Essential Oils Or Fragrance Oils? What We Use And Why


If you’ve read my post about essential oils, you know what they are, what they do and what they are not.  If you are familiar with our soaps and other products, you know that we use essential oils in many things but use fragrance oils in others.

They both smell good, but one is made from plants and the other is made in a lab.  So which is safer, essential oils or fragrance oils?  Isn’t natural better?  Why do we use fragrance oils at all?

First, a little chemistry.  The chemical compounds in plants that “escape” into the air and interact with the olfactory receptors in our nose are called esters.  That interaction is how we detect their scent.  There are numerous different esters found in plants – and thus essential oils – and each has a characteristic aroma.  For instance, one type of ester molecule found in lavender essential oil that gives it its characteristic scent is called linalyl acetate and it looks like this:


From Wikipedia

It is considered an organic compound because it came from a living thing and is made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms.  Now, this molecule can be assembled in a lab by some smart people and we will have a substance that smells something like lavender.  It won’t smell exactly like lavender because there are actually several esters that give real lavender its deep, complex scent but if we can identify those compounds and duplicate each one we can get a pretty close match.

That is how fragrance oils are made.  They may not have every component of the essential oil they are trying to mimic – probably only the dominant “notes”; therefore their scents are usually not as rich as essential oils’.  Also, fragrance oils are only meant to duplicate the scent of the essential oils, not any other properties they may have.

So why would we ever want or need to use a fragrance oil in place of a complex, all-natural essential oil?  There are three reasons:

1.  Essential oils are delicate and evaporate easily.  When making soap, for instance, temperatures can easily go over 150 F.  The point at which eucalyptus essential oil evaporates is about 109 F so it’s not likely that it will survive the process.  Rosemary is another essential oil that evaporates at less than 110 F and, since I do love the scent, I usually opt for a rosemary fragrance oil to scent my products.

2.  Essential oils can be very expensive.  Did you know that rose essential oil can cost as much as $700 per ounce?  That’s because it takes literally tons of rose petals to produce a pound.  A single drop is equal to thirty roses!  Sandalwood, Neroli, Chamomile – all cost hundreds of dollars an ounce.  If we want these wonderful therapeutic scents we usually have to use fragrance oils.

3.  Essential oils may not exist for a particular scent.  One of my favorite scents in the world is coconut and there is simply no such thing as coconut essential oil. Berries, coffee, chocolate, bacon…fragrance oils are our only choice.  Despite what many aromatherapists would have you believe, there is no such thing as a “true” vanilla essential oil, either, so when I want that warm, sweet vanilla that I love so much I have to use fragrance oil.

So what do we use in our products?  We use essential oils when we can, that is, when they make sense.  Since we use the hot process method to make our soap, we can add many essential oils at the end of the process when the soap is complete and the mixture starts to cool.  I should note here that the essential oils in soap are added strictly for their scent – the soap itself is antimicrobial so any antibacterial or antifungal properties the oils may have are irrelevant.

We use essential oils in many of our lotion bars, salves and body butters because very little heat is needed to make them and in our bug sticks because we believe that there is more to the bug repellent properties of certain essential oils than just their scents – insects are sensitive to compounds that we can’t even detect with our noses.  We also use essential oils in our natural deodorants because of their mild antibacterial properties – they do a nice job of keeping stinkies at bay in generally clean armpits.


Anytime I want a coconut or vanilla scent, which is often, I use fragrance oil.  Same goes for rosemary, sandalwood and chamomile for reasons mentioned above.


We do not use essential oils in our lip balms.  I believe they are too strong and may irritate delicate lips so we use unsweetened flavor oils that are lip-safe and dibutyl-phthalate-free.

So which is better for your skin?  Are fragrance oils more likely to irritate your skin?

In my experience, if someone is sensitive to fragrance oils then they will probably be sensitive to essential oils as well.  Remember, natural does not always equal safer…hemlock is a pretty little wild herb that looks like parsley and just a few leaves can kill an adult.  (“But it’s all-natural!”)  Don’t be deceived into thinking that essential oils are safer just because they are derived from plants – some can actually be toxic.  The fragrance oils we do use are skin-safe, free of dibutyl phthalate and are chosen for their unique scents.

Essential oils are not perfectly safe just because they are derived from plants and fragrance oils are not evil just because they are synthetic.  We choose the ones we use carefully and feel confident about putting them on our skin.

If you ever have any questions about what we use and why, please email me or leave a comment.  I’m happy to talk about our stuff. 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s