in the wood shop with my father and he was cutting wood. That smell is very meaningful to me.'”
While it may seem random, these different aspects of your life help inform which scent will be best for you. “It’s not just by smelling blotters that you’re going to find your authentic signatures,” she says.
You probably won’t smell like Rihanna—for good reason
And because fragrances are *so* individualized, unfortunately for all of us that means that even if we were to purchase Rih’s infamous fragrance, we probably wouldn’t smell like her. Not only because the fragrance itself wouldn’t be authentic to our own experiences but also because, due to the pH of our skin and our unique chemistry, perfumes smell different on every body. It’s science!
“Mr. Guerlain famously said, ‘You are the last note of the perfume,'” says Poulin. “You will transform the fragrance…which is the magic of parfum, right?”
And just because a certain fragrance works with you and your body now doesn’t mean it always will because our bodies, and our hormones, are always changing. This is especially true for women, who, Poulin says, typically go through at least two hormonal changes throughout their lives. “First of all when they have a baby,” he says. “When you’re pregnant, your hormones change—of course, you’re creating something so magical—but sometimes, either during or after your pregnancy, you won’t be able to wear your signature fragrance anymore.” The second time for a change-up can come later in life for women, when they go through menopause—another monumental hormonal change.
But a good fragrance will make you feel like her
Despite the fact that you probably won’t smell exactly like RiRi, you’ll know you’ve found the right scent for you when spritzing it on before you head out the door makes you feel as badass as the Barbadian queen.
“You obviously want to feel uplifted, happy and comfortable,” says Carlone of how your fragrance should affect you. “You obviously want to feel good, look good.”
So the perf fragrance should take you from this:
It takes time to find the right one
The biggest piece of advice that all the fragrance experts I talked to had: Be patient. Finding the right scent for you is a process of (in-person) trial and error. “My suggestion would just be to actually go into the store and smell it for yourself,” says Carlone. “It’s sort of hard because it’s not tangible in the sense that you can just read up on [finding the right perfume]—you really have to go in and smell it and get it on the skin.”
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And, as Creed’s current perfumer emphasizes, it’s a process that should be enjoyed. “Don’t be in a rush,” advises Creed. “Take your time, enjoy it, don’t rush to choose a scent because it’s popular—that’s not important. It’s important to smell it, enjoy it and make sure it’s the right one for you.”
So let’s channel that French-girl energy to the max.
But it’s ultimately worth it
While it may seem tedious to find your perfect eau, it’s ultimately worth it for completing your outfit. “[Before you go out] you pick a dress, you pick a suit—and the last touch is perfume,” says Creed. Plus, he continues, perfume is also important for the community—for a pretty relatable reason.
“When I take the subway, I want someone next to me to smell good.” And vice versa.