Smelling Sexy: The Definitive Guide to Buying a Great Cologne

Scents have a certain way of standing out. Our minds latch onto them somehow, so tightly that a distinct smell can invoke a memory from decades past.

A person’s smell affects others’ perception of them, impacting that first impression and potentially dictating how well they’re remembered for years to come. Your cologne can make all the difference in being seen as a grown, well-put-together man; it can be the deciding factor between average joe and a real gentleman.

With the right cologne, your colleagues will see your commitment to grooming as a sign of overall competence—not to mention, women are unfailingly drawn in by a good smell. Let's be honest, is there any moment better than when a beautiful stranger compliments your scent, maybe even leaning in slightly for a better sniff?

Wearing cologne can make all the difference in your life; the difficult part is wearing the right one. You can try to reference other opinions, read into what women are reportedly fond of, but it's of vital importance that the cologne you wear is just for you. It's a very personal journey, choosing a cologne; there are dozens of factors, considerations regarding both yourself and those around you, and all of these choices have to come from within.

Man At Barber

Well worth the effort

If you’re new to the fragrance game, the intricacies and varieties of cologne can be daunting, as are the social ideas surrounding it. Perhaps you’re worried about it being appropriate—don’t want to wear a tux to a casual brunch, after all.

You may just be cautious from experience: thinking back, you may recall the unfortunate days of flooding the school halls with gas mask levels of body spray. You’ve long since moved past it, but it may have left you a bit wary of spraying on yet another potentially powerful scent.

Or maybe you already wear cologne on occasion, but only because it was given to you as a gift. Now you want to wear it more frequently, more mindfully, and with a scent that you know is right for you.

Whatever the reason, whether you have a vague inkling or don’t know where to start, we’re here to help. Nothing is more important in shopping for cologne than knowledge: not only in what you're looking for, but how to go about finding it.

Every man has a right to this information—a right to smell his best, the way he wants to smell. Yet in our modern society, it’s information that so few of us are ever given. To combat this tragic lack of knowledge, we’ve compiled everything you need to know about cologne, from how it’s made to what to buy. This is your ultimate guide to cologne, and your first step to smelling like the man you aspire to be.

Dolce & Gabbana The One Cologne

What is Cologne?

So just what is it that we’re spraying on our bodies anyway? The history of applied fragrance stretches back millennia, to scented oils in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. The world’s first recorded chemist was actually a Mesopotamian woman well-practiced in the art of perfumery: Tapputi-Belatekallim was the earliest known practitioner of the distillation process, which she used to extract and combine aromatics to cultivate the scent she desired.

The same principles Tapputi patented remain the basis for modern-day perfumers. Through a variety of distillation methods, these artists (sometimes affectionately referred to as noses) combine the essences of aromatic ingredients in order to compose an olfactory profile far more detailed than a single scent. Those extracts are the substance for what the fragrance industry calls notes.

All note combinations fall into one of the four fragrance families, and their similarities and differences can best be understood through the fragrance wheel. The modern commonly accepted edition of the wheel is that designed by perfumery taxonomist Michael Edwards.

The diagram was designed to present the relationships between different families of notes and the subfamilies thereof, the families being prominent, specific scents, while the subfamilies are blends in between. The categories on the wheel progress into each other with additions of complimenting notes; Floral fragrances, for example, become Floral Oriental with the addition of notes like orange blossom and sweet spices.

The fragrance wheel is a vital tool once you have a feel for it. When you’re more familiar with the boundaries between scents, as well as your preferences for particular families, shopping for new cologne becomes less of a gamble and more of an educated guess.

Fragrance Oil Vials

The structure within

Now that you know what notes are conceptually, you should know just how they’re incorporated into your cologne. You didn’t think the perfumers just dropped them in a bottle and mixed it all up, did you? Instead, fragrances consist of three carefully formulated levels of notes, which progress into each other over time.

The moment you spray your cologne on your body, the lighter notes you smell in that moment are the top notes, also called headnotes. Those quickly fade into the well-rounded and longer-lasting middle or heart notes, which later mingle with and transition into the deeper base or soul notes.

Unlike the other two categories, the compounds typically used for base notes will linger for hours. Just how long any of these notes remain, however, depends on the fragrance itself. In part, it depends on the notes themselves—some compounds are just more volatile and evaporate more quickly.

The other deciding factor is the dilution of the fragrance; just how concentrated the perfume oils are. Any fragrance is mostly made up of a solvent, typically ethyl alcohol. At most, pure perfume or parfum has a concentration of up to 30 percent and could flood out a whole room. The more reasonable eau de parfum is typically around 15 to 20 percent, still lasting all day and night without choking anyone, while the five to 15 percent eau de toilette tends to stick around for either the day or evening.

Here’s a fun fact (that’s actually quite important): cologne isn’t a gendered term outside of English-speaker colloquialisms. The technical term is eau de cologne, a light concentration of two to four percent that generally lasts for a few hours unless you freshen up—which you can actually do with an eau fraiche, an extremely low concentration of one to three percent that's mostly diluted with water.

The dilution of a product partially dictates just how it should be worn—how much to apply, when to apply it, and when to touch it up. Remember, there are golden rules to wearing cologne. Don’t follow them, and it doesn’t matter what you wear; you’ll never reach your full scent potential.

You can learn more cologne chemistry in our previous posts on the subject. With that, let’s get to the heart of the matter: shopping, and making your choice.

Man Smelling Flowers

What you’re looking for, and how to find it

We have the basics of fragrance down, but you aren’t ready to hit the department store just yet. Shopping for the perfect cologne is more than knowing what you’re looking at; it comes down to having some idea of just what you're looking for.

Think of it this way: there’s going to a clothing store with the basic concept of needing clothes, and there’s going in actively looking for business casual shirts. One option involves a lot more wandering and more purchases that you end up regretting.

Following the crowd

There are countless places to start in your cologne-buying venture, so there’s no shame in getting a bit of outside influence. Read reviews, peruse forums; try taking a look at what’s popular with the ladies, or even check out suggestions based on who you are.

Keep in mind that everyone’s body is different, and that body chemistry has a significant bearing on what colognes will and won’t suit you. Every individual has their own personal odor type, a genetic scent as unique as a fingerprint. These scents are specific enough that we can recognize others’ as well as our own, while pheromones can instinctively draw us together.

Our unique scents factor in to any fragrance we may wear. This means that while a certain cologne smells incredible on others, it may not work so well on you.

Never forgo trying a cologne before committing to it. With enough time and trials, you can find a perfect cologne that mingles with your odor type to create a scent that can’t be replicated.

Man Straightening Tie

Who do you want to be?

Ultimately, this choice should be based on what you want. Cologne is your olfactory persona, an influence on how the world will see you. So tell us: how do you want to be perceived? How do you want to be remembered?

Maybe you want to smell like a man who means business, clean and velvety with a touch of woodsy masculinity. Or perhaps a light and breezy scent is more your speed, the smell of a laid-back and affluent fellow who knows how to have a good time. You may even want to own a second fragrance that harmonizes with your day-wear while bringing a whole new facet to the evening; something deep, musky, sensual, and a little bit mysterious.

Try out some colognes with notes strike your fancy, and keep an idea of which scent families you prefer. Don’t be afraid to stray outside of your comfort zone, though—the potential for masculinity in florals or sophistication in aromatics may surprise you.

Bleu de Chanel Cologne

Sniff out your perfect scent with Scent Decant

When it comes to knowledge, this is all we can teach you through words. All that’s left is learning through experience; doing the research, doing the shopping, and asking the questions.

Luckily, we can help you a little bit with that, as well. Browse Scent Decant and purchase smaller sample cologne samples starting at $0.99. Test out curated designer fragrances at a fraction of the cost of purchasing full size bottles.

It could take months to find your ideal cologne—even then, you may want an image change sooner or later. In the end, the art of fragrance isn’t about the destination, it’s about the journey. And it’s a journey worth taking, in order to become the gentleman that we should all strive to be.