Manufacturers often use the word “natural” to describe products we put on our bodies or use in our homes. For example, one shampoo company boasted that their shampoo was made of 96% natural origin ingredients. Specifically, they considered the ingredients to be of natural origin if they retained more than 50% of their molecular structure after being processed from a natural source. Does that sound “natural” to you? The point is that “natural” does not have a uniform definition. Hence, our understanding of “natural” may differ greatly from the manufacturer’s understanding. So, is natural fragrance safe or, at least, safer than synthetic fragrance?
What is synthetic fragrance?
To begin with, when you see the word “fragrance” listed as an ingredient, it is not just one ingredient. Rather, it is a blend of undisclosed ingredients because US law does not require that manufacturers disclose fragrance ingredients.
However, the International Fragrance Association has published a transparency list of over 3,000 ingredients used to create fragrance mixes. If you scroll down the list, you will see chemicals associated with cancer, endocrine disruption, and allergic reactions. For instance, the US National Toxicology Program has classified styrene and di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate as “reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogens.”
Furthermore, dibutyl phthalate may damage the unborn child and is suspected of damaging fertility (source). And resorcinol, a common allergen in hair dyes, is currently under evaluation for endocrine disruption (source).
Before we talk about natural fragrance, let’s find out why fragrances have so many ingredients.
Why are there so many ingredients in fragrances?
First, there are chemicals in fragrances that are designed to release a pleasant scent or mask a bad odor. Second, there are ingredients that are necessary for the durability or functionality of fragrance compounds. Specifically, these functional ingredients include antioxidants, preservatives, diluents, solvents, fixatives, and colors (source).
Per the European Union Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety, synthetic fragrance mixes have a link to allergic, irritant, and airborne contact dermatitis. In addition, they have a link to photosensitivity, immediate contact reactions (contact urticaria), and pigmented contact dermatitis. Thus, the Environmental Working Group Skin Deep database rates fragrance as an 8 (with 10 being the most toxic). (Please read my post Use the Skin Deep Database the Right way to learn how to avoid falling prey to its shortcomings.)
So, fragrance does not seem a desirable ingredient in your skin care or body care products any longer. But what if the fragrance is “natural”?
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What is natural fragrance?
Here is what I do when I see fragrance listed as “natural” on a product label. First and foremost, I ask the company to email me a full list of ingredients of their fragrance. In most cases, the company tells me that it is proprietary information. But they also assure me that all the ingredients are natural and safe, which always makes me pause. I do not let companies decide what is safe for me, especially when they refuse to tell me to what they are exposing me.
Indeed, US regulations are lenient and there have been no updates in the law governing cosmetic products since 1938. While the term “synthetic fragrance” is more or less clear, the word “natural” has no legal definition in the US. This means that what constitutes “natural” for you may not mean the same thing for a manufacturer.
The company may tell you their fragrance is a blend of essential oils and botanical extracts. They may also tell you that they use naturally derived fragrance and flavor materials free of phthalates, parabens, and petrochemicals.
Well, this seems like a step in the right direction. Nevertheless, I still have reservations about safety when I hear this. And here is why.
The problem with disclosure of natural fragrance ingredients
Let’s look to the International Fragrance Association (IFRA) for more guidance on understanding the safety of natural fragrances.
First, IFRA tells us that there is no regulatory definition for the term “natural” in the fragrance industry (source).
On the one hand, IFRA has set forth some guidelines as to how the word “natural” should be used in the standard referred to as ISO 9235. That is to say, fragrance materials are considered natural by IFRA standards when they are physically isolated from plants. And the methods used to achieve that are distillation, expression, and extraction.
But on the other hand, IRFA allows traces of synthetic fragrance ingredients such as solvents, antioxidants, and preservatives in their definition of natural fragrances. Additionally, a natural ingredient is not necessarily organic, as it can be grown with chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides (source).
An important question to ask about natural fragrance
As a product researcher, I have noticed that the absence of a legal definition often affects the manufacturer’s transparency, accountability, and credibility in a negative way. In other words, often companies still do not disclose their fragrance ingredients. Thus, “free of phthalates and parabens” does not mean the naturally derived fragrance is free of “supporting” ingredients. As I mentioned above, these supporting ingredients are antioxidants, preservatives, fixatives, diluents, solvents, and colors.
Moreover, if a company claims that there are no paraben preservatives or phthalate fixatives, another important question arises. What do they use instead? There is no way for us to know. Therefore, we can only hope that these supporting ingredients are safer than the ones used in synthetic fragrance. And, as sophisticated consumers, we are all becoming, we want to do more than “hope.”
What ingredients does so-called natural fragrance use?
Now, let us talk about the active ingredients in fragrance mixes – the so-called natural scents or fragrance materials.
When they make a natural scent compound, manufacturers often extract a single scent compound, aka isolate, from the whole plant. Specifically, the following are isolates:
- Hexyl cinnamal
- Benzyl salicylate
- Benzyl benzoate
The Environmental Working Group used to rate essential oil isolates between 5 and 7 on a scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 as most toxic). Now, it has changed the ratings to 3 across the board.
However, the European Union Chemicals Agency database reports that these isolates are skin allergens and sensitizers. To clarify, you can develop an allergic reaction to a sensitizer after using the same product several times. Hence, it does not seem to matter whether these isolates are derived from plants or synthesized in a lab. Regardless of their origin, they may increase the risk of allergic reactions.
Therefore, when it comes to hazardous or allergenic properties of the material, the term “natural” does not mean much. Just as synthetic fragrance materials, a natural scent could be a sensitizer as well.
What if the natural fragrance is made of essential oils?
First of all, it is great if a company makes their fragrance from essential oils. Just make sure it is 100% essential oils with nothing else, and if possible, get a written confirmation from them.
In my Shampoo and Conditioner Rating List, I rate 100% essential oil blends 1 (on a scale from 0 to 10, where 0 is the safest). If the company does not confirm that they used 100% essential oil blend, I rate such fragrances as natural fragrances, which I give a 6 in my rating lists.
Because essential oils have powerful healing properties, some shampoos and conditioners use them to improve the condition of the scalp. Although allergic reactions to essential oils are possible, they are not common. Besides, they occur when high concentration amounts are used, which should not be the case with shampoos and conditioners (source).
The way to list isolates of essential oils
Note that the European Cosmetics Regulation recognizes essential oils as allergens. Hence, it requires that companies list essential oil isolates separately in addition to essential oils. For example, a UK company Neal’s Yard Remedies discloses essential oil isolates at the bottom of their products’ ingredient lists. So, when buying European products, know that those essential oil isolates are not additional ingredients of natural or synthetic fragrance.
However, if you see essential oil isolates in the ingredient lists of the American products, always ask what they mean. Thus, they might either follow the European regulation or have those isolates as additional ingredients.
While I favor products with essential oils, I do not use or recommend products with the isolates as standalone ingredients. Therefore, I always ask manufacturers that question.
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Are natural fragrance oils the same as essential oils?
No, they are not. The difference is when they extract an essential oil, they extract the entire scent complex compound. Besides fragrance, essential oils have therapeutic properties.
Alternatively, when they make so-called natural fragrance oil, they extract an isolate from a plant solely for the purpose of scent. Thus, one oil can have a few different isolates from different plants put together. They call them “natural” because they make them from natural sources, i.e. plants. However, it is arguable if there is anything natural about these oils because they are man-made products.
Conclusion about the safety of natural fragrances
In conclusion, my rating system reflects my attitude to the overall safety of natural fragrance. In my Shampoo and Conditioner Rating List, I rate natural fragrance and unconfirmed fragrances made of essential oils 6 (with 10 being the most toxic). At the same time, I give a rating of 8 to synthetic fragrance. In other words, while natural fragrances are a step in the right direction, I cannot consider them safe due to the lack of ingredient disclosure. Additionally, there is the possible presence of harmful functional ingredients, and allergenic potential of essential oil isolates.
Your Superpower To Read Ingredients
Imagine looking at the ingredients of any shampoo, conditioner, lotion, or cream and in a matter of seconds being able to decide if it is safe to use!
With this easy unprecendented method, you will be able to spot potentially harmful personal care or skincare products that may cause irritation, an allergic reaction, or increase the risk of endocrine disruption or cancer.