How to Find Your Signature Scent

A perfumer breaks it down.

By Phoebe Neuman

When it comes to what we wear, our choice in perfume and fragrance is deeply a deeply personal one. The scents that we love tend to have their roots deep within our memories, and our signature scent reflects our past and present experiences.

It’s no surprise then, that finding a fragrance you’re excited to spray on before you head out into the world each morning can feel like a major practice in personal branding.

It’s one that Anne Serrano-McClain, nose behind independent perfume brand MCMC Fragrances knows well. Anne and I met earlier this year when she guided my mom and me through a custom fragrance session in her Brooklyn studio. Her ability to home in on the fragrances that we were most drawn to was an instant relief from the overwhelming spritzes and pushy salespeople of the typical perfume shopping experience.

Here she shares four tips for finding a signature scent that you’ll love wearing for years to come.

MCMC Fragrances Custom Fragrance Session

image by mcmc fragrances

Develop Your Nose

I personally tend to gravitate towards floral scents, whereas my sister always wears citrus. If she smells something brimming with freshness, she’ll always go for that one. But even for people in the industry, it can take years to figure out your personal tastes.

The easiest way to develop this knowledge is to pay close attention to how you react to different scents. That’s what I do when I get clients in for custom fragrance appointments that aren’t sure what they want. Everyone has opinions about fragrances even if they’re not sure how to verbalize them, so I’ll pick up on their little reactions — those tiny strings of information can lead to more.

Once you have a library of reactions you can reference, you can start to identify the notes that you gravitate towards. Everything that goes into perfume can make it really complex, but knowing the basics can take you a long way. The very first thing we learn in perfume school is categorization — the difference between spice, green, floral, gourmand, and powdery scents. If you can imagine these main categories, and know which notes fall into them, it can help immensely to narrow down on what fragrances you’ll want to wear every day. (It also helps hugely if you’re trying to online shop for perfume!)

le labo santal, perfume, beach waves

image by teal thompson

Walk Away from the Fragrance Department

My number one tip is to not buy a fragrance the first time you’ve smelled it. The environment in most stores is too overwhelming, so try it on and walk away! Once you do, pay attention to how it wears and how the base notes develop over time.

Even if it’s a base note you know you like, it’s important to see how it will react with your skin and how the specific combination of top notes will develop. Plus, once you try it on, the branding of that fragrance evaporates, and you can just pay attention to the juice. Which leads me to my next point…

MCMC Fragrances Desert Rose

image by mcmc fragrances

Keep an Open Mind

There is so much marketing in perfume, and many people have the sense that they need to buy a fragrance that is crazy expensive to get something good. But it’s really important to not judge a book by its cover — or a perfume by its bottle. For example, I tend to go for more niche brands that align with my overall aesthetic, but I love Dior’s J’adore. The brand doesn’t match with my personal style at all, but once I spray it on, it all goes away.

When it comes to perfume, it’s all about keeping an open mind. It is so personal, and so many people feel really unsure about where to start — and the industry likes it that way! So keep seeking out what works for you. There will always be something for everyone, you just have to enjoy the process of exploring.

le labo santal, perfumes, vanity, organized makeup

image by teal thompson

Build a Wardrobe

I’m a huge believer in building a wardrobe of signature scents that you can spritz on depending on your mood or the season. That way I never feel bored or stuck with my fragrances. In the summer, I’ll wear something light — I love jasmine scents, they remind me of being on vacation. And in the winter, I’ll go for something with notes of vanilla like Hunter. It’s the equivalent of wearing a big white sweater, which means I never reach for it when the temperature rises.

I also wear perfumes based on my moods, or the mood I want to have that day. I’ll wear our Noble scent on days when I’m feeling mellow. The jasmine, incense, and vetiver notes make me feel calm and collected.