Take Notes: Understanding Fragrance Tenacity

Let’s talk fragrance tenacity! You’ve probably seen perfumery or scented candle websites list fragrance notes under top, middle, and base and thought “ok, that sounds like it smells good, but what the hell do those terms even mean?” Let’s demystify these fragrance terms and explore how you can use fragrance tenacity, aka top/middle/base notes, when selecting fragrances for your home.

Top, middle, base notes refer to a fragrance’s tenacity, or how long it lasts. These descriptors are related to the size of a fragrance molecule and how volatile it is — basically, how quickly it dissipates. I’ll explain where different notes fit into the tenacity definitions, but just a quick reminder that fragrance is deeply personal. Some fragrance notes may read as a mid or top on different days (for example, notes like lavender range more mid-top). Tenacity is highly subjective person to person, so while the specific notes listed ahead are widely accepted as their category, individuals will bring their own biochemistry to the mix when smelling fragrances — what is a long and lingering scent for one person may be gone in an instant for another.

TOP NOTES

Top notes are the most volatile fragrance molecules and tend to be light — these are the molecules that will disappear quickly. These are also the fragrance notes that you will detect first when you’re smelling a perfume or a scented candle. Top notes tend to be citruses, aromatics, and some fruit and florals. Examples of top notes are citrus notes like lemon, grapefruit and orange; pine and spruce; sea salt, and eucalyptus. Pine and spruce fall into the top note category, instead of the traditional woodsy base note category, because they are scents that can be described as “aromatic”. This is a fragrance term that refers to scents that are herbaceous and have a cool, clearing sensation. When smelling our scented soy candles during a cold throw, top notes are the first notes you will find.

MIDDLE NOTES

Middle notes, also referred to as heart notes or mid notes, are the body of the fragrance. Mid notes are what you smell as the top notes start to wear off. In candles or incense, mid notes are the scents that are revealed once the candle is burned. Common mid-notes are lavender, florals, and spices. Examples of mid notes are jasmine, rose, lavender, green fruits, black pepper, violet leaf, clove, cardamom, chamomile, and cinnamon.

BASE NOTES

Base notes, also sometimes referred to as dry notes, are the notes that linger long after burning. In perfumery, base notes and mid notes are the notes that mingle together and form a lasting fragrance on your skin. Base notes are robust and tend to be woody or resinous. Base note molecules are quite literally heavier and larger, which is why they last so long. Base notes are associated with the “dry down” in perfumery. A hallmark of P.F. Candle Co.’s fragrances is they’re non-irritating and light when burned, which can be associated with our love affair for base notes. We tend towards using woody, warm, and resinous base notes in many of our most popular scents (like Teakwood & Tobacco, Amber & Moss, and Sandalwood Rose), so the fragrance will linger in the air, but may not have as much throw as some are used to if they have burned candles with a lot of mid or top notes. Examples of base notes are sandalwood, cedar, leather, resin, patchouli, vetiver, musk, ginger, myrrh, oakmoss, amber, oud, and vanilla.

In perfumery, whether it’s for fragrance scented candles, you typically won’t find a scent with only one type of note. Even a scent that seems simple, like our Piñon candle, is a complex combination of top, middle, and base notes to form a harmonious blend. Blends of singular notes are known as accords. Having a balance of top, middle, and base notes creates a well-rounded fragrance that is complex and robust instead of linear or bland.

SHOPPING FOR FRAGRANCE

So now that we understand what the definition of top/mid/base notes are, how can you use it to pick out fragrances? For me, I always approach fragrance through mood and how it’s going to affect the way my space feels. Fragrance and emotion are very closely linked (think about the number of times you’ve smelled a particular fragrance and been instantly transported to a memory from your childhood, aka the Proust Effect).

Fragrances that are full of mainly top notes are going to give a bright and piquant energy. These types of scents are great for work, a day at home, or to put on before guests come over. Top notes don’t linger in the air, so these will freshen up your space while you’re cleaning. P.F. scents that are heavy on top notes are Golden Coast, Sweet Grapefruit, and Swell.

Mid notes give a full, blooming and robust feel. Mid notes tend to be floral, herbaceous, or spicy. These types of notes are vivacious and are the first I reach for if I need to restore good energy to a space (or frankly, myself) after returning from a workday or trip. These scents are well rounded and will create good harmony in your space. Examples of P.F. scents that are heavy on mid notes are Ojai Lavender, Los Angeles, Black Fig, and Dusk.

If you’re looking to create a grounding and safe space, look to scents that are heavy on base notes. Notes like sandalwood, cedar, or tonka bean will comfort you. Base notes are also great for a luxe energy — these heavy molecules linger in the air and smell expensive, kinda like visiting a boutique hotel that never misses a beat when it comes to their olfactory presence. Look for resinous notes, like frankincense, or rich woods like oud, to create luxe and layered fragrance in your home. P.F. scents that are base-note heavy are Piñon, Teakwood & Tobacco, Sandalwood Rose, Moonrise, Golden Hour, and Amber & Moss.

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Want to learn more? Check out my book “At Home with Fragrance” — in addition to DIY projects and how to use fragrance in your home, Tom and I break down fragrance knowledge in an approachable and fun way.

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