Perfume basics – the difference between eau de parfum, eau de toilette and other perfume types

What’s the difference between an eau de parfum and and eau de toilette, and how to choose the right kind of perfume for yourself?

The modern perfume industry emerged in France in the 19th century, more precisely in the small town of Grasse in southern France (let’s save the history of that for another post). Hence, perfumery terms have remained French. After the industrial revolution, it became more and more important to look, but also smell clean, and cleaniness was a major social distinction factor. Odorised products became more and more available for all social classes, starting with affordable perfumed soaps. Around the same time too, actual perfumes started to be more accessible and affordable, going hand in hand with the invention of synthetics.

Nowadays, different perfume names have to do with their scent volatility, in other words with how quickly the smell will fade from the skin. The stronger the perfume concentration, the stronger it will smell and the longer it will last on the skin.
Perfumes are made using concentrates, which are blends of synthetic and / or natural oils. The concentrates are then blended into a carrier, like alcohol, oil or water. Different perfume types require different concentrations of the actual perfume, which explains the price difference between perfume types.

Extrait de Parfum, or parfum
Extrait de parfums are the most concentrated form of commercial perfumes, containing up to 40% of aromatic compounds. In earlier times, all perfumes were initially launched this way. Extrait de parfums last longest on the skin, sometimes overnight. They are usually heavier by nature, and contain rarer, often natural essences. Because of this, extrait de parfums are usually very pricey too. They are often sold in small vials, and applied as drops on the skin.

Extrait de parfums historically were sold in small, ornamental vials. Images via Sotheby’s and The Coveteur

Extrait de parfums historically were sold in small, ornamental vials.
Images via Sotheby’s and The Coveteur

Eau de Parfum
Eau de parfum is probably the most common perfume type. Usually, big houses launch their novelties in EDP form first, to see how they take off, only later adding eaux de toilettes. The perfume concentration in eau de parfum is generally from 15 to 20 %, which sounds like very little but is actually a lot. Most of the contents of a perfume is always going to be the soluble. Eau de parfums are suitable for everyday wear, even though they do stay longer on the skin and thus tend to smell stronger. An eau de parfum should last on the skin from the moment you spritz it on to the evening, just melting onto your skin in the process.

The world’s most well known eau de parfum.  Images via Chanel.

The world’s most well known eau de parfum.
Images via Chanel.

Eau de Toilette
The literal French meaning is “washing water”, referencing to the French expression of faire sa toilette, washing and getting ready. Early eau de toilettes were initially designed to be put into one’s daily washing water, in small quantities.

Later, eau de toilettes became one of the most popular perfume types around. The perfume concentration in EDTs is typically from 5 to 15 %.
On the skin, eau de toilettes last many hours but more can be added throughout the day.

Eau de Cologne
This perfume type is much less strong (perfume concentration from 2 to 4%), and is commonly associated with men’s shaving, or sometimes with men’s fragrance altogether. The actual history of eau de cologne has to do with neither – it literally takes its name from the city of Köln in Germany, where an Italian man allegedly became famous for his citrussy and light scents in 1693 (Le Grand Live du Parfum).

Eau de Colognes typically smell lighter, and contain less richer base notes. This means you can splash more of the scent on you, which is why it’s not uncommon for Eau de Colognes to be sold in larger bottles. EDC may fade from the skin a few hours after being applied.

Eau Fraiche
The content of eau fraiche (literally meaning fresh water in French) is actually mostly eau, as the name suggests. Unlike traditional perfumes, the teeny 1–3 % of perfume used in these products are not mixed with alcohol, but with water. Eau Fraiches are good to use in the summer, when you want a light fragrance without alcohol that doesn’t mix well with the sun.

Hardcore perfume lovers will often talk about “building a perfume wardrobe”, and some may even say there is a perfume for every occasion. This is why typically one will want to smell stronger (EDP or extrait de parfum) in the evening or in the winter, and lighter in the summer, when the mind is often lighter too.

External sources: Le Grand Livre du Parfum,

Helsinki Perfume Society