I Couldn't Stop Buying Perfume Samples to Make Sure I Didn't Have COVID

But since I accidentally became a fragrance connoisseur, these are the six scents I now recommend to everyone.

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The Pandemic Turned Me Into a Fragrance Connoisseur
Photo: Nordstrom/ InStyle

Last fall, I realized I needed a new hobby. I had outgrown jigsaw puzzles, and I was seeking an activity that could keep me entertained and was low-cost. I stumbled upon a podcast called The Perfume Room, where a fellow New Yorker invited fragrance founders, professional noses, and beauty professionals to talk about all things smell-related. After learning how to pronounce scents like "oud" and "neroli" (the latter does not rhyme with "cannoli"), I wanted to learn how to sniff them out myself.

Besides curing my boredom, scent training also gave me another mental boost: I knew I could smell the perfume, which quelled my anxiety about possibly contracting COVID-19. (Sniffing perfume and other scents can also help people who lost their sense of smell from COVID-19 regain their abilities). I also quickly learned that I could use perfume to mentally travel to different places, like the lilacs that bloom near my parents' house in the spring or the smells of leather shops in Italy, at a time when I couldn't physically travel at all.

Now that I've tried at least four dozen fragrances, I'm ready to splurge on my favorites. Here are the six scents I recommend from Nordstrom:

Before I found these, I started small with discovery kits. A bunch of companies, from the heavy hitters like Malin + Goetz and Le Labo to indie brands like Marissa Zappas and DedCool, offer samples for purchase — and some will apply the cost of the minis to your next purchase of a full-size bottle.

Using perfume test strips, which cost a few bucks and are available online, I'd write down the name of the fragrance on one side of the blotter and then fold it. I'd spray the side without the writing and smell the strip immediately, working to identify the individual top notes, or the scents that are most obvious when a perfume is sprayed; websites like Fragrantica break down every perfume on the planet, so I used them to fact-check myself. I'd then put down the test strip and come back to it within an hour or so, which gives the perfume time to breathe and get to the heart (also called middle) notes and base notes.

If I liked the perfume — very few scents made me wrinkle my nose and say "no" at the blotter — I'd spray it on my "pulse points" like my wrist, elbows, and neck. The scents warm up in those places, and I could smell myself throughout the day and see if they reacted well to my body chemistry (it's why one perfume smells amazing on your best friend but might be funky on you!). I kept a Notes app list of the perfumes I tried and loved, so it's always on hand whenever I'm ready to shop.

After getting a hang of identifying scents, I tried to verbalize how a fragrance made me feel or what it reminded me of, like Dedcool's Taunt smelling like lemon cake or Commodity's Book- smelling like dark academia and the ink of a new novel. The more connections I made while testing perfume, the more conscious I became of my everyday "fragrances," like what my best friend smells like (musk and scalp) and the smell of the hallway outside my apartment (Italian meatballs).

There's no right way to smell perfume — just pick what scents you're attracted to and start from there. The more you smell, the easier it is to determine what types of fragrances you like. I also recommend trying to snag a sample of the perfume you're purchasing to avoid waste, in the case that the scent doesn't mix well with your body chemistry.

Nordstrom's return policy is one of the most foolproof ways to try a fragrance without fearing that you'll be stuck with a bottle you hate. Not to mention, the department store has an impressive selection of fragrances, from well-known brands like Chanel and Jo Malone to lesser-known names like Vacation and Brown Girl Jane, in various sizes and price points.

Below, check out the scents I'm itching to buy from Nordstrom right now.

Aerin Beauty Lilac Path Eau de Parfum Spray

Nordstrom fragrance recommendations

New York in the spring smells like lilacs… plus that metallic tinge of subways and skyscrapers. Wild lilacs typically have a harder scent, but Aerin's Lilac Path perfume distills that sweet floral scent into the perfect fragrance. I'm hesitant to call the perfume one note — it has a base of orange flower, meaning that scent opens up about an hour into the wear — but it's truly the best fragrance for layering. The brand even promotes purchasing other perfumes in the line to create personalized fragrances. I like wearing this alone or layered on top of a more masculine scent like D.S. & Durga's Cowboy Grass.

Shop now: $135–$185, nordstrom.com

Boy Smells Suede Pony Genderful Fine Fragrance

Nordstrom fragrance recommendations

This perfume immediately transports me to the leather markets of Florence, which I visited more than two years ago (in my last big pre-pandemic trip). Boy Smells' fragrances incorporate traditionally feminine and masculine notes, making them a great wear across the gender spectrum. For Suede Pony, Boy Smells' perfumer merged fruity scents like plum and pineapple with hazelnut and suede for that perfect brushed-leather scent. After about an hour of wear, Suede Pony settles into a nice woodsy finish. It also has a nice longevity; while other perfumes on my wrist fade throughout a heavy hand-washing day, this scent still lingers.

Shop now: $98, nordstrom.com

Le Labo Rose 31 Eau de Parfum

Nordstrom fragrance recommendations

Rose perfumes are on the rise, with Diptyque revamping its rose fragrance, Narciso Rodriguez releasing a new rose variant of its musk line, and Tom Ford dropping a rose garden-inspired collection next month. The newest generation of rose perfumes are not powdery like their predecessors. Some have a more metallic hit to them, while Le Labo's Rose 31 conjures stumbling through the mud and coming across a rose bush. That musky base makes it a must-have for anyone who loves florals but doesn't want to seem too sweet. In a review, one shopper noted that "this is the best rose fragrance out there! It's sensual and spicy and I feel comfortable wearing it for all occasions."

Shop now: $86–$196, nordstrom.com

D.S. & Durga White Peacock Lily Eau de Parfum

Nordstrom fragrance recommendations

Before diving head first into the fragrance world, I wore the same perfume for 10 years: Viktor & Rolf's Flowerbomb. But on a recent vacation in Austin, my friend sprayed a perfume in the air that made me whip around, and I bought D.S. & Durga's White Peacock Lily on the spot. The perfume has a similar scent palette to Flowerbomb — white floral accords with notes of jasmine, musk, and vanilla — but with a creamier, more complex fragrance story. The brand, which has two stores in Manhattan and north Brooklyn, has discontinued the fragrance, but you can still get your hands on a bottle at Nordstrom.

Shop now: $260, nordstrom.com

Bobbi Brown Beach

Nordstrom fragrance recommendations

Nothing captures the smell of leaving the beach and walking up the creaky wooden steps of your summer home, sand still clinging to your toes, quite like Bobbi Brown Beach. I'm not one for more than two spritzes of perfume, but during the summer or on vacation, I drench myself in this fragrance. The smell has a nice clean hint to it, like you just took a shower and are heading out for dinner along the water, and can be purchased in both bottle and roll-on formats. Shoppers can't get enough: "Bobbi Beach is like a vacation in a bottle. When I spray it on, I instantly feel like I am on the beach somewhere tropical. It smells of sunshine, flowers and happiness!" one Nordstrom reviewer wrote.

Shop now: $80, nordstrom.com

Diptyque Tam Dao Eau de Toilette

Nordstrom fragrance recommendations

Where are my sandalwood heads at? Diptyque's Tam Dao is getting a full-size purchase from me because of the absolutely cozy, woody scent with a base note of white musk. This gorgeous fragrance smells like an open-air wooden furniture store, with a hint of floral that keeps the smell from being wintery and dark. I want to sneak up to an attic and read a book on the floor, with bright light pouring in from the window, when I wear this fragrance. Shoppers call this creamy fragrance "assertive" but also say it's soft nonetheless.

Shop now: $108–$150, nordstrom.com

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