Fragrances smell differently based on your natural body chemistry. What may smell really great on your friend might go horribly wrong on you. Before buying a new fragrance you should always test it on your skin. Be wary of Sales Associates (SA), who hand you a card and then push you to buy it. On the card, you will smell the top notes on a piece of paper or cardboard – it might smell quite differently on your skin.
If you are smelling a lot of fragrances at once, be sure to take breaks and sniff coffee beans to cleanse your palate. This is similar to eating bread and water between tasting wines, or eating a small sorbet between courses of a fine dining meal.
After you’ve sniffed a lot of cards, you can move on to skin testing. When testing, make sure you start with clean skin as any remnants of other fragrance may interfere with the new one. Spray at least 4 inches from the skin so that the liquid disperses evenly, rather than puddles. Do not rub the skin area as this doesn’t help to settle the scent, it simple introduces more of your body oil into it. If you smell instantly, you might get a rush of the carrier liquid (alcohol) and not much of the actual fragrance. Let it settle for a minute and then sniff. Go about your business and check every 10-15 minutes to see how the scent develops. Think about whether the scent is linear (stays the same) or how it progresses (top notes to middle notes to base notes).
You can also ask for a sample of the fragrance to take home with you and wear for a few days. Note that dabbing from a vial will probably smell differently than a spray.
If there are fragrances you want to sample which are not available in your local area, you might consider contacting the perfume company for a sample, looking for samples on message boards, or purchasing a small decant from a credible source (like the Perfumed Court).