The beginner’s guide to buying a fragrance you'll love

Everything you need to know to navigate the perfume aisle

marie claire Contributor / May 25 2017

Overwhelmed by the sheer number of fragrances available this time of year? Take heart: here’s your beginner’s guide to navigating the perfume aisle with ease to come out smelling like roses. Or jasmine. Or sandalwood … 

“Perfume and the sense of smell is probably one of the most powerful tools and senses available to man and dates back before BC,” explains Azzi Glasser, a perfume designer and founder of The Perfumer’s Story. There is vast data on the links between memory and scent, and, as Glasser puts it, “the fact is, we would not choose a partner if they didn’t smell good”. Bottom line: scent matters. A fragrance is formulated with many different notes and accords, which are made up from essential oils and synthetic ingredients, says Glasser.

Understanding fragrance notes 

The composition of a perfume is like a pyramid:

Top notes: This is what you smell with your first mist. These notes are usually light, bright and citrusy.

Middle notes: Also known as the heart, this comes through once the top notes disappear and is the main character of the fragrance. Common notes include florals, fruits and spices.

Base notes: Often woods, moss and musk, this determines the longevity and strength of the fragrance on your skin.

Signature scent or a fragrance wardrobe?

This is completely up to the individual. “For a memorable occasion, try a signature scent that has a special meaning and evokes personal memories and emotions – it should be something you will never tire of or forget,” advises Aerin Lauder, founder and creative director of Aerin. For daily life, Lauder prefers a what-do-I-feel-like-today attitude. “I have a wardrobe of fragrances I use for my changing moods and styles – what I wear on a weekend is different from what I like to wear to a black tie event or on holiday at the beach.” 

Fail-safe fragrance picks

Designer fragrances: Chloé Fleur de ParfumGiorgio Armani Sì Le ParfumHugo Boss Boss The Scent EDT

Fruits & florals fragrances: Annick Goutal Rose Pompon EDTEstée Lauder Modern Muse Le Rouge Gloss EDPYSL Mon Paris EDP

Woody fragrances: Christian Dior Gris Montaigne EDP; Le Labo Thé Noir 29 EDPGucci Bamboo EDP

Oriental fragrances: Bulgari Goldea EDPHermès Galop d’Hermès ParfumAerin Tangier Vanille EDP

His & hers fragrance combo: Prada L’Homme EDTPrada La Femme EDP 

Unisex fragrances: CHANEL Boy EDP; Diptyque Eau des Sens EDT


Designer fragrances

Floral & fruity fragrances

Woody fragrances

How to layer fragrance 

Glasser is not a fan of this approach (“most perfumes should be composed perfectly well, as a fragrance formulation is already layered by the different notes and accords within it”); however, she does see the appeal of a bespoke fragrance. A compromise: if you’ve sprayed one scent in the morning, “layer your fragrance in the evening by adding a single note like rose oil, patchouli or sandalwood, which could work as a great balance to most perfumes”.

How to buy fragrance for yourself

Lauder suggests you start with a series of questions. What type of fragrance am I looking for? An everyday fragrance, something for a special occasion, or a holiday? Do I want something lush and floral, refreshing and citrusy, or dramatic and musky? Next, you’ll need to get out there and try, try, try. “I like to get samples of a few favourites to take home,” says Lauder. “I wear them out and ask my friends and family for their opinions.” Compliments and your own nose will help you determine which scents are keepers. 

How to buy fragrance for another woman

“Fragrance is very personal, but it’s something I love to gift,” says Lauder. “Before I head to the store I’ll ask my family or friend what flowers and scents they love and choose a perfume that expresses them the best.” Another gift-giving tip: “I also love to give a set of three or four rollerball fragrances – this way they can try a few different types and see which they like best. Plus, they are travel- and purse-friendly!”

Oriental fragrances

His & hers fragrances

Unisex fragrances

Want to expand your fragrance know-how even further? Here's everything you need to know about fragrance.

For more fragrance tips from marie claire, head over to

Photography by Edward Urrutia

Main image credit: @lilyrose_depp

A beauty editor and vitamin C fanatic who has worked across a range of print and digital publications, including Stellar, marie claire, Gritty Pretty and Badlands Journal.