Cologne 101: Choosing the Perfect Blend

Smelling good is surprisingly complicated. We’ve broken it all down so you can figure out what works for you.

It’s hard enough to make heads or tails of cologne ads, let alone the complicated scents behind them. The good news is that you don’t need to be shirtless and standing in front of crashing waves and flying doves to smell good. We’ve broken it all down so you can figure out what works for you.


Fragrances can be categorized into four different scent groups:

  • Floral

    In case it’s not already obvious, these smell like fresh cut flowers.

  • Oriental

    Spices and vanilla give these a strong, resin-like aroma.

  • Fresh

    Anything from lavender to herbs to citrus and more that smells bright and airy.

  • Woody

    For the lumberjacks out there, woody scents are reminiscent of moss, fir, and anything else forest-y.

There are lots of sub-categories within the above four groups (like, a lot), but if you know the general scent that you want then you can weed out a lot of choices right away. Fresh and floral scents are light and good for the warmer months, while Oriental and woodsy ones are darker and better suited to cold weather.


Cologne works on a kind of time delay. There are three separate parts — top notes, middle notes, and base notes — which determine the scent as it’s applied.

Top notes are small, light molecules that evaporate quickly, which makes them the first thing you smell when putting on a cologne.

Middle notes can be smelled as the top notes dissipate, which can be from a couple minutes to an hour after you apply the cologne.

Base notes, combined with the middle notes, make up the majority of the perfume’s appeal. They consist of heavier molecules that evaporate slowly with a richer, deeper scent.


Because of the different notes, a cologne will smell differently as the day progresses. As the layers give way to one another, the oils will interact with your specific body chemistry so that the resulting scent is personalized. That means even if you wear the same cologne as the guy who sits next to you, you’ll both smell slightly different by the end of the day.


It’s not always clear by how they’re packaged, but different cologne mediums have a substantial range of oil concentration.


Concentration: up to 40%

A concentrated and high-end blend of oils, pure fragrance, and alcohol. Just a dab is incredibly long-lasting, but even a tiny bottle is expensive.

Solid Cologne

Concentration: up to 40%

Just as concentrated as the pure liquid version, but the scent is instead added to beeswax or a similar solid that can be rubbed onto the skin. It’s especially helpful when you’re on the go, since you don’t need to worry about spilling or breaking a glass bottle.

Eau de parfum

Concentration: 15%-20%

A less concentrated blend that’s usually (but not always) a spray.

Eau de Toilette

Concentration: up to 8%

This is the most watered-down blend, so you’ve got to use more of it and the scent won’t stick around as long.

Who knew smelling good could be so complicated?

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