Fragrance Oil or Essential Oil - Can You Tell?

December 01, 2021 10 min read 3 Comments

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Do You Suffer From Label Confusion? Fragrance Oil or Essential Oil?


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If you see the words ‘fragrance’, ‘perfume’ or ‘parfum’ on a label, they are almost always going to contain synthetic chemical ingredients.  

Essential  oils on the other hand are the true essence of a plant that gives herbs and spices their specific scent and flavour, flowers and fruit their perfume. 

But what are the real differences and how can any of these differences affect you?  In this article we will go some way answering those questions.


Synthetic or Natural Oils


1. What Are The Real Differences Between Fragrance Oil and Essential Oil?

In a nutshell pure essential oils are natural and fragrance oils are synthetic or manufactured products. There are pluses and minuses for both, depending on their area of usage.

As you might expect, in the main synthetic products are cheaper to produce and can be more convenient and easier to work with. Against this we have to balance the fact that in many cases, if not all, they have chemical ingredients added within them.

On the other side of the fence, natural products are invariably of a better quality but are more difficult and more expensive to obtain in commercial quantities.  

Fragrances will likely be formulated from the industry’s database of 3,999 stock chemicals derived from petrochemicals, and some natural essences, that are blended to make up more than 1,000 body fragrance blends currently on the market - including for colognes, perfumes and toilet waters.


Lady mixing synthetic fragrances

There are some fragrance oils that aren’t synthetic - if this is the case, and they only contain natural essential oils, they will more than likely be clearly labelled and listed as such.

Scents created from artificial fragrances also tend to smell 'flat', and lose their potency after a short while.  

Essential Oils are resin or liquid and either distilled, pressed or extracted from different parts of the plant such as leaves, flowers, berries, beans, cones, stems, seeds, needles, roots or bark. 


Essential Oil Bottles


They are highly concentrated, expensive oils that are used carefully and in small quantities.

Not only are these precious scents natural and safe for the environment, they have other qualities and therapeutic benefits, none of which are found in synthetic fragrance oils - they also retain their potency longer.

As an aside here, don't forget to check out our great blog with 5 Great Tips To Find The Best Shampoo Bar. In there you will find that we only use natural fragrances in our hair care bars you can find out exactly why!


2. Are There Regulations To Determine What Is A Fragrance Oil and What Is An Essential Oil?

Historically, we have had regulating government bodies in the UK (the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency - MHRA), Europe (the European Agency for the Evaluation of Medicinal Products - EMEA) and the USA (Food and Drug Administration - FDA) to determine the appropriate and most correct classification for a marketed product to fall under depending on its ingredients and purpose. 

Some  might say unfortunately, that in the UK and Europe the cosmetic and perfume industry has to most extents and purposes been 'self-regulating' and nothing to do with the MHRA or EMA (in the UK and in Europe the fragrance industry's body is the IFRA) until their autonomy was superseded by EU regulations implemented in 2015. 


These new regulations severely limited the use of 12 fragrance ingredients, regarded as the pillars of the luxury perfume industry - such as citral, found in lemon and tangerine oils; coumarin, found in tropical tonka beans; and eugenol, found in rose oil - with the additional banning of 3 of the 12, including Oak Moss fragrance, on allergy grounds.

Whilst in the USA specific ingredients must be listed under the 1973 labelling regulations the FDA effectively considers fragrance to be a ‘trade secret’.

This means that in the USA if fourteen chemicals (which is said to be the average) are used to formulate a fragrance blend, they don’t have to be listed separately on a product and can just be labelled as ‘fragrance’ or even ‘natural fragrance’.

This loophole clearly keeps the consumer in the dark about what is being put into a product and unable to make an informed decision about what they are potentially buying.

To confuse matters even further, certainly in the USA there is no definition for ‘natural’, ‘pure’ or ‘green’ or even ‘essential oil’.  The FDA confirm that ‘the law treats ingredients from plants the same as those from any other source’.

Caution sign

This means that synthetic fragrances can also be marketed as ‘safe’ or ‘pure green’ and used in anything from tissues to diapers, to cleaning products and candles.

These extensive fragrance blends are also found in a whopping 95% of hair care products.

So, if you see an ingredient such as ‘orange oil’, it doesn’t automatically mean it is natural.

As a guide, if a product description is vague and doesn’t state whether it is an extract, tincture, essential oil or herb, then there is a good chance it’s a synthetic fragrance!


3. Are Fragrance Oils Stronger or Safer Than Essential Oils?

Because fragrance oils, by their very nature, are able to hold a stronger scent for longer it is no surprise that you will find them in products like scented candles as well as cosmetic products. The other factor to consider here is purely one of economics - essential oils are very costly, so it would take a large quantity of essential oils to give an equal scent to a candle.

Lit coloured candle

Fragrance oils are not as volatile, that is they do not evaporate at normal temperatures because of their synthetic make up, so normally last longer than essential oils.

In the main, although occasionally some fragrance oils may contain a certain percentage of essential oils, they are far from being completely natural, as essential oils are.

With regard to the greater relative 'safety' aspects of the two, we will address that further and in more depth below.


4. Are Fragrance Oils Bad For Me?

They are not necessarily 'bad' or 'unsafe', otherwise they would not be in the marketplace - but see below! Many natural ingredients can be harmful, and many synthetic ingredients have a long and proven record of being perfectly safe.

With fragrance oils, because they are synthetic - that is made by chemical synthesis, especially to imitate a natural product - the 'problem' can occasionally  lie within the exact individual chemical component of the finished fragrance.

Many synthetic chemicals in fragrances are derived from petrochemicals (petroleum-based), and can be harmful to human health.

Some of the less scrupulous producers of fragrance material - not necessarily governed by the three organisations mentioned above - may have introduced, what we might call, less favourable elements to their manufacturing process.

Above and beyond this, as you may well be aware from reading or hearing in the news almost every day, there is a huge illicit trade in counterfeit cosmetics worldwide with seizures being reported on a regular basis.   

Fake reading

Apart from the fact that some synthetic fragrances may contain toxic ingredients. There is a strong possibility that any scented cosmetic, whether that is perfume, cologne, body lotion or deodorant, will contain a group of petroleum-based chemicals called phthalates or aldehydes.

Phthalates are a group of chemicals know to be endocrine disruptors that are used in hundreds of everyday products, such as toys, vinyl flooring and wall covering, detergents, lubricating oils, food packaging, pharmaceuticals as well as personal care products. Aldehydes are known carcinogens.

Given the petroleum base of many common ingredients found in perfumes and fragrances it should therefore come as little surprise that you may find they contain: acetone, ethanol, benzaldehyde, formaldehyde, limonene, methylene chloride, camphor, ethyl acetate, linalool and benzyl alcohol. 

Oil Drilling Pump

So the question was 'Are Fragrance Oils Bad For Me?' - after reading the above information I think I'll let you work that one out for yourself - if in doubt, read the next paragraph!


5. How Does Any Of This Impact On My Health?

We don’t yet know all the full long-term effects of all these chemicals saturating our environment, in our food, air, water, soil and bloodstreams.

A fragrance bottle

A laboratory study carried out by the ‘Campaign For Safe Cosmetics’ and the Environmental Working Group (EWG) on a number of popular fragrances found they contained chemicals that are associated with hormone disruption and allergic reactions, along with many other substances that have not been assessed for safety in personal care products.

Behind the new EU regulations has been the driving force of the Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS) which has a great number of members from northern countries such as Sweden and Denmark where there is opposition to perfume on health grounds.

Consequently, and perhaps understandably, this has caused a North/South divide in Europe because, as reported in Reuters: "...Perfume is not as important to the economies of northern Europe as it is to southern countries. Perfumes and cosmetics are among France’s top five exports and the southern city of Grasse is the historic capital of the perfume industry where many leading brands such as Chanel, Hermes and Dior source their essences........added to that, research shows people from northern regions tend to be more vulnerable to allergies than those living around the Mediterranean. One theory is that people in northern countries are more susceptible because of their lifestyle and generally cleaner environment...".  

The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) says that fragrance is the number one cause of cosmetic contact dermatitis.

Symptoms of ailments alleged to have been caused by synthetic fragrances

There are many side effects reported by consumers, from sneezing and wheezing to rash and headache, many people suffer an allergic reaction to perfume who have used or come into contact with fragrances including:

  • nausea
  • dizziness 
  • headaches 
  • allergy-like symptoms 
  • asthma, 
  • skin and scalp inflammation
  • hormone disruption
  • brain fog leading to fatigue, anxiety and depression

These chemicals may be cheaper than natural essential oils but we don’t know the real dangers and long-term effects.

The FDA has not assessed the vast majority of these fragrance chemicals. 

According to the International Fragrance Association (IFRA) only 400, or 10% of the fragrances on the approved stock list have had a published safety assessment between 2003 - 2013.

Since 2014 the Research Institute of Fragrance Materials (RIFM) have introduced an enhanced safety evaluation process which has resulted in 76 fragrances being removed. 

Even unscented products can contain chemicals that neutralise other components, so they are often not strictly fragrance free either.


6. In Which Products Do You Use Essential Oils?

Hopefully it goes without saying by now that we do not use any artificial fragrances in any of our products!

An all natural fragrance oil is one that is made entirely from natural isolates and essential oils.

With over 95% of shampoos and conditioners, containing synthetic fragrances, The Solid Bar Company is committed to using only natural essential oils for scent in their products, safely and at low levels. None of our ingredients will be undisclosed behind the term ‘fragrance’.

We use a natural, six essential oil ‘Herbal’ blend for the best UK shampoo bars and natural conditioner bars that is not only refreshing and therapeutic but also includes hair care benefits such as hair thickening and anti-dandruff qualities.

Lavender and Geranium flowers
Or try our Botanical blend now with Argan oil for softer, silkier hair and made using Lavender and Geranium essential oils which are said to increase blood circulation, promote hair growth, reduce inflammation and uplift your mood!

These oils combined with gentle cleaning surfactants for sensitive skin, vitamins and amino acids for soft, shiny, detangled hair.

We have also developed a natural hair care range for children which is available on our website now - of course all our other hair care products are child-friendly too, it's just that we have found from your feedback that kids love these particular scents!

Don't forget to take advantage of our free guides to what you should be looking for in the Best UK Shampoo Bars and Natural Conditioner Bars that you use, and what should not be in the ingredients - make sure you are using the right type for your hair to avoid damaging it.

Our other products also take advantage of the natural plant benefits found in nature such as using infused Juniper Berries steeped in coconut oil to create a soothing After-Bite Balm.  We also infuse Calendula flower oil as part of the natural creation of our super soothing, skin protecting and rash eliminating Baby Nappy Rash Cream.

Juniper and Calendula flowers
You can also learn to easily make your own natural laundry detergent by watching our video here.


7. Summary and Conclusion

There is something special about using natural ingredients and having nature’s scents throughout your home that are not only good for you but also for the planet.

But is not always easy to find out exactly what is in the product you are looking at, as shown in paragraph 4 above, and certainly not to determine whether the product has a fragrance oil or an essential oil, especially with any 'unregulated' products.

There are good and bad aspects to fragrance oils and to essential oils but with the former, fragrance oils, because they are synthetic and mainly petroleum- based there is a greater risk  of 'disguised ' elements being included in the ingredients of the product so, in tandem with that, inevitably a greater possibility of an allergic reaction occurring. There is a much more in-depth explanation of this in paragraph 5 above.

Let us know what you feel about the Fragrance Oil Vs Essential Oil discussion in the comment section below - have you had good or bad experiences?

Best wishes - we hope that has clarified any 'fragrance confusion' you might have had and don't forget to check out the latest chapter in Rebecca's Story which gives you the lowdown on the background of The Solid Bar Company CEO and founder.

Don't forget to check out the full range of best UK shampoo bars and natural probiotic deodorants here.

Best wishes,

The Solid Bar Company Team

ps. You might also be interested to read all about How Fake Shampoo Bars Can Damage Your Hair!



3 Responses

Mary Kidston
Mary Kidston

March 10, 2019

I wanted to thank y᧐u for this wonderful read – I absolutely loved every little bit of it!

Maddie K
Maddie K

October 15, 2018

Very interesting and informative and a little bit scary in places – a lot of things that I’ve just taken for granted – but will now be looking at the labels a lot closer from now on you bet!

Louise Flander
Louise Flander

June 15, 2018

Very informative post – keep doing more blogs!

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