The Secrets of Smells: Fragrance vs Essential Oils

In my blog about lavender, I mentioned a variety of lavender that didn’t actually come from a plant, but from a blend of synthetic fragrance oils. While it seems strange to call something “lavender” that’s made with anything but, this is super common in the world of smelliness. I want to share with you how essential oils and fragrance oils are entirely different beasts and what those differences mean for your skin.

Fragrance Oils:

The sole purpose of fragrance oils is to be smelly.  They’re created in labs to mimic aromas, like vanilla, lavender, jasmine…etc, using as many as hundreds of ingredients, mostly synthetic.  Having worked in skin care for over three years, I’ve found that way more people falsely think they are allergic to essential oils than actually are, due to an allergy to one of the hundreds of ingredients in a fragrance oil.  On another unfortunate note, certain widely available synthetic fragrances have skewed our noses to link completely unnatural smells to naturally occurring plants, like cucumbers, sweet peas and grapes.  Their synthetic imitators have changed consumer expectations to the point that the real smell of those products smells wrong.  Martha calls this “nose washing”.  Get it?  Like “brain washing” but for the nose?  Okay.  You get it.  Moving on.

When it comes to candles, incense, and any other products not for the skin, fragrance oils may work just fine. For skin/hair/body products, watch out for ingredient lists citing “fragrance oils”, “essential fragrance oils” or “nature identical”, unless you’ve found that you’re allergic to the real thing.

Essential Oils:

Essential oils come from nutritious and beneficial plants, like flowers, barks, stems, leaves, roots and seeds. Even though they’re called oils, they don’t feel oily in the way olive oil or almond oil would. They actually evaporate when they come into contact with air. They have the ability to soothe, heal, rejuvenate, lift, and brighten, just to name a few super powers. What’s especially lovely about essential oils is that they do so much for our skin but also have a naturally occurring fragrance. A gifted formulator will use essential oils for their therapeutic properties while also artfully balancing the final aroma.

Speaking of gifted formulators, Martha has a lot of stories from working and playing with essential oils for most of her life. One of my favorite stories is where she was teaching an aromatherapy course and most of her students, upon first sniff of pure essential oils, were appalled. After about a week of smelling, however, her students made a complete turn-around and became essential oil snobs. They could even sniff out synthetics like they’d been smelling the real essential oils their whole lives. I have a theory that our noses are better equipped to recognize aromas from real life and these students just needed to be reminded of how pure oils smell.

When applying essential oils, it’s important to dilute them with a carrier oil like olive, jojoba, or almond oil. Unrefined essential oils straight to the skin are a bit too active and potent. Think of it this way: just one drop of rose oil takes 67 rose blossoms. That’s a lot of love in one drop and it can get a little intense if applied directly. The massive amounts of the original plant needed for an essential oil is the main reason that essential oils are more expensive than their fragrance oil counterparts. If you’re ever tempted to buy an essential oil from the grocery store and the price seems too good to be true (like $10 for a small bottle of rose oil), it probably is. You’d better move on, no matter how badly your wallet wants that rose oil to work as well as the pricier ones.

In sum, there’s really no contest when it comes to deciding what kind of oils your skin would generally prefer. I hope this helped demystify the different benefits of these two very different oils. I’d love to hear about your experiences with fragrance oils and essential oils so feel more than welcome to leave a comment!

Until Next Time,

Meg

Comments

  1. well written. personally i prefer essential oils from aroma purposes as well.

  2. well said. i still prefer essential oils from aroma purposes as well.

  3. I completely agree. After writing this blog, I found an article concerning the toxicity of synthetic aromas and their unlisted phthalates. Another win for essential oils!

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