Why Your Scent Defines Your Image (AKA, Get With Indie Perfumes!)

a hand opening a bottle of perfume
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Do you put a lot of thought into how you smell? If you don't, you should - because your scent really IS the missing accessory to your outfit. Let's talk about how to find that perfect scent, no matter what you want to smell like.

It took me a long time to get good at being a girl. I like to think I’ve made up for lost time well, but last on the bandwagon – after makeup, hair (I’m still real iffy on this one), and style – was scent.

I’d walk through the Macy’s perfume and makeup section and be overwhelmed. I would shy away from Sephora salespeople who asked what I liked in a scent. I don’t know, ma’am, please let me sniff without pressure. I was secretly envious of my coworkers who always smelled light and fresh, like flowers and sunshine, after a light spritz from an unknown bottle.

I’ve learned that your scent can define your look, your image, and yourself. A great scent can make you feel confident, powerful, and give you a leg up from everyone else.

So how do you get there? Let’s talk about it.

Why your scent defines you

Are you someone with a signature style? Maybe you wear a lot of black, or lots of scarves, or the best boots, or you’re really into cottagecore, or… you get the picture.

Your style is the way you show who you are on the inside to the rest of the world. And we all know a great accessory can really pull an outfit together. Shiny sunglasses with those joggers and messy bun make you look effortlessly chic, not like you just rolled out of bed. A belt at your waist and shining gemstone earrings can take an outfit to the next level.

What if you gave what scent you wore each day as much thought as what accessories to put on? A light floral scent with notes of rain and freshly cut grass to accompany you on a first date in the spring, or a dark, atmospheric scent of freshly turned dirt and wet concrete for a rock concert in the middle of winter.

You don’t have to have ‘one’ signature scent, and it doesn’t have to be as boring as whatever your mother-in-law or sister got you for Christmas two years ago. Or that same drug store or high-end scent you’ve worn since you were 15 (no shame to the Macy’s game, I still have a bottle of Happy by Clinique upstairs!).

When you put on a scent that fits your outfit, it’s like a whole new confidence boost, the same as if you were to put on a new necklace, bracelet, or pair of shoes. If you’re not taking how you’re smelling into account when you’re getting ready in the morning, you’re missing a huge opportunity!

How to figure out what you like

This one is tricky! When I first got into indie perfume, I thought I would love scents that had citrus, florals, and gourmands (sweets!). Then, I started sniffing, and what I actually like are more earthy, raw, atmospheric scents, with smoke, wood, and spice.

I learned this by a lot of trial and error, and plenty of research into houses, scents, and how to wear them – but I also didn’t have much of a scent base to work with, as I didn’t wear perfume at all before I dove into the world of indie scents.

Think about what some of your favorite notes are in perfumes you wear regularly. Is it an earthy note? A fresh, floral top note? A musky, woodsy base note that lingers on your skin long after everything else has gone?

Now, consider what you want to smell like. What is your aesthetic? Do you want to be a swamp witch that rises from the muck to steal children and seduce passing hunters? Do you want to be a fairy godmother that smells like fresh-baked gingerbread? What about the inside of a used book store – are you aching to find that perfect combination scent of dusty tomes, fresh brewed coffee, and vinyl records?

perfume description
Death and Floral

Think about the scents you like, the notes you like in those scents, and what you would ideally like to smell like. Maybe do this over a period of a few days, or weeks. Every time you get dressed in the morning and ready for your day, ask yourself what should I smell like today?

Now that you’ve got some ideas on what scents you’re looking for, let’s talk about where to find them.

Bonus note: This information hasn’t been wildly helpful in my indie perfume discoveries, but you should probably know how perfumes actually work. There are 3 ‘notes’, the top notes, the middle notes, and the base notes. Just like music, these make up the complex nature of every good perfume.

The top note is also sometimes called the head note, or the opening note, and it’s the scent that is generally the lightest. It’s the very first thing you get when you take a whiff of perfume, but it’s also usually the one to fade the fastest. If you sniff a perfume and your knee-jerk reaction is love or hate, you’re really reacting to the top note. Common top notes are citrus, herbs, or light fruit notes. Think lavender, orange zest, or grapefruit.

Middle notes, sometimes called the heart notes, make themselves known once the top notes have taken their leave. They’re going to stick around longer than the top notes, and generally influence the base notes of the scent the most. Common middle notes include roses, cinnamon, lemongrass, and jasmine.

Base notes are basically the last hooray of the scent you’re smelling. Once the top notes are completely gone, the base notes (should) mingle nicely with the middle notes as they start to fade, creating a well-rounded and satisfying scent. Base notes are usually heavier and richer, like sandalwood, vanilla, and musk.

When I first started getting into indie perfumes, I read all about these important notes and the structure of perfume… but then I realized it’s very rare that a house explains notes like this, so while it might be helpful for me to know this while I’m smelling new scents… it didn’t really improve my shopping experience.

Indie versus mainstream

Here’s the deal – I am a huge fan of indie perfumes. When I say huge, I mean I bought a shelf to store them all.

However, there’s nothing wrong with loving mainstream perfumes, too. If you don’t want to smell like a swamp witch or a mug of steaming chai tea, there are plenty of scents out there for you.

Stores like Sephora or Ulta will be your best bet. Go in prepared to smell a lot, and be smart with how you sniff – don’t inhale too deeply, or you’re going to exhaust your nose quickly. Never touch the scent onto the tip of your nose, or it will influence everything else you smell.

Mainstream scents are, well, just that – mainstream. No matter the price point, they are trying to appeal to the widest audience possible. Indie perfumes, on the other hand, have a little more leeway.

Most indie perfume houses are one person, maybe two, that put out the scents they’re passionate about. That’s how you get crazy scents like “She poisoned the strawberries”. The scent notes for this are: fresh picked strawberries, the musk of a scorned lover, cold sparkling champagne (Death and Floral). Or consider “Namba”, which smells like aquatic, atmospheric, vanilla. salt water canals, melted vanilla ice cream, buzzing neon, and a grounding hint of motor oil (Fantome).

hexennacht perfume oils
Hexennacht

What does neon smell like? I don’t know. But I’ve got a sample of Namba in my coffin cabinet, and it smells great. It’s my fiance’s favorite from Fantome, which I blind-bought last month.

A lot of trial and error went into figuring out scents that I love, and you’ll have some of that, too. That’s okay! You don’t have to ‘nail’ it on the first try. There is so much out there for you, be patient with yourself – and your nose – to find what you really love.

My favorite indie houses, plus more

When I say there are dozens and dozens of indie perfume houses out there making amazing scents, I’m not kidding! My favorite resource for reviews, information on sales, and new houses is the subreddit for indie beauty, /r/indiemakeupandmore. Reddit can be overwhelming for some people at first, but once you get the hang of it, there are a lot of amazing resources!

My favorite house right now is Hexennacht, who makes my favorite scent of all time, “Fallen Angel”. Scent notes are: rain-soaked granite, mountain air, petrichor, creeping ivy, damp earth. It’s my fiance’s every day wear, and it instantly brings me comfort. Also, it honestly does smell like wet granite and damp earth, which is nuts to me. Hex has a lot of atmospheric scents and fun/creepy scents, with a few gourmands thrown in for good measure.

If you’re looking for something sweet and sticky, check out CocoaPink, who do perfumes as well as linen sprays and bathroom products. CP’s turnaround time is intense (and I’ll talk about that in just a second!), but I have several linen sprays from the company that I love, even if they took a few weeks to get to me.

cocoapink perfume oils
CocoaPink

CP really does gourmands best, with sugar, marshmallows, and vanilla scents at the top of the lists. If you ever wanted to smell like an angel food cake or a banana coconut pie, they’ve got you covered.

Newer in the indie scene is Death and Floral, who have become super popular since starting out. I have several of their scents, and they all have held up very well. D&F is a little more unique in the way that she has a smaller catalog of scents (compare her scent list to CP’s and you’ll see what I mean!), but the scents cycle through a lot. She has a Scent of the Month, and is regularly adding or removing choices. If you don’t find something you love on the site right now, just wait. It will come around.

A super small house is Vinter’s Reserve, who just recently got their own website after being on Etsy for quite a while. Scents from this house are all based on alcohol, so they’re a great gift for the wine-lover in your house. I especially loved Sidecar, which has the scent notes of cognac, orange liqueur, and lemon juice. It’s super-citrus-forward and not at all boozy on me.

Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab has been around a while, and are known for producing great quality and interesting scents with fun themes. Right now on the site they’re featuring their Neil Gaiman line that is inspired by his works, a Labyrinth line based on Jim Henson’s film, a Hellboy line… you get the idea.

Fyrinnae doesn’t just have perfumes, they also do indie makes, including eco-friendly glitter, eyeshadows, lip colors, and more. The owner (along with many on this list, honestly) is super active in the indie subreddit, and their products really are lovely! They’re also unique: The perfume oil “I Saw Daddy Kissing Santa” as scent notes of An air of crisp, cold winter nights in far northern forsts meets the warmth of a cozy house. Dying embers in the fireplace, towering fir trees, a touch of sweet pipe tobacco, chimney smoke clinging to his bead, with light notes of fresh greenery and bergamot.

You don’t have to spend a ton of money… but you do need to be patient

Here’s the great part about every indie perfume house I listed – you don’t have to spend a ton of money to try them out. Every single one offers sample sizes of all of their scents, which are usually only a few dollars.

The samples are small, sure, but it’s a great way to try out a bunch of different scents or houses to find out what you like best.

Samples range from $4-7, depending on the size of the sample and the house you get it from. This lets you try out a variety of scents, with not a lot of loss… if you don’t love it, you can easily give it away or even just toss it without feeling awful.

However… you’re going to need to be patient. This isn’t a huge company you’re working with – these are made by a handful of people, in a small space, usually a little office, a garage, or even someone’s basement.

Turn around times vary. Right now CocoaPink readily admits that if you order now, you won’t get it for Christmas. Hexennacht says turn around time is about 14 days. Some sellers have less, some have more – and it varies on their business.

Make sure to read the website careful, and be patient. You’re supporting a small, local-to-somewhere business. These aren’t manufactured by a machine, they take time and care to be produced. You’re not going to get Amazon Prime level of shipping, here – but it will come.

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