Common Perfume Notes Made Easy

Ever try to read out and make sense of a notes listing for a fragrance you love? Just what on Earth is muguet supposed to be? How do you even say that? And what’s this coumarin that everyone keeps talking about? And if you thought the notes list was complicated enough, just wait until you hear about the stuff they don’t list.

The following is a brief overview of some perplexing but common notes you might see in perfume.

Benzoin: Pronounced, “ben-zoh-in”, can refer to either the “benzoin resin” from trees in the Styrax genus or the organic compound, “benzoin”. Benzoin resin has a creamy, honey and vanilla fragrance.

Champaca: Pronounced, “cham-puk-uh”, is a tree from the magnolia family. It smells woodsy, spicy and green.

Coumarin: Pronounced, “koo-muh-rin”, is a chemical compound found in tonka beans, sweet grass, and a wide variety of other plants. It has a sweet hay scent.

Galbanum: Pronounced, “gal-bun-num”, is a gum resin from plants of the Ferula genus. It has a green, herbaceous and bitter scent.

Labdanum: Pronounced, “lab-dun-num”, is a resin obtained chiefly from plants of the Cistus genus. Labdanum smells sweet, dry and woodsy.

Muguet: Pronounced, “mew-gey”, is Lily-of-the-Valley. It has a light, very sheer but distinctive sweet aroma.

Olibanum: Pronounced, “O-lib-bun-num”, is frankincense. Smells like incense to me.

Opopanax: Pronounced, “oh-pop-pan-nax”, is a gum resin that smells woodsy and lightly floral undertones.

Oud: Pronounced, “ooh’d”, sometimes referred to as agarwood is the resin that is produced when an Aquilaria tree is infected with mold. Oud is said to smell dense, sweet, warm,  and woodsy.

Ylang Ylang: Pronounced, “ee-lang ee-lang”, is a flowering tree. Ylang ylang has a delicate, white floral fragrance.

How Perfume Notes Work

Talk in any sort of depth about perfume and you will probably encounter the word, “Note”. So what are perfume notes, what are these things that list them, and how do they work anyway?

A note in perfume refers to a single scent. Perfumes are made from many different notes blended together. For example, jasmine is a note featured in Chanel No.5. Notes are categorized in layers, from top notes, middle notes, and base notes. Perfumes work through evaporation and it is often the top notes that evaporate first and are the first notes you smell when you spray or apply perfume. The evaporation is followed by the middle notes and finally the base notes. Slofe

Contrary to popular belief, the perfume notes you see listed on perfume reviews, on the fragrance itself, or sites that sell perfume are not ingredients lists. They are also not 100% accurate descriptors of what the fragrance actually contains.

Notes listings are used by the perfume reviewer or the marketers of the perfume to describe what you may experience when you use the scent. Many times these notes lists are missing many, many, many other scents in the perfume itself. Fragrances are highly complex and some can have hundreds of different scents in them and nothing, short of gas chromatography, will be able to tell you for sure all of the notes in a perfume.

So with all this secrecy, what good are notes lists then? Simply put, notes lists help consumers imagine what a fragrance might smell like and help them determine if they would like that scent. While you cannot instantly know what a fragrance smells like until you stick your nose in, you can get a general idea using a notes list–most of the time. Notes can also help guide people through the progression of a fragrance by giving them a general idea of what they might be smelling.

In the end, notes are a mechanism for giving perfume sniffers an idea of what they’re experiencing. But they shouldn’t be used as a be all and end all list of ingredients because they aren’t.