What do ‘notes’ actually mean?

We’ve all been there. Browsing for a new perfume and trying to decipher what it will actually smell like. From the theatrical descriptions and listings of ‘notes’ with extravagant ingredients, we’re left wondering whether we’re about to commit to smelling like roses or sandalwood (because, let’s face it, they’re very different things) and questioning how so many elements can form one single scent.

So, here’s your simple guide to fragrance notes and families, so that you can buy the perfect scent for yourself (or someone else), every time.

Top notes

These are the initial scents of any fragrance; what you smell when you first spritz. Top notes are made up of tiny molecules that evaporate quickly, so they don’t last long.

Heart/middle notes

These appear once the top notes have dispersed and tend to last a little longer. They form the body of the perfume and tend to be softer than the initial scent.

Base notes

These are the scents that linger. The scents you can smell when you pick up someone’s worn jumper and their fragrance is still present. The ingredients here form the depth of the perfume – they don’t surface for about 30 minutes into wear, but they can last up to 24 hours depending on their efficacy.

Now onto the ‘families’…

Now that you’ve mastered notes, let’s talk about fragrance families. These are what perfumeries use to categorise their fragrances. The five main families are: Floral, Oriental, Woody, Fresh and Fougѐre; categorising makes it much easier to classify a fragrance, and therefore (hopefully) makes it easier for a customer to know what kind of perfume-pledge they’re getting into.

A fragrance from the floral family is really quite self-explanatory. If you’re looking to leave romantic trails of roses, jasmine and lilies behind you, then your new scent needs to be from here. Choose from florals, soft florals or floraloriental (sometimes known as, floriental) scents for a light and feminine fragrance.

The oriental family is associated with rich and sensual scents that are warm and generally of a Middle-Eastern influence. This fragrance family presents four different types of fragrance within it; oriental, floraloriental, soft oriental and woodyoriental, which each represent the theme with a slightly different take on it.

Woody notes are predominantly used in unisex or less-feminine fragrances. Its sub-family categories consist of woody, mossy woods and dry woods and are generally made of deeper notes such as amber, cedar and sandalwood.

Fresh fragrances are made up of citrus, green and water notes – think sea breezes and freshly cut grass on a sunny, summer’s day… These scents are refreshing, energetic and uplifting, perfect for everyday wearing.

Finally, we have our fougѐre family which holds elements from the other four families. Fougѐre translates from French to ‘fern’, which, as you may have guessed, features notes of nature such as lavender, vetiver, bergamot and oakmoss. These fragrances are typically more masculine or included in unisex scents.

Ta-da! You’re a fragrance expert. Okay, but seriously, this information will help you so much when you’re shopping for your next scent, especially if you’re hunting online and can’t physically smell the fragrance in front of you. It will also give you every excuse to show off this new-found info’ to your friends and help them to shop the perfect scent too. But, until then, check out our favourite perfumes and aftershaves from each family below.