A Solid Guide To Fluid Scents


Fun fact: even though Glossier You Solid just came back today, solid fragrances have been around for centuries. Way longer than the alcohol mixtures we typically think of as perfume, even. They were some of the first fragrances used because they’re some of the easiest to make: all you need is essential oil and wax. “It was only around the French Revolution that fragrance oil started to be mixed with alcohol and put into a spray bottle,” says perfumer and fragrance historian Marissa Zappas, “and it requires very specific technical processes.” While perfume solids could only be used on the body, liquid fragrance opened up a world of scented possibilities—though not always so beautiful in practice. “It was sprayed everywhere and even poured in sewers, used to cover up the smells of a decomposing city.” Mmmm!

Now, making the choice between solid, spray, or roll-on fragrance depends less on your hygiene habits and more on personal preference. They’re just different! To figure out which you’ll like best, Marissa suggests asking yourself some important questions. “What do you, as the wearer, want the scent to accomplish? Is longevity important? Is discretion important?” What about price, pack, and portability? Each form has its own pros and cons—let’s walk through them together.

Looks like:

Most perfumes come in a spray bottle, because they’re made with alcohol and meant to be spritzed. Marissa says this combo brings the scent alive: “The atomizer releases it in microscopic droplets, which increases its projection and affects how the fragrance wears.” Roll-ons also have a liquid base, but the liquid in question is some blend of carrier oils. And solids typically have a wax or petroleum base, packaged in low-profile tins easy to swirl your finger in. For that reason, solids are especially great to travel with—they won’t spill or set off airport security—but could give you problems in steamy climates. Ever leave a lip balm in a hot car?

One other thing: alcohol-based perfumes tend to be large, while roll-ons and solids can be itsy-bitsy. Sometimes that’s to make the price point more accessible. “Cost generally depends on the quality of raw materials used in the formula, and then the oil to alcohol ratio,” Marissa explains. “Oil is much more expensive than alcohol, so fragrances at a higher concentration will generally cost more.” But a simpler design can bring down the price too, whereas a luxe, custom one (the reason you can ID a designer scent just by its silhouette) might crank it up.

The key difference: A spray perfume doubles as decor, while the slim, simple packs of oils and balms are best for travel.

Feels like:

“The application with an oil or balm is more intimate, as it needs to be directly rubbed in,” says Marissa. And you already know oil feels nourishing, unlike alcohol which tends to be drying. But she also points out that plant extracts used in oil-based scents can cause irritation, too. “Natural ingredients are not always safer for skin.” If you have super sensitive skin, a known allergy, or eczema, a traditional spray perfume made with synthetic scent might actually be the smarter choice. If alcohol’s the issue, you can also spray it on your clothes or hair instead to minimize contact with your skin, or use an unscented lotion as a barrier before applying.

The key difference: A spray of perfume feels like nothing; oils and balms feel creamy and intimate.

Smells like:

If roll-on and solid fragrances make you think of Whole Foods, that’s because on the whole, they’re more likely to be made with essential oils. “Roll-on and solid oils in general have simpler formulas, using fewer ingredients,” says Marissa, though there are exceptions. For example, Diptyque and Glossier’s solid fragrances use man-made blends, as do rollerballs from Le Labo and Byredo. On the other hand, Heretic’s scents have an alcohol base but get their scent from only essential oils and extracts. That’s rare in a spray scent, just like oil-based scents with significant complexity can be harder to come by. Both are trickier to make.

Another big reason why oil-based balms and roll-ons tend to smell subtler is because they literally—physically—sit closer to the skin. Their scent is activated by your natural body heat, and oil-based fragrances tend to be base-note heavy (think sandalwoods, vanillas, and musks) to complement that. Plus, they don’t need top notes (which smell strong at first but evaporate off quickly) to disguise that initial reek of alcohol. Since you’ll have to lean in to get a whiff, “Solid and roll-on fragrances can feel more personal.”

The key difference: There’s more variance among spray fragrances; oils and balms smell subtler and simpler.

Wears like:

While common wisdom might tell you that concentration determines the wear (an eau de parfum typically has a 10 to 15-percent concentration of pure fragrance oil, while parfum is 20 to 30-percent), that’s just one piece of the puzzle. As Marissa notes, “It’s possible to have a low concentration fragrance that lasts all day, and a highly concentrated one that doesn’t.” It depends on how it’s formulated and which notes are used—sparkly top notes evaporate quickly, while base notes tend to stick around. Another thing that affects evaporation is where you’ve applied it: oils will stain, but since alcohol evaporates out of fabric more slowly, it wears longer if you spray it on clothes.

“The combination of alcohol and an atomizer give perfume its volume and sillage,” explains Marissa. But if you’re not interested in leaving a big scent footprint, the subtler scent of oil-based fragrance might actually be exactly what you’re looking for. “I recommend them for people who don’t necessarily want to take up a lot of space.”

The key difference: Spray fragrances fill a room while oil-based scents wear closer; you can spray a traditional fragrance onto clothes to prolong their wear but oils last longer.

Photo via ITG