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Everything you wanted to know about perfume (but were afraid to ask)

Accord, drydown, sillage, notes, top notes…

To perfumers one of these words means an isolated smell in a fragrance. Another describes the result of isolated smells merging together to create an effect. But to most they mean very little, and worse, can make the world of perfumery seem uninviting and alien.

Simon Constantine, Gorilla perfumer, highlights that even the language used to describe ingredients can be hard for the uninitiated to decipher: ‘A perfumer’s organ (his workstation) is full of materials which, in concentration, smell just plain bad. A vocabulary has developed to mask this a little, with terms such as “faecal notes” or “animalic undertones”. That’s all code for “smells like a barnyard” or “honks like a camel’s breath”.’

To get your head round the olfactory mumbo jumbo, read on for handy vocab (one to start: olfactory means related to the sense of smell) and answers to frequently asked questions:

What the words mean:

Perfumer’s organ (ooh-er): actually just means their workstation, usually full of the materials used to  create compositions.

Essential oils and absolutes: The difference between essential oils and absolutes is in the method of extraction. An essential oil is a concentrated aromamaterial usually extracted by a process of steam distillation. It is sometimes described as the essence of a plant (clue’s in the name). Meanwhile, absolutes are solvent-extracted, typically because the natural substances are more delicate and could be damaged by the temperatures required for steam distillation.

Notes and accords:  Notes in perfumery can be understood similarly to notes in music. Each ‘note’ in perfumery refers to an individual, isolated element. Some examples of notes are ylang ylang, sandalwood and lavender. In music, notes played together create chords. In perfumery, notes come together to create accords.

Top, heart, and base notes: There are three words most commonly used to describe the notes in a perfume: top, heart and base. In the first moments after a perfume touches your skin or you breathe it in off a strip it is the top notes you are likely smelling. Scientifically speaking, these are materials with the lowest molecular weights and highest volatilities. Next come the heart notes, which usually lie in the middle part of a fragrance, staying longer on the skin than top notes. They are often considered to be the true personality of a fragrance. Finally, the base notes come through. Slow to evaporate, these make up the depth of a perfume and help it last longer.

Drydown: When the top and heart, notes become less discernible, the late stage of a fragrance begins. This is the drydown. (If you don’t know what a top or heart note is, read the answer above this one!)

Sillage: From the French word for 'wake', (like the trail left behind a boat) sillage refers to the lingering fragrance left behind by a perfume wearer. 


Why does perfume smell different on my skin than it does in the bottle?

In the least creepy way possible, your skin is the final ingredient… before you run for the hills, let us explain. Your skin’s temperature, pH range, natural aroma and moisture are all important components when it comes to what a fragrance will smell like. It can take a couple of hours for a perfume to go through all of its notes and the time this takes will differ depending on your skin too.

Where should I apply perfume?

The idea of dabbing perfume on your wrists didn’t come from nowhere. The heat of your skin affects how long a perfume will last so picking areas where the skin is warm (like pulse points) is an idea that really works! The wrists and elbows are good spots to try. Perhaps surprisingly, so is your hair. If you haven’t given it a go before, why not read this perfuming your hair guide.

After a while, I can’t smell my own perfume. Why is this?

If you feel like your perfume is no longer working, but then find co-workers and friends and family around you can still smell it, you’re perfectly normal. An adaptation - sometimes called olfactory fatigue - occurs so that you distinguish odours less after prolonged exposure.

Can I layer up perfumes?

Yes, of course. Perfume is an intimate, personal experience so wear it however you like! An easy rule of thumb is to spritz the same amount of times as you would a fragrance on its own to ensure that the layered fragrances aren’t much stronger than you’re used to.

Remember too that your morning routine might already contain many layers: toothpaste, shampoo, body wash, shaving products, aftershave and deodorant often all have distinctive scents. The Dirty range at Lush is a deliberate attempt at layering. Different elements were identified in Dirty fine fragrance and then distributed across a shaving cream, styling cream, toothy tabs and shower gel; using them together, you create a beautifully rounded fragrance.

If you're still looking for an answer, why not write to [email protected]. We’ll do our very best to answer them!

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