What are Natural fragrances?
Natural fragrances are scents created from nature, including the trees, plants, and extracted from animals. Natural fragrances are complex compositions of natural aromatic raw materials such as essential oils, fractions of essential oils, isolates, exudates such as resins, distillates, extracts and volatile concentrates. The International Fragrance Association (IFRA) only allows fragrances marked as "natural" to contain fragrance ingredients that correspond to the terms and definitions laid down in the International Organization for Standardization's ISO 9235:1997 (Aromatic natural raw materials – Vocabulary), or substances already present in them and isolated from them by purely physical means. In general, ISO 9235 defines natural aromatic raw materials as being physically obtained from plants using distillation, expression and extraction. Synthetically reconstituted essential oils, synthetic nature-identical ingredients and intentionally chemically modified natural raw materials (e.g. chemical acetylation of essential oil) cannot be used in fragrance compounds that are described as being natural.
However, natural notes don’t last long. And recreating the same natural fragrances is difficult, even if you get the notes from the same sources. This is why much of the world of fragrances uses synthetic notes and bases; natural scents give inconsistent results. Natural fragrances are beautiful, but they do take a toll on the environment. The process of harvesting scents from trees and plants has caused deforestation throughout the world. And extracting scents from animals isn’t much better — it’s a long, painful process.
What are Synthetic fragrances?
Unlike natural fragrances, synthetic fragrances are developed in laboratories. Rather than sourcing the notes through forestry and animals, synthetic scents replicate natural accords, without harming the environment. It’s this man-made process that can allow for the repopulation of forestry and protection of popular animals (like deer) where the extracts are used in popular fragrance. Fragrances are complex compounds comprised of aromatic raw materials, at least one of which is not a natural aromatic raw material as defined above. A fragrance may contain natural aromatics in combination with synthetics, or could be 100% synthetic.
Synthetic aromatic raw materials have either been chemically created or started as naturals and have had their chemical structure modified. Synthetic aromatic raw materials fall into the categories of chemically modified natural raw materials, nature identical raw materials and aroma chemicals that do not exist in nature.
You should know that “synthetic fragrances” is a broad term. There’s three types:
1. Full synthetics: Nearly the entire fragrance is derived from petroleum by-products
2. Semi-synthetics: As the name suggests, the fragrance is only semi-synthetic; it can be created from some synthetic, natural, or artificially modified notes. Sometimes, it’s derived from all three
3. Natural isolates: A fragrance developed from synthetic and natural byproducts
Besides protecting the environment and animal kingdom, synthetic notes are able to last longer thanks to fixatives. For instance, natural notes have an average shelf life of 1-2 years. However, synthetic perfumes can last up to five years.
The fixatives give fragrances increased vitality. The scents don’t sour as quickly as natural perfumes, and the scents remain richer and denser in comparison. At the moment, these are benefits that natural perfumes can’t achieve.
What’s the difference between natural and artificial fragrances?
There’s a general misunderstanding that high quality perfumes are, in most part, natural. With the rising popularity of scents comes an increasing desire to capture fragrance notes more vividly than before and push the boundaries of scent creation. Natural essences presented a severe limitation as they were constrained to what you could extract directly from natural products: floral essences smelled more dank and earthy than the fresh, vivacious flowers on the stem. It was the 19th century that gave rise to modern perfumery with the creation of the first man-made synthetic ingredients through the work of organic chemists on odorant molecules to produce a more expansive, nuanced creative palette.
Modern perfumery is based on the synergy of natural and synthetic ingredients. Both are of equal importance to the perfumer. Technically, a perfumer differentiates between:
- Natural oils: extracted from blossoms, citruses, woods and leaves, spices and resins
- Semi-synthetic oils: As the name suggests, the fragrance is only semi-synthetic; it can be created from some synthetic, natural, or artificially modified notes; sometimes, it’s derived from all three.
- Synthetic oils or aroma notes, completely man – made, these are created to reproduce artificially natural essences, or to recreate notes of different creative inspiration (ex. Marine notes, Gourmand notes, Ozonic notes etc.)
Are we sure that natural equates to the best solution for both planet and humans?
No, we are not. Either natural or synthetic molecules, like cinnamon, rose oil, saffron or linalool, can be harmful at certain levels. IFRA, the International Fragrance Association, formed in 1973, regulates strongly the levels of certain components in fragrances, assuring that both natural and synthetic fragrances aren’t harmful for humans.
We generally have a classical notion that whatever we obtain from natural sources is beneficial for our health and is devoid of any side effects or toxicity, but this isn’t always true. It is in fact mandatory, that synthetic and natural fragrances must be strictly regulated and tested before being allowed to reach the market.
And for those who are mostly interested in sustainable and eco-friendly products, it’s important to clarify that natural oils come from materials which have to be farmed, and hundreds of pounds of plant matter can be required to produce a single pound of essential oil. For example, 5000 kg of rose blooms are necessary for only 100g of rose oil. This need for massive amounts of natural ingredients, at a low price, has led at times to the exploitation of plantations and of local farmers as well.
Why Synthetic Fragrances Aren't Always Bad?
While natural fragrances are usually much safer than synthetic ones, the science isn’t always so clear-cut when it comes to the perfume industry and the beauty industry. For starters, there are plenty of compounds that straddle the line between natural and artificial. Fully synthetic fragrance compounds are mostly derived from petrochemicals. But some compounds are synthesized by modifying the structure of naturally occurring chemicals for fragrance material.
Just because a chemical is synthesized in a lab doesn’t necessarily mean it’s dangerous or inferior to a naturally occurring compound. In fact, many synthetic molecules are structurally identical to the ones found in nature. Producing them is much cheaper, and can often have a lower impact on the environment. For example, synthetic Vitamin C is often used as a safe way to extend the shelf life of food.
And similarly, just because a product is natural doesn’t mean it’s non-toxic. For example, wild almonds contain deadly amounts of cyanide. Still, many people prefer natural perfumes because they are much more subtle, and safer to use. Synthetic perfumes and products that use potent synthetic scents and powerful fixatives can draw a lot of attention when you walk into the room - and no matter how pleasant it smells to you, others may find it overpowering.
The “green movement” is flourishing, growing and deeply changing the consumers habits on a global scale. A sustainable development of the planet is becoming more and more of a major concern for many, who scrutinize labels and demand transparency of the ingredients used.
The reason behind this is found in the rising consciousness in people, who understand the importance of protecting the environment, life on the planet, and their own safety and wellness.
This trend touches the fragrance world as well, as consumers are looking for perfumes and perfumed products that contain substances labelled as plant-based and/or natural or “organic”. That is why the perfume industry has recently started to shift towards “green” fragrances.
What’s best for consumers and for the planet we live on?
Our conclusion is that we need to be more aware of the real meaning of natural and that we should consider mostly the impact on the environment that a 100% natural raw material might have. It’s our responsibility as fragrance producers to help consumers better understand the various options that they have to protect themselves, and the planet they live on.