Finding the right fragrance is a process; magazine samples can be misleading, online reviews are often written in perfume-speak (what is a chypre, again?), and, sometimes, that splashy new designer scent—the one that would look so good on your dresser—just ends up smelling like Windex.
Fragrance experts Rachel Syme and Helena Fitzgerald get it, which is why they launched The Dry Down, a newsletter dedicated to demystifying the perfume-shopping process and highlighting the best scents out there—from niche releases to drugstore staples.
"What we write the most about on The Dry Down is a category called 'niche,' which is basically like the indie rock of perfumery." —Rachel Syme
The pair came up with the idea last December, when Syme offered to recommend perfumes to her Twitter followers and received a staggering 400 replies. Since then, Syme and Fitzgerald have been turning out thoughtful, lyrically-written fragrance reviews that steer clear of typical beauty copywriting and instead dive into feelings and memory.
"When you talk about scent you get to say, 'This reminds me of this moment in my childhood,' or 'This smells like the kind of people I'm attracted to,'" says Fitzgerald. "It becomes very personal, very quickly."
Below, Syme and Fitzgerald share their tips for finding the fragrance that makes you feel your best.
Tip No. 1: Girls Can Wear Cologne, and Guys Can Wear Perfume
The gendering of the fragrance industry is really just a marketing ploy. "This idea that cologne is for men and perfume is for women is simply not true—they're different compositions of a distilled scent," says Fitzgerald. "The idea that roses are feminine and tobacco is masculine is also not true—it's really about the individual."
Tip No: 2: Drugstore Perfumes Are Underestimated
If you love the smell of Britney Spears's fragrances, own it. "I've found some of my favorite scents at the drugstore," says Syme. "Jovan Musk is an amazing layering base for other perfumes—it provides this deep, spicy undertone to other scents that you're wearing, and makes them last longer."
Another fun fact we learned from Syme: "Sarah Jessica Parker famously layers three different perfumes as her signature scent: one is a drugstore perfume, one is Comme de Garçons, and another one is an oil that she finds in Brooklyn that she won't tell anyone about."
Tip No. 3: You Don't Have to Buy a Full Bottle
If you fall in love with a scent that's beyond your budget, try tracking down a sample. "People who really love perfume often have a ton of bottles in their houses, but they also have hundreds of little vials that they got either for free at stores or for $5 a pop online," says Syme.
"You can get into it the same way you get into wine or beer, where you're exploring things one at a time and seeing what you like, as opposed to having it be this unattainable hobby." Sites like luckyscent.com and twistedlily.com offer samples from indie fragrance brands for under $10 each.
Tip No. 4: There's No Right Way to Wear Perfume
Some people swear by dabbing perfume on their wrists, while others mist it in the air and walk through the scent-cloud; really, it just comes down to personal preference.
"We have found so many interesting, new suggestions for ways to wear perfume," says Syme. "Our friend Josie, who is a perfume sales person, constantly says to wear it on your hair line—it almost acts like a human oil diffuser because when you sweat on your neck, it will make the perfume waft off you. Another thing I love doing lately is when I get a new notebook, I spray the pages with a perfume I really like."
Tip No. 5: Leave Your Fragrance Comfort Zone
According to Syme, perfumes can be separated into four different categories. "There are vintages, which are perfumes that no longer exist that you can buy decants of—which is when somebody takes a big bottle and put it into a smaller bottle—on sites like surrendertochance.com and theperfumedcourt.com," she says. "The second is designer fragrances, which is what you'll find in Sephora or department stores. The third is mass market fragrances, which is what you'll find in drugstores. What we write the most about on The Dry Down is a category called 'niche,' which is basically like the indie rock of perfumery."
"At the end of the day, perfume is this really beautiful, delicate thing that opens up differently on every person." —Syme
Fitzgerald recommends testing out scents beyond your go-to category. "I think a lot of people who are into fashion, who are younger, who think of themselves as in the know, would assume that they only want to wear niche perfume, and don't engage with the designer perfumes, but you should really allow yourself to experiment."
Tip No. 6: Testing Perfumes Takes Time
Give yourself plenty of time to linger in the perfume aisle. "If you walk into a department store and you feel the pressure right away, you need to walk away from that," Syme says. "At the end of the day, perfume is this really beautiful, delicate thing that opens up differently on every person."
If you use a paper blotter to sample a fragrance, wait about 15 minutes for its true scent to show up; if you're trying a perfume on your skin, let it sit a bit longer.
"You can try on six or eight scents on different parts of your arm the same way that you try on lipsticks at Sephora." —Helena Fitzgerald
"Don't be afraid to stand around in a store for a long time smelling everything. Don't be afraid to pick up bottles and spray stuff on yourselves," says Fitzgerald. "You can try on six or eight scents on different parts of your arm the same way that you try on lipsticks at Sephora."
Ready to expand your fragrance collection? Start with these picks from Syme and Fitzgerald.
Opium by Yves Saint Laurent, $62, sephora.com.
"Opium is not what anyone would call a 'new' scent (2017 marks its 40th anniversary), but it is still one of the best designer fragrances in the world, and one of the more sumptuous, operatic scents that you can purchase," says Syme.
"The opening is peppery and sharp, the middle is floral and enveloping, the final dry down is full of resin and boozy labdanum, a heavy but soft landing that smells best at the very end of the night, when it's mixed with sweat. I love recommending this scent to beginners, because it was the first perfume I bought where, after I sprayed it on, I felt like a completely different person."
Gris Clair Eau de Parfum by Serge Lutens, $150, luckyscent.com.
"Lutens is where I started my love affair with perfume, and I highly recommend these fragrances as a first stop for anyone looking to learn to love scent," says Fitzgerald. "I like Gris Clair, specifically, as a starting point because most people think of lavender (like rose and vanilla) when they think of the idea of perfume. Gris Clair is pillowy and comforting, but the incense and dry wood basenotes give it a strange, addictive, smoky undertone, making it sexier and more substantial, less sweet and more biting, than one might expect from a lavender fragrance."
Brulure De Rose by Parfumerie Generale, $125, luckyscent.com.
"There are a lot of niche perfumes that actively resist the 'pretty scent' label, and instead opt for weirder, fiercer ingredients that will surprise jaded noses (it is not uncommon to find niche scents that smell like dirt, rubber, romaine lettuce, or mushrooms—on purpose!)," says Syme.
"This composition, from French perfumer Pierre Guillaume, mixes a buttery rose with the crackled top of a vanilla creme brulee, with a sprinkle of chocolate and raspberries on top. Yes, this sounds like a treacly, decadent dessert, but Guillaume has added just enough muscle in the base of the perfume to keep it from being too fluttery or cloying. A secret: it smells equally good on men and women."
Craft Eau De Parfum by Andrea Maack Parfums, $135, luckyscent.com.
"Andrea Maack is an artist from Reykjavik, who first became known for her work as a visual artist before she began creating scents. Her perfumes are a perfect example of niche perfumery, and a great starting point for anyone looking to get into the world of niche perfume," says Fitzgerald.
"Craft, like Maack's equally lovely Coven, has become popular for its name alone, summoning up witchy supernatural references, but it's also a wonderful collision of extremes, a perfume that plunges from its cold elegant aldehyde topnotes down to earthy, woody cedar and patchouli, smelling like the gentlest enchanted forest in fairy-tale winter."
For more perfume recommendations and fragrance expertise, subscribe to The Dry Down at tinyletter.com/thedrydown.