Shopping for the perfect fragrance can already be a big undertaking. You have to think about what kind of mood or aura or vibe you want. Do you want to go with something that’s floral, spicy, fruity, musky? Is it going to be an everyday scent or something you wear for special occasions? There’s a lot to think about and consider. And that’s just testing the fragrances IRL—shopping online for perfume can be even more complicated. The biggest (and most obvious) downside is you can’t actually smell what you’re buying until it’s delivered to your home. Why hasn’t anyone perfected smell-o-vision technology yet?
Right now, though, it’s kind of our only option. So to figure out how to navigate shopping for a fragrance online when you can’t sniff before you buy, I asked perfumers and fragrance experts for their tips. Spoiler alert: There are some points you probably never thought of before!
Okay, this idea surprised me the most, even though it seems pretty fundamental. As someone with a very vivid imagination, I didn’t really think about applying it to online shopping. “You must bring in all of your senses, memories, and imagination,” says Ixchel Leigh, author of Aromatic Alchemy and founder of Artisan Parfums. “If a fragrance has citrus in it, call upon your memory of that citrus. If it says the fragrance is reminiscent of the forests, imagine yourself walking through a forest and inhale deeply. If you haven’t been to a forest, find a picture or video of a large group of very tall, strong trees. Then close your eyes and begin breathing, while also imagining yourself in the middle of those trees. You will feel your body relax. Your shoulders drop. Your chest expands. This is what it feels like to smell a forest. Then you will know what a forest smells like, even if you can’t identify the scent.”
“When buying fragrance online, ask yourself, ‘What do I want to smell like? What feelings do I want to convey to others? What emotions do I want to feel? What do I want to accomplish or create in my life?'” suggests Leigh. “Smell and scent can support your desires. Do you want to accomplish a desired task? Then choose a fragrance that supports positive thoughts for you, one that gives you energy and supports your creative or mental goals.” You’ll probably want to ask yourself these questions if you’re shopping for a perfume IRL, too.
This depends on the communication lines of the retailer, but you should ask questions if you can. “One big factor now that could make you feel comfortable to purchase online is that you may communicate with the seller,” says Ben Krigler of the legendary Krigler perfume house. “Krigler, for instance, has an online chat live with advisors, but social media is also a good way to learn and to communicate.”
Many online descriptions of fragrances have details on its particular notes, so it can be helpful to know what scents will be stronger and which ones will be subtler. “The best example to compare fragrance notes to is wine and how there are many different layers,” explains Cat Chen, founder of Skylar. “Fragrance has top, middle, and bottom notes. The top notes refer to what you ‘taste’ or smell first—these dissipate more quickly. Middle notes linger a bit longer, and bottom notes are scents you notice last but last in the background the longest.”
It can also be helpful to keep in mind the various fragrance families, which are classifications. Leigh lists a few common ones, with examples of scents:
Florals: rose, jasmine, magnolia
Herby: lavender, dill, lemongrass
Woody: sandalwood, cedarwood
Citrus: orange, lemon, tangerine
Spices: cardamom, cinnamon, ginger
Fruity: pear, apple, peach
You might have heard of eau de toilette, eau de parfum, and cologne, but what do those phrases really mean? Chen says it comes down to concentration. “Eau de parfum is stronger than eau de toilette,” she explains. “Many of Skylar’s fragrances have the strength of eau d parfum, but we’re universally labeled as eau de toilette. Our fragrances range from 15% to 20% fragrance concentration or 5% to 15%. Cologne is typically for men and likely 2% to 5% fragrance concentration, so that it’s smaller/subtler than normal. There’s an overlap between these categories, and from a consumer perspective, people don’t necessarily think of it this technical. A lot of times, we see eau de parfum and eau de toilette for consumer-facing fragrances.”
While you can get as adventurous as you want, if you stick to what you like, chances are you won’t be disappointed. “I like to just focus on my favorite note(s) as a jumping-off point for exploration. When a fragrance has three or more notes I like in it, I know it’s going to be a winner!” says associate beauty editor Courtney Higgs.
If you don’t want to take the plunge and commit to a fragrance just yet, you can see if the retailer has samples you can order. “More and more websites offer the possibility to order samples,” Krigler says. “At Krigler, we started that back in 2010, and it has continued since then and expanded. This is the modern way today to continue the mail-in orders from the beginning of the 20th century.” Chen adds that Skylar also offers a sample pack for first-time users, which is helpful because sometimes the product description isn’t enough.
Overall, it’s up to your personal preference when it comes to shopping for a fragrance. But it’s important to note that your body’s chemistry can be a big factor too. “The fragrances evolve with your chemistry, your pH,” Krigler explains. “It is not possible to plan how the fragrance will evolve on your body. This can be amazing on one person and different on another.”
Ready to add some perfumes to your cart? We’d be remiss not to mention shopping our experts’ online shops: Artisan Parfums, Skylar, and Krigler. And below are some of our editor-favorite retailers that feature a vast offering of fragrance brands so you can find your perfect scent.
The beauty emporium is truly a one-stop shop. “Sephora just has it all, including some up-and-coming indie and clean fragrance brands that you might not expect to see there,” Higgs says. You can shop by fragrance family, and ti has a lot of mini-size offerings, too.
Just like the rest of its offerings, Violet Grey’s fragrance selection is full of insider favorites. “Violet Grey has a great selection, and you can count on all its offerings being super curated and extra bougie,” Higgs says. You can purchase home fragrances on the site, too.
It’s no surprise that Who What Wear favorite Nordstrom has a great fragrance selection, too. There are so many designer brands in the lineup, plus rollerball and travel-size offerings if you want to test out a new scent first.
Net-a-Porter has an extensive beauty edit, with high-end and popular fragrance brands like Vilhelm Parfumerie, D.S. & Durga, Le Labo, and Kilian. It’s easy to shop by fragrance family and designer to narrow down your search.
Ulta has all of your designer and classic fragrance brands, plus celeb perfumes from Ariana Grande, Kim Kardashian West, and Jennifer Lopez. You can filter by fragrance family, preferences (cruelty-free, paraben-free, etc.), and brand, or you can also just scroll through the pages and pages of perfumes to really explore.
If you’re looking for clean or natural fragrances, head over to Credo. The retailer has a curated selection of fragrances from brands like Heretic, DedCool, and Ellis Brooklyn. You can also filter by concerns such as dry skin or sensitive skin.
Verishop is becoming one of our favorite places to shop for beauty. The retailer has a good mix of big-name, industry favorites plus smaller burgeoning brands. Its fragrance selection doesn’t disappoint. It’s not as vast as some other retailers on this list, but it’s curated with interesting brands and scents.
Chen says she’s discovered some new fragrance brands through Anthropologie. It’s also a fairly affordable place to shop for perfumes, with its cheapest offering at $10 and its most expensive at $125.