Ask the expert – the perfume edition
We’ve got a new interview series! We’ll be sitting down with beauty experts to get all the answers for you! Some exciting topics are planned (just sayin!). This edition is all about perfume. Most of us wear it, maybe even have some bottles at home – but for both Astrid and me perfume always comes last behind makeup, skincare, and nailpolish. So we met up with Louce and Ronin from Parfumo and asked a lot of questions about perfume and things a perfume newbie should know. (Find the interview in German here!)
Parfumo is the biggest German perfume platform on the net (they also have a nifty button at the top where you can switch the language to English). It also has the biggest perfume database on the net, and Louce and Ronin, two members who’ve made it their mission to interview the world’s best perfumers for the site on its blog. So, they clearly know a thing or two about perfumes. They met on Parfumo four years ago and have been married for two years.
Twindly: How did your passion for perfume start and when?
Ronin: I studied chemistry at university and was always interested in fragrances. Then I developed a passion for fine wines and perfume shares some traits with wine, actually. Wine and perfume are both sensory experiences, and both are build around scents. The questions you’re starting to ask yourself are the same: Why does this work? Why do I like this, but not that?
Louce: I first knew the theory, because I was interested in aesthetic theory at university, the theory behind all art. When perfume got on my radar and I started to wanting to wear different perfumes, perfumes that not everybody was wearing, I recognized that the abstract theory I was familiar with was fitting in my new olfactory interest.
Twindly: For every perfume newbie the most interesting question regarding perfume is likely how to find ‘my’ signature scent. So, how do I find it?
Louce: Trial and error.
Ronin: Testing and sniffing everything can be difficult. After spraying five perfumes you can’t smell differences any more.
Louce: You should try to do a bit of research beforehand. Maybe you already have a perfume you like. Make that your starting point. Then you can either go to a perfume store and ask the sales assistant ‘I like Shalimar. What’s similar?’ or you can look it up at Parfumo. You’ll see if it’s considered a flowery scent, or if it’s supposed to be an animalistic or green scent. There you can also learn about the genre it belongs to, and its notes and delve deeper into that and maybe find another perfume that you like.
Ronin: If you already know what you like, say a chypre, but you haven’t found the perfect scent yet, you can also visit a smaller perfume store and find someone there who’ll help you and takes some time. Try to find a store that’s really big on customer service and has knowledgeable sales assistants. Hopefully they’ll show you some chypres and you can try them out and decide whether you’ll like a chypre with rose notes or jasmine notes more. Another possibility would be to research perfumers. Have a look at the perfumer of your favourite perfume. Perfumers often have a special signature that runs deeper than similar notes or genres.
Louce: It’s similar to art. Like in art, you’ll find genres in perfumery. And even if I don’t have a clue about art history, I can love Rothko, for example, and have a Rothko print in my living room. It’s all about personal taste. If you like it – great!
Twindly: Do I, as a perfume newbie, have to know about top and base notes and such?
Ronin: Usually a perfume develops its notes over time and goes through top, heart and base notes, in that order. There’re notes that evaporate more quickly than others. These are top notes that typically smell fresh and fruity. Heart notes take some more time to really develop their scent on the skin, but are already there with the top notes. You just don’t smell them, because the top notes are much more dominant. Flowers and spices are quintessential heart notes. Then there’re base notes. Like the heart notes they’re there from the beginning, but our nose picks them up after the other notes take a step back. They’re often sweet, warm or resinous. But nowadays the scope of scents is much broader. Thanks to new synthetic notes it’s possible to create perfumes with top notes that smell resinous or with a fresh smelling base note. It’s even possible to create a fragrance that doesn’t show that kind of development on your skin but smells the same for hours.
Twindly: For you synthetic fragrances aren’t really a controversial topic, right?
Ronin: Correct. They enhance the development of a scent. The aesthetic prerogative has changed in recent years. Some perfumers don’t even want that the accords in a fragrance change at all. For perfumer Francis Kurkdjian it’s a sign of the quality of a fragrance when its components don’t change and when it stays stable from start to finish.
Louce: In former times the dramaturgy of a fragrance was compulsory. Today it’s its maker’s decision. There isn’t a natural necessity for that dramatic arc of top, heart and base notes any longer.
Twindly: When it comes to discussing ‘natural’ versus ‘synthetic’ fragrance there’s often the implication that natural fragrances are better. Is that true?
Ronin: No. Perfumer Céline Ellena once said that natural fragrances are like the melody, and synthetic fragrances are like the beat. When you combine only natural notes in a perfume, there isn’t any structural hold to the fragrance – that’s not a melody, but street noise. You need the synthetic notes for the beat. The question is not which one is better. Both have their different uses. ‘Natural’ doesn’t mean that something smells natural. For example, you can’t distil the natural scent of a rose in a classic distillation process. That’s the reason why a natural rose oil doesn’t smell like the rose in your garden, but has a jam-like or soapy quality. When a perfumer tries to mimic the ‘natural’ rose scent, he’ll use a lot of synthetic notes. (…)
Ronin: Natural fragrances aren’t more eco-friendly than synthetic ones, either. Just the opposite! The demand of sandalwood for perfumery became so huge in recent years that now whole eco-systems are in danger.
Louce: And that discussion about how unhealthy synthetic fragrances are? Rubbish! Natural essential oils are made of, chemically speaking, a huge amount of different compounds. Synthetic fragrances have usually much less. So of course the chance of being allergic is much less with synthetic fragrances.
Twindly: Mainstream or niche perfumes – which ones are better?
Ronin: Both terms just say where and how to buy a perfume – while mainstream ones are basically sold everywhere, niche ones are harder to get. And that’s it. Why that is so – that’s a different matter altogether. Maybe a small brand lacks the power to be distributed at some locations. Maybe the perfumer uses ingredients that are only available in limited amounts. Maybe a perfumer wants to go wild and don’t want to care about what people want so smell like. (…) If you’re looking for a very expressive, very unique fragrance, you’re most likely to go with a niche perfume. But it’s not better or worse than a mainstream one.
Louce: You can also find some cheap niche crap that is marketed in a way that suggests something else. Artificial shortage can make it seem a lot more desirable.
Ronin: Or maybe someone looks for self-realisation but actually has no idea about how to make a good perfume. That case won’t happen with mainstream fragrances though – you’ll only find good, solid perfumers working on those. It’s more likely that they can’t realize their ideas completely because ingredients might be too expensive, the timeframe for development is too short or costs must be met.
Twindly: As a perfume newbie, is there anything I need to know about skin chemistry?
Ronin: There isn’t any skin chemistry – at least not in the sense that some agent in or on your skin reacts with a perfume you wear. Fragrances are made in a way that they don’t change whether your skin is acidic, alkaline, dry or oily – they don’t react with micro-organisms or bacteria living on your skin, too. Of course everybody’s body smells in a unique way, which then creates a new scent when you use a fragrance. But that’s only detectable only at a very short distance – your nose has to be very close to the skin! Dry or oily skin plays a big role in longevity of a scent on skin, though.
Twindly: Can the longevity of a fragrance differ from person to person?
Louce: The arc of development of a fragrance is influenced by dry or oily skin. When we both spray a perfume at the same time, it could very well be that heart and base notes are already detectable on your skin, while on me there’s still only the top note we smell. That’s usually what happens when people say that a fragrance is completely different on them than on their best friend. But it’s totally the same – just at different stages of its development.
Ronin: You also adapt to a scent that you’re wearing often really quickly. And then there’s the fact that a perfume smells differently when I press my nose to the skin, or am a few metres away from the wearer, or am coming into a room where it has been sprayed. Especially those animalistic base notes are mostly just detectable close to the skin. I don’t smell them when I’m away further.
Louce: When it comes to skin chemistry people tend to exaggerate enormously. They’re totally into that idea of uniqueness that they start to exaggerate their experiences.
Ronin: If you’re testing a perfume and it smells differently, small traces of a fragrance you wore before can be the reason for that. It’s amazing how long those traces can linger on the skin and bloom again when they come into contact with water or alcohol. That can really influence the scent of a fragrance you use on top of that. But really, I always think that sales assistants in perfumery departments invented skin chemistry. They have to cope with people who don’t like their recommendations at all. And then they started to explain that with ‘oh, that smells really different on you’.
Louce: You could also be anosmic and just not able to smell some scents. Or maybe you’re not used to their smell and that’s the reason why they don’t leave any impression. But practise can help with noticing them one day. There’re a lot of reasons why a fragrance smells like this or that to me and even more reasons why I may like it or not.
Twindly: Thank you very much, Louce and Ronin!