Natural and Synthetic Perfumery

Like always, I need to preempt a post like this by stating that all-natural perfumery does still exist in some capacity and those types of perfumes can be beautiful if done just right. This post is not about defending synthetic fragrances or decrying natural perfumery or vice versa. I only wish to rant a bit about the misconception many people have about what their perfume is and what goes into making it.

Perhaps you’ve looked up ‘how to make perfume’ and come across some romantic articles about how mixing together essential oils with some key diluting ingredients will allow you to make your very own, awesome smelling fragrance. Then when you go out and actually try to do it, you might discover a world of confusion, contradictions and ignorance that no one told you about beforehand. Some examples of things you might encounter:

  • Fragrance oils being sold as essential oils (Check this post for an explanation of the difference).
  • Low-quality oils mislabeled as cosmetic grade.
  • Essential oils that don’t exist (ie. all fruit based “essential oils” are basically synthetic-based fragrance oils).
  • Scientific names and complicated processes that don’t really help you when all you want is to make something that smells nice.
  • A fragrance industry that’s so tight-lipped about its formulas and ingredients that they often confuse rather than help.
  • A seriously massive roadblock of misinformation and scaremongering surrounding synthetic fragrances.
  • Terminology that doesn’t lend itself to be easily understood by a hobby perfume maker.

And the above issues comprise just a tip of the iceberg. So what’s a budding perfumer to do? Due to my lack of experience actually creating my own fragrances I will only say that you need to do your research very well before you buy some oils and start mixing them. Just because something is labelled as ‘all-natural’ or ‘organic’ does not mean that it’s true, that it’s good for you, or that it’s safe for you to do whatever you want with it.

How natural is perfume anyway?

If you’re looking at buying a perfume at the department store and are wondering how many essential oils go into making that bottle of Designer Brand Smell Good, you may or may not be surprised to know that most of the ingredients are synthetic. In some cases, every ingredient in a given perfume could be synthetic. Does this knowledge change how your perfume smells? Probably not.

Why don’t perfume companies use natural ingredients anymore?

Perfume companies do still use natural ingredients. Many of them still have access to natural essential oils and will include some proportion of those in their fragrances–just not all their fragrances. What consumers should understand is the move to synthetics had many good reasons backing it and that essential oils are not always ideal or better.

Take for instance, the huge amount of manpower and land that goes into creating one essential oil. Entire fields of roses are harvested to distill down to a few bottles of essential oil. And what about the slower resources? Like trees. In particular, one very fragrant sandalwood species is now endangered in part due to the perfume industry that loves it so much. And what about the animal based ingredients like musks? While natural musk is still being harvested or farmed, why should huge amounts of animals be farmed for its musk when we can easily make the same stuff in a lab?

That is not to mention the increased difficulty in dealing with essential oils in perfume. Every batch could smell just a little bit different, making product consistency a nightmare to deal with for larger perfume houses that output tons of perfumes to sit on store shelves. Synthetics are more stable and therefore make it easier to keep a perfume’s smell consistent.

Are synthetics always cheaper?

Not necessarily. While the general consensus seems to believe that synthetic ingredients are always cheaper than naturals, the truth is that there are expensive naturals and equally expensive synthetics.

Are synthetic fragrances a new invention?

On the contrary, synthetics have been around a lot longer than most people realize. Synthetics have been around since the 1800s. They are far from new technology.

Aren’t essential oils inherently better than synthetics?

A common myth is the notion that an all natural ingredient must instantly be better than its synthetic counterpart. Essential oils are not always better. They can be better depending on how skillfully they’re used. A professional natural perfumer can make a beautiful complex and rich fragrance using only essential oils. But another equally talented perfumer can make beautiful, complex fragrances using synthetics too. Arguing over which ingredient is better is like comparing two equally talented artists, one who prefers oil paints and the other preferring acrylics. You can’t make a blanket statement over whose product is better just because they use different mediums.

So given this new information, what are you supposed to make of some of these companies trying to sell you something like 100% pure and organic apple essential oil? Chances are, these people know their apple is not an essential oil and there is some level of confusion at play here. Your best defense is knowledge. You can protect yourself by educating yourself in what can and cannot be extracted into an essential oil. You may be a little disappointed when you see what can and cannot be natural. But at that point you may as well as open yourself up to synthetics. They are not so bad after all!


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