On Finding Fragrances

finished bottle of Hedonist by Viktoria Minya

A bottle of Hedonist by Viktoria Minya, a birthday gift from my boyfriend a few years back. It's way too dramatic for daytime, but somehow I was still able to finish it. All that's left now are the sparkles, and I'm not really sure what to do with the bottle - I don't have room to keep empties hanging around, even the pretty ones like this. I probably won't repurchase - I'd like to make room for something new, perhaps a bottle of her Hedonist Cassis.

There once was a time when it was fashionable to adopt a "signature scent" - that one perfume that defines you and tells the world who you are. But in today's fragrance market, there are so many creative scents to choose from, it hardly makes sense to limit yourself.

I buy three or four full-sized bottles each year, and even that is probably too much. Although I wear fragrance daily, I still have a hard time getting through my collection - it's growing faster than I can deplete it. It's very rare for me to finish a bottle completely. How much harder would it be if I were a full-time fragrance reviewer?

Luckily, we live in an age with options. As much as I don't envy all the choices they have to make, I am so grateful for all of my favorite perfume bloggers. These writers have turned me on to houses and creators and whole artisanal movements in the fragrance world that I never would have known about if I'd just stuck to department store makeup counters. Here are my favorites:

That said, my skin is persnickety: a lot of scents that seem to wear well on others just turn to powder on me. So I never, ever buy anything that I haven't tested first (with a few exceptions, which I'll explain later).

I used to rely on the aforementioned department stores to inform all of my perfume choices. I still do, to some extent, but I've broadened my horizons beyond Macy's and Nordstrom. Whenever I travel, I look for higher end stores like Saks, Barneys, Neiman Marcus or Bergdorf Goodman, for some variety. I don't love the selection at Sephora, but I still check it often - every once in a while, a gem pops up. Diptyque has boutiques in major cities around the United States. Check some of these places out, let their experts guide you.

My favorite boutique is probably the Frederic Malle store on Greenwich Avenue in New York City. It's very small, very intimate, but every time I've been in, the staff there have been endlessly patient in helping me figure out what I like, and what works best on my skin and for my lifestyle. So whenever work takes me to NYC, I go back (for the record, my top pick is Lys Mediterranee, with Lipstick Rose running a close second).

If travel isn't an option, and you want to sample from an even broader selection, check out Luckyscent.com. They have a couple of retail stores in the Los Angeles area, with scent bars I've yet to visit, but they also have a really generous online sampling program. Join their mailing list - they only send emails a few times a month, and some months they offer interesting sample packs: groups of samples from a specific perfume house, with a specific theme, or just a bunch of new releases.

Banana Vanille sample vial

A recent sample of Comptoir Sud Pacifique's Vanille Banane. I will definitely not be buying this for summer. I had high hopes of being spirited away to a tropical paradise with this one, but it has so many problems: sharp and alcoholic on the initial sniff, only the faintest hint of banana on the skin, then a drydown to vanilla that, while pleasant, lasted for less than half an hour. No orange, no rum. No throw whatsoever. There's just no 'there' there.

Luckyscent carries thousands of fragrances, from hundreds of brands, and I've found very few that they don't also sell samples for. Their sample vials are 0.7ml (enough for two test applications, unless you like to swim in fragrance, which I sometimes do), and they cost between $3-$5 each - more than reasonable if you want to check out a few perfumes before you invest in a full bottle. I sometimes wonder at the cost effectiveness of packaging and labeling all those samples, but then I realize that I wouldn't purchase nearly as many full-sized bottles if the samples weren't available. The Luckyscent site is also fun for exploring - I love looking at their bestseller and category lists.

Given all that, I'm still much more likely to buy if I have the option of getting a smaller bottle. It's a good thing we have options there, too: I'm talking about decants.

Decants are repackaged fragrances. The handful of decant services I shop with rely on a network of resellers who hand pour fragrances from their original bottles into anything from a 1ml sample vial to a 30ml spray bottle.

My two favorite decant sites are The Perfumed Court and Surrender to Chance. Both have good selections and turnaround times. I have a slight preference for STC because I find the site a little easier to navigate. Last year, their Retro section helped me find a few interesting things: Electric Youth Cologne by Debbie Gibson, from Revlon (which may just be awful because it's from a 20+ year old bottle, or maybe it was always that sour) and Laura Ashley No. 1.

decants photos

A few of the smaller bottles I've purchased, fragrances I like but not enough to go for the full monty: Guerlain Samsara, Hermes Equipage, and the more recent Jo Malone Poppy and Barley

The Laura Ashley was a pleasant surprise. It's probably what the kids today would call basic - nothing experimental about it, just a subtle floral with a base of sandalwood and musk. It might be the cinnamon and basil that take some of the sweetness out of what could otherwise be a cloying scent - it doesn't smell like your standard fruity floral. It's got a little bit of throw, but not enough to be obnoxious. If I worked in an office, this is what I'd wear every day. (Note: the sample I got last year from STC was from an original 1981 bottle; I purchased a full-sized bottle of the 2012 reformulation, but if there's a significant difference between the two, my nose cannot detect it.)

About those exceptions - there are a very few bottles that I re-purchase regularly, and they're from Guerlain.

Guerlain comes out with a new addition to their Aqua Allegoria line every (northern hemisphere) spring. My favorite is 2007's Mandarin Basilic - I wear it all summer long, so I end up going through a bottle every year. I'm familiar enough with the formula to know that I'll love anything with a citrus note, so I've also gotten Pamplelune and Limon Verde without testing beforehand. I'm less certain about their florals - I might take a pass on this year's Rosa Rossa.

So if you're thinking about moving beyond your signature scent and trying something new, I hope this gives you some directions to look in. And I apologize in advance for all the too-many-wonderful-things you'll find.

What's On My Face Today

  • Guerlain Lingerie de Peau BB Cream in Light - I usually use the Lingerie de Peau liquid foundation, but I'm trying this one out just for curiosity's sake. I didn't love it the first few times, it just seemed too thick no matter what application method I used, but I think I've finally gotten a feel for it. I just needed to start with a really tiny amount, just a few dots, and then build from there. This method works well with a brush (my preferred tool) but better with a sponge.
  • Givenchy Prisme Libre Loose Powder in Mousseline Pastel
  • MAC Crazed Imagination Blush from the 2014 Rocky Horror collection - This is probably as close as I get to a no-makeup look, but my complexion is cool-toned enough that traditional contouring shades are too warm or too brown for me. This blush is a deep plum color, dark enough to use for contour but with enough rosiness to look natural on my skin. I brush a small amount through the hollows of my cheeks. This blush was LE and no longer available, but for something similar, try CabanaBoy from theBalm.
  • Hourglass Vanish Flash Highlighting Stick in Pink Flash - A swipe this down along the tops of my cheekbones. Normally, I'd also add some to the inner corners of my eyes, the bridge of my nose, and my cupid's bow, but when I'm going minimalist like this, I skip those areas.
  • MAC Pro Longwear Paint Pot in Painterly (eyelid primer)
  • Glossier Boy Brow in Brown
  • Benefit "They're Real" Mascara in Jet Black
  • Dior Addict Lacquer Plump in Lovely-D (rosy nude with a high shine finish) - The finish on this is really glossy at first, but it wears down pretty quickly to a natural-looking rosy-brown stain that lasts for a few hours. It does need re-application if you eat or drink anything, but the color pay-off is worth it IMHO.

Disappointment: GlamGlow 'My Little Pony' Masks

Last month, GlamGlow came out with a limited edition set of masks in a partnership with Hasbro, featuring three of the My Little Pony characters. The masks use the same formula as their GravityMud Firming Treatment, but with gobs of glitter packed in.

There are three versions, with glitter colors corresponding to the character names - Princess Luna (black), Twilight Sparkle (purple) and Pinkie Pie (pink). The packaging includes a small rubber spatula for application, and you'll definitely want to use that unless you want glitter all over your hands.

I was hesitant about a lot of things, but ultimately the gimmick got to me and I, heh heh, ponied up $59 for the Pinkie Pie version.

I wish I had been able to sample it beforehand, and I definitely wouldn't buy it again. To be fair, I've never used the original GravityMud, so I don't know how they compare. I did not find the glitter mask to be that effective, though - only inasmuch as any peel-off mask is physically useful at pulling gunk from your pores.

And if all you want is that, you can do it for a lot less money.

What you're really paying for is the fun experience of having pink glitter all over your face, which, fine, maybe it's worth that much to some people?

But be warned that this mask might not be the best for sensitive skin. I felt a little bit of burning while it was on, and it left my skin with some redness (although that faded eventually once the mask was off). If you're determined to try this mask, do try to get a sample beforehand.

Also, be aware that the glitter in these masks is not biodegradable. GlamGlow gets around explaining that by urging users to peel off the mask and throw it into the trash instead of rinsing down the drain, but then it still ends up in a landfill doesn't it? That answer in their FAQ is a bit of a dodge, and, in fact, you won't find that FAQ on the GlamGlow site - I've only seen it in the description on the Sephora product page.

(Psst! Want some products infused with glitter that won't actually hurt the environment? Check out Sunshine & Glitter!)