You know how this goes: You’re in the cologne section of the store, hoping to find a scent that suits you, but the experience is overwhelming. Used test strips litter the floor, nearby couples argue, a salesperson assures you that this season’s big new trend is smelling like freshly burnt hair. Thick clouds of fragrance roll by like film noir fog, causing emotional support dogs to sneeze uncontrollably. Your nose quickly loses its ability to distinguish between scents. All you wanted to do was to smell nice. What’s a guy to do?
Well, for starters, you could come prepared. This list of the 18 best colognes for men will help you identify what you like specifically—whether it’s spicy, summery, sexy, or subtle—then point you in the right direction to find it. In other words follow our suggestions, then follow your nose. And if you’re looking for suitable Valentine’s Day gifts for your significant other, you’ll definitely find a lot here to love.
How to choose a cologne
Find your signature scent
“The first step is discovering your signature scent,” says Jim Christian, a fragrance mega-enthusiast who owns more than 50 bottles of cologne (and is currently testing a further 50 samples), all organized by season. “This is your daily go-to fragrance, something that’s equally safe in the office or on a nice dinner date. Versatility is key! Once you have that nailed down, you can start building your collection by shopping for fragrances that are specific for seasons and special occasions.”
Consider your own body chemistry
“Forget the marketing and ignore the salesperson’s spiel,” advises style expert and digital creator Gabrielle Johnson. “The most important things to consider with a new cologne are how the scent mixes with your body chemistry to create a unique smell, and how long that smell lasts. Get yourself to a sample counter and spritz cologne directly onto your wrist, not one of those paper testers. Let the scent dry down and take note of how it wears on your skin throughout the day. If you love it an hour later, three hours later, and six hours later, you’ve got yourself a winner.”
Have fun with it!
But just as important as finding the right scent for you is to enjoy the experience of discovery. “Men need to have more fun and experiment with fragrance,” says fashion and lifestyle journalist Max Berlinger. “Scent is so ephemeral, why not play with it? The cool thing about colognes is that they actually mix with your own unique body chemistry, so if you smell something on one person, it may not smell the same on you. But it’s kinda fun to build up a cologne ‘wardrobe’ – something for day to day, something for summer, something for sexy time. It’s nice to have maybe three to five at your disposal.”
Tips for applying your cologne
“The number one thing men get wrong when it comes to cologne is wearing way too much,” says Johnson. “If I’m five feet away from you and I can immediately pinpoint the scent you sprayed this morning, you overdid it.”
So what’s the best approach? “As a rule, I personally like my scent to be subtle, something you can only smell when you’re within a foot or so, which is usually a mist-and-walk-through situation,” says Berlinger, explaining that he’ll spritz the fragrance a couple times in the air, then walk through it. He does warn, however, that this will fade fairly quickly.
For a more long-lasting (and initially at least, stronger smelling) approach, Christian recommends applying unscented lotion to your skin, post-shower, before you apply.
“Hold the bottle three or four inches away and spritz a small amount on your pulse points (think neck and wrists)”, says Johnson. “Don’t rub it in! The scent will fade faster if you do. And never spray cologne on your clothes, it can actually damage the fabric.”
Our top picks
Best affordable classic cologne: St. Johns Bay Rum
A very different classic scent, Bay Rum–which has been around for more than 70 years–starts as an absolute clove bomb, but somehow manages not to be overpowering. It evolves in the dry down to a deliciously nostalgic mix of bay leaves, musk, cinnamon, and eucalyptus, ending up somewhere between Christmassy and old-school Caribbean explorer. It might be a little too retro for some (especially those whose dads or grandads wore it), but speaking personally, I can’t get enough of it.
- Size: 120ml
- Price: $60
- Longevity: Moderate
- Notes: Cloves, cinnamon, bay leaf, musk, eucalyptus