How to Properly Sniff Fragrance Oils

A common topic within the fragrance industry, especially with brands who are just starting out, is wondering how to best gauge how a fragrance smells once it arrives.
Fragrance is a wonderful, and addicting investment and it's common to purchase multiple fragrances at once, and eagerly await smelling them once they arrive. However, while there are endless resources for how to use oils in products including diffusers, candles, soap and more - there are fewer readily available resources on how to best start the testing process, specifically, gauging how to best smell fragrance oils to see if they're something you want to test with and if they'd fit your brand. 
With this becoming an ever frequent subject, we thought we'd share insight on how perfumers like us accurately sniff samples and how you can appropriately clear your palette between fragrances - from a technical approach. 
By ensuring that you implement proper sniffing techniques, you can best set yourself up for success and ensure that what you're smelling is a fair and accurate representation of how the oil smells. You spend a lot of time researching fragrances, you spend your money buying it, and you have to wait a short period of time for it to arrive - so give yourself a few additional moments to ensure you're properly smelling the aromas as they're intended. 
Let's dive on in!
Heads Up: This is an in-depth resource, so feel free to read the TL:DR version at the bottom if you’re pressed on time but we do encourage you to read this in-full when given the chance. 

For Starters, Let’s Talk About What NOT to Do:

The worst thing you can do when smelling fragrances is sniffing one after another out of bottle ( OOB) indoors, in a poorly ventilated space. This is an awful habit that many makers fall into, and it’s one of the hardest habits to break.

Because fragrance oils reveal themselves through evaporation, if you smell OOB, you’re withholding yourself from a proper interpretation. Sniffing straight OOB is like hearing an orchestra play all the notes in a symphony at once. You might register that you’re smelling something tropical and sweet, but not that it’s quince on top of passionflower and lily of the valley with a base of coconut cream. You haven’t given your fragrance the opportunity to fully present itself to you.

This experience is even more muddled by the fact you’re indoors. There are countless hydrocarbons in your air, especially in spaces with poor airflow, that impact how you’re interpreting the notes at hand, and indoor air is almost always responsible for false reads.

There are endless ways you can get false reads, from temperature of your house, to how stale the air is, to how many scents have been opened within a short timeframe. For example, did you know that top notes evaporate faster in stale, warm air?

This is a common way makers smell fragrances OOB in their homes. However, in doing so, you’ll likely become overwhelmed by the brighter, top notes evaporating towards your nostrils faster than intended, which causes you to incorrectly judge them based on the most prominent top notes alone. In many cases, this provokes your brain to slow down receptor processing, causing you to misinterpret the base notes or not pick up on notes that are there because you've become blind by prominent top notes alone, and not the fragrance as a whole.
This is just one of the reasons why you shouldn’t test OOB indoors, but let’s get into another thing to avoid.

The Coffee Myth & Why You Shouldn’t Do It

One of the greatest testing myths is smelling coffee between fragrances. Please don’t do this.

Essentially, our brains process and interpret signals from our sensory organs based on a comparison method. In school, you probably learned that if you dip your hand in ice cold water and then dip it into luke warm water, the luke warm water will feel hotter than what it is - it’s the concept of our past deciding how we perceive the present. The cold water makes you interpret the warm water different than it is.
Similar effects can be experienced in other ways as well - including coffee and fragrance oil. When you smell a fresh note after smelling something incredibly bitter, like coffee, a fresh scent smells more pleasing than what it is. This will give you a false impression of how a fragrance actually smells.
Coffee beans are not a proper nasal palate cleanser. In fact, coffee is one of the most highly complex natural materials available to us, with many high impact molecules making up the scent notes we’ve come to know. When reviewed under a gas chromatography analysis, one roasted coffee bean sample had almost three thousand total peaks of scent molecules hitting your nose. That’s a LOT.
What gives you a true, honest interpretation of a scent is giving your nose time to process fragrance, and reset. By smelling fragrances, going to a strong compound like coffee, and then back to a fragrance, you skip the ‘palette cleanser’ step and instead start to incorrectly judge fragrances. 

The Proper Way to Smell Fragrance Samples

If you want to properly smell any fragrance, blotting strips and fresh air are key.
Specifically, the best practice is to quickly dip a blotting strip into fragrance, let it ‘rest’ for a quick moment, and then taking it outside to smell in fresh air.

Blotting strips allow you to enjoy the entire story of sorts, revealing all the complex layers, some softer notes, and ensuring that everything hits your nose at the exact time it’s intended to.
It's very common in complex fragrances, for top notes to last around 5-15 minutes before transitioning into heart notes which last two to four hours, followed by base notes that last four to six hours. Blotters should let you smell all notes within a shorter amount of time, but you should still give yourself at least two minutes with a blotter, waving it back and forth under your nose to see how the fragrance evolves over time. Proper fragrance should evolve like a story, taking you on an experience across all of the notes as time goes on. 

Now, I’m sure you’re wondering, “What about the outside air temp? Surely factors that happen indoors happen outdoors too! ” Well, yes, there are still variables. However, we have access to increased levels of fresh air outdoors, which improves concentration & brain function, allowing you to pinpoint fragrance notes and have a clearer experience of deciding if you like a fragrance or not.
The other important element to the proper sniffing experience is ensuring you give your nose time to rest between samples. We all have natural self-cleaning mechanisms at work that ‘refresh’ our receptors, but giving our nose a break to reset is key. Fresh air is the ultimate palate cleanser, and giving yourself 1-2 minutes between new fragrances will help you to judge them most accurately. 

What If I Can’t Smell Them Outside? 

If you can’t smell fragrances outside, the next big thing is to either use blotters indoors, or a cold water diffuser. In either situation, aim to do so in a well-ventilated space, ideally with open windows, and with enough time between samples to reduce your risk of false impressions.
If you’re testing a variety of scents, aim to keep the rest of the fragrances away from where you’re sniffing the sample you’re focused on. This will reduce the amount of hydrocarbons in the air that can interfere with your sample experience, something that can happen in a similar way as the coffee example above.

Recap/TL;DR Version:

To properly smell fragrance oils, never smell them OOB - especially when they’re as concentrated as ours are. You do yourself a disservice by not picking up all notes, or in the way a fragrance blooms in its final application.

The more concentrated a fragrance is, the harder it is to properly gauge notes, AND if you smell them indoors, you’re even more likely to have false readings due to improper airflow, or other hydrocarbons within your space impacting how the scent is perceived.

Invest in blotting strips, dip them in the fragrance, let them rest for a moment, and then smell them in their own designated space. If not outdoors, then in a room away from other strong scents and ideally with a window open.
As always, give yourself a few minutes between each fragrance for your nose to ‘reset’ and stay away from smelling coffee between fragrances for the most accurate gauge of if you’ll like a fragrance or not. Treat this like 'you' time, where you can sit with a notebook and let the fragrance evolve over 1-2 minutes where you can write down your thoughts on the evolution of the fragrance and see how you enjoy the process. 

The best example we can give for smelling fragrance oils, is comparing it to ordering a pair of stretchy waist jeans. If you take time finding jeans online, reading reviews, ordering them, and having them arrive, you know you can't properly judge if you'll like them or not until you take the time to try them on - even if they look too small or large from the get-go. You need to take the time to try them on, look in a mirror and see what you think before deciding if they're something you're keeping or returning. 

The same goes for fragrance. Aim to get into a mindset that fragrance is not an instantaneous process, and instead realize that smelling fragrance should be treated like a 'try on' experience where you dedicate time to go through and give each fragrance the testing period they deserve. Some fragrances of ours include upwards of 47 notes - and there just isn't a way to accurately smell all of those notes unless you give yourself the time, and proper testing methods, to do so.