Dab, Spray or Roll-on?

As I was writing about Guerlain Chamade extrait, I realized that as much as I love the bottle it comes in, I never use perfume directly from it: I transfer a couple of milliliters at a time into a small sample bottle and spray it. That made me thinking about how I normally use perfumes and the reasoning behind that.

Dabbing is good for applying a discreet amount of perfume without creating a serious projection. It is also a more sensual and “lady-like” ritual – a stereotype created by decades of ads and perfume-featuring movie scenes; though in recent years the industry was working hard on changing that.

A couple of years ago Birgit (Olfactoria’s Travels) shared her feelings about applying a special perfume:

The application alone feels terribly luxurious and sophisticated. It is almost an anointment, the ritual of application is very important here. It is certainly not a spritz and go thing. Applying Amytis needs time, respect and love for what you are doing and you are rewarded with the feeling of having done something special, of being part of age-old rites and not least of all – you smell divine.

It was a powerful image and I remembered it better than I remembered the name of that perfume (I had to look through the list of reviews to find it). Reading it makes you want if not to go for that super-exclusive perfume with a 24K gold-plated applicator, then to have at least a similar ritual with one of your own perfumes.

The disadvantage of that approach is that a stopper transfers oils and skin particles into the perfume, which leads to it getting clouded and going off faster than with a spray application. I think that using a stopper (or, for tiny bottles, your own finger, which is even more intimate) made sense for perfumes that were meant to be used up and replaced with a new flacon within a short period of time. But with a collection of perfumes…

Guerlain Chamade and Chanel No 19

Spraying is good for applying perfumes that you like when you are not afraid to overdo it. It also keeps both your fingers perfume-free and perfumes fresh(er). But it’s harder to control the amount, especially for bottles that you do not use too often and do not remember how their sprayers work: more than once I managed to gas co-workers in a small meeting room with just a couple of sprays – completely unexpected for me. And it feels not as glamorous as applying perfume from a splash bottle – unless, of course, you have one of those old-fashion bulb atomizers, though after I read in one of the Fragrantica’s threads about those atomizers being blamed for perfume evaporation, I keep mine safely tucked away in the dark closet. Separately from perfumes. But, in general, spraying is my preferred application method for perfume wearing.

Guerlain Cruel Gardenia

Using roll-on bottles is also good for the “portion control” and minimizing the projection, but, in addition to the same “contamination” issue as with the dab applicator, it seems even less romantic and more functional than spraying. I use those for air traveling but usually I do not consider roll-on perfumes for my collection.

Pacifica FrenchLilac and Arquiste No 57

Solid perfumes are one more option that didn’t even make it into the title since I do not own a single solid perfume, and I completely forgot about that choice until I was half through the post. Since other than Diptyque and Teo Cabanel’s, I don’t remember any other real brands that make solid perfumes, and I rarely use indie perfumes, this form isn’t much of a choice for me anyway, but even if there were more offerings, I don’t think I’d gone for those and mostly for the same reason: I do not like touching my perfumes.

What about you? What application method do you prefer when you wear perfumes and why?


Images: my own


45 thoughts on “Dab, Spray or Roll-on?

  1. Hey Undina,
    Love this post.
    My preference is to spritz everything.
    Having said that I do dab my CHANEL No 5 extrait because it’s only 7ml and I’ll be through it soon. Also I have some DSH Perfumes roller balls for the oils and like to travel with rollers when I can.
    My other extraits I like to decant and spritz, it feels ultimately decadent.
    Portia xx

  2. Spray. I don’t own any non spray bottles apart from minis, and I love the burst of scent you get when you spray. I’m not patient or restraint enough for dabbing, I guess. Never mind ladylike.

    • It’s interesting: I just realized that I don’t like mini bottles if they are not of parfum/extrait: I do not see much sense in applying EdT or EdP in that manner.

  3. My prefered method is spraying. I have a few dab bottles but I rarely use perfumes directly from those bottles, I usually decant them into small atomisers. I’m worried about contaminating perfumes, although I love the idea of the ladylike way of dabbing. :) I don’t mind dabbing from mini bottles though. I know they won’t last long, so I’ll use them up before the perfume goes bad.
    I don’t like roll-ons… As you said there is the contamination issue and the application method makes me feel like putting on a bug bite relief…

    • I see that you and I are almost in a complete agreement on perfume application methods (but I do not like using splash mini bottles of non-extrait formulations – not because I’m afraid they’ll spoil but just because I think EdPs and EdTs weren’t intended for such method of application).

  4. I’ve found I hardly wear the extraits that came with stoppers. It just seems like too much of a faff, especially when I’m rushing in the morning. I also worry about the contamination issue. I’ve just decanted some of my Rose de Nuit from the bell jar into an atomiser to make sure I can use it easily.

    The only exception is aldehydic fragrances which I prefer dabbed. I wear Vega that way and will do the same with Chamade if I ever own that gorgeous extrait bottle.

    Sadly roller-balls are a real turn-off because of the functional aspect you mention.

    • I decant perfumes from my bell jars as well! But there I don’t even think that they are meant to be used from the bottle directly: they require at least 2-3 sprays – I can only imagine the equivalent in “dabs” :)

      With my Chamade I plan to re-use the mini-bottle I’ve got once I’m done featuring it in my Zen garden.

  5. I like dabbing for extrait and spraying for all others. Most of my extrait bottles are small, so I don’t worry about contamination, since only I will be wearing them, and also the amount of alcohol in the perfume makes me non-fussy. Larger bottles of extrait, or rare ones, I tend decant and spray from, however, I’m not crazy about the aesthetics of spaying a fine old extrait from a new atomiser, it’s just not quite the same ‘treat’. Perhaps because overall I find that my decants don’t hold the same value for me as the bottle.

    • When I say “contamination” I do not mean from others :) If you think about it, EdC should be the best candidate for a careless use since it has the highest amount of alcohol in it ;) I had personal experience with splash perfumes going off and with them getting “dirty” – though, of course, I cannot unequivocally attribute it to the use. But I agree that there is something incongruous in decanting precious perfumes into generic vials. I’ll have to clean up my Chamade mini and use it for decanting the extrait: I’m sure I’ll enjoy it even more if I apply it from the bottle.

      • Oh, sorry, I know you don’t especially mean contamination from others, I just meant it would be unpleasant if I was sharing a perfume, if it had my skin swimming around :-D and yes I realise parfum has the smallest amount of alcohol in %, but it’s still pretty high.
        So far in my experience the perfume which go off are newer perfumes and they have been sprays. I have one, which has always been kept correct and i discovered the other day that it has little bits floating around in it? It still smells fine, though, but it’s weird that a modern perfume does that. For reference, I have the same perfume in vintage ( splash) and in that one there’s nothing floating around…
        Do use your mini, it’s a so much nicer way of applying perfume. A bit more of a treat.

        • I have a couple of spray bottles with something strange floating inside – so I’m not surprised if a splash bottle would get something as well: with a higher perfume oil concentration chances are even higher.

  6. I like spraying. Dabbing is frustrating to me. I don’t have extraits or any super concentrated perfumes so I don’t see the point. Although years ago I did lust after those Ralph Lauren Turquoise bottles with the piece of probably fake turquoise? as a stopper. I didn’t quite like the perfume enough to spring for it, but it was the only dabber that has tempted me. I travel a lot and find solids handy on airplanes. Illuminated perfumes are some of my favorite solids. I’ve had more luck with natural solids than with solids from dept store type perfumes. They seem to go off quickly in my experience.

    • Somehow I’ve missed that Lauren’s perfume but a quick investigation suggests that those bottles with the stopper were made of a natural turquoise. It would be interesting to see it in person.
      I won’t refuse perfume if I like it and the only form it comes in is a solid but I don’t plan to actively seek any of those.

  7. I definitely prefer to spray. A few of my perfumes are roller ball, bought specifically because of their smaller size and so i am happy to go with the roller. What i do hate though are the little sample bottles with the plastic stick applicator – its such an un-romantic way of applying perfume, and so i just dab little bottle to skin.

    • Since I almost never wear perfumes that come in sample vials, it’s not a problem for me but I understand the notion. For testing I actually prefer those tiny vials because they allow me a better control over what goes on my skin.

  8. I enjoyed this comprehensive overview of the pros and cons of different application methods. ;) And I must admit I had never even considered that dabbing was intrinsically ladylike or ritualistic, though I can see what you and Birgit mean now. For me it just seemed like a slow way of doing things, and I do also worry about my dab bottles going off. Which are mostly vintage or modern minis, not extrait. Maybe if I had a favourite perfume in extrait form it would feel more like a ceremony to put it on. But mostly I like to spray and go and also not to roll and go, haha. That way lies deodorant to be fair.

    • Thank you, Vanessa.

      Dabbing for wear anything but extrait does feel strange, I agree. But, by the same token, it feels wrong to me to spray anything in extrait form (e.g. Puredistance’s perfumes). “Toll and go” – :))

  9. Interesting overview. Mostly I prefer to spray. But when I have to dab I put my finger on the bottle opening and tip it over. I don’t have any exquisite bottles with built-in dab applicators, but if I did I would still use the method above. I agree with Asali that the alcohol is protective. It is air in the bottle that is more likely to allow a scent to go off.
    Recently I started experimenting with spraying a bit of perfume in my hand and dabbing from there. Works like a charm with Aromatics Elixir because it brings out the rose sooner.
    As for roll-ons I have only one, Dyptique’s Lavender, with a stainless steel roller, which is less likely to accumulate skin cells when applying, and feels cool and sensual.
    Solids are rare in my life, mostly a memory from my teens years and the Coty Sweet Earth trios which got used up very quickly.

    • I realized that my “contaminate” might have sounded a little misleading. I didn’t mean any harmful substances or organisms, I agree that from those alcohol even in extraits shall be effective enough, but rather impurities and “foreign” oils.
      I don’t like getting perfumes on my fingers because then it transfers to anything I touch, which might be a problem if I serve food or drinks (and those party settings are the most common occasions to wear my best perfumes that come with stoppers).

  10. I don’t do this myself, but I have obseeved the SA such as at Chanel dip a scent strip in the parfum flacon to apply where you wish.

    • Yes, I saw it too. But there they definitely try not to introduce any human residue into bottles and do not worry about wasting perfume due to paper absorbency.

  11. I’m not a fan of dabbing at all. Dabber samples irritate me because they are hard to open and usually I end up with a perfume on my fingertips instead of where I wanted it to be.
    Regarding roll-on I only had experience with those made by Arquiste for J.Crew (as the one shown on your picture) – it was ok but I found the projection to be very low. And my roll on has leaked when the bottle fell over in my samples drawer.
    So I still believe that spraying is the best method of applying. I know my perfumes well so I know how much to spray not to overdo it for others and to enjoy it myself.
    For solid perfumes, I have only tried those twice. Once when I got some wax sample of SL Bell Jars fragrances and those were total no go for me. The other one was when I got a sample of Bergamoss from Mandy Aftel. I wish I have tried this one in parfum spray version she launched later as limited edition.

    • I was like you until recently but in the last year or so I’ve come to the realization that I didn’t mind dab vials… Actually, I think that I might even prefer them: I can sniff the perfume before applying it; then I can apply just a tiny amount before I decide to do a real testing. But for wearing I do prefer spraying.

      SL’s wax samples, as I heard, weren’t really perfumes for wearing. Those are not meant to be worn on skin – just to get the idea of the scent, I think.

      My Arquiste roll-on lives in the horizontal position for the last 6+ months and so far I didn’t detect any leaks. But thank you for the warning!

  12. I was just discussing this with a fellow perfumer. I feel Eau de Parfums and Parfum Extrait is so wonderful from a splash. I love that feeling of the old time elegance stopper with a stronger scent. But then I can really get into the spray it in the air and dance underneath and through the mist. Getting it in my hair and being surprised by the random places it falls. Ya know?

  13. Hi Undina! Such a great post. Makes me smile because in a way it shows how OCD we all are. Love it. I would call myself mostly a dabber quite simply because I wear mostly extraits. If it comes in a bell jar I dab too. Heavily dab I might add. I should say that perfume mostly lasts at least 18 hours on me, so dabbing works fine. If it comes in a spray bottle then of course I spray it as I assume it has been created to spray. The only roll-on I have is the Geisha Noire. (Lasts about 36 hours!!) Being an oil it works perfectly. I dab with a stopper and smear with my fingers. There you go, I think this puts me firmly in the crazy camp. Lots of love. Val xxxx

    • Thank you, Val.
      Even though I cannot complain about my skin – I think I get an average or closer to the higher limit wear per perfume compared to others but I have just several perfumes that would survive for more than 12 hours on my skin and hair – and mostly if it was a “party”-type application, not a “pretend-I-wear-perfume” office spritz. So I tend to do decants even for my spray perfumes – to take them with me for re-application during the day. But the first application in the morning I do from a bottle, if I have one.

  14. Spray, absolutely. I am hopelessly klutzy with dab or splash bottles, and end up with dribbles down the side of the bottle, all over my fingers, and on the cat who often comes to “help”. (Herschel likes it when I open boxes. You know, just in case they contain treats. Or ribbons.) My desk, for example, has a persistent smell of Boxeuses from one particularly enthusiastic head-bumping moment, which resulted in a fumble-drop-catch-and-splosh.

    • My heart skipped a bit even as I was reading about your Boxeuses accident! :) Interestingly, I plan to decant my Boxeuses into a roll-on: I had it this way from a perfumista friend and even though later I tried and wore this perfume sprayed, somehow I liked applying it from a tiny roll-on more. So I saved it even when I got my bell jar and that’s how I intend to wear it going forward.

      Rusty just have to inspect each new box that comes into our house. Usually for a while it becomes his favorite box: he would pack himself into it, no matter how small it is, and spend sometimes hours sitting in it. And not on a single occasion the box contained any treats! But Rusty needs to defeat a new box!

  15. I think I like to spray – but really from good bottles. I find the sprayers on several decants are wonky, spraying huge streams of perfume that I can’t aim well! It feels like a waste. That being said, I don’t mind rollerballs for precisely that reason. I have SO MUCH control over where the perfume goes, without having to worry about where the sprayer is pointed, how close or far it is from my skin, etc. I do not need monster sillage, so I don’t mind if rollerballs are a detriment to my scent trail. :)

    • I recently started paying more attention to the sprayers – both on decants and on real bottles. It’s such a pleasure to use those that create a very fine mist: I’d rather spray repeatedly if I want more perfume applied than get drenched in it after the first burst.

      I do not go for sillage (or at least try not to) on a daily basis since I don’t want to my co-workers in general and one specific who thinks that she’s allergic to perfumes. But still somehow my heart just isn’t in using roll-ons – not that too many of my favorites come in this form or I had this type of decanting supplies.

      • Yes, to be fair, I can’t imagine decanting into a rollerball, but I will gladly enjoy the couple I have that came that way. :)

  16. I’m a spritzer. I find that if I dab, I never feel like I get enough. I have issues with rollerballs (they feel cheap to me) and solids…I still have not found “the one.” Where’s Rusty??!

  17. Great post, Undina! I prefer spritzing for anything liquid, including the extraits. The exception to this is if the perfume/extrait is more of an oil (I’m looking at you, Aftelier Cuir de Gardenia), those that only come in a roll on (Al-Rehab Choco Musk) and some extraits or really, attars (Amouage Tribute Attar). I also have one solid, the fabulous Aftelier Bergamoss.

    • Remembering your “walk into cloud” method, I had no doubts you’d prefer sprays! ;)
      I think I tried 2 or 3 oil-based perfumes ever so I have no strong opinion about those (other than I do not like when I can smell the oil base itself).

  18. Undina I never really understood the dab method until I tried Amatys the exact perfume you have mentioned here from Olfactoria’s Travels. It really does feel special with the amulet and the perfume is incredible too so it all seems worth it. But at heart I’m definitely prefer the spray options as they just seem to project more.

    • I read your review a couple of days ago and was almost ready to pay 21 Eur for the “sample drops”, but their shipping makes it beyond stupid, no matter how great the perfume might be. But one day maybe I’ll come across it somewhere in Europe.

      On a different topic, I’m not sure if you care but the URL that you have for the account you use to comment in WP has a wrong address (I’ve fixed it for this comment but you might want to do it in your account).

  19. Pingback: From the Cutting Room Floor: Perfume? What Perfume? Where??! – Undina's Looking Glass

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