Eau de what? The truth about fragrance concentrations

Most articles you encounter online are likely to tell you the same old story: eau de parfums are the strongest, at approximately 10 to 20% of aromatic compounds, followed by eau de toilettes, then eau de colognes.

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I’m here to tell you the truth about what you really need to know about fragrance concentrations, based on my years of experience as a fragrance enthusiast with a modest collection of bottles.

There is indeed a classification of fragrance concentrations based on the percentage of aromatic compounds within the solvent (most commonly alcohol, but oil and water are alternatives). But the ranges of percentages vary depending on the publisher or authority, so take any percentage with a grain of salt.

The top classification is the parfum, otherwise known as perfume extract, extrait de parfum, or pure perfume. This is the strongest concentration, with aromatic compounds taking up more than 20% most of the time, and are sometimes presented in non-spray decant bottles since only a tiny amount is required for application.

Below it is the eau de parfum (French for “perfume water”) the most common concentration of fragrance. Eau de parfums exist at around 15 to 20% of aromatic compounds. Majority of eau de parfums are marketed towards women, although recent years has seen an increase in eau de parfums for men. Prior to this shift in marketing, such men’s fragrances were dubbed an assortment of alternatives to avoid an association with women, including “eau de toilette intense” or “eau de toilette concentree“.

Next is the eau de toilette, which hilariously translates to “toilet water”, even though the fragrance is very much intended for your skin and not bathroom freshening. They exist in the range of 5 to 15% concentration. There’s a huge selection of eau de toilettes made for women, but most men’s fragrances fall under this concentration. The “colognes” we talk about in everyday life are really eau de toilettes, so don’t mistaken them for the next category: eau de cologne.

It’s quite rare for the average shopper to come across an eau de cologne. Designer fragrances, like the ones that populate Sephora shelves, mostly avoid producing them because their concentration is pretty weak (around 2 to 4% only), although niche brands like Penhaligon continue manufacturing them.

Finally, we have body mists that only last a forgettable 10 minutes because they contain aromatic compounds of 3% or less, and most frequently use water instead of alcohol as a solvent.

If it’s one thing people must really know about fragrance concentrations, it’s that marketers and promoters love manipulating them inaccurately to make a sale.

While eau de parfums are meant to be stronger than eau de toilettes, that does not happen all the time. Thierry Mugler’s A*Men is one of the strongest men’s fragrances one will ever encounter; exceed two sprays and you’ll just choke an elevator. And yet, it’s classified as an eau de toilette, even though I’m sure it’ll overpower half the eau de parfums on your friend’s makeup counter.

If both eau de parfum and eau de toilette concentrations exist for the same brand and fragrance (e.g. Marc Jacobs’s Daisy, or Chanel’s Bleu de Chanel, which comes in both forms), there’s also a possibility the former isn’t significantly stronger than the latter, even though the salesperson at a fragrance shelf will tell you to opt for an eau de parfum if you like the scent stronger.

Instead of a significantly stronger fragrance, the eau de parfum may actually have a slightly altered scent, because a few notes had been added, removed or enhanced to make the scent stick around longer. The eau de parfum wasn’t achieved solely by increasing the percentage of aromatic compounds during production. It is technically a different scent from the eau de toilette original.

Therefore, always test out every single scent you come across if you’re ever going to purchase one, because eau de parfums may not always be stronger, eau de toilettes may not always be lighter, and both concentrations may smell different even if it’s the same fragrance we’re talking about.

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