This post may contain "affiliate links." This means if you click on the affiliate link and purchase the item, I'll receive a commission. I disclose this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255. I only recommend products that passed my strict criteria. Read about my research methods in the Start Here page.
Some cosmetic manufacturers say that their fragrance is natural. Today you are going to learn what natural fragrance can mean.
What does “natural” mean?
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. What was surprising to me, in this case, was that they actually defined what they mean by “natural origin” (and I applaud them for that). What do you think they said? Here are their exact words: “We consider ingredients to be of natural origin if they retain more than 50% of their molecular structure after being processed from a natural source.”
The point is that “natural” does not have a uniform definition, and what a company means might be much different from what it means to you. With this said, now let’s talk about natural fragrance. Is natural fragrance safe or at least safer than synthetic fragrance?
Before we get into this, let’s talk about synthetic fragrance. When you see the word “fragrance” listed as an ingredient, it is not just one ingredient. It is a blend or mix of undisclosed ingredients. (Under the US law, fragrance ingredients are not required to be disclosed.) In fact, the International Fragrance Association has published a list of 3,999 ingredients that may be used to create fragrance mixes. If you scroll down the list, you will see chemicals associated with cancer, endocrine disruption, and allergic reactions.
Why are there so many ingredients in fragrances? Besides the chemicals that are designed to release scent, the so-called fragrance materials or isolates or compounds, there are supporting or inactive ingredients such as antioxidants, preservatives, diluents, solvents, fixatives, and colors (source and source).
According to the European Union Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety, fragrance mixes are associated with allergic contact dermatitis, irritant contact dermatitis, airborne contact dermatitis, photosensitivity, immediate contact reactions (contact urticaria), and pigmented contact dermatitis.
In the Skin Deep database powered by the Environmental Working Group, fragrance is rated 8 (10 being the most toxic). To read more about how to use the database without falling prey to its shortcomings, visit here.
Thus, it sounds like you do not want fragrance in your shampoo, conditioner, lotion, laundry detergent, etc. But what if you see the phrase “natural fragrance” on the label?
The first thing you should do is to write the company and ask for a full list of ingredients of the natural fragrance. I have done it numerous times, and in most cases, I was told that it was proprietary information, but all the ingredients are natural and safe. Hmm. That should make you pause.
I do not know about you, but I do not let companies decide what is safe for me without telling me what they are exposing me to. As you might know, US regulations are lenient and the law governing cosmetic products has not been updated since 1938. Besides, the word “natural” is not legally defined in the US. This means that what constitutes “natural” for you, might not mean the same thing for a company.
But what if a company tells you that their natural fragrance is naturally derived and it is a blend of essential oils, botanical extracts, naturally derived fragrance and flavor materials, and it is free of phthalates, parabens, and petrochemicals?
This seems like a step in the right direction. However, I still have reservations from proclaiming the natural fragrance safe. And here is why.
Let’s look to the International Fragrance Association (IFRA) for more guidance on understanding the safety of natural fragrance. First, the IFRA tells us that there is no official regulatory definition for the term “natural” in the fragrance industry (source). My experience as a product researcher has led me to the opinion that when there is no official regulatory definition, there is also a lack of transparency, accountability, and credibility.
The problem of disclosure
Yes, the IFRA has some guidelines on natural fragrance set forth in the standard referred to as ISO 9235. It considers fragrance materials to be natural when the fragrance materials are physically isolated from plants. That means the methods of distillation, expression, and extraction are used. But the IRFA also tells us that it allows traces of synthetic ingredients such as solvents, antioxidants, and preservatives in natural fragrance (source).
The problem is that there is a lack of disclosure. We still do not know what the ingredients are. When the company says that their fragrance is free of phthalates and parabens, that reminds me of the fact that there are “supporting” ingredients in every fragrance mix, such as antioxidants, preservatives, fixatives, diluents, solvents, and colors. If a company tells us that there are no paraben preservatives or phthalate fixatives, the important question to ask is “what is used instead?” We still do not know. We can only hope that these supporting ingredients are safer than the ones used in synthetic fragrances.
Now let’s talk about the active ingredients in fragrance mixes – the so-called natural scents or fragrance materials.
When a natural scent compound is made, a single scent compound is extracted from the whole plant. It is called an isolate.
While the Environmental Working Group rates essential oils as low hazard, it rates the isolates, which include geraniol, coumarin, hydroxycitronellal, linalool, citronellol, eugenol, citral, benzyl benzoate, hexyl cinnamal, limonene, and benzyl salicylate, anywhere from 5 to 7 on a scale between 1 and 10, with 10 being the most toxic. And it does not seem to matter whether these isolates are derived from plants or synthesized in a lab. They are known to increase the risk of allergic reactions regardless.
I agree with the IFRA when it says that it is important to keep in mind that the term “natural” means nothing with respect to hazard or allergenic properties of a material. A natural scent could be a sensitizer as well.
Fragrance made of essential oils
So, what happens when a company tells you that their natural fragrance is made of essential oils? Should you be content with this?
My answer is “yes” with a small caveat: make sure the fragrance is made of 100% essential oils – and nothing else. In my Shampoo Rating List and Conditioner Rating List, I marked 100% essential oil blends as 1 (on a scale from 0 to 10, where 0 is the safest). Essential oils have powerful healing properties and are sometimes used in shampoos and conditioners to improve the health of your scalp. Yes, some people can still have allergic reactions to essential oils (source). But the allergic reactions are not common and often occur when high concentration amounts are used, which should not be the case with shampoos and conditioners.
Now, every time you see a company claim that their fragrance is made of essential oils, I encourage you to get written confirmation from them that their natural fragrance is 100% essential oils and nothing else.
In my experience, if you call a manufacturer and ask, their customer service representative is likely to say that their fragrances are made of essential oils. If you want written confirmation, email them. In most cases, I emailed and followed up but did not hear back. In this case, I rated fragrances made of essential oils as natural fragrances.
Conclusion about the safety of natural fragrances
In conclusion, when making my Shampoo Rating List and Conditioner Rating List, I decided to rate natural fragrances and fragrances made of essential oils (unconfirmed) at 5, while I listed synthetic fragrances at 8, which reflects my view that while natural fragrances are a step in the right direction, they can’t be considered safe due to the lack of disclosure, the possible presence of synthetic supporting ingredients, and allergic potential of 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.