Perfume Q&A: How Do I Find My Signature Scent?

Something you may not know about Ami is that she is a perfume junkie. When she’s rich enough to have a vanity career someday (a girl can dream!) she will move to Paris and become a Nose — a certified, smell expert. Until then, she is content spending all her disposable income on fancy perfume and getting compliments from drag queens about how good she smells. That really happened! I was so impressed that not only had Ami gotten a compliment from a famous drag queen, but that she even had a signature scent to begin with. I’ve always wanted a signature scent, but when it comes to picking perfumes and applying them every day, I’m a boring-smelling failure. I always come out of the department store perfume section empty-handed, with a pounding headache, smelling like I got attacked by a garden. I’m ready to tackle this perfume thing, but with guidance this time. To continue our grand tradition of giving each other advice about everything from moving across the country to how to dice an onion, I asked perfume master Ami for some tips about how to get started finding my signature scent…

Winona: Where do you buy your perfumes? Department store perfume sections are so overwhelming — all the scents blend together and just give me a headache.

Ami: I refuse to shop at a department store for perfume. This is not me being a snob, I am just freakishly picky about scents and don’t want to smell like anyone else. Also, department store perfume counters make me anxious. I don’t like a high pressure sell.  In the last six years or so, I’ve started shopping primarily at specialty shops that sell only lotions, candles and perfumes.They have a bunch in NYC. I don’t know if these exist everywhere. My favorite it one called MIN. I know they sell online, but you kind of have to smell it in person.

W: What’s the best way to find/choose a perfume that I really love? Do I need to spray a thousand bottles or is there any way to narrow down my options?

A: It starts with getting in the habit of sniffing everything. Everywhere I go, I smell things and start to get in touch with the smells I like. Whenever I smell someone on the street wearing a scent I like, I ask what it is. I find out the common fragrance notes in the smells I like. I’ve discovered that I love perfumes with leather, woods, musks, vanillas, ambers and sandalwoods. From there I learned how to articulate the kinds of scents I like. Dark, mysterious, unexpected, unusual. If you go into a specialty perfume shop and use words that are cues for the scents you like, a knowledgeable salesperson will be able to recommend a few that you might like. If not, I spend about 10 minutes sniffing around (no spraying yet!) and pick a few perfumes I am automatically attracted to. I spray three to five (no more than that) on my skin in different places. Then I let them set for at least 30 minutes. Leave and come back. Go have a cup of coffee (coffee beans reset your olfactory glands) and then sniff yourself. See which ones are taking to your body chemistry the best. Because perfume smells different after it sits on your skin. You have to love the sent once it starts to mix with your body chemistry. From there it’s usually pretty easy to narrow it down to at least two. If I’m going to drop a lot of money (perfumes that can’t be bought at Sephora tend to be more expensive), I ask for samples of those two and try them for a week. You’ll know when you wear them how you feel and be able to make a decision easily.

W: Do you prefer spray or roll-on perfumes? Any reason I should opt for either one as a perfume newbie?

A: I like both. Roll-ons tend to fade more quickly. But both can be wonderful. I like OLO’s line of roll-ons. I have 3!  They smell amazing and last longer than most and I can bring them with me in my purse.

W: I’m hesitant to wear perfume in public because I don’t want to bother anyone with my overpowering scent. How do I ensure that I smell pleasant without becoming that “Whoa, someone needs to lay off the White Diamonds” girl?

A: Just don’t put too much on. I do one spray cloud that I walk into and sometimes an additional spray on my wrist. I think it takes a lack of awareness to not know when you have on so much Elizabeth Arden that the person next to you is having an asthma attack. So, I wouldn’t worry too much about it.

W: How much should I expect to spend on a really great, unique perfume?

A: Eek. I am bad. I spend a lot. Anywhere from $40 for a nice roll-on to…I have a $300 perfume. It was a present to myself. But that felt like too much to spend. Most of my perfumes cast about $150. And I buy them very infrequently.

W: One of my problems with perfume is that even when I find fragrances I like, I just straight-up forget to wear them every day. How do I create a daily perfume habit?

A: I just always put my perfume on right before I put my shoes on. I guess it’s become a habit.

W:Vanilla is my all-time favorite scent, but most vanilla-based fragrances smell so cloyingly sweet they remind me of that Jessica Simpson frosting beauty line from 2002 (which I secretly loved). Any tips for finding a more grown-up vanilla perfume? Or other scents I might like as a vanilla junkie?

A: When you’re shopping, tell the salesperson you love vanilla but don’t want something too sweet. Vanilla can be used in lots of different ways. It can be a top note so there’s just a hint of it. Have vanilla be a fragrance note, but not the main fragrance note.

W: What’s the best way to apply perfume? I saw in a movie once that you’re supposed to spray a little cloud of it in front of you and then walk through it gracefully, but whenever I do that I end up getting a bunch of it in my mouth. Help!

A: HA! I do that. I hold the perfume above me at arms distance. I close my eyes and my mouth and spray. Really, try to aim for your chest and neck area. If that still feels strange, you can spray one wrist and dab them together or spray a little cloud from behind.

[Photo of enthusiastic perfume-sniffing woman via Shutterstock]