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18 best perfumes for women: From sandalwood to delicate florals

From cult classics to modern contenders, find your new signature spritz here

Viola Levy
Thursday 19 January 2023 08:47 GMT
<p>Rich and smoky scents are best for cold weather, while citrusy, light florals are the top choice for the warmer months</p>

Rich and smoky scents are best for cold weather, while citrusy, light florals are the top choice for the warmer months

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 for your taste – before you make the leap.

If you can’t get to a brick-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, 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).

The best perfumes 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 – at the end of the day, it all boils down to personal preference.

Here are some scents that work hard for their money. Although some of these are an investment, you will smell every penny of it on your skin.

How we tested

We spritzed 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) were pleasant or simply OTT. These are our thoughts…

The best perfumes for women for 2023 are:

  • Best overall – Medeau origin: £95, Medeaufragrances.com
  • Best for perfume newbies – Cacharel anaïs anaïs, 30ml: £18, Superdrug.com
  • Best for capturing the whole flower – Nancy Meiland rosier, 50ml: £95, Nancymeiland.com
  • Best for blackcurrant allure – Diptyque l’ombre dans l’eau eau de toilette, 50ml: £85, Diptyqueparis.com
  • Best cross between a body spray and an eau de parfum – Festival Fragrances rose rhubarb peppermint: £25, 4160tuesdays.com
  • Best tropical scent – Maya Njie tropica, 50ml: £95, Mayanjie.com
  • Best for LA charm – Gallivant Los Angeles, 30ml: £65, Gallivant-perfumes.com
  • Best for something a little different – Altra stone cold heart: £168, Altraprofuture.com
  • Best for espresso addicts – Akro awake: £119, Lookfantastic.com
  • Best for vintage charm – 4160Tuesdays tart’s knicker drawer, 15ml: £60, 4160tuesdays.com
  • Best for eccentricity – Bella Freud psychoanalysis, 100ml: £165, Bellafreud.com
  • Best for evening wear – Sana Jardin savage jasmine: £95, Sanajardin.com
  • Best for subtle sex appeal – Gucci bloom, 30ml: £60, Theperfumeshop.com
  • Best for jasmine – Ikon 914, 100ml: £65, Thefragranceshop.co.uk
  • Best for smokiness – Le Labo santal 33, 50ml: £157, Libertylondon.com
  • Best unisex scent – Maison Crivelli santal volcanique, 100ml: £170, Lessenteurs.com
  • Best for refreshing mint – Lush dirty, 30ml: £25, Lush.com
  • Best for wearing with little else – Tom Ford santal blush, 250ml: £536, Selfridges.com

Medeau origin

Medeau origin indybest.jpg
  • Best: Overall
  • Scent: Floral
  • Size: 50ml

For those of us who love lounging in an English country garden on a summer’s day, this is the fragrance to wear while doing so. Origin boasts a fresh-floral bouquet, with notes inspired by the English countryside – crisp elderflower, combined with the gentle warmth of cyclamen and cedarwood. Unobtrusive enough to spritz on liberally throughout the day, we imagine this would make a stunning bridal scent too.

Medeau is a relatively new British brand on the indie perfume scene, and all of its ingredients are EWG-approved and are mainly natural or “bioidentical” – the bottles are 95 per cent recyclable too. If you’re not a fan of more “girlie” florals, this is just the right side of grown-up.

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Cacharel anaïs anaïs

Anaïs Anaïs cacharel  indybest.jpg
  • Best: For perfume newbies
  • Scent: Floral
  • Size: 30ml

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 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).

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Nancy Meiland rosier

rosier.jpg
  • Best: For capturing the whole flower
  • Scent: Floral
  • Size: 50ml

Similar in the way that 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 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.

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Diptyque l’ombre dans l’eau

diptique-lombre-dans-leau
  • Best: For blackcurrant allure
  • Scent: Floral
  • Size: 50ml

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.

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Festival Fragrances rose rhubarb peppermint

Festival Fragrances rose rhubarb peppermint indybest.jpg
  • Best: Cross between a body spray and an eau de parfum
  • Scent: Sweet
  • Size: 100ml

What Impulse 02 body spray was to kids of the Nineties, Festival Fragrances should be to the current generation – and adults will love it too. With lightweight no-frills packaging (made from recycled plastic), this is perfect to throw into a rucksack to mask three days of accumulated Glasto sweat – but equally good to spritz on after netball as you’re about to head into double maths.

Its punchy sweet notes of rhubarb, blended with the sharpness of peppermint make for a refreshing combination, amplified by a rich rose heart. In lesser hands, this would smell chaotic, but with 4106Tuesdays founder Sarah McCartney at the helm, this quirky bouquet is sublime or “hippie chic” if you will. From Gen Z to geriatrics, this will see you through the hottest day of the year and beyond.

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Maya Njie tropica

Maja Nije tropica  indybest.jpg
  • Best: Tropical scent
  • Scent: Sweet and tropical
  • Size: 50ml

This is an exquisite olfactory escape for anyone who’s been craving a tropical getaway (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 Njie’s fragrances are inspired by her Scandinavian and West African upbringing, and are blended and bottled by hand in her studio on the Isle 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.

  1. £95 from Mayanjie.com
Prices may vary
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Gallivant Los Angeles

Gallivant los angeles indybest.jpg
  • Best: For LA charm
  • Scent: Sweet
  • Size: 30ml

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 “bubblegum 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.

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Altra stone cold heart

Altra stone cold heart
  • Best: For something a little different
  • Scent: Amber
  • Size: 50ml

Not strictly an “amber” in terms of notes but, despite its name, stone cold heart has all those warm, enveloping qualities we associate with amber scents. Since lockdown, we’ve been craving warm comfort-blanket scents that enhance your skin’s natural smell in a subtle, slightly addictive way. And this is a rather seductive number, with smoky, earthy notes of maté tea and Haitian vetiver used sparingly, giving it a mineral almost metallic quality, amplified by soft musks and incense. It doesn’t smell like a “perfume” per se, it’s more like a piece of material, some freshly cut leather, the smell of freshly painted walls when you walk into an art exhibition.

The name Altra means “other”, meaning that which exists between nature and the man-made. The artistic bottles fit neatly into the palm of a hand or a handbag, and are refillable (in fact these actually arrive in the box empty – you fill them from an accompanying aluminium refill tin which contains two bottles’ worth of perfume, via a special spout). Such a strange and otherworldly scent, made without a single synthetic ingredient is something pretty special.

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Akro awake

Akro awake indybest.jpg
  • Best: For espresso addicts
  • Scent: Amber
  • Size: 100ml

The Akro range is the brainchild of West Londoners Jack Miskelly and Anaïs Cresp whose love story reads like a Richard Curtis film. They apparently met while working in a pub in Notting Hill and spent the summer exploring the city together, as well as visiting Anais’s native Paris. This led to the creation of a perfume line (Anaïs’s dad is world-renowned perfumer Olivier Cresp and the “nose” behind this range).

Each scent is inspired by the city’s excesses: weed, tobacco, chocolate, sex, whiskey and coffee – and most Londoners are bound to be familiar with at least a few of them. Awake is like a double shot of espresso, embodying that comforting smell of your first cup of the morning on your way to work. The coffee is blended with spicy cardamom and earthy notes of vetiver, one of those scents that cling to a coat and evoke the gritty glamour of West London.

If you love rich, smoky perfumes like Santal 33 (from £60, Cultbeauty.co.uk) but don’t want to smell like every other hipster in East London, this is an equally brooding and mysterious alternative.

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4160Tuesdays tart's knicker drawer

4160Tuesdays tart’s knicker drawer indybest.jpg
  • Best: For vintage charm
  • Scent: Amber
  • Size: 15ml

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.”

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Bella Freud psychoanalysis

Bella Freud psycho analysis indybest.jpg
  • Best: For eccentricity
  • Scent: Amber
  • Size: 100ml

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 (ie 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.

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Sana Jardin savage jasmine

Sana Jardin savage jasmine indybest (1).jpg
  • Best: For evening wear
  • Scent: Jasmine
  • Size: 50ml

Starring jasmine at its most raw and primal, if you’re looking for a dazzling evening scent (though, 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 it’s all the better for it. The brand is also conscious of people and the planet, working with female harvesters in Morocco, who upcycle and sell on the floral waste products after the essential oils have been extracted for the perfumes.

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Gucci bloom

Gucci gucci bloom indybest.jpg
  • Best: For subtle sex appeal
  • Scent: Jasmine
  • Size: 30ml

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 – it’s wearable enough for the daytime without your colleagues, housemates or passers-by complaining 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.

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Ikon 914

IKON 914 indybest.jpg
  • Best: For jasmine
  • Scent: Jasmine
  • Size: 100ml

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 apparently used 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 Egyptian jasmine is a dazzling ingredient, and this fragrance 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 use to douse your favourite scarf.

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Le Labo santal 33

Le Labo santal 33 indybest (1).jpg
  • Best: For smokiness
  • Scent: Sandalwood
  • Size: 50ml

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 it is also wonderful for adding a little smoky allure, as and when needed.

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Maison Crivelli santal volcanique

Maison Crivelli santal volcanique indybest.jpg
  • Best: Unisex scent
  • Scent: Sandalwood
  • Size: 100ml

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.

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Lush dirty

LUSH dirty indybest.jpg
  • Best: For refreshing mint
  • Scent: Sandalwood

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.

  1. £25 from Lush.com
Prices may vary
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Tom Ford santal blush

Tom Ford Santal Blush.jpeg
  • Best: For wearing with little else
  • Scent: Sandalwood
  • Size: 250ml

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 – barely traceable, mellowed by spices and the tiniest hint of white flower. But it 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).

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The verdict: Perfumes for women

We loved how Altra Stone cold heart managed to achieve such an other-worldly yet wearable scent using natural ingredients alone. Like sipping a cup of smoky tea, the bouquet is unobtrusive enough to apply throughout the day.

While for people who like their perfumes straight-up and no nonsense Medeau origin is a classic floral, but the purest most exquisite kind – no sweet or sickly notes to be found, just a medley of beguiling blooms that last all day.

Love Jo Malone’s scents? We’ve sniffed out her best fragrances that are worth a spritz

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