Maybe you’ve been relying on the same old aftershave since college, or perhaps you did buck up and drop a day’s pay on an expensive new cologne—only to have your girlfriend say it reminds her of Grandpa. (Uh-oh.) Either way, you’re ready for a new scent. But when faced with a fragrance counter full of oddly shaped bottles and those little paper strips, you can’t help but want to buy the first one you try and get out of there fast.
Although the task at hand is intimidating, it shouldn’t be rushed through. “Fragrance is kind of like a good whiskey, a fine wine, a well-made microbrew,” says Marlen Harrison, creator and editor of theperfumecritic.com. “There are all different types, and choosing the right one takes patience and time.”
That’s why we grilled Harrison—and other top fragrance experts—to come up with this crash course on cologne. Study up on the terminology you need, learn to ignore the insider-y mumbo jumbo you don’t, and walk out of the store smelling like the man you want to be—guaranteed.
Step 1: Understand Your “Fragrance Aspiration”
Sure, it sounds douchey, but stick with us here. Fragrances are pulled from a wide array of raw materials, from flowers to fruits to spices. And while scent developers have certain terminology they use to describe these “notes” (the individual scents) and their “finish” (what they smell like when combined), you don’t really need to bother learning it. “This isn’t about ingredients,” says Jim Fine, vice president of marketing and product development at Parlux Fragrances. “It’s about what you want to smell like.”
So dial it back. Stop getting caught up in flowery product descriptions, and instead think hard about two factors: when and where you’ll be sporting the scent, and how you want to come across while wearing it. Are you looking for a real jeans-and-T-shirt day scent—one that’s light and clean? Or are you in the market for a nighttime cologne that’s strong and enticing? These sorts of big-picture descriptions will arm you with the language you need to communicate with the salesperson.
“Trying to speak the terminology of fragrance is like going to a restaurant in Paris and trying to order a meal in French,” says fragrance expert Frederic Malle, creator of Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle. “You think you order fish—but end up with steak.”
Step 2: Go Shopping—and Get Testy
Buying a fragrance online is fine once you know exactly what you want. But in order to find that signature scent in the first place, you need to shop in person, Malle says. And a higher-end department store, like Nordstrom or Barneys New York isn’t just going to listen to what you say you want,” he says. “He’s also going to see what you wear, how you come across—and use that too.”
From there, it’s all about testing. Use the paper blotters to do a first pass of potential colognes, then narrow it down to two, which you can then spray on your forearms (not near palms, like many men mistakenly do). “Your forearms offer more mass, so you have more of an area to smell–plus your skin is usually cleaner there,” says Fine. “The cologne isn’t going to get mixed up with scents from hand soaps.”
Step 3: Spend Some Quality Time Together
Yes, it’s tempting to buy on the spot. But whether you’re sure you’ve found the one or can’t quite commit, you’ll benefit from waiting at least an hour. “Everyone’s biology is different, so you need to see how it mixes with your skin,” Fine says. “Shop around, then come back—you’ll get a sense of what it smells like on you and how long it lasts.”
Even better, ask for sample vials of the scents you like best (almost every department store, as well as specialty stores like Sephora, offers them), then take those home and try the colognes over the course of the next week. Not only do you get a better sense of their staying power, but you can also ask your significant other—or even just a trusted female friend—what she thinks.
Step 4: Make Your Purchase
The other benefit of a waiting period? You might be able to shop around online. “Sometimes you can get a really expensive fragrance really inexpensively, and not because there’s something wrong with it,” Harrison says. “Many untapped testers—the bottles you see sitting out of the box on fragrance counters—are for sale on discount sites.” Another possibility: You may benefit from someone else’s impulse purchase or a gift another guy didn’t like. “Those usually end up on eBay,” he adds.
But no matter whether you score a deal or pay full price, you should feel good about your investment. “Scent is one of the first things many people notice about you, before you even open your mouth,” Malle says. “And if you choose the right one, it’s an instant enhancement.”