One of the most common questions is "how do I KNOW which cologne is right for me?" The problem with fragrances is they smell slightly different on everyone. How warm your skin is, your natural oils, the soap you use, what type of situation you'll be wearing it in, the weather...it seems like there's endless variables to consider. Not to mention that there's endless colognes to try out.
In general, the best way to see if a cologne works for you is to try it out — like you would clothes — and see how you like it.
Blind Buy vs Trying a Sample
So how do you go about trying out a fragrance? One way is just to read a few reviews and buy it — what we refer to as a "blind buy." Sometimes you know the brand and feel safe buying from them without trying beforehand. For example, I love most things Creed so I generally just throw my money at them whenever they come out with something new. (That's probably also why my accountant is always mad at me.)
Then there are some things that I'd label "safe blind buys" — colognes like Gio that pretty much everyone loves or cheap colognes like Lucky that are so inexpensive, it's probably easier just to buy it than try to find a sample. However if you're on a tight budget, new to cologne or eyeing a luxury fragrance and want to make sure you love it before you buy, what do you do?
This is when samples come in handy. These are small vials, usually just 1oz or so of fragrance. It's just enough that you can wear it a day or two and see if you like the way the cologne smells on you. The problem is if you Google fragrance samples, you're going to end up on eBay looking at a lot of dubious listings (not that they're all bad but "Caveat emptor" — buyer beware).
I wanted to create a guide to help men find reputable free or at least budget friendly cologne samples.
Where to Find Free Cologne Samples
1. Fragrance Counters at High-End Department Stores
My experience is the more high-end the department store, the more liberal they are with their samples. I've found store like Saks, Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdale's, Macy's and (my fav) Nordstroms are generally generous about giving out fragrance samples or making little testers for you (the fragrance sprayed on a cotton ball or strip of paper).
Part of this depends on your skill chatting up the sales assistant and if they think you'll buy something. If they get the feeling you're being a mooch and just want their samples to resell on eBay they're going to be stingy. Be courteous, ask questions, don't be greedy, show that you're the real deal. Remember they're working on commission so make it worth their while to help you.
Also be aware that they likely don't have samples for everything — these are usually provided by brands when they launch a new fragrance so if you're looking for an older, less popular fragrance, you might have trouble finding it.
2. Beauty Specialty Stores
If you're like most guys, you've probably walked by shops like Sephora, Ulta Beauty and Blue Mercury without giving them a second look. However they also carry an excellent stock of men's colognes and can be a great way to find those lesser known fragrances. I'll admit, they can be a little intimidating to go into the first time but actually the staff is usually very knowledgable and helpful so you'll get over it quickly.
I don't know if it's common practice but I've had sales assistants at Sephora make me sample vials in the store, just squirting the trial cologne into a vial they had at the desk. They also have the pre-made promotional samplers like the department stores — though again, your mileage may vary. Again, a lot depends on building that trust with the sales assistant that you are actually interested in making a purchase and aren't just wanting to resell it on eBay.
3. DIY Samplers from Retailers
A lot of discount retailers like Wal-Mart, Target, Kohls, and have open bottles of colognes to use as testers but unless you want your arms covered in competing scents and a headache the rest of the day, it can be hard to test. A buddy of mine says he solves it by bringing his own fragrance sampler vials and just spraying the colognes directly into them. That way he can try several colognes and get enough cologne to try each for a couple days.
Note: I haven't tried this — I could imagine you might get some side-eye if you act sketchy about it. If there's a sales assistant around, it's always good to make some chit-chat and explain what you're up to.
4. Finding Free Samples Online
I know most you guys skimmed ahead to this section the minute I said "chat up the sales assistant" but I have to say, this is probably the hardest way. Sure, if you Google there's a lot of places promising free samples — however whether you ever get anything in the mail is another question. Or there might be $10 of shipping fees on that "free" sample.
If you're really set on finding free fragrances, you'll need to do a little leg work and have a lot of patience. There are some legit blogs like PrettyThrifty.com that have fragrance giveaway pages — you can sign up for their updates and apply when you see a fragrance you like.
Your best bet is getting samples free with another order — for instance Sephora and Ulta Beauty both offer free samples with any purchase...but you don't get much say on what they are. You might find you have better sample selection with niche retailers like FragranceX or Perfumania that specialize in fragrances.
Where to Buy Cologne Samples
If you're like me, you'd rather shell out a few bucks than spend your time chatting up sales assistants, dragging vials around Target, or applying for free sample programs online. This is when paid cologne samplers seem like a much more effective and efficient way to test different perfumes.
The good news is retailers also have incentives to get you hooked on a new cologne so there's numerous cheap options for cologne samplers.
1. Sephora Favorites Cologne Sampler
Sephora has their Sephora Favorites Cologne Sampler — for $65 you can try 12 sample vials of their best men's colognes. I know the price sounds a bit high but the cool thing with this deal is take the voucher that comes with the set and redeem it for a full-size bottle at any Sephora store. So if you're looking to buy a cologne anyway (and like their selection), this is a good value.
2. ScentBird Sampler Subscription Service
Scent Bird is a new subscription service that lets you try "date a perfume before you marry it." They have 150+ mens colognes that you can access for just $14.95 a month. You choose the colognes you want to try and they mail you a month's supply which you can use in the diffusor they provide free on the first month. They are geared towards the big name brands so if you're interested in the designer fragrances and like getting a little present in the mail each both, this would be a good place to start. From what I've heard they're also expanding rapidly so I'm sure they'll have an even wider selection shortly. You can read my full ScentBird.com review here.
2. Scent Split Niche Decanter Service
If you are interested in more niche fragrances, ScentSplit.com offers a great decanting service. Basically they buy the full-size fragrance, then pour, spray or pipette the fragrance into 10oz, 5oz or 1oz sterile glass vials which you can order. What I love about them is they tend to have the lesser-known brands that I can't find other places.
3. Gift Sets and Travel Coffrets
Another option is some brands come out with their own gift sets or travel coffrets. These are usually 4-5 of their best selling colognes in travel sizes. Generally these are slightly larger than a traditional sample size and come in bottles that are replications of the full-size bottles. It can be a easy way to get to know a full line of colognes and I personally like them for travel or the gym. Polo and English Laundry both are really good at regularly coming up with these and many brands do them on a limited run for the holidays. I made a list of some of the best gift set and coffrets here.
4. Personalize Fragrance from Scent Trunk
For a completely different take on the concept of samplers, you can try out ScentTrunk.com. Their concept is that you don't need to try out a million colognes to find the one suited for you. Instead you create your own personalized cologne based on your likes and dislikes. They send you 6 scent samples, you tell them what you like, they formulate a cologne just for you. You get 5ml of your own cologne on subscription each month. It's a truly unique concept which I could see appealing to a lot of guys — plus you'll never smell like anyone else. To learn more, read my full review of ScentTrunk.com here.
How to Use Your Cologne Samples and See What is Right For You
Now the question is what to do with all these samples you've gotten!
Don't think your first impression is the right one. This is probably the biggest mistake I see people make. They spritz a cologne at the counter, like the immediate effect, buy it and then two hours later they hate it. What you smell first are the top notes, but the base notes are what will linger longest. Make sure you like them too.
Generally I like to spray/dab the fragrance directly on my skin to see how the scent develops over time. Then I'll take a scent strip with the name of the fragrance just to jog my memory later. (One note: it's a good idea to separate the strips in plastic bags or different pockets— otherwise if you put 5 scent strips into your back pocket, they'll be an indistinguishable mash of scent in an hour.)
Also, don't overdo it. If you've just gotten into cologne, it can feel like there's a million to try and you want to do them all. However your nose can't really register so many fragrances at once. If you're in a store, only try to do 2-3 at a time — then take a break, get some fresh air or sniff the coffee beans they set out to help you reset your sense of smell.
If you've managed to get a larger sampler, it's worth trying it again a day or two later and see if you still like it before going in for the big order. Sometimes the first day, I'm a bit drawn into the exotic, newess of the fragrance but you want to make sure you still like the scent once the newness wears off.
At the end of the day, relax and enjoy them. If you feel good wearing a fragrance, that's the most important part.