When I first entered the exciting world of essential oils, one of the things that surprised me (and that I found equally fascinating and funny at the time!), was the way in which the aromas of the different essential oils are described.
“Earthy, Exotic, Musky, Resinous, Rich, Sensual, Slightly Floral, Warm, Woody…“
It’s extremely difficult to describe an aroma in words, which is why things like the source of the aroma and likeness to other senses (such as taste), often get used to help us understand what the aroma is supposed to smell like.
Often, the noun describes the source and the adjective describes the effect or sensation.
The aromas of essential oils are wonderfully diverse, so attempting to describe ALL of them proves a bit challenging. In an attempt to solve this issue, similar smelling aromas have been grouped together in categories, often referred to as ‘fragrance families’.
List of main aroma families:
Aroma families tend to play on the source of the oil, but this relatively small list of categories isn’t really enough to properly describe the uniqueness of the different aromas, as oils in the same family can possess very different aromas.
This is why a second set of words to describe the characteristics of the oil are used in addition to the families, so as to improve the accuracy of the aroma descriptions.
*You’ll notice too, that an oil can sit across multiple families and characteristics!
A little further below on this page is a table of the aroma families and characteristics, with a description of each for your reference.
Introducing the Sacred Soul Aroma Wheel
You might be aware of some of the essential oils and their associated fragrance family… but there’s so many of them! Then factor in all the varying characteristic descriptions and then what about chemical families, emotional/energetic properties and the different notes of essential oils?
That’s a LOT of information to keep track of and compare.
This is why we’ve created the Sacred Soul essential oil aroma wheel!
Using the wheel gives you the information you need at a glance.
The inner most ring being the main fragrance families and the second one being a characteristic to help you better choose an oil. The third ring is the emotional properties followed by the chemical families as the fifth and finally the essential oils themselves as the outer most ring with a letter in brackets representing the note.
Use the aroma wheel to:
- Narrow down the oils that have the type of aroma you are looking for
- Identify oils that might be similar
- Learn which oils in your chosen aroma area have top, middle or base notes
- Select oils in your chosen aroma area based on expected emotional effect
- Improve your blending
- Make choosing your next oil easier
- Know what oils you like? Use the wheel to find similar oils and try something new with confidence!
- Arrange your personal collection of oils in a meaningful way
- Fast track you to essential oil connoisseur status!! 🙂
Note: The aroma descriptions, characteristics and to some degree the emotional effects shown in the Aroma Wheel can be somewhat subjective. This is because different people may interpret the aromas slightly differently. Essential oils also vary slightly from batch to batch and producer to producer, further adding variation to the aroma. We think this is simply one of the many things that make oils so fascinating! Just sharing this disclaimer here to avoid unnecessary debates over this topic.
Click The Wheel To Enlarge
Some quick blending tips based on aroma families:
- Oils in the same categories tend to blend well together
- Floral oils = blend well with spicy, citrus and woody families
- Spicy oils = blend well with citrus and floral families
- Medicinal oils = blend well with herbaceous, citrus, earthy and woody families
- Woody oils = generally blend well with most things
- Blend oils with similar emotional properties… you probably don’t want to blend calming and stimulating oils together!
- Blending based on desired therapeutic effect might be your objective. Great! Narrow down oils that cater to your therapeutic need, then cross reference your list using the aroma wheel to help you identify which oils on your shortlist might work well together aromatically.
You might also want to try a different approach to blending and blend by personality.
There’s another reason for these detailed scent descriptions that deserves a mention and that’s to help with quality assurance.
Although very subjective, organoleptic testing can be used in conjunction with other more scientific testing (like GC, optical rotation etc), as part of an essential oil quality control program.
Organoleptic testing refers to using the different senses to assess the different properties of the oil:
- Texture (volatility – place a couple drops on blotting paper and monitor the evaporation)
- Viscosity (thickness)
Any reputable essential oil brand should list a description of the aroma, the colour of the oil and the viscosity (thickness) of the oil on their product pages in addition to the other important points (country of origin, cultivation, plant part etc).
For most of us who are using essential oils to enrich our everyday lives, we don’t have access to scientific testing (unless the essential oil brand makes this available to you), so carrying out our own ‘best attempt’ at organoleptic odour testing (checking if we think it smells right) is all we have.
Simply opening the bottle and taking a whiff probably isn’t the most reliable way to approach things, so to help improve your skills around olfactory testing or ‘organoleptic odour testing’ (checking if it smells right) and to fast-track you on your journey to becoming an essential oil connoisseur, we created this page as a cheat sheet for you to refer to.
The main points of reference are:
- What to look for when evaluating your essential oils
- A list of the main aroma families with a description of each
- A list of the main characteristics with a description of each
- The aroma wheel that groups many of the most popular essential oils by their fragrance family, a secondary characteristic, the main chemical family/families and what emotional effect the oil is often used to promote
Use this information to:
- Perform your own quality assurance check on any oils you buy
- Become more familiar with the aroma families and characteristics so you know what you are looking for or what to expect from different oils
- Help you compare aromas and decide on which oils to purchase
- Improve your essential oil blending
Below is a list of the families and characteristic words that you might find in the ‘scent’ descriptions of essential oils when you are shopping around. We’ve included a short description or definition with each word, to help you better predict the aroma and know what specific scents to look out for when smelling your essential oils.
In the Sacred Soul shop, you can filter products by aroma to help narrow down your search quickly and find the right selection of oils that match your desired fragrance family or characteristic.
Note: the scent descriptions assigned to each oil may vary slightly across different brands, books and therapists. This is likely because oils cross over into multiple groups, their aroma can vary slightly from season to season and producer to producer and different people may interpret the aromas slightly differently.
There isn’t a standard template description for the scent of an oil, but despite slight differences, you will definitely see a consistency when you compare aroma groupings and come to know what scents you absolutely should expect from a high quality oil… and what scents should definitely not be present!
|The Main Families||Description|
|Clean, fresh, slightly medicinal – said to have an odour of ‘camphor’|
|Citrus||Fresh, light, uplifting, energising, zesty, slightly acidic/sour – like the rind of the fruits the oils are extracted from.|
|Earthy||Think of the ground of the Earth after rainfall and the smell of soil, grass and trees.|
|Floral||Usually sweet and fresh but can be heavy – comparable to the aroma of a freshly cut flower or bunch of flowers|
|Herbaceous||Green, herby, slightly woody – herbaceous plants wither after flowering.|
|Minty||Fresh, cool, clearing, invigorating – associated with menthol.|
|Balsamic||Soft, smooth and sweet, yet rich, deep, earthy and woody with a hint of spice. Usually represent tree balsams – take a smell of balsamic vinegar then compare this to the essential oils said to have a balsamic aroma.|
|Spicy||Warm, exotic, aromatic – think of cooking spices|
|Woody||The smell of trees and wood – usually deep and penetrating, lasting a long time|
|Green/Leafy||Fresh, natural and grassy like freshly crushed green leaves|
|Resinous||Deep, slightly spicy, rich, slightly pine-y/woody – often associated with spiritual qualities and deep meditation|
|Bitter||Sharp, harsh, intense – this is a difficult one to describe as your nose doesn’t really detect ‘bitter’ as a scent. You may however, associate an aroma said to be ‘bitter’ with certain tastes.|
|Bittersweet||Sharp and bitter but also a sweet tone to the aroma.|
|Coniferous||Piney, woody, earthy, fresh – usually evergreen trees that grow needles and cones instead of leaves and flowers.|
|Cool||Refreshing and rejuvenating – promotes feelings of cool in the mind and body and often associated with mints.|
|Exotic||Tropical, floral, sensual, often sweet and can be heavy/strong – think faraway, exotic locations in tropical climates|
|Fresh||Clean, crisp, stimulating and airy – like being out walking on a fine but somewhat cool day|
|Lemony||Fresh, clean, crisp and… well… lemony just like the fruit. Several oils, including ones you might not expect, have a lemony aroma|
|Medicinal||Clean, fresh, therapeutic – closely related to camphoraceous. Probably reminds you of hospitals and clinics|
|Musky||Deep, earthy, heavy aroma that is said to be a natural aphrodisiac and somewhat sensual|
|Piney||Think walking through a forest of Pine trees (or Spruce, Fir etc) and the smell of the needles and cones|
|Pungent||Very sharp, strong and powerful aroma|
|Rich||Full, lingering, deep and penetrating – a full bodied concentration of aroma|
|Sensual||Associated with sex and romance in most people’s minds, arousing, intimate, exotic|
|Soft||Gentle, not pungent, calming, mild, pleasant, soothing|
|Strong||Intense, pungent, highly aromatic – there’s no mistaking or second guessing the aroma.|
|Sweet||Candied, sugared, honey-like, syrup-y – usually florals but some fruit derived oils have a sweet aroma|
|Vanilla-like||Sweet, woody, smokey, creamy with a touch of spice – a bit like vanilla!|
|Warm||Comforting, nurturing, promotes feelings of warmth|
*this is not an exhaustive list and you will come across terms used that are not listed above
What to look for when assessing your essential oil
To do this properly, you’re going to need smelling strips. They don’t cost much and you can find them online if you do a quick Google search.
You can use these smelling strips to get a more accurate aroma of your oils and also to assess the aroma of your own blends.
With smelling strip in hand, here’s how you go about assessing the aroma of your essential oil:
- Absorb the essential oil to about 1cm on the smelling strip
- Smell the aroma emitted from the smelling strip for a couple minutes to assess the top notes
- Leave the strip for about 15-20 minutes then smell again for a couple minutes to assess the middle notes. You might want to dip a second strip in 1cm of oil to smell for comparison
- Leave the original strip for a couple hours then smell again for a couple minutes to assess the base notes. Once again, you might want to dip another strip in 1cm of oil for comparison of all 3 notes – the original (base), the fresh one (top) and the fresh-ish one from step 3 above (middle)
When assessing the aroma of your oil, you are looking for:
- The quality of the aroma
- What notes are present?
- How would you describe the note/s?
- How does this compare to the note and scent description of the oil?
- The strength of the aroma
- The evaporation of the aroma
Please remember that this method of assessment is VERY subjective and based on human opinion rather than science. Please use it as a guide only in conjunction with test reports provided by the brand… although very experienced noses can often charge a fee for their sniff test as part of a quality assurance program!
For the average nose, it’s normal that an aroma differs from person to person as different people interpret the aroma differently and neither is necessarily ‘wrong’. The same goes for the scent description provided by the brand or listed on the Aroma Wheel. It doesn’t mean that’s what it will smell like to you personally… but like we said earlier, we think this is just one of the many things that make oils so exciting! 🙂