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What Is the Best Perfume?

Photo: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Finding a signature scent can be like putting on your most beloved pair of jeans: It just feels right. Whether you’re looking for a new bottle to add to your collection or someone else’s (fragrances, with their pretty packaging, can make for quite delightful gifts), anyone who’s shopped for perfume knows that just because it looks good doesn’t mean it smells good. The fact that it’s challenging to sniff stuff in person right now makes finding a fragrance even more, well, challenging. (That’s why one perfume-obsessed contributor says the truly indecisive might consider buying a sample set from a brand if they’re not yet ready to commit to a full bottle.) Still, as more folks get vaccinated and new guidelines say we can spend less of our time with masks covering our noses in certain situations, you might be thinking about investing in a new fragrance to make more of an impression as you reacquaint yourselves with friends and loved ones.

To find the best (and best-smelling) perfumes, we asked eight cool people who, even now, smell a lot of them — including beauty editors, podcasters, jewelry designers, and our own writers — about their favorites, then scoured our archives for any standouts (like a few that celebrities told us they can’t live without). Read on for 32 options from affordable spritzes, to scents from blue-chip perfume houses, to even a “non-fragrance” fragrance. To help you shop, we’ve organized the recommendations by type of scent — from floral, to fresh, to woody, to musky, to gourmand, to fruity — leading each category with any perfumes that got mentioned more than others. (If you know the type of scent you like, just click on any of the links in the previous sentence to jump straight to that section.)

Best floral fragrances

One thing we learned in reporting this story: Scent, perhaps not surprisingly, can be a very personal thing, so it’s actually kind of rare for two or more people to concur on a favorite. While it is expensive, Portrait of a Lady is the only perfume in this category that came recommended twice, by two women who are each known for having very specific (if not different) taste. Its first fan is fashion designer Alex Eagle, who has worn the scent from iconic perfumer Frédéric Malle for more than five years and says “there’s something kind of mysterious about it — you can’t totally pin it to a specific thing; it’s like its own thing.” Perhaps that’s because the perfume — which has notes of Turkish rose (and blackcurrant, raspberry, patchouli, cinnamon, clove, and sandalwood) — smells more like “a fresh, clean sheet mixed with something sexy, but without being too earthy,” according to her. Portrait of A Lady is also a go-to for entrepreneur and former Real Housewife Bethenny Frankel, who describes its smell as like “musky femininity.”

Far more affordable is this Yves Saint Laurent fragrance that combines floral notes of lavender and orange blossom with a hint of musk. “It’s fun, but still glamorous, and sweet without being childish,” according to Glazed NYC designer and co-founder Shelby Macklin, who told us she can’t live without the perfume. “I feel grown wearing it.” Macklin likes it so much that she got her mom to buy a bottle of her own, suggesting this scent has cross-generational appeal.

Strategist contributor Sadie Stein says she first sniffed Caswell-Massey’s Elixir of Love No. 1 when she was 7 years old. Stein explains that the parfumerie has been cooking up fragrances since the late 18th century and that this “scent, like the packaging, manages to be timeless without dowdiness.” Elixir of Love No. 1 is a mixture of jasmine, lavender, Egyptian musk, and passionflower, which Stein says creates a smell that is “soft and enticing, the way I imagined ladies in Victoria magazine to be.” As for the bottle, she writes it is “both Victorian and somehow Deco, unabashedly mysterious and old-fashioned yet sleek.”

If you want a rose perfume that isn’t grandmotherly, fashion editor and stylist Michelle Li says this “not-cheesy rose makes you rethink everything you originally thought about rose” thanks to the notes of dune grass, linden, salt water, and white moss in its formula. She told us it’s her favorite scent, noting that it “gets better as the day goes on.” Li adds that “two big pluses are that the bottle and packaging are beautiful and special.”

“Every time I wear this, I think of Charlize Theron,” says Strategist junior writer Chloe Anello, who has more than 30 bottles of perfume in her (ever-growing) collection. If you, too, were entranced by the J’adore commercials starring Theron, Anello says the perfume itself is just as alluring. “It’s super-feminine, but also a little bit mysterious.” She says she’d typically put it on for date nights (“back when we could go places”), suggesting this one may be better for special occasions.

“A punchy floral that always turns heads” is how beauty editor Khalea Underwood describes this perfume. She adds that, “with notes of almond milk and musk, Rolling in Love is just gorgeous.” And she’s not the only fan of the brand’s fragrances. “I used to wear Killian’s Love, Don’t Be Shy almost every day, because Rihanna wears it,” says Underwood. “But because Rihanna wears it, everyone wears it.” Which is why she suggests Rolling in Love for anyone who wants to smell like Rihanna, but maybe not exactly like Rihanna.

Underwood describes Gucci Guilty as having “a heart of lilac and violet,” but says that “the patchouli and amber really shine in this blend,” making it another option for those who prefer funkier florals. “Whenever I have a date that I’m excited about, best believe that this gets spritzed,” she adds. “Gucci knows how to do unapologetically sexy.”

Sable Yong, a writer and co-host of the Smell Ya Later podcast, describes New York Nights as “an aromatic watercolor painting of delicate carnation and gardenia petals,” adding, “It’s what you wear when you’re invited to the Met Gala.” Its floral top notes are combined with middle notes of patchouli and sandalwood, and finished off with base notes of coffee and caramel. “You will definitely smell wealthy wearing this,” promises Yong, who notes that “it’s pretty expensive — so you probably are wealthy if you’re wearing it.”