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What is the Difference Between Perfume and Eau De Toilette?

By R. Kayne
Updated May 21, 2024
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There are several categories of fragrances: perfume is at the top, followed by eau de parfum, eau de toilette, and eau de cologne, each containing a lesser degree of aromatic oils, respectively. The lower the concentration of aromatic compounds, the shorter the scent life. Perfume is highly prized precisely because it lasts from morning until night, and it wears well, meaning the scent stays fresh as the day wears on. In fact, a good one is designed to smell nice throughout its various stages of wear.

Aromatic compounds used in fragrances have complex chemical interactions. While consumers might imagine a group of corporate executives sniffing bottles of various mixtures to see what smells best, the truth is far more complicated. Fragrant compounds tend to breakdown quickly when exposed to heat, light and air, so in order for a scent to last throughout the day, tens or even hundreds of ingredients are used so that the product continues to "bloom." Essentially, as one group of compounds is spent, another re-enlivens the scent and adds its own tone. Perfume is said to have three notes that work together to form the lasting fragrance.

The top note is the initial scent when applied. This scent lasts only a few minutes to an hour, and may be somewhat strong. As it diminishes, it reveals the middle note of the fragrance, also called the heart or body of the scent. The aromatic compounds that make up the heart last longer, but eventually give way to the base note, or underlying tone. The optimal scent of the base note takes time to develop, so initially, it isn’t as pleasant but is masked by the top and middle notes. By the time they soften, the base note is fully developed, and ideally helps to bolster the other notes. This is the scent left at the end of the day.

Understanding this symphony of interactions makes it easy to see why a perfume might smell nice when first applied, but can take on a stale or heady note by the end of the day. In this case, the base note of the fragrance is not to the wearer's liking. Conversely, a fragrance might smell better as the day wears on if the wearer's olfactory senses prefer the base note to the top and middle notes. When a person finds a fragrance that really appeals from morning until night, he or she has discovered a love for all three notes that compose the scent.

With all that people associate with these products, it might seem counter-intuitive that fragrant chemicals are generally caustic irritants in concentrated form. For this reason, fragrances are made with diluted essential oils and compounds. Generally, the concentration is about 20 to 40% for perfume, 10% less for parfum, 20% less for eau de toilette, and cologne only contains between 2 and 5% aromatic oils.

While flowers make up the largest source for chemical compounds used in commercial fragrances, bark, wood, resins, leaves, tobacco and citrus also contribute to the different categories of scents. Synthetic chemicals have also become popular and are more reliable from an industry standpoint, as they are consistent to work with, unlike natural products. The use of synthetic compounds is a new arena with an untested history in terms of health and the environment, however. Synthetic musk, for example, has been found in the Great Lakes due to nearby chemical processing. It has also been found in human fat cells and breast milk.

Shoppers who prefer to buy perfume that is made from natural compounds should look for the words "all natural ingredients." These products will likely be more expensive and may be harder to find. Ingredients listed as "imitation" or "natural synthetic compounds" refers to synthetic chemicals created to copy real-world chemicals. The synthetic version might have a much stronger odor than its more expensive, natural versions, but compounds it's made of are different elements than naturally occurring compounds and are not "natural."

While synthetic chemicals are increasingly used in traditional fragrance categories, they have also given rise to a new category of fragrances, grouped together under the heading of Ozone or Oceanic. This joins the existing categories of Floral, Fruit, Green, Wood, Amber and Leather, and Oriental.

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Discussion Comments
By anon284430 — On Aug 10, 2012

Great! So which is meant for men and which for women? The conventional wisdom is that eau de parfum is for women, eau de toilette for men - is this correct?

By anon192634 — On Jul 02, 2011

I enjoyed most of the wiseGeek responses to this question, but strongly disagree with the advice to seek products containing "all natural ingredients" if you are looking for perfume made from natural compounds.

These days, "all natural ingredients" means absolutely nothing at all. It "sounds" good to the consumer, and is meant to entice you to buy the product. The reality is that product labeling laws and definitions allow companies to infer much more than is actually the case.

If you see the words 'natural ingredients' on the label, most countries will allow natural, and (supposedly) nature-identical (synthetic, man-made) compounds in the product. That means, that even though you may be after a product without man-made or synthetic chemicals, you may be duped or tricked into buying exactly what you don't want!

It's also important to remember that synthetic, man-made ingredients are often made up of hundreds of components (which they are not required to list on the labels), they are often toxic, they may be irritating to the skin, they can mimic hormones, they are untested for safety (withdrawn only when there is a problem), and most disturbing, they can be carcinogenic (cancer causing).

To make it worse, when the label says it is made with, or contains, "natural ingredients", there may only be a mere 2 or 5 percent of allegedly natural compounds in the product content. For some time, plain water was allowed to be referred to as a natural ingredient. (So a product could contain a huge percentage of chemicals, with a little water added, and companies could claim 'natural ingredient' content).

Some labeling laws have changed, but many companies get around this change by now saying that they include natural "herbal infusions" in the product. Sounds great doesn't it? Unfortunately it may only mean that 5 percent of the product is water with a tea-bag dunked in it, and the other 95 percent can be chemical muck.

As far as perfumes are concerned, anything mentioning "fragrance" absolutely has synthetic content. "Fragrant oils" and "fragrant essential oils" are also synthetic. "Essential oils", especially certified organic essential oils, are fine, but still be savvy, and look for other ingredients in the product.

Be aware that you will always pay more for essential oil perfumery. One liter of essential oil can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars, depending on the essential oil. By comparison, one liter of synthetic or fragrant oil may only cost between $2 and $20 dollars. (e.g., lavender essential oil versus synthetic linalool).

Most companies will include the cheaper synthetic option in their ingredients for a couple of reasons; mostly to increase their profit margin, and to make their product appear more affordable to the consumer. Remember though that while the truly natural essential oil is rarely hazardous to your health, the synthetics often are.

You can look up the MSDS (material safety data sheets) of different chemical ingredients online for general toxicity and safety data. You can also look up the "Toxic Ingredient Directory".

Hope this helps.

By writingeagle — On Jul 17, 2010

What I find interesting about perfume shopping is it's more about personal preference than cost. Some $10 bottles of perfume smell great and some smell awful whereas some $75 perfumes can be worth the cost and some don't measure up. Some people think the cost of the perfume means everything as if the more expensive bottles will smell better or last longer, but it's about how each individual nose dis/likes the smell of those three different notes.

By desertdunes — On Jan 09, 2010

So I guess the only real way to find a perfume you like is to let those women spray you with ONE tester and wait a whole day before you make the decision. I knew about the 3 different notes, but didn't realize how long it could take for the final note to "bloom". I've always thought when at the end of the day I hated the scent, that it was due to the perfume reacting badly to my skin oils.

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