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How to Shop for Perfume Like a Pro

Bottle of perfume and roses on dark background
Africa Studio/Shutterstock

In our brains, the olfactory bulb sits near the areas that govern memory and emotion. That’s why you so often run across smells that remind you of your past, or of a feeling that you can’t quite place.

This effect makes perfume a powerful item. Whether you’re looking for a signature everyday scent or something for special occasions, you’re choosing something that people might remember you by for years to come.

That’s why it’s worthwhile to spend a little more time picking out the perfect scent. There’s more to it than just reading a brand description or spritzing it on a test strip. Ready to shop for perfume like a pro? Follow these steps.

Consider Your Preferences

When you walk into a store that sells perfume, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the options on the shelves. A little research beforehand to find out what you like will help you stay focused.

Don’t delve into the full world of online recommendations just yet. Start by just looking for things in your daily life that smell good to you. It might be a plant in the garden, a candle, a pastry, or even your dish soap.

Knowing which scents you like will help you pick a fragrance that you won’t soon tire of. Try to nail down what aspects of the scents appeal to you. For example, do you love that vanilla-sandalwood candle for its sweetness or its woody, earthy notes?

Consult a Fragrance Wheel

Perfumes are loosely grouped into various categories, like woody and floral. Those broad categories can be broken down even further into subcategories, like mossy woods and soft florals.

The best way to understand these relationships is to take a look at a fragrance wheel before you shop. There are a few different fragrance wheels out there, but they’ll all help you see the relationships between different scents. Once you know what kind of scents appeal to you, you can find them on a fragrance wheel and look for closely related scents that you might also want to try.

Avoid Coffee

Many people swear by coffee beans to “cleanse” your senses between smelling perfumes. However, if you’re trying lots of scents, the coffee smell can contribute to your nose getting overwhelmed.

Instead, when you go perfume shopping, sniff your bare skin between scents to hit the “reset” button.

Know Your Notes

Fragrances are composed of top notes, heart notes, and base notes. You’ll notice the top notes first. Then they’ll fade, and the heart notes will shine through. Finally, the base notes last the longest.

Some scents work best as top notes, while others make great long-lasting base notes. For example, if you love citrusy scents, you should know that those bright notes tend to fade fast. You’ll need to pick a perfume that has complementary heart and base notes that you love.

Try It On

closeup of woman spraying perfume onto wrist
Africa Studio/Shutterstock

The only way to fully experience a fragrance as the notes dissipate is to try it on. Spray yourself with a scent you’re leaning toward, and pay attention to how it wears on your skin over the next few hours. You might discover that you loved the top notes, but don’t like the base as it dries down.

Fragrances also wear differently on different people. Wearing a fragrance for a day will let you see how it reacts with your natural scent. Spray it on a warm area of the body where the blood flows close to the skin for the best effect—try the wrist or inner elbow.

Only try one perfume at a time, so you can get a clear picture of how it wears on you. Test out fragrances using the store’s paper test strips until you find one you want to try out on yourself. Also, always let a couple of seconds pass between spraying a fragrance and smelling it. Otherwise, your first whiff will be tainted by the alcohol in the perfume.  

Don’t Wear Fragrance Beforehand

On the day you go perfume shopping, don’t spray on any fragrances at all before you head out. Avoid other scented products like lotions, too. Otherwise, those scents will mingle with the perfumes you try, making it hard to choose accurately.

Consider Concentration

Although this isn’t the most crucial factor in choosing a scent, it’s valuable to know the different concentrations that fragrances are sold in.

Pure parfums have the highest concentration of fragrance. These aren’t sold very often, and they’re the most expensive option since a little goes a long way.

You’ll more likely find yourself choosing between eau de parfum (EDP) and eau de toilette (EDT). EDPs last for several hours, while EDTs are more subtle and disappear faster. Finally, Eau de cologne (EDC) has the lowest fragrance concentration.

There’s no right or wrong choice. However, if you prefer to be subtly scented, you might opt for an EDC or EDT over an EDP or pure parfum.

How to Navigate Perfume-Shopping Challenges

woman choosing from perfumes on a store shelf
Ollyy/Shutterstock

Sometimes, your fragrance shopping experience gets a little more complicated. Here’s how to handle a couple of common perfume challenges.

Buying Perfume Online

When you need a new scent and can’t get into the store, you can still increase the chances of getting something you love with the right approach.

If you know which notes you like, look for fragrances that are based around them. For example, if you adore the scent of the jasmine flowers outside, a jasmine-based perfume will probably work well for you. You can also look up the notes of any scents you already have to guide your choice.

You may notice that fragrance brands tend to use certain words to describe certain types of scents. For example, “gourmand” scents smell sweet and edible, while “animalic” refers to a warm, sensual character. Learning these keywords can help you target scents you’ll like.

Don’t hesitate to request a sample from a manufacturer before buying. If you sound interested, they’ll probably be happy to send you one.

Finally, always buy scents from trusted sites. Avoid third-party sellers on sites like Amazon who might be selling knock-offs. When in doubt, buy directly from the manufacturer.

Buying Perfume as a Gift

Buying perfume as a gift can seem sweet and thoughtful—but you’ll need to put thought into it. Otherwise, it’s a gift that will collect dust on the shelf.

If you know which scents the recipient already wears, you can use your knowledge of keywords, notes, and fragrance wheels to find something similar. Pay attention to the non-perfume scents they love, too. If they like the smell of the ocean, you might want to gift them a fresh, salty fragrance.

Since scent is correlated with memory, shared past experiences can also drive your choice of gifts. If you took a great vacation to Dubai together, for example, an oud-based scent might remind them of the fragrances you encountered there.

No matter what, you’re always taking a risk when buying perfume as a gift. But you can show that you took care with the decision by doing your best to pick something they love. You can even look for perfumes with a name or a bottle that evokes their personality.

Finally, don’t be afraid to give them a sample set of small rollerballs or spritzers, so they can test a few options and pick what they love. This is perfect for the indecisive person in your life.


Buying perfume—whether for yourself or someone else—doesn’t have to be intimidating. It can be fun, and the science of scent offers terrific learning opportunities. With this guide, you’re now ready to discover new favorite fragrances with confidence.

Elyse Hauser Elyse Hauser
Elyse Hauser is a Seattle-based writer and editor with a Master's in Writing Studies from Saint Joseph's University. Her work has appeared in publications like Racked, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and Rum Punch Press. She was awarded a 2017 Writing Between the Vines residency.  Read Full Bio »

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