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Fragrance 101; or “What exactly is a top note anyways?”

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I never used to be one to fret too much about how I smelled, as long as it wasn’t “stinky”. I used to only have a single bottle of aftershave, which I used infrequently at best. And then I got into wetshaving, and realized that a lot of the soaps and creams that I thought were so wonderful had corresponding colognes and aftershaves. When I figured out that I could smell like Taylor of Old Bond Street’s Jermyn Street soap all day? Yes please!
Scent is probably one of the least well understood of the five senses. In many ways, it’s the least accurate of all of them. When you look at something, you’re looking right at it, when you hear something, you’ve got a decent idea of where that sound’s coming from. When you smell something… well, you’re smelling it, and the sum total of the scents of everything else around you at the same time. Is that your BO, or your date’s? There might be something rotting in the fridge, but you’re still going to have to go searching to find exactly what it might be.

But it’s also one of the most powerful senses, as scent is very closely tied to the formation of memories, since the processing is done in the same area of the brain. That’s why we hear of people recalling how, for example, the smell of some aftershaves or soaps will bring up memories of going with their grandfather to get a haircut while he got a shave, when the sight of a barberpole might not have the same effect. It’s the scent that triggers the recall of the memory.

That having been said, in amongst the blend of the aromas of the stuff around us can be quite a diverse set of scents. When we smell something, that’s our nose picking up on then presence of a volatile molecule that has broken off from whatever is emitting the smell and is floating around in the air, and that can be anything from 10,000 to 100,000 different types of “odorants”. A slight change in the molecular structure of the odorant in question can have a significant difference in how the smell is perceived; add a pair of carbon molecules to butyl acetate, for example, and you can get butyl butyrate, and in the process you’ll change the smell from one that mostly smells like apples to one that mostly smells of pineapple.

Scientists studying scent have been able to come up with models which predict how well people might like a certain scent based upon its molecular structure. Traditionally, the fragrance industry has been a bit more “low tech” about their approach. I’m sure most of you are familiar with the concept of the colour wheel, well the fragrance wheel does something similar to group scents that people generally think belong together. It’s why you might see a scent that’s predominately vanilla be called “oriental”, despite the fact that vanilla actually came from the Mexico.

Naturally, exactly how the fragrance wheel is broken down seems to vary by who you talk to, keeping in mind that it was developed primarily as a marketing tool, to allow retailers to suggest perfumes and colognes based upon being similar to something else someone had liked. However the original categories proposed were woody (aromatic, dry woods, mossy woods, woody oriental), oriental (oriental and soft oriental), floral (floral oriental, soft floral, and floral), and fresh (fruity, green, water/marine, citrus), and in the middle of the wheel, fougère, which can be made up of combinations of various categories.

For example, my favourite scent, the aforementioned TOBS Jermyn Street, is a fougère which contains bergamot, lemon, lime (all citrus); lavender (aromatic) and geranium (floral), neroli (oriental floral) and amber (soft oriental) resting on a substantive base of musk (woody I think, although almost every cologne or perfume contains some musk), patchouli  (woody oriental) and vanilla (oriental).

Also important is how long the individual scents in a fragrance will last. As mentioned earlier, a smell is detected by volatile compounds which have made their way into the air, via evaporation. These compounds will be released into the air at different rates, based upon their relative boiling points. Each invidiual scent is called a “note”.

Top notes or head notes are those which first burst into the air, due to a relatively low boiling point. If you open up a bottle and give it a sniff, it’s the top notes you’ll primarily be smelling. They generally only last a few minutes, and are often intended both to entice someone into trying the scent, and to mask the smell of the alcohol these compounds are dissolved in. Citrus, herb, fruity and green scents tend to be top notes.

Once the top notes are gone, the next are the middle notes; they’ll be sticking around from a few minutes in to hours after the fact. Here you’ll see your floral scents, spicy notes.

And the last to go are our base notes, which you’ll be smelling the entire time, although you might not be able to pick them out over the top notes when they’re still around. There, you’ve got your woody notes, sweet notes, mossy notes, and musk.

Strength-wise, you’ll have three main types of male fragrances: aftershaves, which have the least fragrance oil (1 – 3%) and will generally also contain some ingredients designed to sooth the skin after the shave; eau de cologne, which should contain more fragrance oil (2 – 5%); and eau de toilette, which is the strongest you’ll generally be able to find (4 – 8%). Or at least that would be the case if it wasn’t for the fact that most fragrance houses don’t follow the labelling scheme; most stuff labelled “cologne” on the market will actually be in the eau de toilette range. There are stronger products on the market (eau de parfums), but they are few and far between.

Now, back to the wetshaving aspect, generally speaking you’re not walking around with lather on your face for hours at a time, so the top notes can still be just as important to the scent of a shaving soap or cream as the middle or base notes. My main complaint with most soaps is that they don’t use enough fragrance, in my humble opinion. Most will lose a lot of its olfactory power when the soap is lathered up, and it seems like most soap-makers don’t want their soaps to seem to over-powered when a customer is taking a test sniff of the puck itself, with the result that when it actually gets used, there’s not enough there. But it can be difficult to adapt something that is designed to last hours to something which only gets used for minutes.

Of course, like anything else, your mileage may vary on whether or not you find a cologne or a soap overpowering, or even pleasant smelling at all.

Further reading:
Men’s Fragrance FAQ
Perfume notes and fragrance vocabulary
A guide to fragrance families

Related Posts:
Slumberhouse Fragrances
Andy Tarnoff’s Favorite Tobacco Fragrances
4 More Yvmmy Scents From Bvlgari
Does Scent Matter?
One Meeeeeeellion Dollars!
Smell Like A Million Dollars (For About $38)



8 thoughts on “Fragrance 101; or “What exactly is a top note anyways?””

  1. Fragrance is an indispensable part of the whole shaving process at least in my opinion. My earliest memory of my grandfather is watching him shaving his face with a razor than putting some classic sandalwood and citrus balm on his skin. This scent fallows me everywhere now and I try to find out what it was exactly. And I couldn’t agree with you more that the scent triggers the recall of the memory.

  2. Pingback: Fragrance 101; or ?What exactly is a top note anyways?? | rasage

  3. One thing to remember is that there are many wetshavers with skin sensitivity, and one of the best ways to irritate the skin is to use a soap/cream with heavy fragrance. That may at least partially explain the reason so many are not that heavily fragranced. I, like you, really love the various scents of the various soaps and creams, but I know that even for myself, if it’s too strongly scented, my face will rash up halfway through the day…

    1. True enough, I think I’m somewhat blessed with relatively irritation-free skin.
      But again, that’s the reason I break up the scoring in my reviews, so people can mentally bump up the scores of those that might have a weaker scent strength ranking.

  4. I highly that anyone interested in the topic read the fascinating, enjoyable, and informative book by Chandler Burr, The Emperor of Scent. The link takes you to inexpensive secondhand editions. A terrific book, which catapulted Burr into becoming Fragrance Editor of the NY Times.

  5. Great summary, thank you. As to YMMV, I prefer less overwhelming fragrances. I am a physician, and there is little worse than having a patient sitting in a closed exam room with an overwhelming blast of fragrance that penetrates our surgical scrubs, mask, and the room itself, requiring the whole day to dissipate. I then spend the next half hour trying to fight of sneezing and incipient headaches. There is a growing incidence of allergies and sensitivities, cutaneous, respiratory, and more, that is directly attributable to the pervasiveness and overuse of fragrances. And the continued use of them actually blunts your olfactory senses, with the result that people who practice heavy fragrance use have a more difficult time actually smelling them. This leads of increased strengths and/or quantities of fragrances that are overwhelming to everyone around them, even though the person applying them is completely unaware that it’s an issue.
    I’m not calling for a banning of fragrances, but people may want to consider their friends, family, and colleagues and limit their use so as not to overwhelm those with health problems related to their use. This is not a politically correct stance anymore than it is to suggest that smoking should take place where those who don’t wish to partake need not inhale.
    Personally, I do regularly use creams and soaps with fragrances, but if they are too overpowering, I give or throw them away. I prefer those with more natural, food-like, scents like coconut, mint, lime, and eschew the more floral, perfume-y varieties. My wife is one of those who is particularly sensitive, so if something is too strong, it’s not going to remain in my shave den. Same for aftershaves (I mostly use lightly scented balms, no splashes). I avoid things that are going to last much beyond the shave, and if top notes is all I get, I can live with that.

    1. Indeed, I try not to over-do it too much with the Cologne, staying power is more important than sheer strength. Most days I don’t bother with anything stronger than aftershave or even a balm, but on the days I do throw on the Cologne, I enjoy it.

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