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What is Cologne?

By N. Phipps
Updated May 21, 2024
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Like perfume, cologne is a type of fragrance. While most people are familiar with perfumes and colognes, these fragrances are quite different. All fragrances are characterized by a specific ratio of ingredients. For instance, colognes are made from a combination of essential oil extracts, water, and alcohol with an extract concentration of around five percent. This makes them the least potent of fragrances.

Perfumes contain the highest amount of extracts, falling anywhere between 20-25 percent. Directly following perfume is eau de parfum, which contains about 15-22 percent essential oil extracts. From here the concentration levels become much lighter, going to eau de toilette and then eau de cologne.

Although perfumes have been widely used since the 1600s, the first colognes did not surface until 1709. The creator of cologne has been a subject of debate, as many people cannot agree as to which inventor happened upon the fragrance first. What is agreed is the fact that both individuals were Italians and both lived in the same city at one time. Created in Cologne, Germany, the product originally had both medicinal and cosmetic uses.

Paul Feminis, who some believe first created the cologne fragrance, called his version Aqua Admirabilis. It was a blend of citrus and herbal essential oils that were diluted in alcohol. As it was originally made with grape alcohol, which could be consumed, it was often used hygienically as mouth wash. In addition, it was believed to ward off the bubonic plague. This original recipe is still produced in Cologne today.

Some historians believe that Feminis gave this formula to Giovanni Maria Farina, a relative, from which eau de Cologne, or “water from Cologne,” was developed. His was a blend of lemon, orange, bergamot, and lavender oils distilled in alcohol. The scent quickly found success throughout Europe, eventually making its way into North America.

Nowadays, most cologne sprays are men's fragrances. Unlike the sweeter aromas of perfumes, colognes are generally more light and airy with fragrances like citrus and musk. Although preferred by men, they are commonly used by both men and women.

Colognes can usually be applied more liberally since they are made with smaller amounts of oils than other fragrances. They are also much less expensive. All fragrances react differently according to one’s unique body chemistry. Therefore, when purchasing fragrances of any type, it is often a good idea to sample them beforehand.

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Discussion Comments
By Perdido — On May 13, 2012

I only buy cheap fragrances, so I have several bottles of cologne in my collection. I also have a few “eau de toilette” fragrances that were pretty inexpensive.

As long as a scent is pleasing to me, I don't care if it only cost five or ten bucks. Some people think that the price determines the worth of the scent, but to me, the cheaper I can get a good fragrance, the better.

I care nothing for brand names, and I am a fan of cheap knock-offs. I have several cologne sprays that cost under $5, and I love the way they smell. I think the key is to not use too much of them at once, because some people think that since they are cheap, you have to layer them on to get the same effect as a more expensive fragrance, and that results in a scent that is both overpowering and unpleasant.

By StarJo — On May 13, 2012

@wavy58 – You know, I thought the same thing, until I bought some cologne by accident. I was looking for a citrus scent combined with a hint of cedar, and I found a bottle that contained both.

I bought the cologne at a Christmas flea market, where bottles were strewn all across a table. I just picked it up, sprayed it onto my wrist, and loved it, so I didn't pay any attention to the fine print until I got home.

When I looked at the bottle more closely, I saw the words “eau de cologne” at the bottom. However, this cologne smelled nothing like the kind that men usually wear, so I had no qualms about wearing it.

By cloudel — On May 12, 2012

I got my brother some discount cologne for his birthday, and he wears it every day now. He has no idea that I paid half price for it!

It's a good thing that it wasn't too expensive, because it is already halfway gone. It's also fortunate that you can put a good bit of it on and not smell too overpowering, because he pours out some in his hands and rubs it all over his arms and neck.

The cologne did not come in a spray bottle, so he can't just spritz it on. I'm glad I didn't get him perfume, because he would smell extremely strong if he poured that into his hands!

By wavy58 — On May 11, 2012

I always thought that cologne was for men and perfume was for women. I never knew the true definition of cologne until reading this article.

It does seem to me that most colognes do have a more masculine scent than perfumes, though. I suppose it's the musk that usually is included in them.

My husband has several bottles of cologne, and they all smell so good. I would be afraid to wear them, though, because they have a definite manly smell about them. He smells great with cologne on, but I think I would just smell confusing to people walking past me!

By Kat919 — On May 11, 2012

@jennythelib - I've heard of Hove! I once had a bottle of their Tea Olive fragrance and it was to die for.

Another option is actually to make your own perfumes and colognes! I've never tried it myself, but I have a friend who fancies herself a bit of a scent specialist. She likes to figure out what blends will work on people and mix them up signature blends using scents like sandalwood and various flowers.

She uses pharmaceutical grade alcohol to mix with the essential oils, but you can apparently also use vodka! It's important to get really high-quality, pure essential oils, so if you are thinking of trying to make your own fragrance, do some research to find a good source.

By jennythelib — On May 10, 2012
These days both men's cologne and women's perfumes are actually most often made with synthetic (that is, chemical) fragrance rather than with natural essential oils. Chemical fragrances are trade secrets, and with so many in use, it's hard to know which ones might be harmful.

I never gave the difference any thought until I stumbled into a natural perfume shop in New Orleans (Hove is the one I stopped by, but there are others out there). There perfumes are all made with high-quality natural essential oils which come from plants. They explained the difference to me.

Apparently, Chanel No. 5 was the first major perfume to use chemical fragrance, and it took off from there. But people who are concerned about their exposure to toxic chemicals may prefer to seek out essential oil perfumes and colognes, which are available for both men and women.

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