Your Guide To Fragrance Base Notes

The secret to finding the perfect scent.

Your guide to the six most common fragrance base notes.
Getty Images/ Eva-Katalin

Buying a perfume used to be a simple experience — spray, let it sit, then smell it. If you liked its scent after letting it soak into your skin, you bought the bottle. These days, however, between a rise in direct-to-consumer brands and an influx of options on the beauty shelves, understanding fragrance base notes can help you pick the perfect perfume, even when you can’t test it.

There are three different types of notes in perfumes that make up its overall scent: top notes, middle notes, and base notes. Having a basic understanding of these components can serve as a helpful tool when figuring out what appeals to you, says Greta Pagel, fragrance director at perfume brand Good Chemistry. “Top notes give us a first impression, and are smaller, lighter, more volatile, and changeable,” she tells Bustle. “Middle notes can also be described as the heart of a fragrance, the main body that’s evident for the life of a scent. Base notes are the slowest to appear, and are the most enduring, bringing depth, comfort, and warmth to a fragrance composition.”

What makes an extract fall into one category or another depends on the molecular weight of an ingredient, explains Alia Raza, fragrance expert and founder of Regime Des Fleurs. “The lighter the weight of the molecule that makes up a given ingredient, the quicker it will evaporate off your skin and into the air and then into your nose,” she tells Bustle. So top notes are the first that you smell but also the first to leave. It’s the base notes that stay with you throughout the day as you wear your perfume.

In cases when you can’t test a fragrance before you buy it, or if you’re overwhelmed by the sheer number of options, Pagel recommends experimenting with unexpected combinations and variations on your favorite perfume themes. You can also sometimes get a rollerball to test a scent before committing to a larger bottle. Otherwise, if you’re able to test the perfume, the experts recommend wearing it for 24 hours so you can see how the top, middle, and bottom notes smell on your skin.

Though there are tons of base notes and scents used in perfumery, the six most common are musk, amber, vanilla, oud, sandalwood, and patchouli, according to the experts. Keep reading to understand how these notes can impact a fragrance.

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Fragrance Base Notes To Know

1. Musk

Musks are one of the most comment fragrance notes found in perfumes, says Raza. It’s tricky to describe, but think of musk as a smell that exists in the natural world — a scent reminiscent of animals, woods, and the earth. It’s often described as smelling like your skin but better. Although musk was historically derived from animals, Raza notes it’s mainly from synthetic or plant-based sources today.

“Musks make everything smell better, more smooth, more round, more elegant, and more sensual,” says Raza, who describes it as a magic ingredient that turns ingredients into perfume. Also, musk happens to complement other notes within a fragrance and can extend the life of your perfume, says Pagel.

2. Amber

Amber is not an actual ingredient, but a name that’s given to a category of scents and fragrance notes, says Raza. It’s used to describe the blend of vanilla, benzoin, and labdanum, she explains. While you’re likely familiar with vanilla, which comes from the namesake bean, benzoin is a gum resin made from the sap of the Styrax tree. And labdanum resin or cistus oil comes from the Mediterranean cistus plant, says Pagel. “The ambler blend combines notes that are warm, rich, sweet, and a little spicy,” she explains. It’s a combination that tends to smell like a lightly sweetened crossover between musk, spice, woodsy notes, and general richness.

3. Vanilla

Although vanilla might evoke teeth-hurting sweetness, it’s actually a subtle and popular base note when used properly. “Too much vanilla is almost never a good thing,” Raza says. “It can smell too sweet and start to feel less than chic.” Otherwise, it’s used to create a sweet, creamy, and comforting gourmand note that plays well with other fragrance families, says Pagal, who points to citrus, fruity, floral, and woody notes as examples.

4. Oud

Oud is a woodsy base note that tends to smell deep and woodsy with varying hints of leather and spices. “It’s a complex sweet, smoky, and woody scent,” says Pagal. “Natural oud is a highly-prized aromatic material harvested from the agar tree after its heartwood has been infected by a type of mold that causes the tree to produce a rich, musky-smelling resin.” While there is a wide range of oud-based fragrances on the market, Pagel says the base scent can range from “mysterious” blends to lighter interpretations that combine with either floral, gourmand, or musk notes.

5. Sandalwood

Sandalwood gives incredible tenacity and richness, providing a creamy and subtle feel to a fragrance,” says LAFCO founder, CEO, and fragrance creator Jon Bresler of another common base note. You can expect a sandalwood based-perfume to emit a nutty, almost milky but still smooth scent. As a base, it’s known to play well with other earthy scents, so expect to see it combined with middle or top notes such as cedar and vetiver.

6. Patchouli

Patchouli has anecdotally been associated with the hippie movement of the ‘70s but it’s actually a complex and chic floral fragrance. “Patchouli creates an undertone that is deep, earthy, warm, smoky, and sensual when used as the base note of a fragrance,” Bresler explains. “Its effect transitions the entire fragrance — it creates a very recognizable veil that you can smell throughout a day of wear.”

It’s also a versatile foundation for perfume because it mixes well with other essential oils, says Bresler, including vetiver, sandalwood, frankincense, bergamot, cedarwood, myrrh, jasmine, rose, and citrus oils.