The Language of Perfume

How can we describe a scent?

We have very few words that are specific and exclusive to describing scents. In English, the only words that do that are: aromatic, fragrant, pungent, redolent, and stinky.

Yes, that’s all.

Typically, we borrow adjectives such as floral and fruity  that are used to describe odor-producing things (flowers and fruits), or we use phrases from other senses, such as how chocolate smells sweet and grass smells green. Perfume briefs (how a perfume company instructs the perfumer on how the fragrance should smell like) are usually vague or completely abstract.[1-4]

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So how can we try to shed some light into describing perfumes? Let’s try to dissect it.

First of all, what are perfumes made of? Basically, three things:

(1) essential oils obtained from natural plant extracts and/or synthetic aromatic chemicals (e.g.,aldehydes, alcohols, terpenes or esters);

(2) fixatives, synthetic or natural substances used to make your perfume last longer on your skin;

(3) solvents, the liquid in which the perfume oil is dissolved. Usually, it is composed of 98% ethanol and 2% water.

We can use 3 qualifiers to describe a fragrance:

The first one is the concentration level of the perfume oil in a fragrance, and it determines its intensity and expected duration on the skin. The stronger the aroma and the longer it lasts, the more concentrated the perfume. There are four main perfume concentration classifications. Parfum includes between 15% and 30% aromatic compounds; eau de parfum contains between 8% and 15% ; eau de toilette contains between 4% and 8%; and eau de cologne contains between 2% and 5%.[5]

The second qualifier is the scent family and scent family subtype. Floral, Oriental, Chypre, Green, Citrus, Fougère, Marine/Ozonic, and, most recently, Gourmand are the principal smell families. Amber, spicy, fruity, fresh, aldehyde, woody and animalic are examples of scent family subtypes.[6]

Finally, the third qualifier of a perfume is expressed in musical analogies: the perfume notes. A perfume's "composition" is the combination of components in it, and it contains three "notes" that develop over time. The top note, also known as the head note, is the first note in a perfume. Just as the top notes fade away, the middle notes (also known as heart notes) appear. The last notes to appear are the base notes (also known as bottom or dry down). This class of compounds is frequently used as a fixative to keep and strengthen the lighter top and middle notes. Due to the varied evaporation rates of different molecules in a perfume, it will not smell the same when first applied as it will three hours later. You can find more details on perfume notes in this article.

Perhaps musical metaphors, images and feelings are commonly used to describe a scent not just because we lack the words but also because a perfume itself is a form of art, and as such, expresses itself differently to every person.


[1] Classen C., Howes D., Synnott A. New York: Routledge; Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell. 1994

[2] Herz R. S. The unique interaction between language and olfactory perception and cognition. New York: Nova Science; Trends in Experimental Psychology Research. 2005:91–109

[3]Herz R. S. Olfaction. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates; Sensation & Perception. (2nd) 2008:330–58.

[4] Burr C. New York: Henry Holt; The Perfect Scent. 2007

[5] Herz RS. Perfume. In: Gottfried JA, editor. Neurobiology of Sensation and Reward. Boca Raton (FL): CRC Press/Taylor & Francis; 2011. Chapter 17. Available from:

[6] Moran J. La Quinta, CA: Crescent House Publishing; Fabulous Fragrances II. 2000

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