ESSENTIAL VS FRAGRANT OILS
Copyright Aroma Queen 2013
I was in a 'natural' candle supplier's warehouse a while back picking up some soy wax, and was completely overwhelmed by the scent that hit me when I opened my car door, many metres away from the building. This supplier sells soy and palm waxes, however they also stock a huge variety of 'fragrant oils' which are similar to those used in probably 99.5% of the scented candles currently being sold in shops or market stalls. Honestly, I had to get out of there as quick as I could - after only a couple of minutes I could actually feel nausea start to roll in as I was enveloped by this mist of mixed synthetic perfumes.
WHAT IS A FRAGRANT OIL?
There's often confusion over what this term really means: I often hear people talking about Fragrant Oils when they actually mean Essential Oils, or vice versa. Or I notice people selling 'Natural Soy Candles' scented with 'Butterscotch', 'Baby Powder' or 'Pina Colada' - and it drives me crazy! I'm sure you've already guessed that those three I just mentioned would be scented with fake / synthetic perfumes, because their name is a bit of a giveaway. But it's not quite so easy to figure out when you see a candle described as being scented with 'Lavender', 'Vanilla' or 'Rose' Fragrant Oil because those are actual plant names, and the natural assumption might be that there's some basis of reality or nature in those scents. However this isn't necessarily the case, and anyone assuming a Rose Fragrant Oil is a natural one also won't be considering why it might be a good idea to avoid the 'fragrant' version.
The truth is, most scented products are scented with 'fragrant oils', 'fragrances', 'parfum' or 'perfume'. Yes, even ones called 'natural'. Anything scented with a 'fragrance' or any of those other names, is made using a chemical synthesis created from a variety of esters and terpenes etc, intended to be reminiscent of a certain scent.
Very occasionally a 'parfum' may contain an amount of plant derived essential oil, among other ingredients, but sadly it's often only a token amount so that the company can advertise with claims that they're made with 'natural' oils. The majority of scented bathroom products that are throwing around the terms 'aromatherapy' and 'made with essential oils', are primarily made with synthetic aromatic chemicals - sad but true. They may indeed be made 'with' essential oils, but you'll rarely see an admission as to what percentage is pure, and just how much is synthetic.
DOES IT MATTER WHETHER A SCENT IS NATURAL?
There's a big difference between a natual plant-based oil, and a lab-created one. Quite often the chemicals used in synthetic fragrances are known to be toxic or even carcinogenic (cancer causing), however they are still legal for inclusion in the commercial products that line our supermarket shelves if the quantity used is deemed to be a 'safe' amount. Many are also headache or allergy causing. Because they can build up within the body as our organs are not able to expel them, some people can eventually develop an allergy, which is the body's way of saying that it's reached a toxic level and really can't take any more. This can even happen with products you've been using for years, then one day a sudden sensitivity hits. There's no law to prevent potentially toxic ingredients from being used in a fragrance apart from the amount that can be used before it's deemed dangerous - however if these chemicals can build up over a period of time, there's nothing to stop them from accumulating in your body to a potentially harmful amount.
Unfortunately due to misleading advertising etc, people often aren't aware of just how many of their cleaning, skincare, perfume and household products are filled with these fragrances, and so it becomes difficult to avoid them unless you know what to look for. Many people are blissfully unaware in regards to those that are a natural scent, compared to a synthetic fragrance.
As an example, we're often asked if we stock 'Musk' oil or perfume as people like the scent. What most people don't realise is that true musk comes from the sex glands of deer, which need to be slaughtered to obtain it. Hence the majority of 'musk' scents that are used in perfumes and fragrances today are synthetic 'versions', created in a laboratory situation. It's quite likely that you have never even smelled real musk oil, but we've been led to believe it exists and that it smells a certain way, and so we continue to buy it. Truth is, it's a batch of chemicals that have been developed to smell a bit like deer musk, without the 'fecal' aspect. True story.
Often with rare or expensive oils you'll also find companies selling 'Nature Identical' or 'Blended Natural' oils - often still labelling them 'natural essential oils'. With pure Rose oil, for example, it can take up to 30 full flowers to distil just one drop of pure essential oil. And so less reputable companies might extract chemicals from plants like Palmarosa or Rose Geranium, formulate a mix that smells similar to the real thing, and sell it as a 'like' version. Often they're even reconstituted from dried ingredients and water.
In theory you can argue that if the broken down chemicals that constitute the natural oil match the ones used in the synthetic version, then they are indeed 'nature identical'. But it's not that simple.
For years now scientists have tried to replicate the element in Lavender oil that helps heal burns. Breaking down the chemicals and creating a synthetic version, the scent may seem similar and by all accounts may appear to be the 'same' thing - yet it's not. Synthetic Lavender has never been able to be used to help burns, bites or stings in the same way that the oil distilled from the flowers does. As well as being known as an analgesic (pain relieving) oil, Lavender is also well regarded as a mild sedative so can be very calming and helpful for insomnia etc - again, a synthetic 'version' won't have any of the same benefits, whether it's on the body or the mind. All of the things we treasure these oils for in aromatherapy are quite simply un-copy-able. Mother nature has created the most complicated synergies such that, with all our modern wisdom and technology, we are still unable to replicate them.
HOW TO TELL THE DIFFERENCE: NATURAL vs SYNTHETIC
The first trick: Read The Label.
Whether it's the label of an essential oil, or a product ingredients list, this is the first place to start. When natural oils are used as an ingredient, they are often labelled by their two-part latin plant name, but usually also mention the word 'oil', or 'essential oil'. Sometimes it can be an extract from a plant, eg Chamomile extract. So look for those first to see if your product includes anything natural. However, if in the same list you also find those keywords we've already mentioned above - fragrant oil / fragrance / parfum / perfume - then your product ALSO includes synthetic scents, for which the manufacturer is not required to disclose the exact ingredients used to create it. In Australia manufacturers are legally obliged to put the ingredient with the largest volume first, with the smaller volume ingredients at the end. So if 'perfume' comes before 'essential oil' in the list, then there's more synthetic than natural in there.
But then, not all manufacturers (especially small hobbyists, or products from overseas) are honest with what they put on their labels, so you do need to be vigilant to spot something dodgy before you buy it.
* Beware oils that come in clear packaging - true Essential Oils are vulnerable to light and should always be packaged in amber, cobalt or green glass.
* Avoid oils packaged in plastic, oils that are all the same price, or oils that seem unnaturally cheap. As we mentioned, with true Rose oil, for example, it takes UP TO 30 ROSES TO PRODUCE JUST ONE DROP OF ESSENTIAL OIL. This is why oils such as Rose, Jasmine, Neroli or Sandalwood cost a lot more than oils like Sweet Orange or Camphor, which are generally cheaper to produce. If you find these precious oils cheap, then in all probability they are fake or a 'nature identical' synthesised 'version'.
* Beware also of buying oils that are diluted - some expensive oils are sold as 3% oil in a base of jojoba. Make sure this is what you want before you buy it: if an Essential Oil is diluted in a carrier oil you cannot use it in an oil burner, for example (jojoba doesn't diffuse in water and will only clog up your burner).
* Pure essential oils should also have the plant name clearly written on each label, so you know exactly what you are purchasing. Often a particular plant type or plant parts, or country of origin, also effects the quality of the oil as well - read our other Aromatherapy blogs to learn more.
* Oil ranges that are all the same price are an instant giveaway that the oils are likely to be fake or synthetic, as the cost to produce oils varies so greatly from plant to plant. Basic ranges with common oils such as citrus etc may all be the one lower price, but if the 'range' contains rarer or more precious oils at the same price, beware!
There's more to aromatherapy than just the basic chemicals in the oils, and the way they smell when we breathe them in. The benefits of natural oils simply can't be replicated in a laboratory, no matter how hard they try. Plant derived essential oils are so complex, with molecules so small and complicated that they're often employed in clinical trials to 'carry' synthetic drugs into the body as they're so good at it. It's impossible to break nature's oils down and re-create them synthetically.
I guess that's why we hate fragrant oils so much - because they're simply cheap copies of something so much better. When I'm smelling a chemical copy instead of a real, natural scent, I know just how much I'm missing out on: all the joys and benefits of the oils - the uplifting, calming or energising ones, or the oils that warm or help with inflammation, pain, infections or viruses. Those joys and benefits can only be found in the real thing, and those joys are incredibly worthwhile.
If you've found this article useful, visit our Aroma Queen LEARN MORE page for a range of additional articles, as well as a list of recommended reading on Aromatherapy and other natural therapies.