Eau de parfum, eau de toilette, eau fraîche… What is the difference between perfume and cologne? Why is there something that pretty much means “toilet water” in French?
Shopping for fragrances can not only be confusing but overwhelming. A single house’s fragrance will have a dozen products on the shelf ranging from deodorants to shower gels. What’s more, you think you have the right bottle in your hands. However, there seem to be several variations on the shelf that are more or less the same thing. So which one should you choose?
In this guide, we will explore one of perfumery’s most infamous questions, which baffles both novices and enthusiasts alike.
What Are Fragrance Concentrations?
The different iterations of a fragrance usually boil down to concentrations. Aside from other merchandise such as deodorants and shower gels, chances are that this is the sole difference between products.
A bottle never contains pure fragrance but is actually a blend of a scent and a base. The scent usually comprises of essences, aromatic compounds and oils. However, the base is usually either a mix of ethanol and water or simply one of the two.
So why don’t we just bottle the scent alone?
Firstly, it would be overly strong and to have even a decent amount would cost a fortune. However, the real reason is that alcohol helps the scent project.
The aromatic compounds alone may smell exceedingly strong but you have almost no projection. You have to put your nose right up to it and by then it becomes an eye-watering experience. The base dilutes it and helps it radiate off your skin as the alcohol evaporates or cooks.
Furthermore, alcohol acts as a stabilising agent that preserves the more volatile oils in a perfume. This also ensures they properly blend together to form accords.
Note that some fragrances turn to alternative fragrance solvents or bases that are alcohol free or organic. This offers a hyper-allergic solution for those with skin sensitivity to alcohol.
What Are The Different Strengths?
There are many iterations and names for different perfume concentrations. The main groups can be broken down as listed below:
- Parfum. 20-30%
- Eau de Parfum. 15-20%
- Eau de Toilette. 5 – 15%
- Eau de Cologne. 3-8%
- Aftershave / Eau Fraîche. <3%
The industry has never standardised fragrance concentrations so the percentages are ranges rather than precise figures.
One thing to consider is that the concentration of aromatic compounds has a correlation with a parfume’s intensity and longevity. Logically, an eau de parfum has considerably more scent than an aftershave so its fragrance lingers for a lot longer.
Refer to the illustration below as a visual aid or scroll down to learn more about each concentration.
Sometimes referred to as “perfume extract”, “parfum extrait” or even “elixir”, parfum is the most prestigious concentration of a fragrance. Usually featuring a strength between 20% and 30%, they can sometimes go up to an impressive 40%.
They are often considerably more expensive than the alternatives. However, some argue that they offer better value for money as the fragrance lasts much longer with a small amount and doesn’t require reapplying throughout the day.
Similarly, their heady and opulent concentration means that the fragrance should be applied sparingly. Sometimes parfums come in dab bottles for this reason, which offers more control than an atomiser.
Furthermore, the lower alcohol content makes this a more suitable choice for those with sensitive skin that has a tendency to dry out.
These days, parfums have become a relatively rare fragrance concentration for men. This is likely linked to cost as they are quite expensive. However, perhaps it’s also due to the misinterpretation that “perfumes” are something reserved exclusively for women.
Eau de Parfum (15-20%)
Eau de parfum is a more common variant than parfums these days. As parfums are particularly exclusive and not as affordable, some perfumers tend to only market an eau de parfum as the luxurious version of a fragrance to maximise sales.
Eaux de parfum tend to offer a concentration between 15% and 20%, which provides around 8 hours of scent. A single application will provide enough scent to last throughout a working day at a lower price than a parfum.
Eau de Toilette (10-15%)
Eaux de toilette are actually predecessors of colognes dating back to 14th-Century Hungary. The name derives from an old French term for the practice of personal grooming and cleaning around a dressing table. In the 19th Century, a “cabinet de toilette” was essentially a powder room, which went on to be a euphemism a water closest.
In short, eau de toilette was essentially cleaning water that was added to bath water or applied directly after the skin after bathing. Today, modern perfumery has appropriated the term to indicate the concentration of a fragrance.
Being the most budget-friendly option, an eau de toilette is usually the most accessible and best-selling iteration of a fragrance. The concentrations of an eau de toilette range from 5% to 15% but usually sit around the 10% mark.
Usually, an eau de toilette is a watered-down eau de parfum. Although they may not provide the same longevity as parfums, they are widely available at most drug stores and outlets. They make ideal budget-friendly choices but are often let down by weak longevity that expires after 3 or 4 hours.
Eau de Cologne (3-8%)
Eau de Cologne is one of the more enigmatic and confusing fragrance labels. Today, cologne has become adopted as a generic term for men’s fragrances, which is a corruption of its original definition. Historically, eau de cologne are perfumes that originate from Köln, Germany.
In 1709, Italian-born Giovanni Maria Farina devised a concoction, which he named Kölnisch Wasser (Cologne water) after his new hometown. He sought to create a blend, which reminded him of an Italian spring morning, of mountain daffodils and orange blossoms after the rain.
Eaux de colognes went on to be an industry standard and continue to exist today. Their notable characteristics include a light body with a delicate bergamot citrus head. One of the oldest colognes in production, Mäurer & Wirtz 4711, still loyally follows this model today.
Modern perfumers often use eau de cologne as a strength classification for fragrances with between 3% and 8% concentration. They are usually relatively cheap and the fragrance rarely lasts more than two hours.
For this reason, eau de cologne has replaced eau de toilette’s original function and is used to for freshening up. As cologne quickly fades, it is applied directly after bathing and before a personal grooming routine. Traditionally, wearers will apply the day’s main fragrance once finished before leaving the bathroom.
Aftershave / Eau Fraîche (<3%)
Although they have a similar concentration of less than 3% fragrance, eau fraîche and aftershave traditionally have different practical uses.
Eau fraîche (literally “cool water”) follows a similar concept to eau de cologne in that it is employed during or after bathing. Although some eaux fraîche contain alcohol, they’re often mostly water. The high water content and mild scent allows it to clean and refresh the skin.
Aftershave’s original purpose has more-or-less died out thanks to advances in personal hygiene. Originally, the scented alcohol was used as an antiseptic following shaving to clean any cuts.
Consequently, they often contain medicinal herbs or balms to soothe and clean the skin. Many aftershaves today still include menthol, bay rum and witch-hazel for this purpose.
With their very low concentrations, both aftershaves and eau fraîche tend to last no more than an hour. Often these are reserved for personal grooming to enhance the experience and are rarely suitable as daytime fragrances.
Now that you have learned the difference between the various fragrance concentrations, develop your knowledge even further by exploring the different fragrance families. Alternatively, learn how to properly apply a fragrance for every situation!