Fragrances 101: How to Understand Scent Notes

Fragrances 101: How to Understand Scent Notes

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Shopping online is an incredible way to discover new brands and conveniently order goodies directly to your doorstep. However, this can get a little tricky when shopping for scented candles. How can you know if you’ll like it or not? Without smelling it in person, it’s a guessing game. Fragrance language can be a little confusing, so we’re going to break it down so you can confidently choose your next favorite scented candle – sight un-smelled!

Once you enter the vast world of fragrance, you’ll discover fragrance families. There are a few schools of thought on what is considered the main fragrance families (and subfamilies, they can get very granular), but they are essentially the categories in which different scent notes are placed. It’s simple enough to imagine what a floral, fruit or wood scent might smell like as a singular “note” (i.e. lavender) but how can we decode a fragrance when it has many layered notes from many different fragrance families? Thankfully, we can use the scent note classifications to help us decode a fragrance.

There are three classes of scent notes: top/head, middle/heart, and base notes. What these three classifications really mean, is the amount of time it takes for a scent to be “sensed” – otherwise known as its volatility. For example, a top note of lemon will be very sharp and immediately noticeable. The purpose of layering scents is to alter the perception of notes. An example of this is a very sharp top note of lemon can be mellowed out by a warm base note of vanilla to create a rounded sweet lemon scent. You can imagine this being similar to building a recipe, you wouldn’t make lemon cake without sugar, so you have to add a sweet base so it’s not too sour.

Let’s decode top, middle and base notes.

Top Notes

Top notes, also known as the head notes, are considered the “first impression” notes. They evaporate quickly since they contain light molecules. When choosing a scent it is important to know what the top notes are since they will be the strongest. These notes are often considered fresh or sharp. These are citrus, herbs or green notes.

Examples of top notes: citrus, ginger, lavender, or bergamot.

Our Sabrina • Patchouli & Bergamot Candle has many layers of fragrance, including top notes of bergamot, blood orange and lemon grass. From this description we can determine that a bright citrus scent will be the first thing we experience. But we can’t rely on this alone to determine the full experience, let’s delve into the middle notes.

Middle Notes

The middle, or heart notes, make up the main body of the fragrance. These notes are considered the “personality” of the fragrance. These notes will emerge just after the fleeting top notes. The middle notes are typically mellow and well-rounded – think flowers, fruits and spices.

Examples of middle notes: rose, lilac, cinnamon, or raspberry.

Our Lucille • Spice Orange Candle is a great example of complementary top and middle notes. With top notes of mandarin and orange peel, you can expect a nice bright first impression. Then, the heart of cinnamon and nutmeg will be the mellow spice that helps to round out that sharp citrus scent. We also see that Lucille has a base of vanilla, let’s see what we can expect from base notes.

Base Notes

Base notes are the last to appear to our senses. They come in right after the heart notes and linger. They contain the largest molecules so are slow to evaporate, but once they show themselves they have a long-lasting power. Typically these are very rich and deep and completely round out the fragrance – think sweet and musky.

Examples of base notes: vanilla, sandalwood, patchouli, and cedar.

Our Hermione • Cedar & Thyme Candle is a great example of a scent with powerful base notes. Top notes of fresh eucalyptus hit the nose first, then we get a warming heart of herbal thyme, finally, rounding it all out, is a woodsy base made up of cedar, sandalwood and pine.


Decoding a fragrance with scent notes is a great way to anticipate what it will smell like. When buying a scented candle from Bijou, you can trust that we have developed well-rounded scents with complementary notes to appeal to many palates. Not sure which candles to pick? Drop us an email, we’re happy to help!


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