One of the things I enjoy so much about participating at markets is talking to the folks who come by my table. I love to talk to them about how I make my soaps, how I got into soaping, and what ingredients I use to make my soaps both attractive and practical. One question, besides the “why lye” question, that often comes up is “do you use essential oils?”. Folks these days are looking for natural products, free of chemicals, and rightly so. We should be asking how our products are made and what is in them. But it’s not enough to just look for “natural” ingredients and “chemical-free”, because what does that really mean? Natural does not always mean “good” and chemical does not always mean “bad”. Take, for example, natural peanut butter. Some large brands slap the word natural on the label because they know that it’s a buzz word these days. If you turn over the jar you’ll very clearly see that it’s full of sugar, salt, and preservatives.
Why you need more than just smooshed up peanuts in peanut butter is beyond me, and there are some brands that do actually offer this without advertising as natural. As for chemicals, everything is a chemical. From the air we breathe and the water we drink to the bodies we walk around in – all chemicals. We all want to avoid harmful chemicals, but that requires looking beyond the word “chemical” to really understand what makes up our products.
Similar to “natural” products, essential oils have become quite the craze recently, and many folks assume that they are superior without really understanding how they’re made, where they come from or what other options might exist. Essential oils definitely have benefits and special uses – some have medicinal, therapeutic, anti-bactierial, and cell-regenerating properties, among other things, and they don’t contain carcinogens and hormone disruptors like some synthetic fragrances. However, there are other options that are both less costly and just as safe, and sometimes safer. In my soaps I use both essential oils and fragrance oils. I choose all of my oils based on their sustainability (also a buzz word, but important to consider) and their ingredients. There are different types of fragrance oils – some that are produced using petrochemicals and some that are not. My fragrance oils do not contain any petrochemicals and are always phthalate and paraben-free (no chemical plasticizers or preservatives). In fact, the fragrances are derived through many of the same processes that are used to get essential oils.
So what is a fragrance oil? Some fragrance oils do contain essential oils and some are completely human made. In short, a fragrance oil is a blend of essential oils and aroma chemicals. GASP! There’s that word again – chemical. Let’s break it down.
- An aroma chemical is a single chemical that has been isolated from a plant for its smell.
2. There are two types of aroma chemicals: synthetic and natural.
A synthetic aroma chemical (or synthetic scent) is produced by combining aroma chemicals to create one particular scent. Here is a simplified example of a synthetic strawberry scent:
“Strawberry is a Complex Aroma and is made up of many Simple Aromas. Sweet, Fruity, Creamy, Green, Floral, Sour(Acid) when combined correctly signal to the brain that the aroma is actually Strawberry (the sum of the parts). Translated into the chemistry: each one of those aromas can relate to a particular Aroma Chemical. When the Aroma Chemicals are separate, they only active [sic] one type of receptor (Sweet Chemical activates Sweet Receptor). However when all the chemicals are combined at the right concentrations, your brain recognizes the sum of the parts as Strawberry, not as each individual aroma.
By using this as a basis, Flavor Chemists (or Flavorists) can create flavors using a limited number of Aroma Chemicals to create a complex aroma, without all the extras that natural extracted materials contain.”
Another example of a synthetic aroma chemical is vanillin, which is most commonly found in vanilla extract, olive oil, butter, maple syrup, coffee, oatmeal, tortillas, wines and vinegars, just to name a few. Check your cupboards, folks!
A natural aroma chemical is produced by isolating one aroma chemical from a single plant, but synthetic and natural aroma chemicals are virtually identical, have the same structure, and behave the same way in the body.
So back to the question: why bother using fragrance oils when you could just use an essential oil? Fragrance oils have many advantages. They are consistent in quality, the prices are stable, their interaction with other ingredients can be controlled, and the scent itself is controllable. Essential oils definitely have great uses, but they also have a downside. Their quality is variable depending on crops and weather, their prices are variable and regularly increase depending on availability, it is difficult to control their behaviour, colour and scent, and they can also contain toxins (this doesn’t necessarily mean that all do and will, but just like some fragrance oils that are created with petrochemicals, some essential oils can contain toxic materials. See bergapten, for example). Essential oil production is also resource heavy, meaning that it requires the use of a lot of land, labour, and water for a small amount of product. Some essential oil sources are non-renewable, and some require destruction of entire plants or trees, like for the production of sandalwood essential oil.
You may also be interested to know that the main source of today’s aroma chemicals used in fragrance oils is oil and vapour from wood pulp – a by-product of the paper industry! Indeed, this is both an advantage and a disadvantage. Aroma chemicals are dependant on the by-products of other industries, but this means that their production is not as resource heavy as the production of essential oils.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that one type of oil is inherently better than the other, but it does remove some of the stigma from fragrance oils. Choosing which to use in a product, essential oil or fragrance oil, is entirely dependant on the goal. What type of scent is wanted? Is it for aromatherapy purposes or bath and body?
Realistically, would it even matter if my fragrance oils were not natural? From an environmental perspective, yes, and that’s why I choose natural fragrance oils for my soaps. But since it’s a wash away product that comes in contact with the skin for a matter of seconds, unnatural fragrance oils wouldn’t cause any harm at their rate of use. Pure essential oils are strong products and are likely to cause more issues on the skin than fragrance oils simply due to improper use. It’s imperative to follow correct dilution rates and applications when using essential oils, and consideration should be given to their potential for phototoxicity and how they can affect sensitive or damaged skin. For first time and seasoned soap makers, natural fragrance oils offer a user-friendly and safe option for scenting products.
What’s the moral of the story? Don’t judge a chemical by its bad rap. Learn about what’s in your products and sniff on, folks! Sniff on.
*Full disclosure: I am not a chemist by any means! Here are some links for further reading on the subject of fragrance oils, aroma chemicals and their production.
All Natural Fragrance Oils
What Are Fragrance Oils Made Of
Raw Materials Overview (handy dandy chart)
What Are Aroma Chemicals?