Aroma Vocabulary: Learn How to Describe a Scent

by Andrea Butje on January 30, 2017

Talking about essential oils and aromas can get tricky. How do you describe a scent to someone who has never smelled it?

One of the best ways Aromatherapists have found to describe a scent is to create “families” or “categories” of similar aromas, and to come up with words that describe the families.

So we have words like “camphoraceous.” We use it to describe essential oils like Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus) and Rosemary (Rosemary ct. camphor). “Camphoraceous” is that clean, sharp, slightly medicinal smell you notice when you inhale these essential oils.

Some oils fall into more than one scent family/category. White Spruce (Picea glauca) is camphoraceous, but you can probably imagine it’s got strong notes of pine in there too! Aromatherapists call that aroma “piney” (creative, I know!).

Sometimes aromas can show up in oils where you wouldn’t expect to find them. Spike Lavender (Lavandula latifolia) has a familiar floral note, but it’s also got a noticeable camphoraceous note.

Here are a few more words to help you get a feel for how to describe a scent:

Balsamic — A balsamic scent is deep and sweet, like vanilla, with tones that might remind you of balsamic vinegar. (You might only notice the balsamic aspect at the edge of the aroma, so smell it right after you smell balsamic vinegar and you will notice the similarity!)

Citrus — This one’s pretty easy to get . . . it smells like fruit! Lemon and Lime are examples.

Herbaceous — Herbaceous oils are pungent and herbal, with high fresh aspects. Imagine walking through a field in spring, full of new life, and rubbing an aromatic leaf between your fingers. Examples are Marjoram and Rosemary.

Earthy — Earthy aromas smell like the earth after it’s rained. They bring to mind damp soil and living things on a forest floor. Vetiver and Patchouli are good examples.

Woody — Another simpler aroma to recognize—these oils smell like wood! Examples are Sandalwood and Cedarwood.

A book that explores the language and characteristics of aromas in depth is Listening to Scent by Jennifer Peace Rhind. I highly recommend it!

It is so much fun to sit with your essential oils in front of you and categorize them according to scent. (Yes . . . I am an “aroma head”!) When you see your oils grouped by family, and see which ones fit into more than one family, you can get all kinds of ideas for new blends.

If you’re interested in learning more about how to blend essential oils, I invite you to join me on my free webinar, How to Use Essential Oils in Your Everyday Life! On the webinar, you’ll learn three simple, effective Aromatherapy blends: an essential oil blend to relieve headaches, a beautiful diffuser blend to support sleep, and a spray blend to clean your home…naturally! Click here to learn more and register!


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Aromahead Institute, owned by Andrea Butje, is a premier resource for online aromatherapy classes. Andrea offers her inspired approach to online aromatherapy certification through essential oil videos and original education materials. Check out her book, Essential Living: Aromatherapy Recipes for Health and Home, on Amazon!

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Lady Bonser May 2, 2017 at 11:09 pm

Thank you for sharing this! I’m a novice & mostly self taught, so I’m doing a lot of looking & collecting what knowledge I can.
Be Blessed


Andrea Butje May 3, 2017 at 9:12 am

Hi Lady Bonser! It’s so exciting to learn about essential oils and to use them in our daily lives!

Do you know about our free class? If you’d like to learn more, I invite you to join us for our free online class – Introduction to Essential Oils. It is a popular class at Aromahead Institute – such a great place to begin to build a foundation of knowledge with essential oils and aromatherapy. Here is the link for more information:


collee February 25, 2017 at 11:53 pm

My question may be in the wrong area, but I don’t know where to ask this: I am getting milia — how do I stop this problem? Thanks. Collee


Andrea Butje February 26, 2017 at 7:30 pm

Hi Collee,
Natural remedies can be wonderful to support health and wellness and it is often beneficial to work with a Naturopath who would consider a complete health picture and work with you to try to uncover the source of the issue and then recommend a treatment plan.


debbie stelle January 30, 2017 at 4:02 pm

The plant you are standing by and smelling is absolutely gorgeous. It’s those things that I miss about Florida. Thank you for sharing.


Anita January 30, 2017 at 9:45 am

Very intriguing! Thank you for this great post, Andrea! I really needed this guidance because I feel lost when I try to describe a scent! 🙂


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