In terms of the delightful smells they offer, as well as their chemical composition, synthetic and natural fragrances are actually pretty similar.
The differences lie in how they are made, how much they cost and what types of consumers they appeal to. Choosing one over the other is all about deciding what your priorities are.
Synthetic Fragrances: Cheap and Effective, But Controversial
Chemists create synthetic fragrances in a lab by experimenting with thousands of chemicals until they find a combination that produces that perfect scent. These individual chemicals are so tiny that even such a higher number of them adds up to less than 0.01% of the ingredients in a product. A single molecule can make the difference between a signature scent and an unpleasant odor.
There are only a handful of people in the world who know how to artificially design a fragrance, and cosmetic companies will pay anything to work with them. To prevent competitors from copying their inventions, synthetic fragrance designers do not disclose all of the chemicals they use. As long as the amount is too miniscule for regulatory agencies to be concerned with, there is no legal requirement for these professionals to spill their secrets.
Even if they did want to unveil their precious formulas, it would be impossible to list a significant number of substances on product labels. This limitation is part of why you might have seen the mysterious “fragrance” ingredient on some perfumes and cosmetics. The term refers to those thousands of microscopic chemicals. Like “natural,” there is no federal legal definition of the language.
Despite the millions of dollars the synthetic fragrance industry spends on research and development, their products tend to cost less than natural counterparts. This price gap exists primarily because it is easier to mass produce synthetic fragrances. Once the formula is down, manufacturers can rapidly churn out thousands of goods without gathering more raw materials.
Synthetic fragrances are designed to mimic natural smells, although they often last longer and are more potent. A synthetic fragrance that replicates the scent of an orange, for example, will often contain many of the same chemicals as the actual fruit. The remaining chemicals are those invaluable trade secrets, along with some common but controversial ingredients and preservatives such as parabens.
Many consumers have claimed that synthetic fragrances can trigger allergies and skin reactions. Researchers, chemists and public health officials, however, haven’t reached a consensus on whether these ingredients are problematic. Since 1998 the American Academy of Dermatology [AAD] has held the position that fragrance allergies are legitimate, and the organization has urged the synthetic fragrance industry to provide consumers with more information. In 2011, however, the Canadian Medical Association published a review that criticized fragrance-free policies and argued that the science against synthetic fragrances was inconclusive.
“We can’t say for sure that fragrances are causing these reactions,” said Lizzy Trelstad, a chemist at Beaker who has worked with both synthetic and natural fragrance brands.
The AAD estimated that only 1% of people have allergies to “fragrance.” Nonetheless, the debate has spooked a relatively large subset of consumers who once enjoyed synthetics.
Another controversy is that it’s common for synthetic fragrance brands to test ingredients on animals. There at least eight major beauty brands that maintain this practice, according to PETA. This issue — along with the aforementioned health concerns — has driven consumers toward alternatives.
Enter the rise of natural fragrances.
Natural Fragrances: Are They Worth the Extra Money?
During the last few years, “natural” products have taken off, and fragrances are no exception. Natural brands are often more transparent when it comes to listing the ingredients they rely on to produce pleasing scents. Because these manufacturers harvest a short list of organic materials — usually plants — they are able to print the name of every substance on the backs of their products.
Natural brand scents tend to be lighter, a great choice for people who want something detectable but not strong. The actual smell isn’t much different, though.
There have been way less health-related complaints about natural fragrances, but people can still have reactions to them. “Natural extracts,” including fragrances, can trigger allergies, according to the Environmental Working Group and CDC.
Plant-based ingredients may sound less scary than chemicals, but remember that poison ivy and poison oak are plants as well. Natural doesn’t necessarily mean safe.
When brands decide on ingredients they believe are harmless and will satisfy their customers, they use an extraction method that helps derive the scent. Here are the most common techniques:
- Steam-Distillation: water vapor caries bits of the organic material into a condensation flask where liquids separate
- Cold Pressing: a purely mechanical method that is popular for extracting oil from seeds
- Expeller Pressing: mechanical process that occurs in a single step and relies on heat from friction, works well for harder nuts and seeds
- Refining: washing materials with a solvent that helps break them down
- RBD: refining, bleaching and deodorizing
- Dehydration: removing water to make substances easier to extract
The downside is that these processes are usually more time-consuming and expensive than synthesizing. To turn a profit, businesses often need to charge premium prices for their products and services.
Nonetheless, it is possible for natural brands to have prices comparable to synthetic competitors, according to David Pollock, a beauty guru who has developed fragrances for major brands and is President of Brand Labs USA.
“The key for a larger brand or manufacturer is buying in volume and using the right sources,” Pollock said.
For small businesses that make natural fragrances, it can be more of a challenge to get their prices down. On the other hand, these brands are often more ethical and can provide a higher level of customer service and accountability.
Signature Scents by Hand, a Brooklyn-based natural brand, makes scents they claim are organic, cruelty-free, 100% hand-crafted and vegan-friendly. These labels amount to a promise that people can buy their products without worrying about animal testing or mystery ingredients.
Founder Kabrea Thomas said, “I find that my consumers pick natural over synthetic because they are more cautious. Cautious for themselves as well as their families. I think once you’re educated on these things, then you become more aware of what fragrances you’d prefer to wear.”
Many natural brands test their ingredients on animals, but the practice is less common than in the synthetics industry. It’s best to research every company rather than trusting that natural brands will be ethical as well.
Which Is Best For You?
If above all you prefer more scent for less money, synthetic is most likely your best choice. A quick sampling of a synthetic fragrance will show whether your body can handle the chemicals.
For careful consumers who want something lighter and don’t mind the extra cost, go natural. If you research the specific ingredients and make sure you’re not allergic to any of them, everything should be fine.
Regardless of whether the brand claims to be natural, you can look up the company to see if they test on animals. Ultimately it’s about choosing something that fits your budget and aligns with your values.
The highest quality for the lowest cost.
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