Your choice of cologne can be as make-or-break to your personal style as your choice of shoes. That doesn’t mean spending an afternoon sniffing strips of scented paper is fun. “Men are not at ease going to the store and buying cologne,” says Robert Gerstner, the co-owner of Aedes de Venustas, a perfumer in New York. “I’m sure the first perfume the sales guy suggests, the guy says, ‘Yeah, I’m taking it.’ And then when they go home, they say, ‘My God, what did I buy?’” Here’s a step-by-step guide to avoiding buyer’s remorse—and maybe even finding yourself a signature scent.

Colognes generally fall into three groups: citrus, green, and spicy. Citrus, which includes scents like lemon and tangerine, is good for men who want a fresh-from-the-shower aroma; Armani Acqua di Gio and Ralph Lauren Polo Blue are classic examples. Fragrances that qualify as green are sweeter—try smelling the fig in Marc Jacobs for Men or the anise in Chanel Allure Homme. Seasoned, leathery Old Spice is the archetypal fragrance in the last category; Obsession for Men is a newer example.

Once you know how to talk about cologne, you still have to figure out whether you’d rather smell like orange or leather. The way you dress, and even your skin tone, can affect which fragrances work for you. If your uniform includes jeans and old-school sneakers, for instance, you’re probably better off wearing something citrusy. “If the man looks easygoing and sporty, a spicy fragrance wouldn’t be my first choice,” Gerstner says.
If you favor pinstripes and brogues, a spicier scent is a good option. And if your closet is filled with Dior Homme and Jil Sander, you’ll probably like clean, green fragrances. As for your complexion, Gerstner says, “if you’re the whitest guy on the planet, I wouldn’t run out and get something with incense.” Choose a citrus or green instead.

“The average customer is overwhelmed by the choices,” Gerstner says. He prefers to send shoppers home with four to six samples from the category they like best and instructions to spray one on each day for a week until they settle on a favorite. When you’re paying $200 for a milliliter of fragrance, it’s worth the effort. But you can also safely leave the store with a bottle in hand if you’re willing to try on a few fragrances—but no more than four. Put one on the inside of each wrist and one in the crook of each elbow.

It takes at least 15 minutes for a fragrance to react with your skin and for the heart of it to kick in. Spicier fragrances actually get stronger the longer they stay on your body. “It’s like red wine,” Gerstner says. “You don’t open the bottle and pour it in the glass. You let it breathe.” What you smell after 15 minutes will stick around for only an hour or two, but it’s similar enough to the scent that will last the rest of the day (called the “dry down”) that you’ll be able to judge it accurately.