What’s the difference between a top note and a bottom note?


What do you smell when you sample a scent for the first time? What do you smell on your clothes the following day?“What do you smell when you sample a scent for the first time? What do you smell on your clothes the following day?Yvan Duve/Getty Images

If you overheard a conversation about top notes, middle notes, and base notes, you’d probably think you were listening to group of musicians, right? Not so fast — unless you consider perfume to be the melody of an individual’s style. The notes of a fragrance work together just like musical notes to strike the right chord, creating a beautiful — and sometimes seductive — result.

Perfumers use the term top note (also opening or head note) to refer to the first scent impression of a fragrance when it is initially applied to the skin. With a lighter molecular weight than the other components, top notes are usually light aromas that evaporate quickly, lingering for only about 5 to 30 minutes. When you sample a fragrance at a department store counter, this is the aroma that you experience. These notes are usually citrus, powdery or light floral scents.

Even if you like what you smell initially, walk around the store for a half hour or more so that the perfume’s middle notes, or heart notes, have a chance to reveal themselves. These are the medium weight molecules, often heavier florals like geranium, lavender, chamomile, ylang-ylang, and rose or spices like cinnamon, cardamom, coriander, or nutmeg.

The base notes, also called the end notes or the bottom notes, are the ones that last the longest and help hold the scent, slowing down the evaporation of the lighter notes. These are the elements that will linger on your skin long after midnight! Oakmoss, patchouli, sandalwood, musk, and vanilla are commonly used base notes.

If a fragrance doesn’t have a top, middle and base note, it’s described as linear. Examples of linear scents include Gaultier 2, a unisex fragrance that blends amber, vanilla, and musk, and La Prairie’s Silver Rain, which combines fruits, flowers, and woods to maintain the same rich scent from top to bottom.

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  • Perfume.org. "La Prairie’s Silver Rain is lip smacking gourmand goodness." (August 30, 2012) http://www.perfume.org/fragrance-reviews/La-Prairies-Silver-Rain-is-lipsmacking-gourmand-goodness
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