Fragrance Concentrations: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know

If you're a fragrance lover you see the terms all of the time: eau de toilette, eau de parfum, eau de cologne. But what exactly do they mean? When someone says a perfume is "oil-based," what does that mean for you? What is a pure perfume? Why do perfumes cost so much money for such a small amount? The answers may surprise you.

The fragrances pictured here range in concentration from eau de parfum to extrait and no two are guaranteed to have the same percentage of aromatic compounds.

The fragrances pictured here range in concentration from eau de parfum to extrait and no two are guaranteed to have the same percentage of aromatic compounds.

A fragrance is, at its most basic, a combination of aromatic oils and a carrier. In Western perfumery, the carrier is most often ethanol or a combination of ethanol and water. In recent years it has become common practice for certain unscrupulous sales representatives to pitch fragrances to customers by claiming they are "oil-based" and will thus have better longevity. Be very suspicious of these claims as (a) very few commercially-available fragrances in the West are oil-based and (b) this simply means that oil is used as a carrier and has absolutely no effect on the strength or longevity of the fragrance. What these associates tend to mean by this misleading claim is that the aromatic components are oil-based. However, this is true of all fragrances and not something unique. If ever you have doubts about whether a fragrance is "oil-based," just spray it on your skin. Oil based fragrances will not have the characteristic aroma of alcohol and they will leave a noticeable greasy sheen on your skin.

Fragrances are produced at different concentrations or strengths—that is, different ratios of aromatic oils to ethanol/ethanol and water. Some common concentrations are eau de parfum and eau de toilette. Defining concentrations can be somewhat difficult as there currently exists no industry standard governing what fragrance concentrations actually mean. One house's eau de parfum may be just as strong as another house's eau de cologne. As such, it is important to not jump to conclusions based on the concentration of a given fragrance. Generally speaking, however, these are the different concentrations and what these concentrations mean expressed as a percentage of aromatic oils in the finished product.

Extrait (also referred to as Parfum, Extrait de Parfum, Pure Perfume, Perfume and Perfume Extract) contains anywhere between fifteen percent and forty percent aromatic compounds, although the International Fragrance Association (IFRA) estimates that it is most commonly about 20% aromatic compounds. Since the dawn of modern perfumery and through the Golden Age of Perfumery (basically from the 1890s through the 1950s), extraits were ubiquitous and represented a much larger share of the perfume market. They were the purest and truest vision of the parfumeur—typically the only version of the fragrance that these highly-trained artists created. Lesser concentrations were developed by lab assistants based on the extrait's formula. From the 1960s onward, extraits began to fall out of fashion. By the 1980s, parfumeurs were bypassing the creation of extraits altogether when developing new fragrances. However, extraits have experienced a resurgence over the past two decades in the niche and independent perfume communities.

Extraits have a reputation for being very long-lasting, luxurious, diffusive and strong; this is partially true. While it is difficult to make sweeping generalizations, extraits do tend to be the longest-lasting concentration. This is, in part due to their structure and formula. Extraits are built to be more focused on a fragrance's base notes: the longest-lasting notes in the composition. In fact, in the extrait concentration, approximately fifty percent of the aromatic compounds are base notes resulting in a fragrance that is thematically more focused on the richer, darker elements of a fragrance. As base notes are the longest-lasting components of a fragrance, extraits do tend to outdo other concentrations in terms of longevity. However, it should be noted that extraits are not necessarily diffusive and strong. These traits depend far more on the materials used. If a fragrance is subtle in other concentrations, it will almost certainly be subtle in extrait.

Espirit de parfum is a seldom-used concentration that falls between an extrait and an eau de parfum. Fragrances in the espirit de parfum concentration have tended to hover around thirty percent aromatic compounds. This concentration peaked in popularity during the 1980s when Dior released a number of fragrances in this concentration.

Soie de parfum is a fragrance concentration that contains more aromatic compounds than an eau de parfum but less than an extrait. Soie de parfums tend to contain between fifteen percent and eighteen percent aromatic compounds.

Eau de parfum is a fragrance concentration consisting of approximately ten percent to twenty percent aromatic compounds, with IFRA estimating that the majority fall directly in the middle at fifteen percent. The eau de parfum concentration is ubiquitous and makes up a majority of the women's fragrance market and an ever-increasing percentage of the men's market. The structure of eau de parfums differ from extraits in that there is far more focus placed on the comparatively more refreshing heart and top notes. In fact, only thirty percent of the aromatic compounds in eau de parfums consist of materials classified as base notes with the remaining seventy percent are divided between the heart notes (30%) and the top notes (40%). Eau de parfum is one of the newest fragrance concentrations, first making an appearance in the 1980s. The advent of the eau de parfum coincided with the rise of second-wave feminism. As women began to assert their independence and spend more time out of the home, fragrance sprays became the preferred method of application as the drop and stopper method became increasingly associated with a bygone era. Estée Lauder presaged the coming of the wave of eau de parfum fragrances with her unusually highly-concentrated fragrance sprays.

Parfum de toilette is a now-defunct concentration that reached its height during the 1980s. Basically the same as the eau de parfum concentration, parfum de toilette was preferred by Guerlain, among other houses. Unfortunately, despite its clearly superior name, the parfum de toilette concentration lost the battle for supremacy as Guerlain officially adopted eau de parfum in favor of parfum de toilette by the mid-1990s.

Eau de toilette is a fragrance concentration consisting of between five percent and fifteen percent aromatic compounds. Again, the majority of fragrances fall somewhere in the middle with an average of about ten percent aromatic compounds. The eau de toilette concentration has a long history. Its origins can be traced to fourteenth century Hungary and the development of the now famous eau de la reine de hongrie, predecessor of eau de cologne and eau de toilette alike. The more modern history of the eau de toilette is harder to piece together. There are various accounts of its origins but perhaps the most compelling explanation is elucidated by Roja Dove in The Essence of Perfume:

Eau de toilette takes its name from a very complex and expensive product created by perfumers centuries ago that was made from fabric (hence toile which is French for fabric). This toile was impregnated with perfume over many months and made into a sponge-shaped object, used dry to 'cleanse', refresh and scent the body. With the development of the guild of gantier-parfumeur, and the increased use of scent, the fomulae were then added to alcohol and used for the same purpose.

Etymologically speaking, the theory that the toile impregnated by fragrance gave birth to the modern eau de toilette makes sense. The Middle English toile predates the term toilette by centuries indicating that the very association between toilette and cleanliness may be due to the early history of the fragranced toile. Adding to the confusion, the term eau de toilette is often mis-translated into English as toilet water, in reference to the French term toilette which developed from toile and came to mean dressing room and finally washroom. In the seventeenth century, the term toilette referred not only to the space but also to the process of getting dressed, applying make-up, etc. Toilette eventually came to refer to not only the process of getting dressed but also to the objects employed in this process, hence eau de toilette.

Since the dawn of modern perfumery, eau de toilettes have been offered as more affordable alternatives to the costly and luxurious perfume concentrations. Their affordability coupled with the fact that eau de toilettes are structurally more focused on the crisp, effervescent top notes and heart notes led to their association with daywear. In an average eau de toilette, fifty percent of the aromatic compounds are top notes, thirty percent heart notes and only twenty percent base notes.

The radically different structures of the different concentrations means that a given fragrance can vary wildly from extrait to eau de parfum to eau de toilette. It is important to remember that concentrations are not simply a matter of the percentage of aromatic compounds in a given fragrance—every concentration of every fragrance is its own distinct creation with its own distinct formula.

Eau de cologne is undoubtedly the most confusing of the perfume concentrations. Like eau de toilette, its lineage can loosely be traced back to the eau de la reine de hongrie. The first fragrance to bear the name eau de cologne was created in 1709 in Köln (Cologne), Germany by Jean Marie Farina. Farina had, in turn, developed his recipe from a fragrance created by his uncle Gian Paolo Feminis called Aqua Admirabilis.

The original eau de cologne was a refreshing blend of bergamot, neroli and orange blossom favored by such figures as Napoleon Bonaparte. However, this only goes part of the way toward explaining the term. Over the years many houses began producing their own version of eau de cologne and thus the term eau de cologne came to refer to a style of fragrance chiefly composed of citrus essences and products obtained from the orange tree (neroli, orange blossom, bigarade).

In modern times, the term eau de cologne has come to refer to a concentration. This dates back to the late nineteenth and early twentieth century as the fragrance industry boomed many houses began to offer eau de cologne versions of their popular fragrances. These fragrances often contained between two percent and five percent aromatic compounds and were sold in larger bottles. This represents As they were less expensive and offered consumers more volume for their money eau de colognes became wildly popular. Structurally these fragrances were weighted heavily toward the top notes, perhaps as an homage to the original meaning of the term eau de cologne. Thus eau de cologne came to refer to a light concentration of fragrance with effervescent top notes.

Finally, there is the issue of the term cologne or eau de cologne being used to refer to men's fragrances, in general. This is a distinctly American phenomenon dating back to the mid-twentieth century. The reasons are complex and have much to do with gender roles and the relative reluctance of American men to adopt something viewed as feminine. To this day, many Americans use the term cologne to refer to all manner of men's fragrance, regardless of style or concentration.

Eau fraîche is a concentration that consists of three percent or less aromatic compounds. This concentration is meant to be refreshing and short-lasting.

In addition to the concentrations touched on above, there are dozens of lesser-known concentrations. In most cases, these will simply be new names for existing concentrations. For instance, the term eau de toilette may be appended with any of the following: intense, extrême, concentrée. However, these extra-concentrated variations rarely push the fragrance outside of the normal range for an eau de toilette.

There also exist a slew of other seldom-used concentrations used for very lightly scented products: perfumed mist/brume parfumée, perfumed veil/voile parfumée, perfumed water/eau parfumée. These concentrations generally range between two percent and eight percent.

The most import thing to take away from this is that concentrations mean very little. An eau de toilette from one company can be the same as an eau de parfum from another. If anything, they are a rough guide that give you some idea what to expect when it comes to the underlying structure of a fragrance. Judge every fragrance on its own terms and don't assume that a higher concentration will mean better longevity or quality.