Dating back to ancient Egyptian times, humans have enjoyed and benefited from naturally derived fragrances. Today, fragrances are used in perfume, personal care products, toiletries, cleaning products and many other consumer goods.
Looking at the back of a product label on your perfume or cologne packaging, you may come across the words “natural fragrance” or “fragrance,” but you likely won’t receive any further information on where the unique aroma is actually derived from.
In the mysterious world of fragrances, it can be difficult to distinguish between naturally and synthetically produced aromas.
So, what is a natural fragrance and how is it produced? Moreover, is it better for you and the environment than a synthetic fragrance? Read on to find out.
What is Natural Fragrance, Exactly?
As defined by the International Fragrance Association (IFRA), natural fragrances are complex compounds derived from natural aromatics that are extracted from plants without altering the chemical structure. The ingredients found in naturally derived fragrances include essential oils, oleoresins, distillates, fractions and isolates.
It’s important to reiterate that while natural fragrances are sometimes made in the laboratory setting, they are derived from natural aromatic components that are not chemically altered or made from artificial materials.
In the case of natural perfume, for instance, these products are primarily made with aromatic compounds derived from plant materials, such as flowers, wood, leaves, as well as animal essence. Natural perfume can contain isolates, essential oil blends, absolutes, resins, waxes and so on. Unlike synthetic perfumes, which have a more potent smell, natural perfume is known to give off a more subtle, plant-like scent.
Beyond the perfume industry, the food industry and beauty product producers are also keen to use naturally derived fragrance oils and flavors. Let’s face it, we all feel a little more comfortable using products that are made with “natural flavors,” as they appear to be healthier and more eco-friendly than products that contain artificial ingredients.
According to U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations for cosmetic products, fragrance oils and flavors can be listed simply as “fragrance” or “flavor” to avoid revealing ‘trade secrets.” In other words, these rules means companies don’t have to disclose the exact formula they’ve used. However, when you see “natural fragrance” on the packaging, you can rest assured that the ingredient is derived from plant-based isolates, essential oils, resins, etc.
How Are Natural Fragrances Produced?
During the last few years, “natural” products have taken off, and fragrances are no exception. Brands are often more transparent when it comes to listing the ingredients they rely on to produce pleasing scents. Because these manufacturers harvest a shortlist 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 fewer 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 materials 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 fragrances 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: a 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
How Much Do These Fragrances Cost?
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 plant-derived 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.
The Pros and Cons of Natural Fragrances
Signature Scents by Hand, a Brooklyn-based 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 organic products without worrying about animal testing or mystery chemicals.
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.”
Some natural brands still 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 brands will be ethical as well.
Synthetic Fragrances: How Do They Differ?
In terms of the delightful smell that they offer, as well as their chemical composition, natural and synthetic 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. While synthetically made fragrances are cheap and provide a potent scent, the exact production process is shrouded in controversy.
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.
Chemists create these artificial 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.
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 having to gather more raw plant-based materials.
Because these artificial fragrances are cheaper to produce and provide a more potent scent, most perfume producers prefer to use them over the natural option. However, 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.
“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 synthetically derived fragrance.
Another controversy is that it’s common for synthetic fragrance brands to test 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.
Which Is Best For You?
With this information in mind, you can now make well-informed decisions when shopping for a new perfume or beauty product. If you prefer more scent for less money, synthetic is most likely your best choice. A quick sampling of perfume will show whether your body can handle the chemicals.
For careful consumers who want something lighter and don’t mind the extra cost, go with a perfume or beauty product that contains naturally derived fragrances such as essential oils. 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 or organic, 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.
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