How To Understand Perfume Scents

Contrary to popular belief, perfumes and other scents are not typically made out of one scent alone; they are a mixture of three perfume oils called the top, heart, and base notes. What we normally smell is the base note, because it has the strongest and heaviest scent, lingering in the air even after the top and heart notes have faded. Base notes are chosen because of their strength, scent, and fixative properties, and often dictate what fragrance family a perfume belongs to. Base notes are typically described to be one of the following:

  • Sensual
  • Warm
  • Spicy
  • Mossy
  • Woody
  • Smoky
  • Exotic
  • Heady, heavy or strong

Many of the fragrance oils used for base notes are now rare because they have been used by perfumers for centuries. Some are also viewed as politically incorrect because they are extracted from rare animals, which leads to the creation of synthetic versions. Most base notes, however, are extracted from essential oils of plants, flowers, and tree resin. Below is a list of the most popular scents for all perfume aficionados:

  1. Amber. Amber comes from the fir tree’s fossil resin and is not very easy to extract. However, perfumers love using amber as a base note because many love its warm, woody scent.
  2. Ambergis. This is a fatty substance derived from the stomach of sperm whales. Since sperm whales are endangered, genuine ambergris perfume oils are no longer used, and a synthetic version was created to replace it.
  3. Patchouli. One of the most recognizable scents, patchouli is sweet, earthy, and warm. Its essential oil comes from the Southeast Asian patchouli plant.
  4. Tonka bean. Tonka bean is used by perfumers to give a perfume an oriental flavor. Despite coming from the pod of a tonka tree, tonka bean smells like marzipan and caramel. Its sweet candy shop smell makes it a popular scent for many fragrances made by celebrities or perfumes marketed for younger girls.
  5. Courmarin. This marzipan-smelling fragrance oil is also found in tonka beans
  6. Musk. Another favorite scent for most women, musk used to come from the Himalayan musk deer’s musk glands. The musk perfume oil used today now comes from a synthetic variety, which makes it easier to include in perfumes because the strength of its scent can now be controlled.
  7. Balsam. This sweet-smelling resin from plants and trees is a very popular perfume oil.
  8. Sandalwood. Sandalwood is just as popular as musk and amber, and its pure essential oil form is more accessible as it comes from the sandalwood tree.
  9. Leather. We all associate leather with animal hide, but leather used in perfume actually comes from fir and birch trees. Leather can be easily identified through its warm, smoky scent.
  10. Vetiver. The green and earthy scent of vetiver is also used in aromatherapy essential oils for its relaxing and calming properties. It comes from the khuskhus grass of the Caribbean and India.
  11. Benzoin. Scents with a hint of chocolate most likely contain benzoin, the resin found in the stryax tree. 


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