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  • Writer's pictureThe Pink Elephant Lady

What's wrong with 'fragrance'? What's a 'natural' fragrance?

Take a look at the label on that 'green' or 'natural' product you've got on your dresser or in the bathroom. Does it have 'natural fragrance' or 'fragrance' on the label? Ask this company producing 'natural' products if they practice complete ingredient disclosure; i.e., can I find exactly what's in this product by reading the label? Company says yes? Okay. Ask them what's in the fragrance. Chances are: 1) They won't tell you because they don't have to, or 2) They have no idea. So much for complete disclosure. The FDA does not require that manufacturers list the ingredients in fragrance on the label - it's considered proprietary information.


What is a fragrance oil, and how is that different than essential oil? And what's the difference between 'fragrance' and 'natural fragrance' on a label? First of all (surprise, surprise), fragrance oils are cheaper - they also last longer and come in a greater variety of scents (think Bath & Body Works or Yankee Candle). Fragrance oils are synthesized in a lab, not extracted. 95 percent of chemicals used in synthetic fragrances are derived from petroleum and include benzene derivatives, aldehydes, toluene, and many other known toxic chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects, central nervous system disorders and allergic reactions. A 2001 study by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that synthetic fragrances were often shown to contain hormone disruptors linked to abnormal cell reproduction ( Phthalates? Yup, synthetic fragrance has that, too. Of course, I'm feeling a little less confident in what the EPA says these days...but I digress.


So what's a 'natural fragrance'? Natural fragrance oils are blends of isolates that are often derived using the same processes that are used to get essential oils (natural isolates are single odor molecules that are extracted from natural raw materials using distillation techniques). The difference is in whether you are extracting an entire compound (essential oil) or a single molecule (natural isolate).

It gets more complicated - some 'natural isolates' are not truly natural, but are sold as such. What's an unnatural isolate, even if it comes from a natural plant or fruit of a plant? Maybe when it comes from a microbe, and/or when it has to undergo numerous laboratory processes when it is tortuously put through a series of chemical procedures to produce the isolate.

Both Target's Method brand and Mrs. Meyer's Clean Day (now owned by S.C. Johnson & Sons) contain undisclosed 'fragrance' ingredients and methylisothiazolinone - learn more about this class of chemicals by clicking below.


There are different ways of extracting essential oils - for example, steam distillation and cold pressing. Solvent extraction involves the use of solvents such as petroleum ether, methanol, ethanol, or hexane (generally not things I want on my skin). Ask about the distillation method before you purchase an essential oil.


What is an 'absolute'? Read labels carefully - make sure that bottle of 'essential oil' you purchased on Amazon is not just mislabeled absolute. Alcohol helps extract the aromatic principle in an absolute. Companies selling essential oils should clarify whether the product you are purchasing is an essential oil or absolute. This information should be on the label and in the product catalog.

After the solvent extraction process has been completed, absolutes will have an extremely low concentration of solvent residue, approximately 5 to 10ppm (parts per million). The current European Union standards are for less than 10 parts per million solvent residues in a finished absolute.7 However, even with such a potentially small residue (less than .0001%), many aromatherapists disagree with the use of absolutes for individuals with a compromised immune system due to the potential effect of the residual solvent.


We no longer use 'natural fragrance oils' in our products; we've phased them out. Why? Not because I'm convinced they're dangerous - I'm not entirely sure because I'm not told what's in them. Many companies sell 'natural fragrance oils' to personal care product manufacturers - watermelon, cucumber, cotton blossom - the selection is endless. But all it says on the bottle is 'natural cucumber fragrance oil'. I cannot assure my customers of complete ingredient disclosure if I can't tell you what's in the fragrance oil, whether it's natural or not. I'd love to be able to sell cotton blossom and plumeria - but doing so doesn't align with our pledge of complete disclosure.


But, here's the rub - people with multiple chemical sensitivities have trouble with essential oils, too - they're often just as irritating as fragrance oils for people with MCS. Solvents can remain in some essential oils (be sure you trust your manufacturer), and essential oils ARE chemicals (contrary to the pitch of that MLM oil sales consultant telling you how you can live your life 'chemical free' with oils). Take a look at the chart below - SO SCARY! CHEMICALS IN FLOWERS! (wink, wink)

If you have multiple chemical sensitivities, let us know! We'd be happy to create completely fragrance-free, scent-free products just for you. We don't keep secrets- you'll always know exactly what's in the product you're buying! Synthetic ingredients aren't inherently bad - but when it comes to fragrance, that's usually the case!

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