The world of fragrance can be a complex and closely guarded industry to navigate. There are many ways to create an aroma chemical and even more ways to combine these materials into a fragrance blend which can then be utilized in any myriad of applications, whether it’s in a perfume, candles, diffusers, or laundry detergents and cleaners! But all fragrance crafting starts with a palette of individual aroma chemicals which can be classified as either essential oils, all-natural isolates, or synthetic molecules.
Essential oils are derived directly from nature. All kinds of plant materials, powders, gums, and resins are processed via methods most appropriate for the material. Steam distillation is the most common extraction method for essential oils, but some materials may require cold-press, solvent or CO2 extraction. All of these extraction methods aim to preserve the essence of the natural material as much as possible, and result in robust and complex oils composed of hundreds of chemical compounds. This is what makes essential oils so vibrant and dimensional, but there can also be challenges when working with these materials.
The components of an essential oil are volatile compounds which means that they are really vulnerable to changes in the environment and can degrade in quality over time. This matters because it affects the shelf-life of products, and can affect the use of products you apply to your skin. The lack of stability makes it more difficult to determine how the essential oil will behave over time or react in application. Since essential oils come from nature and contain many compounds within a single material, it is impossible to precisely replicate the composition of an oil from batch to batch. Factors such as weather, climate changes, pollution and other human activities can impact the character, quality and yield of the natural materials used to produce essential oils. As such, there are challenges in regulating safety for essential oils and maintaining consistency of quality, availability and cost. They can also be highly resource-intensive to produce. For instance, the sandalwood tree, an endangered species, must mature for up to 30 years before it can be harvested to produce sandalwood essential oil! So while it may be tempting to opt for the real deal, there are times when it is best to consider more sustainable options.
All-natural isolates are molecules which, like essential oils, are naturally derived. However, all-natural isolates are singular molecules which have been extracted from an essential oil to bypass some of those challenges of working with pure essential oils. Isolates from various lavender essential oils, for example, could be extracted and recombined to achieve a specific lavender profile. This provides a higher level of control which helps to create a naturally-derived fragrance oil that can be replicated time and again while mitigating fluctuations in cost and availability. An all-natural fragrance oil can consist of both isolates and essential oils, but the presence of isolates classifies this type of fragrance as “all-natural” as it is no longer a pure essential oil fragrance. Compared to essential oils, all-natural fragrance also provides more control over the overall composition of a fragrance oil which means better regulation of safety standards and stability in performance.
Synthetic molecules are aroma chemicals which have been created in a lab, whether as an alternative to naturals, due to any of the challenges previously mentioned, or because a natural version simply does not exist. There are many scents that we experience which do not naturally occur or cannot be extracted from nature. There is no way to create an essential oil out of sea water or fresh mountain air, but those effects can be achieved through molecules synthesized in a lab. Synthetics also allow for more humane or sustainable alternatives. For example, musk cannot be naturally derived without using inhumane methods of extraction from animals. There are also some natural materials which are so astronomically expensive that they are only made accessible via their synthetic counterparts.
Synthetics alone can lack the vitality of complex essential oils, appearing flat or static by comparison, but they offer a much wider palette of materials to work from; the synthetic palette consists of thousands of materials whereas the natural palette only hundreds. Synthetics must undergo extensive development and testing and are subject to strict safety standards. For this reason, it is in many cases easier to regulate safety for synthetics than it is for essential oils.
While purely synthetic fragrances do exist, most synthetic fragrance oils will be a blend of synthetic molecules, all-natural isolates and essential oils where the presence of even a single synthetic molecule requires the “synthetic” classification. A synthetic fragrance blend composed of materials from each category allows for a well-rounded fragrance with various options to adjust for optimal performance, cost, availability and character.
There are pros and cons to using any aroma chemical, regardless of its source, and so we ultimately do our best to use sound judgement in using all the resources available to create fragrances we love while adhering to the strict use guidelines set forth by regulatory bodies such as IFRA and RIFM. Fragrance can be such a rich and personal experience, and we believe everyone should be able to enjoy it with confidence!