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How to Shop for a New Scent

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Signature scents are nice -- but you don't have to limit yourself to just one. Photo courtesy K. Neer.

Spring has officially arrived — as witnessed by the purple, white and yellow blooms abounding in my front yard. Along with these bright colors comes an array of delightful scents wafting by in the breeze … and at your local mall. Yes, that’s right — the mall. If you’ve somehow missed all the colorful ads splashing around the Internet or the teasers in your print magazines, here’s some news: Spring is a popular time of year for fragrance launches. And what better way is there to take advantage of this than shopping for a new scent.

First off, know that your nose has its limits. So when you set out on your shopping spree, keep that in mind. Before you head out in search of a heady new scent, leave your usual at home, in the bottle. It’s OK to scrub and smooth with your favorite scented shower gels and lotions because you’ll likely be using these products prior to dabbing or spritzing on your new scent. But any additional fragrance beyond that will just confuse your senses. Donning a three-quarter sleeve shirt or a top that exposes even more than your wrists is a good idea — you’ll need the real estate for testing. And, if you have some whole coffee beans at home, grab a little zip-lock baggy and dump a scoop in there — you can use it to reset your senses between scents.

It’s also good to arm yourself with a little research prior to hitting the mall. Whether you’re a pro or a novice, here are some basics that will come in handy:

  • Fragrances generally fall into one of several categories based on what the dominant scent is — for example: aromatic (think herbs like rosemary and basil), citrus, clean (also known as fresh or green — think fresh-cut grass), floral, fruity, spicy or Oriental, and woody.
  • Fragrances come in varying levels of concentration — essentially it’s a balance between the amount of scented oils and the alcohol or other ingredients. For women’s fragrances, perfume (or parfum) is the most highly concentrated formula, meaning it’s going to have the strongest fragrance, the most staying power and the highest price tag. Eau de parfum or eau de perfume is next in strength followed by eau de toilette and other formulations falling under names like body mist, body spray and so on.
  • Fragrances are usually a combination of several different scents, which fragrance creators refer to as notes. There are top notes, middle notes and base notes. The top notes are the first scents you’ll be enjoying upon application of the fragrance. These will be evident during the first 15 minutes or so. After that come the middle notes, which you’ll smell for up to an hour after the initial application. And, finally, come the base notes — the scents that will linger the longest, typically several hours after you’ve applied the fragrance. *This information just may be the most critical when preparing for your new purchase.

OK, now that you have these basics down, it’s time to ponder what fragrance family (or families) to go for — it helps to narrow down the field prior sniffing samples on the shelves. Even if you’re fairly new to the scent-wearing game — perhaps you have only one bottle of Chanel No. 5 behind you — you should be able to figure out what fragrances appeal to you. Mostly I’m a citrus fan. But I also like things that are considered green/fresh/clean. So I typically gravitate toward fragrances in those categories. If you’re still unsure, try to call up a friend’s or family member’s scent that you like and ask what she or he wears. Make note of it — the salesperson will likely know what fragrance family it belongs to. With all this information in mind (or hand – it’s good to write a few things down) it’s time to go shopping.

It’s really best to hit the fragrance counter first before running any other errands or doing any other shopping because you’ll want some time to test and sniff and re-sniff. It’s not about smelling multiple samples in one go, though. Most folks recommend trying no more than three or four samples at a time — otherwise you’ll become overwhelmed and everything will start to blend together.

Begin by asking a salesperson for a little help. Let him or her know what fragrances you like or what scent family you’re looking for and that you’d like to try just a few samples. You can begin by sniffing the samples, giving your nose a break between each by getting a whiff of the coffee beans you brought with you. (Many stores will have their own beans, but I’ve found that sometimes they’ve lost their aroma — so they don’t help.) At this point, you might find a fragrance that you love so much you’re ready to whip out your credit card. But wait — the only way you’ll really get a purchase-worthy idea is by testing it on yourself. So the next step is to spritz or dab one, two or a few on you.

As mentioned earlier, it takes several hours for a fragrance to fully develop. Since you’re not likely to stand around the perfume counter all that time, here’s a handy way to remember what you sprayed where. Let’s say you’ve selected three to try. If possible, see if the salesperson has take-home samples. Next, mark each sample 1, 2 or 3. (If take-home samples aren’t available, use one of the fragrance blotter cards and be sure the fragrance name is on the card). Spritz or dab the first one on your inner left wrist and mark a small #1 there. Then test the second one on your right wrist and mark #2 there. Finally, spray the third fragrance on your outer left forearm and mark that spot #3. Now you’re free to window shop, run errands or have lunch with friends.

As the day progresses, take a moment to sniff the test areas. Your goal is to see if you like the way the fragrances are wearing throughout the day. And don’t forget to clear your head between sniffs using the coffee beans. By the end of the day you might just have a new scent. If not, repeat the process the next time you go shopping.

Do you have a signature fragrance? Or a slew of favorite scents? If so, we’d love to hear about them. And don’t forget to follow How-to Stuff on Facebook and Twitter.

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