The Difference Between Perfume, Cologne and Other Fragrances

Screen Shot 2018-08-05 at 7.52.21 PMYou’ll see all sorts of names in the fragrance section: perfume, eau de toilette, parfum, eau de cologne. What makes them different — and in many cases, more expensive?

When buying a fragrance, there can be a lot to decipher — brand, price, type — and you’re given few clues as to what the bottle actually holds. You will probably recognize categories of fragrances, but you may not know what those terms mean.

Finding the right concentration is just as important as choosing the perfect scent. If it is too light, it is going to fade away too quickly. If it is too strong, it is going to choke you (and everyone near you) out, which is a quick way to ruin an otherwise lovely scent.

First you have to understand how these fragrances are made. Manufacturers blend the natural and synthetic oils that give fragrances their scent with a carrier like alcohol. This stabilizes the scent and dilutes the oils to create what you smell on your skin. The alcohol is just as important as the oils because it controls the concentration of the scent and how long it lasts. The common categories below tell you how concentrated the oils are, allowing you to know how light or heavy the scent will be.

Pure Perfume, Parfum or Extrait De Parfum

These names may be a little deceptive because they are not referring to pure perfume oil, which would both smell unpleasant and irritate your skin. Still, pure perfume is the highest concentration of fragrance available — usually between 15 and 30 percent perfume oil — and is enough to make the scent potent, noticeable and last all day.

The sillage, or how far the fragrance extends from your body in the air around you, is always very noticeable with pure perfumes. They tend to seem dense and thick in the air, with clouds of scent you can walk in and out of, cut with a knife, almost taste. When you hug someone who is wearing a pure perfume, chances are that you will smell like them for hours after. Just like a lipstick, they can transfer.

Eau de Parfum (EDP)

Eau de parfums have the next-highest concentration of perfume oils, between 15 and 20 percent. They are made to last on the skin all day without giving the person in the cubicle next to you a headache, or transferring onto someone else’s neck after a hug. They are the most common fragrance category and typically how all new fragrances are released. Many perfumes on the department store counter are eau de parfums. The scent will be prominent from morning to evening, and should still be detectable when you undress at night.

Eau de Toilette (EDT)

Eau de toilettes have a lower concentration of perfume oils, usually 5 to 15 percent, and are made to have a lighter wear on the skin, not necessarily lasting until the end of the evening. Some posit that eau de toilettes are made for daytime wear while eau de parfums are made for nighttime, but with all things in beauty, it is all about what you prefer. When in doubt, do whatever you want.

Although many successful fragrances start off as eau de parfums and are then released in lighter, eau de toilette versions, they may not always share the same notes as their parfum counterparts. Some of the heavier notes, like woods and patchouli, can be removed to make the fragrance lighter; others, like florals or citrus, may be added to boost effervescence.

Some suggest switching your fragrance after the eau de toilette fades away completely. But even though the oils seem to have faded, they typically reignite when they come in contact with moisture. Do you ever smell your fragrance again when you wash your hands or get caught in the rain? If you are still going to spray another scent, make sure it is complementary, as the new scent might breathe new life into the older one.

Eau de Cologne

Cologne is usually an umbrella word for masculine scents in North America, but eau de cologne is actually the term for a very light concentration of perfume oils, usually 2 to 4 percent, that is cut with more alcohol and lasts only for a few hours. These are great to spritz on and freshen up, but not for all-day, lasting wear.

Eau Fraiche

Like eau de cologne, eau fraiche also has a very low concentration of alcohol, sometimes 1 to 3 percent. The difference is that colognes are mixed with alcohol like traditional fragrances are. Eau fraiches are mixed with mostly water and serve as a quick refresher without a long-lasting scent.

Most perfume counters are organized by brand or price, not type, but you will be able to find these terms on the label, or by telling a salesperson at the counter what you are looking for. Do not be overwhelmed. There is a type of fragrance to fit your lifestyle, no matter if you are going for the classic, all-day wear of an eau de parfum, a heavier option of a pure parfum, or a lighter, more temporary wear of an eau fraiche.