Ever tried out a new cologne, only to have it fade away before your lunch break? Or looked at two nearly-identical bottles – same brand, same scent, same size – and wondered why one was more expensive than the other? It comes down to varying degrees of concentration.
Cologne, no matter the type, is basically just aromatic essential oils that are mixed with other stuff. That enables you to diffuse the aroma onto your skin, and dilutes it to a reasonable strength, since the pure oils are way too intense on their own. That "other stuff" is where the differentiation comes into play.
But first, a bit of background info:
What Is Cologne, Exactly?
This is a bit murky. Technically, though, there are three definitions:
The traditional (and now thoroughly outdated) definition is that it's a specific family of unisex, citrusy fragrances. They were first blended in Cologne, Germany back in the 18th century.
Less intense and less expensive versions of existing fragrances started to catch on in the 20th century, which were called eau de colognes. More on that below.
Finally, and most generically, the modern definition is that cologne is any kind of fragrance for men, as opposed to perfume, which is for women. Which is confusing, because a fragrance for men that falls outside of the eau de cologne category is, technically speaking, a perfume. But we recommend not thinking too hard about it.
You can generally group cologne types by their strength – the overall percentage of aromatic oils. As that percentage increases, the aroma will be more concentrated and longer-lasting, and the price tag gets steeper.
It's not quite as simple as higher concentrations being better than lower ones, though. Each one of the defined types has pros and cons, so none is necessarily better than the others.
For example, while a highly concentrated blend will last longer, it'll have a much lower "sillage" – a French word meaning how noticable the scent is at a distance, and how strongly it hangs around in the air after you've left.
Now, the breakdown:
Concentration: 20% and up
Also known as cologne/perfume oil, which is a blend of pure aromatic oil with other "carrier" (non-aromatic) oils. It usually comes in a very small vial with a roll-on applicator that you use at your pulse points: wrists, neck, and behind your ears. Since it's so concentrated, a little bit goes a very long way, which is why it's way, way more expensive per ounce than a spray.
Because of the high aromatic oil percentage, this lasts a lot longer than a lower concentration would. That's good if you want something that'll stick around all day or all evening, but the downside is that the aroma stays very close to the skin. It's great for close encounters, but for anyone at arm's length, it won't be very noticeable.
That makes it better for date nights than days at the office, though it's perfectly fine for everyday wear if you simply want a cologne that's more lasting and subtle. It may not be as striking as some other types, but there's a definite cool factor to wearing a high-class cologne that whispers rather than shouts.
Mix parfum with wax, and you get solid cologne. It's not all that common (though given the advantages, it should be – more on that in a minute), so there's not really an established percentage range of aromatic oil content like with the other types here, but you can generally expect it to be somewhere in the ballpark of parfum or eau de parfum.
Like parfum, you swipe a little bit on at your pulse points, where the aroma will stay close to the skin but won't jump out so much. But there's a bigger advantage here: because it's wax-based rather than liquid-based, the aroma lasts much longer. You don't have to worry about it evaporating – instead, the scent will hang around all day, slowly developing over time in tune with your body chemistry. What smells like cedar and sandalwood in the morning could slowly shift into something more earthy by lunchtime.
It's also way more convenient than a bottle of something, since it's compact and travel-friendly. And it's inexpensive enough that you can buy a few – one for your bag, one for your desk, one for home – for any mid-day touch ups if you're about to head to something important and want to impress.
Eau de Parfum
Concentration: 10% to 20%
This is where you start getting into liquid-based cologne, which is a mix of aromatic oils with water and alcohol that you apply with a spray.
Think of this as a higher-quality version of most spray colognes. It tends to be more expensive to match, but you basically get the best of both worlds here. The aromatic concentration is enough to last for a long while, the spray application helps to better distribute the fragrance oils, and the slowly evaporating liquid base helps to lift the notes off your skin so that the aroma is noticable at a distance.
Eu de Toilette
Concentration: 5% to 15%
Nearly identical to eau de parfum, but a little less concentrated.
This is probably the type you'll come across most often, since it strikes a good balance between affordability, concentration, and sillage. Think of it as a toned-down version of eau de parfum: it's a little less expensive, and will fade a little more quickly.
That's not necessarily a bad thing, either. If you prefer to smell nice in the morning but don't want your cologne to follow you around the office all day long, eau de toilette is a good choice.
Eau de Cologne
Concentration: 3% to 8%
The least concentraded of the bunch. As such, it's got very low longevity and sillage, and is usually pretty inexpensive.
It's not a great choice if you're looking for something noticable to wear daily, since it'll probably have already faded in between the time you put it on post-shower to the time you walk in the office doors. But it is great for spraying on before hitting the gym, or if you want to quickly freshen up but don't have time for a shower – stuff like that.
A lot of fragrance companies will make these as lighter versions of their more highly concentrated products, so you get the same scent but with less intensity (and a lower cost).
It's all a bit complicated, we know. But if you can remember the above types, and their relative strength, you can decipher the fragrance companies' jargon and buy a blend that's just right for your needs. And once you do, you can impress coworkers, dates, and strangers alike with your newfound signature scent. Godspeed.