Battle of the scents: eau de cologne vs eau de toilette vs eau de parfum

What’s the difference? A top perfume blogger dispels the myths

Eau de cologne, eau de toilette, eau de parfum, extrait de parfum. What do the terms mean? Open any perfume book and I guarantee that you will read an explanation that these French words denote different concentrations of fragrant oils in the finished product and a corresponding strength. Some authors might even give you a chart showing that cologne is two per cent oil and lasts for only two hours, while extrait de parfum is 25 per cent oil and requires a skin graft for complete removal. It sounds convincing until one confronts the truth. Perfume concentrations are a marketing tool and often do not mean anything exact. The proportion of oil doesn’t play as great a role as the ingredients in the composition. As such, different concentrations denote neither how long a perfume will last nor how many “rare and precious” materials it contains.

Eau de cologne refers to a style of fragrance rich in citrus essences. It is the Cava of the olfactory world, bright and shimmering. Citrus oils are among the most volatile in the perfumer’s palette, and some colognes are indeed evanescent, meant more as an instant boost of freshness rather than a thick veil of aroma.

While convention would have it that eau de cologne is the most fleeting form of perfume, many modern interpretations rely on the interplay of ingredients that prolong effervescence. They pair citrus with musks, woods and ambers, and you can easily build a wardrobe of both light and rich colognes. Eau de Cologne Impériale de Guerlain (£67 for 100ml), once worn by Empress Eugénie, will linger long enough for you to sip a morning cup of coffee, while Cologne du Parfumeur (£79 for 100ml, only at House of Fraser), also from the same maison, will dazzle until cocktail hour. Atelier Cologne’s Grand Néroli (£78 for 100ml) is a delicate creature, while Orange Sanguine (£90 for 100ml) has more heft. The old myth of low cologne concentration also doesn’t bear weight; Atelier Cologne, for instance, prides itself on compositions that use up to 20 per cent oil.

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If a line offers eau de toilette and eau de parfum in the same fragrance, chances are that the eau de toilette has brighter top notes (fruity, citrus, green nuances), while the eau de parfum places its accents on flowers and heavier base notes. In my opinion, you can safely disregard the breathless assurances that eau de parfum will last longer. This will depend on the formula, not the concentration, and the only way to find out how long a fragrance will last is to compare the two versions side by side.

Through such comparisons I found that Chanel Allure Eau de Toilette (£55 for 50ml) and Eau de Parfum (£96 for 100ml) last for roughly the same amount of time — eight hours on my skin. The EDT has a coquettish twist of mandarin, while the EDP adds a ripe peach and a generous handful of cedarwood shavings. The two Allures are clearly related, but the differences are so pronounced that having both in my wardrobe doesn’t feel superfluous.

When Ernest Daltroff created Caron Nuit de Noël (£192 for 28ml, at Harrods) in 1922, he offered it in a form sold today as the extrait de parfum. Also referred to as the parfum, the extrait de parfum was the main way fragrance was enjoyed until eau de toilette and eau de parfum were popularised during the postwar consumer boom. The extrait de parfum has a high proportion of oils to alcohol, and it is usually applied in small doses. While it does linger well, it creates an intimate experience — for others to notice Jean Patou 1000 parfum (£120 for 75ml, at Harrods) on your neck, they would need to lean in for a kiss.

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If concentrations are such vague concepts, how can they be made useful? Think of eau de cologne, eau de toilette, eau de parfum and extrait de parfum as separate fragrances. Compare different concentrations of the same perfume. Wear colognes in the evening and try an extrait de parfum as an opulent morning treat. The best part of fragrance is the freedom it gives to create your own rules. And to break them.

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