What the Heck's an All Natural Fragrance Oil?

chemicals in essential oils

There's no such thing as an all natural fragrance oil...or is there? If you're like me, you were taught that fragrance oils are, by definition, synthetic. There are essential oils (pure extracts from plant parts), aromachemicals (single molecules that have smells), and fragrance oils (blends of essential oils and aromachemicals, often diluted in a base of something with complicated names like dipropylene glycol or isopropyl myristate). 

But what if I told you that wasn't true? That there is another way?

Fragrance Oils vs Essential Oils

It's not that one is inherently better than the other. There are benefits to using fragrance oils - they are cheaper, they come in a wider variety of scents (watermelon!), and they are sometimes more sustainable than essential oils (sandalwood, for example, is harvested by killing the entire tree). Fragrance oils will often last longer, and the scent will be stronger, than with essential oils. 

There are also benefits to using essential oils - they are all natural, they have medicinal and aromatherapy properties, and they do not contain nearly as many carcinogens (cancer-causing substances) and otehr toxins as do fragrance oils . Essential oils will often have a greater depth and character than the more flat fragrance oils. But they don't last as long and they aren't as strong. 

So which is better? It really depends on your goals. 

Also, many of the distinctions people make between essential oils and fragrance oils fall apart upon close scrutiny. For example, "I want to stay away from chemicals, so I only use pure, all natural essential oils!" 

Everything is made of chemicals

Here's a great story from my own hometown, Louisville, Kentucky. Imagine if you came across a sign reading:

'DANGER. WATER CONTAINS HIGH LEVELS OF HYDROGEN.'

Would you chuckle to yourself at the joke (or the possible idiocy of whomever made the sign?) Or would you be very afraid to touch the water? Well, those very signs were posted around our fountain at Louisville Waterfront Park. The park developer placed them there because he was banking on the public's lack of understanding of basic chemistry - and general fear of all things chemical - to keep people out of the fountain. And it's just funny :). 

Those well-versed in natural perfumery are aware of the (sometimes overprotective) regulations that are put on many natural ingredients - often because they contain chemicals that are dangerous, somtimes even toxic, at certain levels. Natural doesn't always mean safe. Arsenic is natural, after all. And if you're allergic to something, say- roses, you would do well to steer clear of all natural rose absolutes. But a rose fragrance oil would potentially be fine (rose is so expensive that any rose fragrance oil is going to have relatively little of the real thing in it). 

But all that said, there is still something romantic, and earthy, and ideallic, about using all natural ingredients.   

But natural fragrance oils? No way!

So, fragrance oils are a combination of aromachemicals and essential oils. How can that be natural? 

Well, a lot of it boils down to your stance on natural isolates. There has been a lot of debate recently on a category of perfume ingredient called "natural isolates." A natural isolate is a single chemical, isolated from a plant, that has a smell. Like an aromachemical. Fragrance compounds can be nature-identical (the chemical structure is exactly the same as its essential oil counterpart), or completely human-made (this chemical compound does not exist in nature). It is synthetic when it is synthesized in a lab - i.e., made, not extracted. 

An all natural fragrance oil is one that is made entirely from natural isolates and essential oils. So what is a natural isolate? Here is the definition from the Natural Perfumer's Guild:

 A natural isolate is a molecule removed/isolated from a natural fragrance material, as defined by the Guild, which contains the isolate. Processes that are acceptable for removing/isolation are: fractional distillations, rectifications and molecular distillations of natural fragrance materials as defined by the Guild

For a great reflection on whether natural perfumers should be using natural isolates, see Anya McCoy's post on natural isolates and the natural perfumer.

It all boils down to how the isolate is made, and what it is made from. One reason a lot of people steer clear of fragrance oils is because so many fragrance oils are made from petrochemicals, then diluted with dipropylene glycol or isopropyl myristate. Natural fragrance oils, however, are NOT. Natural fragrance oils are blends of isolates that are derived through many of the exact same processes that are used to get essential oils. The difference is in whether you are extracting an entire compound (essential oil) or a single molecule (natural isolate). 

Who uses fragrance oils?

Fragrance oils are EXCELLENT for the hobby perfumist. You have a great range of scents to try, you don't have to learn about mixing aromachemicals, or working with powders and solids and whatnot. The process is simpler. The rewards come faster. 

Fragrance oils are also great for soapmakers and bath and body product makers looking for unique scents for their products.  

The isolate is more pure - how much purer can you get than a single molecule? However, what it gains in purity, it loses in completeness. You would NOT use fragrance oils - even natural ones - for aromatherapy, because they do not retain the entire essence of the original plant material. You CAN use them for aromachology (the psychology of aromas), however, because that is all about the psychological effects of the scents, not the medicinal ones. 

If you're a large-scale commercial perfumer, then you likely won't be using fragrance oils anyhow (though some perfumers certainly do). Why? Because professionals like to start from scratch, with the raw materials. Mixing with blends is like cooking pad thai by heating up some noodles, then opening up a jar of pad thai sauce and stirring it in. It could be delicious, and that's enough all by itself for many people, but you didn't make it from scratch. And for a purist, that simply won't do.

Furthermore, you have to be able to trust the company you're buying from - not just that they are honest (the ingredients in fragrance oils are protected and don't have to be revealed), but also that they are solid. What if they decide to stop selling that particular blend? And it is key to your top selling perfume? You'd be screwed!  

I want All Natural Fragrance Oils. Where can I get them? 

UPDATE 12/9/13: Not at Vetiver Aromatics. I wrote this post when I was trying out all natural fragrance oils for my own store. Alas, it didn't work out for me for a few reasons. However, there are still some places that carry them. Granted, I haven't tried them myself. I just know about them from my own Googling. But try Bath and Body Supply, Wholesale Supplies Plus, and Sweetcakes. And if you know of anyone else, leave a link in the comments! As I write this, my post is ranking pretty high for "all natural fragrance oils" in searches. I feel bad that I don't offer them anymore, so any help for wayward seekers would be great!