There’s a unique pressure that comes with finding your statement fragrance. Maybe it’s because of the overwhelming number of scents you have to choose from, or maybe it’s the fear of smelling like an over-fragranced tween who just discovered perfume samples for the first time. Or, maybe, just maybe, it’s because fragrances are always discussed in poetic jargon only understood by Chaucer and the salesperson at Macy’s.
Regardless of the reason, fragrance shopping has historically been a trial-and-error task. Until now. Because I recently sat down with Cartier’s very chic, very Parisian perfumer Mathilde Laurent, to find out exactly how to choose your next scent, without a month of waffling. (And she should know—she just created Cartier’s newest launch, Carat, a vibrant and bubbly white floral scent inspired by diamonds, with a very clear goal in mind: “Diamonds diffract white light into the rainbow, so I created a white floral using a rainbow of flowers,” says Laurent of the scent. “It’s an olfactory diffraction.”)
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1. Learn the lingo
If intimidation is the major barrier standing between you and your trip to the fragrance aisle, here’s a quick schooling in notes (e.g. top, middle, and bottom). The top note is the strongest scent you’ll smell when you first spray a perfume, and it fades within 15 minutes, giving way to the middle note. The middle note (a.k.a. heart note) is the body of the perfume, staying prominent and bold for a few hours. When the middle dissipates, you’re left with the bottom note: those rich, heavy scents that linger until the end of the day.
So if you see a fragrance on the shelf (or, let’s be real, online) that has a top note you love (vanilla!) with middle and base notes you hate (roses!), it’s likely that the fragrance, after a few hours, might smell like something you hate. Or, on the flipside, if you hate the top note but love everything else in the fragrance, you might end up liking it overall. Still, try not to overthink it: In the end, it’s not about the individual notes, says Laurent, it’s about how they all work together.
2. Leave the store
“Never smell a perfume at the counter,” says Laurent. “The smell in the shop can be overwhelming.” I mean, think about it: How can you truly smell the pure notes of a fragrance when it’s mingling with a cloud of other stale scents? Instead, “spray it and escape,” she says.
Rather than spritzing on a ton of options as you work your way down the aisle (I am 100 percent guilty of this), spray each one on a different tester stick and leave the store—or better yet, go outside—before you take your first whiff. When you smell the juice surrounded by fresh air, your nose will not only get a chance to “reset,” but you’ll have a better impression of how it will wear in day-to-day life. Another bonus: Keeping tester sticks helps you keep track of your choices, instead of trying to remember which fragrance you sprayed on which body part (again, guilty.)
3. Live with it
Narrowed it down but can’t make a final decision? Take those freshly sprayed sticks, put them in separate pockets, and go about your day. Yes, that includes leaving the mall. Run errands, grab brunch with friends, or binge-watch Netflix in bed (or do all three! Live your best life!). “Continue to smell the fragrances as you move about,” says Laurent. “That way, you can check the scents as they evolve to make sure you still like them.” Unless a clear favourite emerges right away, wait a full day before making a choice—which mimics how you’d actually wear a fragrance.
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If you’re pretty sure you’ve got a winner, do one last skin test when you head back to the mall: Spritz the fragrance on your pulse points—the neck, the wrists, the inner elbows—and, contrary to what you’ve probably always done, don’t rub it in; the friction heats up the juice and disrupts the chemistry of the scent. Wait about 30 minutes after spraying it on (I recommend doing other mall shopping during this time, or finally calling your mom back) before taking a final, definitive sniff. Not only will the top notes evaporate during this time, but the rest of the notes will mix with your natural scent, giving you better idea of how it’ll live on your skin.
If you still love it by the end of all that, then congratulations! You did it. You finally found your next signature scent—or, at the very least, a new scent you like enough to wear sometimes. May you live happily ever after. (But if you don’t, you can always try one of these cult-classic fragrances, below, instead.)
This article originally appeared on Marie Claire.