Perfume vs Cologne vs Toilette: What’s the Difference?

When on the hunt for a new fragrance, you’ll notice that not all of them are considered the same. There might even be a parfum and eau de toilette option for the same fragrance. So what’s the difference?

In short, the difference between these three is the amount of fragrance oil that’s been added to the formula. Perfume is the most concentrated of the three, toilette is in the middle, and eau de cologne is the least concentrated by comparison.

Keep reading to learn exactly what you can expect from each fragrance type in order to make informed purchases going forward.

Perfume vs Cologne vs Toilette

How to Distinguish Between Fragrance Types

Fragrances have been relied upon for centuries as a symbol of status, for religious purposes, and/or as a way to enhance one’s appeal and appearance. 

Early on, perfume was worn by both men and women. Over time, though, societal shifts, particularly in some Western countries, indirectly suggest that cologne is to be worn by men and perfumes are to be worn by women.

Of course gender specificity does not apply to fragrances. And you’ve probably noticed that fewer men and women feel confined to one fragrance type over the other. You can find examples of that in this post.

In general, there are five groups of fragrances:

  • Perfume/Parfum
  • Eau de parfum
  • Eau de toilette
  • Eau de cologne
  • Eau fraiche

They’re all created to release a pleasant scent. But they each go about doing so in a different way. In addition to being formulated with varying amounts of fragrance oils, each of these groups lasts for a different amount of time on the skin.

Fragrance Type% Fragrance CompositionScent Longevity
Perfume/Parfum20%-40%6-8 hours
Eau de parfum15%-20%4-5 hours
Eau de toilette5%-15%2-3 hours
Eau de cologne3%-5%2 hours
Eau fraiche1%-3%under 2 hours

The first and middle two are where we’ll place our focus for the remainder of this post. You’ll notice a fragrance concentration of up to 20% for perfume solutions, up to 15% for toilettes, and then up to 4% for colognes. But what does this really mean?

How Are These Fragrances Made?

According to the European Commission as few as ten and as many as over 300 ingredients can be included in a fragrance formulation.

While this industry is regulated, the law doesn’t require companies to disclose all ingredients used to create their fragrance products. This is considered proprietary information.

Therefore, it’s challenging to know exactly what ingredients are used to make any perfume, toilette, or cologne.

All that we know for sure is that fragrances are made using a combination of natural and synthetic ingredients in varying amounts. We also know that there are three ingredients added to all personal fragrances to some degree:

  • Solvents (like ethyl alcohol and water)
  • Aromatic compounds and/or essential oils
  • Fixatives 

One role of solvents is to carry the fragrance molecules through the atomizer. It would be difficult to spray on any perfume or cologne or toilette without adding water and alcohol to thin out the mixture. 

Few fragrance formulas use 100% essential oils as their only aromatic ingredient. All natural oils aren’t as potent scent-wise, and they don’t hold their scent as long as synthetic fragrances. Many times, pure essential oils are used as a foundation for creating synthetic aromatic compounds.

Cost is another factor. Essential oils are far more costly due to their extraction process and limited availability of certain resources. Synthetic scents present a huge savings in the production process.

Fixatives are used to help the fragrance molecules to cling to you so that you can smell the fragrance throughout the day. They can also act as a preservative, to help the scent last longer.

What Makes Perfume / Parfum Different?

Perfume is the Americanized version of the French word parfum. Both refer to the most concentrated version of personal fragrance. 

Due to the fact that parfum fragrance formulas include between 20% and 40% of aromatic compounds, you’ll experience more fragrance for a longer period of time.

To put things in perspective, consider how a perfume with 40% concentration of fragrance is nearly half fragrance and then half fixatives, solvents, and other ingredients. That’s significant.

And due to this significance, perfumes often come with a higher price tag. But they’ll also last longer on your skin. On average, you can expect to be able to smell your fragrance for up to 8 hours.

In many cases, though, it might last even longer. This means that you won’t have to refresh or reapply the fragrance throughout the day. 

Another advantage to wearing perfume is that it’s less likely to irritate sensitive skin. But this is only beneficial for those whose skin is sensitive to solvents and fixatives.

If you have a sensitivity to plant matter, then you might prefer a lower concentration.

Lastly, if your skin is naturally inclined to dryness, then you might want to consider perfume over all of the other choices. Perfume will have less alcohol in its formula, so it won’t dry out your skin to the extent that other fragrance groups might.

Parfum fragrances are often richer and more intense than an eau de toilette or cologne. Parfum can usually be worn day or evening. 

Depending on the fragrance combinations, it’s possible to wear perfume during warmer months, but they can really shine in fall and winter.

What Makes Eau de Toilette Different?

On average, toilettes will only be noticeable for up to three hours. Depending on the brand or formula, it’s possible that the fragrance can linger longer. 

Considering that their fragrance concentration is between 5% and 15%, this seems logical. While the price is usually lower, you may not necessarily be saving money because you’d have to reapply an eau de toilette if you want to smell it on you for a full work day. 

It could help to bring a smaller, travel-size atomizer along with you for reapplication throughout the day.

An alternative perspective is to view an eau de toilette as daywear. It’s something you can wear for a few hours prior to regrooming, and then spraying on a parfum for the evening.

As a result of being created for daywear, eau de toilette fragrance compositions are typically airy and light. Light floral notes, refreshing water notes, stimulating citrus notes, even hints of fresh fruit or herbs, are likely what you will experience with an eau de toilette. 

This group of scents are often most appropriate for spring and summer.  

I covered a few examples in this Carolina Herrera post.

What Makes Eau de Cologne Different?

Plainly cologne, or by the French term, eau de cologne – you’ll probably notice both being printed on packaging. 

With the lowest fragrance concentration of the three, cologne only has 3% to 5% of aromatic compounds. This means that it’s mostly made of up water, alcohol, fixatives, and other ingredients.

Often one of the least expensive fragrance options, you can expect this scent to only last for two hours. It would definitely be beneficial to keep a travel-size atomizer filled with this scent on you throughout the day.

Often light and airy as well, eau de colognes are often refreshingly airy, herbal, or citrusy. There might be woody or sensual notes as well, but this is less common.

Colognes are most appropriate for daywear during warmer months.

How Each Fragrance Type Unfolds

Top notes, also referred to as head notes, linger around for the least amount of time. They’re often citrus, green, fresh, or watery fragrances.

Heart notes are often floral and might also smell like a warm or sweet spice, nutty, or aromatic.

Base notes are the foundation of every fragrance and lasts the longest. Typically, these are more intense fragrances, like woodsy or spicy scents.

The length of time you’ll experience each layered note depends on multiple factors. Skin moisture levels, outdoor temperature, and aromatic compounds to name a few.

For instance, with an eau de toilette, you may not notice the head notes dissipate because its middle notes often have some overlap. You may also notice that an eau de toilettes base notes are less pronounced than a parfum. 

Just note that the pace and intensity of each fragrance layer will vary by fragrance by category, as well as, your own personal history and skin conditions.

Should You Choose a Perfume, Cologne, or Toilette?

In order to determine whether you’d prefer a perfume, eau de cologne or eau de toilette, consider when, where, and how you’ll be using the fragrance.

If you want something light for work or a day at the beach, an eau de cologne or  eau de toilette might work best. For longevity and intensity, you may want to veer towards a perfume.

But keep your health history and skin tolerance in mind when making the decision.

My hope is that the next time you’re shopping online, in a department store, or duty-free shop, you’ll have a better idea of which fragrance type would work best for you.

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Hello and welcome to Fragrance Advice! My name is Grace Young, and I’ve been drawn to fragrances since I was a little girl. There's just something about scent that brings me so much joy! 

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