Although received knowledge wants fragrance concentration to be synonymous with lasting power and "strength" of the scent, largely influencing selling price as well, the truth is a little more complicated, with obscure terms like Parfum de Toilette, Eau Parfumée, Mist, Esprit de Parfum, Eau d'Abondance etc. confusing even some of the more knowledgable perfume lovers! In this small guide, prompted by frequent questions by our readers on fragrance, we try to explain the different terms that pertain to fragrance concentrations with some historical data showcasing the reasons why.
The concentration of a fragrance refers to the concentration of aromatic compounds in the solvent; in fine fragrances this is typically ethanol or a mix of water and ethanol, as denoted on the list of ingredients/allergens on the box. Although a general guideline is presented about ratio of aromatic compound percentage, different perfume houses assign different amounts of essences to each of their perfumes, further complicating the matters. Most agree on at least the general truth of the following though.
Extrait de Parfum, also known as parfum or pure perfume (or even as "perfume extract" following the literal translation from the French), is the highest concentration of scent, containing 15-40% of aromatic compounds. According to the International Fragrance Association (IFRA) the typical percentage is closer to 20% than to 40%. Even though extrait de parfum demands high prices (sometimes stratospheric) and comes in the smallest bottle, making you believe that it should be the strongest concentration, it would be more accurate to say that is in fact the longest-lasting. Several extraits de parfum can be rather subtle and skin-friendly, wafting from the wearer in a less aggressive manner than a loud Eau de Parfum formulated with lots of "projection" or sillage potential. Especially in classic fragrances, which are epoque-representative (such as Guerlain Mitsouko, and Shalimar, Caron Alpona, or Lanvin's Scandal ) or in cult, rare scents, such as Hermes Doblis and Shiseido Nombre Noir, experiencing the scent drop by drop, as befits something precious is the only truly satisfying method of cherishing them.
Originally all fragrances came in extrait de parfum: The perfumer mixes the compound for testing before diluting to several variations. Colognes (or more accurately Eau de Cologne scents, which follow a traditional recipe of citrus & herb notes with very little anchoring by base notes, in reality being a trademark and a specific fragrance) were the exception and formed a category of their own; indeed these were also made in abundance by local apothecaries and pharmacies throughout Europe, each had their own "edition". When fine fragrance was democratisized in the turn of the 19th century, through the invention of aroma synthetics, and more pointedly in the 20th century when it became a veritable industry, perfume houses began offering an Eau de Cologne (EDC) version of their popular scents: This meant a lighter concentration (about 5% of aromatic compounds) in a bigger bottle, which would mean lower price and more juice to be splashed on. These Eaux de Cologne however were not the traditional recipe, nor were they only "lighter" in strength and lasting power compared to the parfums they interpreted. Very often, as is the case of Guerlain, classic Dior and Chanel fragrances from the first half of the 20th century and into the 1960s or even early 1970s per individual case, these Eaux de Cologne were formulated to contain more of the brighter top notes as opposed to their more concentrated counterparts, so as to provide a "sparkle" upon putting on skin, familiar to the consumer from the quasi pharmaceutical/aromatherapeutic use of traditional Eau de Cologne for all ailments. Thus the progression from buying at the chemist's/apothecary and buying at the perfume counter of a famous couture or cosmetics house was made seamless.
Testing a vintage Eau de Cologne (see Guerlain's excellent Vetiver which retains that wonderful tobacco-laced accord) by Lanvin, by Guerlain, by Chanel or by Coty often means a quite lasting fragrance, close -or even better lasting in some cases- than a contemporary Eau de Toilette! They also tend to present different fragrant nuances than other concentration, exactly due to different construction (as infamously evidenced in many Chanels).
Eau de Toilette (EDT), a concentration of between 5-15% of aromatic coumpounds, is also a time-honoured concentration catering to the needs of those who could not afford the precious extrait de parfum, yet still wanted to partake of the dream of glamour that perfume promised, or alternatively the version meant for daywear, instead of the parfum which was indicated for night-time wearing, much like jewels in bobbed hair and silk satin. The phrase came from the French "faire sa toilette" which denotes the ritual of getting ready, getting dressed. Putting on perfume was considered the final touch on an exquisite presentation of the self.
Chanel: Perfumer Jacques Polge was intructed to think of the Eau de Parfum, the popular 1980s concentration, while composing, rather than the denser extrait: By the time that Coco launched, the new generation of consumers were oblivious to the old habit of applying droplets of scent with the dropper/stopper and were familiarised with sprays which had become the norm throughout the 1960s-1970s, catering to the "women on the go". Sprays/atomisers by their very nature tend to dispense a lot of liquid, thus familiarising consumers with abundance. As the 1980s rolled their weird mix of consumerism, carnality, frantic social climbing and political conservatism, fragrances became more and more agressive, a form of olfactory shoulder pads. Thus the idea of a stronger concentration that would introduce the wearer before they even entered the room was born: Eau de Parfum (EDP). Typically 15% (and fluctuating between 10-20% of aromatic compounds), this is a concentration that lasts a long time and is very perceptible in terms of "waft". For those who were of the "bang for the buck" school of thought it also made perfect economic sense, being the best of both worlds.
In certain brands, there might be a separate nomination to denote that, such as millésime at Creed (a term borrowed by wine, denoting a particularly good year).
Some Eau de Parfum fragrances are in marked contrast to their Eau de Toilette counterpart: This might be one of the reasons why the scent you smell on another smells rather different when you buy a bottle yourself. Famous examples include Chanel Cristalle which in EDT is a bright citrus with a light chypre-like base, while Cristalle EDP is a full-blown floral chypre with honeysuckle emphasized in the middle. Yves Saint Laurent Paris is more powdery and crisp in EDT, while being sweeter and more liquer-like in EDP. Chanel routinely twists their fragrances to be slightly different within the different concentrations.
In rare occasions they're a completely different fragrance altogether! Rykiel Women (Not for Men!) in EDP is a sensuous musky-leathery skin-scent. In EDT it is a bright and sweet fruity floral! Elixir des Merveilles, the EDP version of Hermes Eau de Merveilles (EDT) injects fruity-chypre tonalities in the sparser woody-salty scent ambergris formula of the original.
From then on, there is a bit of chaos. Generally speaking Parfum de Toilette (PDT) is the equivalent of Eau de Parfum, perhaps a bit more spiked towards the higher end of percentage of aromatic compounds (20%), a very lasting, velvety concentration. One of the houses that really rode this notion high in the 1980s was Guerlain, before dropping the term in lieu of the standard Eau de Parfum in the 1990s: Each and every one of their Parfums de Toilette in their popular perfumes was stellar.
Esprit de Parfum (no abbreviation available for obvious reasons) is a term that is seldom used: Poised between EDP and extrait, containing almost 30% aromatic compounds, it is most famous from Dior who used the concentration in their iconic of the 1980s scent Poison: Interestingly Poison originally came in Eau de Cologne concentration and Esprit de Parfum (alongside extrait de parfum of course), before these two being dropped in favor of the more standard Eau de Parfum and Eau de Toilette in the 1990s.
Secret de Parfum is a specific variant used by Yves Saint Laurent for Opium in the mid-1990s: The maroon bottle involved lattice-work, the concentration akin to Eau de Parfum, but the subsequent substitution with a reformulation of the formula for the Eau de Parfum wasn't unjustified: the product had a greasy, opaque tonality that betrayed the better facets of the original perfume, while the newer Eau de Parfum was truer till very recently (till the 2010 reformulation).
Perfume Mist, Brume de Parfum, Voile de Parfum, Eau Parfumée, or Eau Sans Alcohol is typically the lightest form of a feminine fragrance: The ratio of aromatic compounds varies between 3-8% while solvent is typically non alcoholic. This was necessitated for two reasons historically: The aerosol mists using propellant were formulated so as not to sting or squirt alcohol in the eyes. Secondly, in the 1990s, when concerns about the allergenic properties of fragrance became more widespread, companies introduced the notion of a non photo-toxic version of their fragrances so that they could be worn all over or at the beach. Some of these fragrances are specifically made as such, such as Dior Bronze "Sweet Sun", which incidentally is launched as "Eau de Bienfait" (approximately Feel-Good, Beneficial Water, as it was included in their suncare line Dior Bronze). Yves Saint Laurent has a very light Opium flanker called Opium Voile d'été.
Please note that the older the fragrance tagged "eau", the greater is the chance that it is quite decent in the smelling/lasting department (superior to a modern variant by the same name): witness Eau de Lanvin concentration for instance for several of their vintage perfumes (My Sin, Arpege etc.)
Masculine fragrances present a mix-up: While as we said Eau de Cologne refers to either the traditional Eau de Cologne recipe/trademark scent first made in Cologne, Germany, or the lighter concentration of a given perfume, many men refer to their fragrance as "cologne". This is mostly an American or Anglo-Saxon phenomenon, due to the reluctance of ascribing themselves as "perfume wearing" (considered effeminate).For instance in Greek the term "cologne" (as well as perfume) is used to denote fragrance for either sex.
More elaborate, additional terms after the name on bottles, such as extrême, intense, or concentrée might seem like indicating concentration but usually they pertain to completely different fragrances, related only because of a similar perfume accord: compare and contrast Chanel's Pour Monsieur and Pour Monsieur Concentrée.
After Shaves of non-lotion-consistency are more old-fashioned: These typically contain a fant 1-3% of aromatic compounds, meant to create a feeling of euphoria upon putting them on without stinging sensitive freshly-shaven skin and quickly disappear altogether.
Eau Généreuse or Eau d'Abondance is a relatively new term, denoting the luxury of huge, honking bottles, meant to be splashed with abandon, a luxury trait inaugurated by the house Hermès (see Un Jardin après la Mousson for instance and the rest of their Jardins fragrances) and followed by Cartier (see Pasha Eau Généreuse or Declaration Eau Généreuse) These scents come in homonguous bottles but in reality are of Eau de Toilette concentration as usual.
Of course there are several other fragrant products, especially in vintage fragrances, when such practices were more common and more varied, from hair lotion (stillboide) by Guerlain to hand-sanitizing water, Eau de mouchoir (handkerchief scent from the Victorian era) and eau de dentifice (for oral hygiene). But they're beyond the scope of this little guide; perhaps we will return on a subsequent guide.
As with everything, largely concentration perception is a personal interpretation within the official guidelines: What seems more lasting or more forceful might have to do with personal sensitivity to specific ingredients and with associations rather than fixed ratios. So, when heading to the perfume counter or when savouring a vintage treasure, give a minute or two to think about what you're smelling exactly.
pics via gildedlife.com & seharm/flickr/somerightsreserved