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A Guide to the Fragrance Families

The Fragrance families help us understand what we like in a scent. Explore the different families and how they work together.

6 min read

How do you pick the perfect scent? When it comes to selecting a fragrance, either for yourself or as a gift, it can be near impossible to know where to start. Some people have a lifelong favourite fragrance, whereas others opt for a light scent for daytimes, a richer scent for evenings and a different home fragrance in every room.

Traditionally, perfume products were notoriously hard to describe. A fragrance is not tangible or simple to explain, like a colour or a piece of clothing. Fragrances are elusive, mystical and evade easy description.

To increase this veil of secrecy further, the ingredients of most well-known commercial fragrances are shrouded in mystery. They are not widely published, and they are often filled with such complex ingredients that would most likely mean nothing to the average shopper seeking a new scent.

Categorising Fragrances

Over time, the perfumery industry has found ways of classifying, describing and organising fragrances to make them more accessible and understandable. The most prominent of these are fragrance families – a system that places scents into olfactory groups based on their similar characteristics.

These families help us to understand what we like in a scent, helping us make informed decisions when choosing new perfumes, diffusers, room sprays and more. They are wonderfully helpful when it comes to understanding your own sense of smell (and if you get to know the fragrance preferences of your friends and family, you will also become the world’s best gift-giver, too).

There are four main fragrance families with distinctive characteristics. It is great to familiarise yourself with the families and discover which you normally gravitate to. We all ordinarily have one olfactory family in particular that we favour, whether we realise it or not.


Let us start with Oriental. If you are picturing exotic sun-hazed horizons, market baskets overflowing with spices, and rich expansive sands stretching out to a Moroccan sunset, you are heading in the right direction.

Oriental scents can be sharp and spicy, mellowed and softened with sweet rich notes like cinnamon or vanilla. The Oriental family is further split into three subcategories – the slightly floral Soft Oriental, the spicy warmth of Oriental, and the deep, rich musk of Woody Oriental.

What you can expect to smell:

  • Nutmeg
  • Vanilla
  • Cinnamon
  • Patchouli
  • Amber
  • Musk
  • Sandalwood
  • Anise


Intensifying the depth and warmth of Oriental is the next fragrance family: Woody. Woody fragrances move from oriental incense-like notes to dry, smoky leather-like scents.

The Woody family can be seen as being masculine, though in truth this is not the case. This fragrance family can be used by anyone, and the dry rich scents make great home fragrances. This family’s subcategories are opulent Woody scents, earthy Mossy Wood scents and smoky Dry Wood scents.

What you can expect to smell:

  • Sandalwood
  • Cedar
  • Amber
  • Oakmoss
  • Leather
  • Fir
  • Camphor


If you prefer something a little lighter, crisper and brighter than Oriental or Woody, your fragrance choice may well fall into the Fresh family.

Zesty, herby or citrusy notes lift the Fresh scents and make them a wonderful choice for a light daytime fragrance. Think walking through dewy woods in the spring, chopped herbs and lemon, a salty dip in the ocean and the aroma of freshly cut grass.

Fresh subcategories include herby Aromatic scents, zesty Citrus notes, Water scents like sea salt and fresh rain, and clean Green scents.

What you can expect to smell:

  • Lemon
  • Sage
  • Lavender
  • Basil
  • Mint
  • Lemongrass
  • Grapefruit
  • Rosemary
  • Mandarin


The final olfactory family is the most widely used and well-known: the Floral family. Similar to the aforementioned Woody family, Floral has traditionally been pigeonholed into being solely a feminine fragrance – though again, this is not necessarily the case in modern perfume.

Floral scents can range from delicate and powdery to sharp, sweet and edible. This diverse fragrance family is split into four subcategories: tropical or sweet Fruity scents, traditional fresh Floral notes, elegant Soft Floral and slightly spicy Floral Oriental.

What you can expect to smell:

  • Jasmine
  • Rose
  • Peach
  • Lily
  • Peony
  • Orange Blossom
  • Ylang Ylang
  • Geranium
  • Violet

How to Use the Olfactory Families

Once you are comfortable with the fragrance families, they can help you make more informed decisions on scent. The classifications help us understand the relationship between scents, how they complement each other, how we can mix them and how we can use them throughout our days.

If you want to delve deeper into how the olfactory families work, read our piece on the fragrance wheel. The wheel can help you visually work with fragrance to create a beautiful menu of scents in your daily life, weaving in complementary notes through your perfumes, candles, diffusers and beauty products.

You can also learn more about individual botanicals’ history, biology and cultural significance in our extensive Botanicals library.

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