5 Tips for Finding the Perfect Gender-Neutral Perfume or Cologne

The world of fragrances is a difficult one to navigate; it can seem near impossible to find something that doesn’t smell like your grandmother’s bathroom or a high school locker room, and that doesn’t break the bank. And it’s even harder if you’re looking for a scent that’s gender neutral.

Photo via Molly

I consider myself high femme, and until a few years ago, had always purchased classically “female” fragrances. But my partner Jenn (who toes the line between femme and soft butch) and I have since had many conversations about finding a good, gender neutral scent — and I can now pass my experiences researching the subject on to you. Below are tips for finding a fragrance that fits who you are, even when you don’t fit neatly into marketers’ boxes.


Start Where You’re Comfortable

Photo by Scott Ableman via Flickr

If you’re comfortable speaking with an associate at a department store fragrance counter, that’s great! When they ask you what you’re looking for, it’s helpful to drop terms like “gender-neutral,” “clean” and “low-profile.”

Alternatively, you can search out your own scents at places like Ulta and Sephora. Depending on where you go, there might be hundreds of scents on a wall in front of you — which is daunting, but also provides a very cool opportunity to sniff around. Set aside an hour so you can relax and take your time, and if a bottle catches your eye, try it! And no worries if you’re not ready to make a decision in-store; almost all fragrance sellers have test strips that you can spray scents onto and take home.

Try Before You Buy

Photo by beesleysknees via Flickr

It’s easy to walk into a store and buy a fragrance you think you like, only to realize days later that you hate it. Don’t be afraid to ask for samples; scents change as they linger on your skin, so take a test drive before you commit. Wear your fragrance around to different events and places like work, dates, and other special occasions, and see how its notes unfold.

Look for Certain Scent Profiles

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Notes of amber, tobacco, tarragon and neroli make fragrances musky, while lavender, sea salt, spearmint, and tea keep things clean and fresh. Once you establish what types of scents you enjoy, online fragrance shopping becomes much easier; simply read the descriptions and make your choices from there. A lot of companies will mail you free samples to try without buying a full-size bottle — you just pay shipping.

Start with a Soap or Lotion of the Same Scent

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A lot of companies will put out a series of products with the same fragrance! If you’re not ready to commit to an expensive bottle of perfume or cologne, picking up a lotion or soap (which tend to be cheaper on the shelf) in your chosen scent are a good alternative. LUSH is a great place for this, since they don’t market towards a particular gender; my favorite scent of theirs is Dirty, which is light and (counterintuitively) clean-smelling.

Search Outside the Box

Photo via Na Nin

Smaller boutiques won’t have the same enormous variety of fragrances as major retailers, but they will carry unique brands that the Ultas and Sephoras of the world don’t. I personally love the subtle scent profiles of brands like Na Nin and Formulary 55, but even if those don’t appeal to you, a quick Google search will put dozens of specialty shops and other niche brands at your fingertips.

At the end of the day, you want a perfume that smells like you. If you’re comfortable and confident when you’re wearing it, that’s all that matters.


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Molly is a graduate student at Emerson College in Boston where she is earning her MFA in Creative Nonfiction. A few of her favorite things are plants, watching her girlfriend read and indulging in a really good ice cream sundae.

Molly has written 1 articles for us.

33 Comments

  1. I have found Demeter to be a lot of fun in creating my own scent mix and keeping it as neutral as I want. They also seem to smell EXACTLY like what they’re supposed to. Only downside is some don’t have much staying power. Also, l’Occitane men’s scents are quite neutral, my old standby is Cade. Currently I’m on a Demeter mix of Blue Spruce, Patchouli, and Vetiver. I leave my vetiver stank all over my girlfriend’s pillows hehe.

    • L’Occitane’s men’s scents are really nice. My favorite was Eau des Baux, but the Cade and Vetiver are good too.

      Also your Demeter combo sounds really good. I do a combo of Dirt and Tomato (which smells like the leaves but a bit more citrusy), to which I sometimes add a touch of Honeysuckle.

  2. Essential oils are also a great way to create your own scent. If you’re not sure about a combination and want to test it out, a lot of places that sell oils will have testers and you can use a piece of felt in a locket to put a few drops of your combination onto. Carry the scent with you throughout the day without having it on your skin- if you get sick of it, take the locket off. More difficult to do if you’ve smeared some oils on your skin. This is a great way of testing how you like a scent before purchasing oils and creating a spray you may regret.

    • I got into them through a friend who wanted to smell like book characters, and I gotta say, they’re a pretty good option if, as a GNC person, you don’t want to deal with whatever straight girl is at the makeup/perfume counter.

      Also, none of their scents have gender labels, which I appreciate.

  3. I like sniffing things out at Sephora, there is a large queer presence, at least the ones near me. I feel safer and understood when I ask for a scent that wears like sex, or at very least makes a person think of sex when they experience the sent. The folks there get it, besides you never know who you’ll meet the counter.

  4. Strong plug for The Dry Down (an email newsletter about perfume that consistently wrecks me and led to a fixation with ordering Twisted Lily samples) and feels queer even though it isn’t?

    My favorite gender neutral perfumes are: Black (Comme des Garcons) which smells like wet flannel, black pepper and the 90’s (cold weather go-to), Pays Dogon (Monsillage) which smells like wool, fir trees, and a little like woodsmoke (secretly I think it makes me smell like a Kennedy fella in the heyday), and 100 Tweeds (Euphorium Brooklyn, def not vegan) which smells exactly like you think it would.

      • My guess is that Readymade might be talking about scent sensitivities?

        Personally I can’t go into any stores around Christmas, can’t go into stores like Bed, Bath and Beyond at all, and really really hope that people sitting near me on a plane won’t be wearing any scents. I seem to be allergic to some perfumes and scents but not others, not sure why. But it’s good to think about when deciding whether or not to wear perfume (and how much)!

        • While I think that people need to be much more aware of scent sensitivities and related disabilities, and definitely need to make more of an effort into making housing, public transport, and other shared spaces safe for them, I also have to recognize the role that cologne/perfume and the like play in helping others feel safer or express themselves. I wear scented products (usually peppermint but not always) when I’m not allowed to shower after surgery bc it makes me feel less gross and pathetic and masks my BO. A closeted genderqueer friend of mine is not able to openly present the way they want, so they use scented products to regain some small sense of agency and control over their body and how they’re perceived.

          At the same time, it sucks that my friend with a lavender allergy is ironically not able to safely attend actions organized by other disabled people. She’s a part of the disability community too, and it sucks that her accessible environment is even less common than mine.

          Idk it’s just. I completely understand where both sides are coming from but I can’t guess what the solution is or if there even is a solution at all. Nobody involved deserves to have to compromise safely navigating the world we live in

          • I think it is really important to express yourself and feel confident in your own skin. But most people sensitive to scents can’t get their basic needs met. Having safe public housing, shopping in public, accessing the doctor’s office, getting therapy in person, holding a job, belonging to a community is extremely difficult. It is a disability.

            When people choose their self expression over my ability to be breathe, it means I don’t get my basic needs met or belong to a community. It’s double the isolation.

            I know how much pressure there is to be perceived a certain way by your smell. I don’t judge people who are under that pressure because it is the fault of advertisers, the toxic chemical industry, classism, racism, etc. We are brainwashed into thinking if we don’t wear scents we will automatically smell like a garbage can. It’s not true. Unscented deodorant, wipes, and fabric sprays exist, and you can even make your own.

            Most people can do fine without scents, because of unscented alternatives. I understand there are people in complicated situations such as yourself and your genderqueer friend, and I sympathize.

        • Ah, I feel you on that, I’ve had customers tell me the same thing, but came here to buy a gift for someone and sometimes they will go for one of the stronger scents on the market. Then again I’ve met more than a few people in my line of work who’s natural odor is strong and offensive(one guy thinks it’s a way to attract women) that the probably put on a little deodorant or perfume to neutralize the scent.

  5. Past few years I’ve been wear Cartier Essence D’Orange as it’s unisex, has a soft orange smell, and really suits me well. I probably should change as I own a perfume store, but most unisex perfumes I am not a fan of. Like Tom Ford Black Orchid is a bit on the strong side, and CK One and CK BE is great in the sense it’s a classic, but sometimes you want something new.

  6. All I want is a perfume that smells exactly like Earl Grey tea. I used to study in this study room with lots of old wooden bookcases and books that always inexplicably smelled like earl grey. I was pretty sure it wasn’t actual tea but the perfume of one of the girls that studied there. I found one once that was marketed as earl grey, but it actually smelled like grass. So no luck yet.

  7. For general exploration, I really like using sample/decant sites, like Surrender to Chance or The Perfumed Court. There you can buy various size samples of a lot of perfumes. It can also just be a nice way to get a smaller amount of something you like if a bottle would be too expensive.

    I also follow a few fragrance blogs (though not as many as I used to), and that can be a good way to find out about fragrances that you might not encounter in a department store. One that I read, Now Smell This, also hosts swap meets a couple times a year.

  8. I own a lot of indie perfumes, from places like Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab, Haus of Gloi, NAVA and Sixteen 92. What I love about places like this is that they sell samples of almost anything, so you can get a vial of 1mL or 2mL to test out. I’ve also gotten a lot of them through the marketplace at Indie Makeup and More over on reddit. That forum has lots of tips, and buying samples secondhand saves money and let’s you try stuff out!

  9. The shop is on hiatus right now, but I got a sample set of solid botanical perfumes from Roxana Illuminated Perfume for Christmas and I love them. Perfume usually really bothers me, but these are so nice. They smell good and natural to me, and they’re not overpowering. They make me feel just a little extra special when I wear them.

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