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Essential Oil Verses Fragrance Oil What's the Difference?

Chemistry was one of my favorite classes in high school. Why? In addition to the beauty and logic of the periodic table , I loved being in the lab -- no surprise right?

It was fascinating to see things bubble, change color, change temperature, and precipitate (not desirable now in cosmetic formulations but fun in then!),

My husband, who also happens to be a scientist -- although I'm not sure he loves chemistry as much as I do, likewise cherishes a memory from his high school A.P. chemistry class . And interestingly it's aromatic.

One day in class his chem teacher invited them to smell a series of test tubes. While test tubes and chemical reactions might conjure up images of smoke and foul smells, my husband recalls something different... bananas. And pineapple. And other fruity pleasant aromas. He was amazed.

Apparently his chemistry teacher had combined different types of alcohols and acids to create esters -- compounds commonly used in both the food and fragrance industry for their fruity and floral aromas.

Esters as well as other aromatic compounds also appear in nature and are an important component of essential oils and aromatic plants, such as flowers, herbs, and fruits.

The aromatic compounds that make up essential oils and fragrance oils can be similar or even identical chemically -- so then what IS the difference between essential oils, fragrance oils, and absolutes?

What is an Essential Oil?

Essential oils are aromatic compounds distilled or expressed from plants. This includes flowers, fruit, leaves, roots, bark, resin, seeds, and wood. Thus we have lavender, sweet orange, peppermint, vetiver, cinnamon bark, frankincense, coriander seed, and sandalwood for example.

Essential oils are used in aromatherapy to support wellness. (Want to learn more? Check out this wellness blog post or visit the National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy website).

They can also be used to fragrance cosmetic products, but let's be clear you can't claim therapeutic benefits by simply adding an essential oil to a cosmetic product.

And many essential oils contain compounds that are known allergens, sensitizers, carcinogens, or phototoxic compounds and so just because they are natural doesn't mean they aren't regulated or for that matter safe to use topically.

If you plan to use essential oils in a product you create at home or for your salon be sure to do your homework to determine any dermal limits and about their safe use in cosmetics or consult with an aromatherapist or cosmetic chemist.

However not every plant or plant part can be turned into an essential oil. And sometimes it can be very expensive to create an essential oil because the yield is so low.

Also essential oils, being natural, can have variations. They might smell slightly or significantly different from batch to batch depending on the oil.

For aromatherapists and naturalistas that is not usually a problem. But if you're making cosmetic products they are expected to be consistent. And aroma is a crucial part of a formulation.

This is one reason why fragrance oils, either natural or synthetic are used in cosmetic products.

What is a Fragrance Oil?

Simply put a fragrance oil is an aromatic compound used to fragrance a product such as a cream, candle, or shampoo. Fragrance oils can be synthetic or naturally derived but either way they involve some chemistry.

A synthetic fragrance oil is kind of like what my husband experienced in his A.P. chemistry class -- aromatic compounds created by chemical reactions to mimic smells found in nature or create to unique aromas that can't quite be isolated naturally.

These could include things like gamma undecalactone to create a fruity smell, or phenyl ethyl alcohol to simulate rose, or benzyl acetate to create a jasmine like aroma.

So fragrance oils are a way to capture aromas such as pineapple, peach, or even an ocean breeze.

Some fragrance oils try to bridge the gap between essential oils and fragrance oils in that they are naturally derived.

How is this possible?

The aromatic compounds from plants can be further separated into isolates. For example lavender is rich in the aromatic compounds linalool and linalyl aceate.

Plant derived isolates can be combined to create aromas that can't be distilled directly from say apricot or pinapple and they can also be used to create a less expensive or safer version of an expensive essential oil, such as rose or neroli. These are referred to as natural fragrance oils or plant-based fragrance oils.

A benefit of fragrance oils is that they have a consistent aroma. Thus they offer cosmetic formulators a great way to achieve a consistent product.

Take Aways:

Essential oils are naturally derived aromatic compounds distilled or expressed from plants. They are used in aromatherapy for therapeutic purposes and can also be used to fragrance cosmetic products.

Being natural they can vary significantly from batch to batch for many reasons. If you are interested in learning more about how to incorporate essential oils into your therapeutic or cosmetic products why not book a discovery call?

Fragrance oils can be synthetic or naturally derived but offer a consistent aroma and often are a less expensive option.

Personally I love using essential oils and plant based fragrances in my products, but sometimes my clients prefer using fragrance oils and adore them.

For me I love natural.

What are your thoughts?

Aromatic blessings,



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