Buying perfume can be a gamble, but it doesn’t have to be. Rather than making a purchase on the spot, spray a sample of the scent on your wrist and see how it develops on your skin throughout the day – you may find it’s too light or too strong.
If you can’t get to a bricks-and-mortar store, many online shops offer trial sizes as well as miniature “discovery sets” – which you can spritz and sniff at leisure before investing in a full-size bottle.
There’s no right or wrong way to wear perfume, but as a rough guide: citrus and light floral scents are good for the warmer months when you don’t want anything too heavy or cloying (sweat and heat will amplify your perfume).
But, if it’s chilly then your scent needs to work a little harder to cut through the cold – so rich, smoky numbers are a better bet for this time of year.
There are plenty of decent mass market and designer perfumes around, but it’s a mixed bag, and lots of them tend to smell very similar. But a good perfume costing upwards of £100 should have a distinct character and something to say (even if it’s in hushed tones).
It should be smooth and mellow without any notes overpowering or jarring with the rest of the bouquet. It should also evaporate delicately on the skin, revealing different layers rather than coming to an abrupt halt. But of course the nose wants what it wants – and at the end of the day, it all boils down to personal preference.
Here are some scents that work hard for their money. And although some of these are an investment, you will smell every penny of it on your skin.
How we tested
We applied each perfume twice a day for a week, applying it to our wrists, collarbone and through our hair. We focused on how the scent opened up on the skin after the top notes had evaporated, how well it lasted and whether the “dry down” (the base notes that appear after a few hours) was pleasant or too OTT. These are our thoughts…
The most recognisable and feminine fragrance family there is – floral scents usually comprise a heart of jasmine and rose, and are enhanced by sweet, creamy or powdery notes such as gardenia, tuberose and lily of the valley.
Juliette Has A Gun lili fantasy, 100ml: £110, Johnlewis.com
While most people see florals as “grannyish” – this is a chic and ever so charming alternative, with soft powdery notes of tuberose blended with a cheery bubblegum accord. Make no mistake, this is definitely a scent for the grown-ups – this will become apparent once it warms up on the skin, thanks to animalic, earthy notes of jasmine and ambroxan. Juliette Has A Gun scents are many things but never boring (the founder is the great-grandson of perfume legend Nina Ricci) and this scent is bound to lift the spirits during the colder months, together with some seriously impressive staying power. A few spritzes should last you throughout the day and into the evening.
Nancy Meiland rosier, 100ml: £105, Nancymeiland.com
Like some cuisines like using the whole animal, from snout to trotters, this scent captures the whole rose – leaves, stems, thorns and all. It’s what’s known as a soliflore, and rather than a “pretty and delicate” rose, it has lush green accords to make you feel like you’re walking through the rose gardens in Regent’s Park. The thorns are depicted with spiky notes of pink pepper, while sparkling Italian bergamot and tangerine depict the morning dew on rose petals. As rose scents go, this one is a work of art.
Marc Jacobs daisy love spring, 50ml: £59, Boots.com
Of all of the perfumes in the “Daisy” series, this new take on Jacobs’ beloved classic will no doubt chime with the current global mood, with a cheery greenness connoting new beginnings and a fresh start. The original Daisy was created to be cheeky and playful – an antidote to the so-called “granny” florals on the market – hence its tongue-in-cheek name (daisies have no smell). And this latest version is just as charming.
Featuring a soft floral heart of rosebuds and rosewood, it stars ever-so-subtle notes of green cardamom spice to evoke the verdure of spring. Super easy to wear; this is a “happy” perfume that will see you through the entirety of spring and summer.
Cacharel Anaïs Anaïs, 30ml: £15, Superdrug.com
For young teenagers and perfume newbies, this classic cult scent is the perfect starter – while those who came of age in the Seventies might get a whiff of nostalgia every time they spritz it on. Created in 1978, it echoes the powdery floral scents of that decade, blending enveloping orange blossom with rich notes of hyacinth, before warming up to a buttery-sweet heart of rose, white lily and jasmine. Sandalwood and a dash of incense also give it an enveloping and slightly addictive “dry down” (where a perfume evaporates so only the base notes are left on the skin).
Coty l’aimant, 50ml: £14.49, Boots.com
Classic fragrances needn’t cost the earth. This gem was created in 1927, and although the formulation has probably changed a lot, its heart of rose, jasmine and ylang ylang, combined with a good glug of sparkly aldehydes (these give perfume the “twinkle” factor) will have you swanning around like a glamorous Demoiselle in no time at all. It’s “old-school” timeless perfume at its best, and many still swear that they can’t tell the difference between this and the considerably costlier Chanel No 5. (We’re not saying anything…)
Diptyque l’ombre dans l’eau eau de toilette, 50ml: £75, Libertylondon.com
If the last time you smelled like blackcurrant was when you spilled Ribena down your white school shirt, don’t let that deter you. This beloved perfume takes that humble berry to dizzy (and highly sexy) new heights, blended with enveloping rose and luminous herbaceous accords, resulting in a multi-faceted and intoxicating concoction that lives up to its name – which translates to "the shadow in the water”. Fans of this timeless and alluring scent will instantly recognise anyone else wearing it – and from the first spritz, it stays faithfully on the skin around the clock.
Maison Francis Kurkdjian baccarat rouge 540: £215, Selfridges.com
Masculine scents can be very hit and miss, often stopping you in your tracks with a shriek of mint, before flooring you with a gut punch of lavender (landing a few uppercuts of cinnamon and nutmeg on the way down). Cut to the next day and you’re still washing the stuff off your skin and out of clothes and bed sheets with the manic determination of Lady Macbeth. Baccarat rouge 540 on the other hand doesn’t outstay its welcome. It’s soft and insidious and re-writes the rulebook as to how delicate yet memorable a masculine scent can be. Perfumer Francis Kurkdjian doesn’t mess around in the seduction stakes, with dreamy jasmine blended with warm saffron and cedar, underscored with earthy, animalic notes of ambergris. He’s put a candy floss note in there too, which shouldn’t work but somehow does and contrasts beautifully with the richer base notes.
Sweet perfumes can be characterised as citrus-based colognes, which are light, refreshing and perfect for summer – or “gourmandes” that are far richer, with confectionary/vanilla-based accords, making them best for the winter.
Annick Goutal eau d’hadrian, 100ml: £132, Harrods.com
Who said citrus scents can’t be chic? They might not have the ‘oh là là’ chutzpah of many classic rose and jasmine perfumes, but when a citrus is as good as this, it really outshines its showier floral counterparts. This under-the-radar classic was created back in 1981, becoming the fragrance to wear with your shoulder pads and bubble-perm, and was reportedly loved by the likes of Madonna, Sharon Stone and Oprah Winfrey. This sparkling citrus practically shimmies out of the bottle, enveloping the wearer in a fragrant cloud without the risk of giving your colleagues or family members a migraine. To celebrate Goutal’s 40-year anniversary, a limited edition bottle is available exclusively at Harrods.
Escentric Molecules molecule 01 + mandarin, 100ml: £95, Escentric.com
Considered a modern classic, Molecule 01 shook the world of perfumery when it launched, and for good reason. Based around a single synthetic molecule “iso e super”, it’s a cosy, warm, fuzzy kind of a scent that mingles with the wearer’s skin, so that it smells unique on everyone. Many consider it to be highly aphrodisiac too.
This new version combines the note with mandarin, great for those who love citrus scents but want more staying power, as this brings you the best of both worlds. The sharp, sweet freshness of the mandarin fruit, anchored to the skin by the subtle smoky warmth of the iso e super. Light and wearable, it’s the perfect scent for those who don’t like anything too rich or cloying, with just enough allure to make it worth spritzing on for the evening too.
Mugler angel nova, 30ml: £53, Boots.com
If you have a sweet tooth, this scent will send you on a serious sugar high. The original Angel was inspired by the fairgrounds that designer Thierry Mugler frequented as a child (think notes of toffee apples, candyfloss and coconuts). But rather than just being a sugary sweet treat, it’s combined with rich, smoky notes of patchouli to give it staying power and grown-up sex appeal.
Since its launch in 1992, it’s amassed a cult following and kicked off the craze for confectionary-inspired “gourmand” scents. This new incarnation in the form of Angel Nova adds sharp, tart notes of raspberry and lychee, with a dazzling damask rose. It wins several eco brownie points too, with a refillable bottle and up-cycled ingredient “supernatural rose”, derived from previously distilled petals. This is sure to please Angel newbies and devotees alike.
Maya Nije tropica, 50ml: £90, Mayanjie.com
This is an exquisite olfactory escape for anyone who’s been craving a tropical getaway for the last 12 months (haven’t we all). Tropica captures the soft scent of coconuts, combined with succulent sweetness of pineapple and figs on a balmy summer evening, blended with warm woods and musks. Think of the most expensive piña colada you ever sipped – minus the hangover.
All of Maya Nije’s fragrances are inspired by her Scandiavian and West African upbringing, and are blended and bottled by hand in her studio on the Isles of Dogs. Formulas feature fermentation-grade alcohol and 30 per cent essential oils – so they stick around for a good few hours, as opposed to just floating off on the breeze.
Gallivant los angeles, 30ml: £65, Roullierwhite.com
Creator Nick Steward created the Gallivant range to pay olfactory homage to his favourite cities. With Los Angeles he wanted to capture the city’s “bubble-gum breezy optimism”, and it certainly leaves that impression, with jazzy, sweet notes of mandarin, pineapple and tuberose.
Wearing its heart on its sleeve, it captures everything people love about LA’s steely determination and candyfloss charm. It’s the clubbing scenes in Terminator. It’s Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling tap-dancing in La La Land. It’s Meghan, The Duchess of Sussex, comparing her life to the plot of The Little Mermaid.
Amber perfumes can be characterised as warm, powdery and sweet – “nuzzle-worthy” you might say – making them great for the colder months. There’s actually no “amber” ingredient – instead it’s a combination of things such as vanilla, earthy patchouli and resins.
Floral Street arizona bloom eau de parfum, 10ml: £24, Floralstreet.com
If you’ve ever taken a hot air balloon ride across the Sonoran Desert (highly recommended), this scent conjures up the beauty of that arid Arizonian landscape when it’s bathed in the morning light. With warm amber, jasmine and the soft sweetness of fig with undertones of salted musks, it’s given a “second skin” effect.
While a lot of perfumes can be very “ladylike” and “grand dame”, this British brand burst onto the scene in a riot of colourful branding and punchy, original concoctions to match. Their completely vegan perfumes are made with sustainable, natural ingredients, while their cartons are made from 100 per cent compostable pulp, held together with a recyclable elastic band instead of plastic wrap.
4160Tuesdays tart’s knicker drawer, 15ml: £32, 4160tuesdays.com
Probably one of the best names for a perfume ever cooked up, this scent waltzes in flashing its wares like a can-can dancer, with a riotous blend of florals, enveloping musk and powdery notes which give it the cheeky charm of a vintage pin up girl. The scent is named in honour of perfumer Sarah McCartney’s Northern Methodist grandmother, who according to the perfumer: “would declare that anyone whose perfume you could smell on the bus was ‘up to no good’ and probably out to steal someone else’s husband.”
Bella Freud psycho analysis, 100ml: £165, Bellafreud.com
For people who typically loathe “fashion house fragrances” – usually consisting of some generic sugary blandness – this is the ultimate antidote. Named in honour of the designer’s prolific great-grandfather Sigmund (i.e. the founding father of psychoanalysis), this eccentric bouquet conjures up an analyst’s leather couch, pipe smoke and wooden furniture.
It begins batting its eyelashes with pretty neroli notes, before revealing a strong heart of tobacco flower, powdery dry amber and cedarwood. As a character, it’s a far cry from the archetypal “hysterical woman” – more like one who’s suffered a few knocks in life, analysed herself and managed to emerge stronger for it, without the need for some Freudian father figure.
Penhaligon’s constantinople: £178, Penhaligons.com
Penhaligon’s is one of those beloved brands that manages to stay on the right side of quirky English eccentricity, with a dash of history thrown in (the brand began as a London barbershop in 1870). Constantinople is part of its “trade routes” collection which pays fragrant homage to the exotic goods that were traded at the London docks at the end of the 19th century. Constantinople evokes that historic and resplendent Turkish city of the same name, that is now Istanbul. It dazzles on the skin with rich vanilla and earthy patchouli, along with spicy pink pepper and elegant rose and iris. It’s a scent that makes a statement without being overbearing.
Probably one of the most seductive notes in perfumery, this floral ingredient is more animalic than “pretty-pretty”, because of its dirty, slightly faecal undertones – due to a chemical called “indoles” – but rather than being unpleasant, it’s incredibly heady and intoxicating.
Sana Jardin savage jasmine: £95, Sanajardin.com
Starring jasmine at its most raw and primal, if you’re looking for a dazzling evening scent (of course you can wear it whenever you want) this is the one. Blended with mysterious musk and tobacco (think Bette Davis on the poster for All About Eve, wry side-glance, cigarette holder in hand) it’s designed to capture the moment when jasmine petals first bloom to release their intoxicating aroma into the balmy night air.
A sweet, girly scent this is not – and is all the better for it. The brand is also conscious of people and planet, working with female harvesters in Morocco who up-cycle and sell on the floral waste products after the essential oils have been extracted for the perfumes.
Gucci gucci bloom, 30ml: £55, Theperfumeshop.com
If you want a scent with spades of sex appeal, but would rather side-step the more smoky, leathery “bar room broad” numbers, Gucci Bloom is a fresh take on jasmine, that’s wearable enough for the daytime without your colleagues, housemates or passers-by complaining that your perfume is giving them a headache. While it stars a good glug of jasmine, it blends this rather foxy ingredient with powdery white floral notes, resulting in a softer, understated take on sex appeal that’s more Sade Adu than Gloria Swanson.
IKON 914, 100ml: £60, Thefragranceshop.co.uk
The perfume world is full of weird and wonderful stories. How many of these are actually true is another matter, but one that sticks out is that Queen Cleopatra apparentlyused to scent the sails of her ships with Egyptian Jasmine to entice Mark Antony (who apparently fell in love with her on the breeze as her ship docked before he even clapped eyes on her).
Whether this actually happened doesn’t take away from the fact that Egyptian jasmine is a dazzling ingredient, and this new kid on the fragrant block uses it to its full advantage, blending it with rich oud and cedarwood, with bright notes of lime and bergamot. It’s a cosy concoction that you’ll no doubt want to douse your favourite scarf in.
This is a woody note – as the name suggests – that gets used in about 50 per cent of women’s fragrances. Famous for its creamy, sweet and allegedly aphrodisiac character, it anchors the other ingredients and provides sensual undertones to floral and spice notes.
Le Labo santal 33, 50ml: £130, Libertylondon.com
This modern classic is a good choice if you tend to steer clear of sugary sweet scents, and want something with more soul and guts behind it. With enveloping accords of woods and smoke, it conjures images of the Marlboro Man – with just as much enigmatic charisma.
Warming up on the skin to a rich heart of iris, leather and papyrus, its tomboyish charm sticks around from dawn to dusk, before riding off into the sunset, in a soft haze of cedar and sandalwood. If you’re after perfume that packs a punch, this will come out swinging (so go easy when you first apply it!) and is wonderful for adding a little smoky allure as and when needed.
Maison Crivelli santal volcanique, 100ml: £170, Lessenteurs.com
For those who like their sandalwood with a little bit of spice, this beguiling blend is designed to capture “the scent of scorched sandalwood on the slopes of an erupting volcano”. Ginger, cardamom and coffee notes dial up the heat, while the sandalwood heart provides a mellow backdrop. All Maison Crivelli fragrances are unisex, and while this leans on the more masculine side, it won’t make you smell “blokey” like you’ve spent the evening snogging a hedge fund manager in The Ned.
LUSH dirty, 30ml: £20, Lush.com
This is one of those men’s scents that women like to borrow, so why not beat him to it and buy one of your very own? Its aftershave-y top notes might not be to everyone’s taste, but – wait for it to warm up and let the spiky mint notes evaporate – what’s left behind is sublime and seriously addictive. Aromatic tarragon blends beautifully with the warm sandalwood base – together with a faint trace of spearmint, which is less “toothpaste” and more like the bruised mint leaves you get in a mojito. This is great to spritz on after a shower to wake you out of your morning grump.
Tom Ford santal blush, 50ml: £174, Selfridges.com
While some perfumes tend to dial up the rich, creamy aspect of sandalwood, leaning heavy on its sensual side, Tom Ford decided that actually, less is more when it comes to this highly aphrodisiac note. Hence, Santal Blush starts out with a soft whisper of sandalwood, shy and unassuming – and barely traceable, mellowed by spices and the tiniest hint of white flower.
But soon makes its presence known – becoming a hell of a lot naughtier as the day wears on, exuding a subtly sweet, honeyed warmth that will slightly frazzle your brain – and anyone else’s lucky to get close enough (It’s always the quiet ones you need to watch out for).
4160Tuesdays complicated shadows, 50ml: £210, 4160tuesdays.com
This is a fragrance that is supposedly the darkest in the perfumer’s “cloud” series and was “created to sum up 2021”. Upon reading, it might not fill you with enthusiasm, but this scent is none the less endearing, with warm sandalwood shrouded in rich iris and narcissus. This probably won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but fans of The Smiths and Morrissey will love it (4160Tuesdays founder Sarah McCartney is occasionally referred to as a “punk perfumer”.) Smelling this is like watching the rain beat against the window while you’re snug indoors and How Soon Is Now blares out on the stereo in the background.
Olfactive O woody, 30ml: £60, Olfactiveo.com
This scent captures everything we love about the colder months (but it’s great to wear all year round). The founder describes it as “vintage clothes and classic films… espresso in a French cafe” and it has an enveloping depth and sweetness that you would normally only get with sweeter, gourmand-type scents. This is wonderfully dark and decadent – opening with black pepper and cedar, with warm notes of leather, myrrh and soft sandalwood. It’s the antidote to rainy mornings getting elbowed on the tube in rush hour. If you want to dial up the heat (and push the boat out) we’d recommend blending it with the perfumer’s other scent, skin (£100, Olfactiveo.com) which also features sandalwood in a musky, skin-like accord that will stop passers-by in their tracks.
The verdict: Women’s perfumes
We loved how Floral Street arizona bloom is unique but wearable – warm and enveloping but not overpowering. This scent is gentle enough to be spritzed on throughout the summer, but has enough staying power for the colder months too.
If money’s not an issue, Sana Jardin savage jasmine is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser – sparkling and oh-so-sexy, the scent equivalent of sporting a glittery tiara and floor-length gown.
And if you’re a fan of niche, indie perfumes, Escentric Molecules molecule 01 + mandarin will garner murmurs of approval from those in the know, while its beguiling bouquet achieves that rare feat in fragrance: a citrus scent with staying power.
For fragrances perfect for sunnier seasons, we’ve rounded up the best women’s summer perfumes
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