Natural vs. Synthetic

Natural vs Synthetic Fragrances: Could synthetic perfumes be a safer and more environmentally friendly option?

While the idea of using natural over synthetic perfumes may sound like a positive shift, multiple studies show the benefits of using and maintaining synthetic compounds in fragrances today.

It is important to note that perfumes have been created using both natural and synthetic compounds since the 19th century. However, in recent years, the clean beauty movement has garnered wide-spread fear surrounding the use of synthetic chemicals, championing a correlation of natural with good, and synthetic with bad. 

But what most people aren’t aware of, is that most perfumes are comprised of synthetic materials, to comply with a range of regulations. Namely, naturally occurring compounds are more likely to cause allergies, and in some cases, there is a greater environmental impact in distilling natural materials. 

What is natural is not always “safer”

Due to the strong demand from consumers to eliminate synthetic compounds in perfumes, beauty experts have gathered to debate the consequences of swapping synthetic over natural products, and the results may surprise you.

“There is a tendency to believe that natural is safer than synthetic, and as much as I would love this to be true, it’s simply not,” (Fragance expert and perfumery teacher, Karen Gilbert, 2021)

Safety standards of all ingredients and compounds used in perfumes are known to be strictly governed by the International Fragrance Association (IFRA). And believe it or not, some of the strictest regulations in perfumes today are towards natural materials because of their allergenic risks.

VP, Perfumer at International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF), Pascal Gaurin confirmed that many natural materials have already been eliminated from the perfumer’s palette and some have their usage limited in perfume formulas.

While the scent of oakmoss, jasmine, ylang ylang, and rose essence sound popular in the fragrance industry, Mr Gaurin said using these in their natural form was mandated limited because of their present molecule (methyl eugenol). Additionally, recent studies have shown that using plant-derived oils, such as lavender and tea tree can cause disruption to normal hormone function.

Although perfumers are open to the possibility of creating organic and plant-based fragrances, the Environmental Working Group also admits that synthetic materials can in some cases be less allergenic than certain natural ingredients.

 President of Henry Rose, Debi Theis said the safety profile of natural ingredients is often hard to regulate as they commonly vary from their original compounds.

 “By using safe synthetics, we are able to eliminate most common allergens that would have naturally been present in aromatic oils extracted from botanical/plant sources.” (Debi Theis,2021).

Natural & Synthetic Dynamics

Another valuable point is that natural materials are difficult to obtain, and, in some cases, the outcome does not meet consumer expectations.

This includes scents that are musky, clean, and fruity.

Internationally recognised olfactive expert and Co-Founder of olfactory branding company 12.29, Dawn Goldwom, said fruit notes are extremely difficult to extract with a 100% natural fragrance.

“We would not have the smell of almost any fruit note without synthetic molecules […] as we are unable to extract any smell from fruit (with the exception of citrus fruits).” 

Using raw materials is not only difficult when it comes to extraction, but the complexity of these materials can often create a product that smells completely different from what the consumer expects.

And of course, there is also concern surrounding how cost effective these natural materials are.

“Perfume products would be exponentially more expensive without synthetic ingredients.” 

“It is much cheaper to synthesize an ingredient in the lab than it is to grow, harvest, and distill its natural counterpart”, says Dallmeier. 

“A typical synthetic may cost $50 per kilogram, while a typical natural may cost 10-100 times that.” (Dawn Goldworm, 2021)

Environmental impacts

It is no secret that the beauty industry, including the fragrance sector, is often targeted for its environmental impact.

Chartered Environmentalist and CEO of online formulation school Formula Botanica, Lorraine Dallmeier said many plants used in the fragrance industry are suffering because of over-harvesting. 

Some of these plants include rosewood, Indian sandalwood, and frankincense, which are  commonly used in the fragrance industry.

Hannah and George Lawrence, Co-Founders of London-based fine fragrance studio The 5th, are raising awareness of the advantages of using synthetic materials as an eco-friendly alternative. 

Our use of safe synthetic ingredients helps to prevent the over-farming of natural ingredients at risk of extinction due to their demand for use in fragrance,” (Hannah Lawrence,2021).

Lawrence also encourages consumers to be more open to scents that use safe synthetics.

“Know that in doing so, they are able to explore adventurous and unique creations beyond nature’s palette, that are safe, and help protect against the extinction of natural resources too,” (Hannah Lawrence,2021)

Co-Founder of Brooklyn-based perfume house, D.S. & Durga, David Moltz agreed, noting that many big perfume brands have already incorporated these practices.

 “Synthesizing molecules certainly can help lessen the burden on farmers and the environment, as can the responsible extraction of naturals,” (David Moltz,2021).

And according to Gilbert, making the switch from synthetic to natural would simply make the whole industry unsustainable.

So rather than compromising the environment, Gilbert encourages consumers to accept that lab-made materials can be more eco-friendly.

But if you are concerned about the use of naturals vs synthetics, Goldworm suggests sticking to brands who follow IFRA protocol, which is commonly listed on their website.

“We are an old industry based in craft and science,” 

“Nothing is created in a vacuum without strict guidance and safety in place.” (Dawn Goldworm, 2021).