What’s The Difference Between Eau de Toilette and Cologne?

Discover the science of scent, and how to apply your signature scent correctly.

Out of the five senses, one has the most power to create (and invoke) the strongest memories and emotional associations: scent.

So it’s safe to say you’re probably already making an olfactory impression whether you realize it or not. Why not make it a positive one? Whether you’re dressing to impress on a job interview or a first date (or your wedding, anniversary, etc.), there’s a scent out there that will help you feel more confident, less stressed, and help people see you in a more favorable …odor.

So how do you choose (and wear) a signature scent without veering into stifling, cheap-smelling body spray territory? Before we can answer that, let’s explore what your options are and how they’re different.

Most men are aware of fragrances known as cologne, but there’s an entire spectrum of scent you should be aware of – from “parfum” to “eau fraiche” – that exist on either side of regular ol’ cologne, and the names can be intimidating.

whats the difference between eau de toilette and cologne

While the documented history of engineered fragrances extends more than 3000 years BCE, most of the contemporary language is in French – difficult to understand and carries a whiff (get it?) of pretension. But it may just be that cologne specifically isn’t the best option for you.

It’s time to learn your fragrances, how to choose one, and how to apply it.

The Secret To Every Fragrance: Dilution

All fragrances (whether a combination of essential oils, synthetic ingredients, or both) are diluted to some extent – with alcohol and/or water. The fragrance base, also known as the perfume’s essence, would be too strong to wear and most likely unpleasant to smell.

Dilution softens the scent, as well as the price. The most costly perfume ingredients (like oudh, a fragrant resin) can go for more than $5,000 a pound. Hence, dilution.

How does this help you decipher the difference between Eau de Toilette and Cologne? Simple: how diluted is the fragrance?

Fragrance 101

Scent is classified by its concentration:

Perfume (or parfum if you’re feeling fancy) is the strongest, and typically lasts the longest on the skin (up to or even more than 24 hours). It’s about 20-30% perfume essence.

Eau de parfum is a little less concentrated: 15-20% perfume essence, it’ll probably last you about 5-8 hours, depending on ingredients and how much you apply.

Eau de toilette is diluted enough to be sold in spray bottles: 5-15% perfume essence. That means it’s light enough to be sprayed more generously. Also, due to the higher diluting alcohol content, it will not be very long-lasting, maybe 3 hours. So it’s good for daily use, and even if you accidentally douse yourself it’ll wear off quickly.

Cologne, or eau de Cologne, is even lighter. (Fun fact: it was named for the city of Cologne, in Germany, where a particular scent was first made.) This category of scents are fresh, sometimes fruity, and often contain citrus oils such as lemon, orange, and neroli (bitter orange blossom). Containing approximately 2-4% perfume essence, colognes typically last around 2 hours.

Eau fraiche (fresh) water contains the least amount of perfume essence, 1-3%. Accordingly, it lasts the shortest amount of time – an hour, maybe less.

oudh cost cologne perfumePicking a Scent

Picking a scent is truly a process of experimentation and discovering your personal preferences – there’s no shortcut for going to a physical retail location and smelling colognes until you find something that speaks to you – but that’s only the first step. There’s a few guidelines that can help in selecting your first scent if you’ve never done that before.

First, the more concentrated the scent, the more sparing you want to be with it. Think hugging/handshake distance, not three blocks away. And if you’re new to using scent (other than maybe a Fresh PineTM scented deodorant), ease your way into it with one of the less concentrated options – eau de toilette and cologne both tend to be on the lighter side.

Fragrance strength also depends on the ingredient, so look for fresh, aquatic, and citrusy notes if you’re just dipping your toe into scented waters. Notes of wood, leather, tobacco, and musk tend to be heavier. One way to think about different scent notes: is it something you’d wear in the summer? Is it refreshing, crisp, not too intense?

Don’t Douse; Spritz

So you’ve picked out a fresh new scent and you’re ready to take your first trial run. Before you drench yourself head to toe, try a few strategic sprays. Sparingly at first – your body heat will amplify the scent’s presence. You can always start with a small amount and re-apply later.

Perfume Mythbusting

As you get more into cologne, you’ll probably hear two of the more persistent perfume myths:

Myth #1: Don’t rub your wrists together – you’ll break down the scent molecules.

It takes a lot more than mild friction to destroy molecular bonds. So unless you’re the Incredible Hulk, you won’t be denaturing any perfume molecules between your wrists. You can, however, create heat that speeds the evaporation process, which means the more volatile top notes (more on those in a sec) might burn off faster.

Myth #2: Apply scent to your pulse points, where your blood vessels are closer to the surface; skin here is warmer than the rest of the body, which will help scents mature into their full expression.

The temperature at your pulse points might feel warmer than other areas of your body but it turns out that’s not actually the case.

Traditionally, fragrance has been applied to the pulse points – inside of the wrists, at the back of the neck behind the ears – because perfumes only came in bottles with stoppers, and were applied with a quick swipe to the wrist. In other words – it was a convenience thing, not science.

Also, the wrist and the neck are typically where your skin isn’t covered by clothing. That makes it easier for you (and others) to enjoy a hint of scent. On that note: it’s probably best not to spray your clothing, unless you know that the fabric won’t stain. The true advantage of applying to your wrists? It’s easy to wash off anything you don’t like.

how long does cologne and perfume lastFragrances Change Over Time

After application, a scent will change over time depending on the combination of its “notes,” or ingredients. There are three main categories of notes, and each change at different times:

Top notes form your initial impression of the scent. Also known as “head” notes, these fragrances are the lightest and evaporate the fastest. Popular top notes include citrus (lemon, orange, bergamot, grapefruit), herbal (sage, lavender), and light fruits (berries).

Middle, or “heart” notes, are longer lasting and appear as the top notes fade. Middle notes are often well-rounded florals (geranium, ylang ylang, rose), or spices (coriander, cardamom, nutmeg). This layer of scent helps balance the top notes with the final category: base notes.

Base notes are the densest, most intense notes that help anchor the blend. They make their presence known at the end of the drydown phrase, which is where you’ll start to notice woods (cedar, sandalwood), musks, and rich resinous scents (amber, patchouli).

Do You And Your Scent Have Chemistry?

So now you know that scents morph as they dry. A scent may also smell completely different on two different people. Some of this has to do with how dry your skin is – if your skin is parched, it may “eat” fragrance. The solution is to apply a good (preferably fragrance-free) moisturizer before you apply your chosen scent. Give it a few minutes to sink in, then spritz away.

No matter what type of scent you choose, it’s always a good idea to test it out before you commit to buying it. Spray a bit on your wrist and observe how it changes over the course of the next few hours, even the next day. And don’t be afraid to experiment. Find what smells right to you. After all, the nose knows.

What is your signature scent? Share it in the comments below!

Ali grew up in New York and currently lives in Philadelphia, where she works as a copywriter. She enjoys cooking, playing the guitar, and powerlifting, and has a brown belt in Krav Maga. You can find her collected articles on health, fitness, and other lifestyle topics at https://alibzagat.contently.com/ Instagram: @alibzagat

  • Clark Colosimo

    Do guys normally buy perfume rather than cologne? For the longest time I thought it was perfume for women and cologne for men. But what if us guys want that scent to last a little longer?

  • Josh Hendon

    How does a musk fit into the scene?

  • Zac Silk

    I’ve been using Axe’s Oakwood and vanilla scent for the fall; and I switch to Paco Rabanne’s Invictus in the spring. The top notes of orange is great for the warmer temps.

  • Serafin

    Haven’t worn a scent in years… No scent deodorant and my natural fragrance.

    • http://www.primermagazine.com/ Andrew

      Eau de Serafin

  • Mrralph21

    Great article! I noticed most of us men do not have this knowledge; as a result, we end up drowning ourselves in all different types of concoctions that are rather expensive and don’t last as long as we would like to think. Now we know what to look for!

  • Joe Dopirak

    Great article. I’ve been wondering this for years. Glad to find it out when I am 33 right before getting married! Better find my scent soon.

  • Ari Sem

    My favorites are Narcisso Rodriguez Bleu Noir, Cartier Declaration, Armani Mania and Hermes Terre de Hermes but since I’m a poor college student I can’t afford any of them 🙁