Your Guide to Natural vs. Synthetic Fragrances
As the clean beauty movement continues to grow, consumers are increasingly looking for skincare products that are marketed as “natural”. Many assume this verbiage means that those items are beneficial to the skin. But unfortunately, that’s not always the case — especially when it comes to skincare fragrances.
For a deep dive into the differences between natural and synthetic fragrances in skincare, keep on reading below.
Why are there fragrances in skincare?
Before we start breaking down natural and synthetic fragrances, let’s talk about fragrances and why they’re often used in skincare. According to aesthetic doctor Dr. Parisha Acharya, “fragrance is an umbrella term for a cocktail of ingredients used by the cosmetics industry to scent products and they may be natural or synthetic.” The truth is, though, there’s no real clinical reason for including fragrances in skincare. But, they do often enhance the customer’s experience.
Aesthetician Karen Fernandez explains, “usually a fragrance is meant to cover up the smell of other ingredients, or to try and make the product smell better and be marketed accordingly.” Dermatological nurse Natalie Aguilar, RN adds that “for some, scents can be nostalgic, calming, or even make us feel cleaner. They are used to combine all senses and give us that feel-good mood.”
What is natural fragrance? Nurse Aguilar refers to natural fragrances as “those that originate from a natural source such as a lavender or a lemon. Natural fragrances are not made up in a lab; they are in fact extracted from their natural source.” Natural fragrances are typically created from essential oils. They can be derived from plant-based sources as well as animal-based sources. There’s only one type of natural fragrance, and that’s all-natural.
A synthetic fragrance is one that’s developed in a lab using aromatic raw materials. At least one of those raw materials does not come from a natural source.
Unlike natural fragrances, there are three different types of synthetic fragrances. They are:
- Full synthetics: Nearly the entire fragrance comes from synthetic ingredients
- Semi-synthetics: Only a portion of the ingredients are synthetic while the rest is natural
- Natural isolates: A fragrance developed from synthetic and natural by-products
What’s the difference between natural and synthetic fragrances?
Effect on the skin
There’s a common misconception that natural fragrances are safer for the skin than synthetic fragrances. But, unfortunately, natural fragrances still have the ability to trigger allergic reactions, regardless of their origin. In fact, some essential oils like cinnamon bark, peppermint, and clove, are known for causing skin irritation. Since synthetic fragrances are created in a lab setting, they’re easier to manufacture and reproduce. This means cosmetic chemists can manage and remove allergens as needed.
Can synthetic fragrances cause irritation, too? It’s possible. Our glowoasis Regulatory Specialist, Prachi Purohit, reports that these types of fragrances may cause damage beneath the skin’s surface, which can then lead to chronic dermatitis.
Cosmetic chemist Dr. Shuting Hu explains “The biggest problem with fragrance in skincare is the lack of transparency. Due to a lack of regulation, brands can get away with listing ‘fragrance’ as an ingredient without disclosing what ingredients make up that fragrance.” This is thanks to the “fragrance loophole”. The Environmental Working Group, also known as EWG, states that “although all other ingredients in your lip gloss, body wash, and other scented cosmetic products must be disclosed on the label by specific name, the so-called “fragrance loophole” in federal labeling law means that ingredients added to provide a pleasant scent, or to mask a bad one, need only be listed under the generic term “fragrance”.” These fragrance formulas are considered “trade secrets”, so companies have the legal right to not disclose their specific ingredients — even to the FDA.
Due to this, natural fragrances tend to be more transparent than synthetic fragrances since they come from natural sources. Synthetic fragrances may contain phthalates or formaldehyde to help the fragrances last longer. Both of these ingredients have been linked to many hazardous health conditions like hormone disruption, diabetes, and cancer. It is important to note, though, that just because a product has a natural fragrance does not mean it’s non-toxic. Similarly, even though synthetic fragrances are made in a lab, they’re not necessarily any more dangerous for you than natural fragrances.
Effect on the environment
Natural fragrances can negatively impact the environment. Purohit notes that the process of harvesting scents from trees, plants, and other natural sources has caused deforestation in the past. Plus, extracting scents from animals is a long and cruel process. Since synthetic fragrances aren’t sourced directly from the environment, the scents can be replicated without hurting the world around us.
Many brands choose to use a synthetic fragrance in their skincare because it lasts much longer than a natural fragrance. Dr. Hu says, “natural fragrance may only last one to two years, while synthetic fragrance can last up to five years.” Remember, to always check the expiration dates of skincare before applying it to the skin. This is especially true for synthetic-fragranced products as their scent can smell fresh for longer even when it’s past its prime.
Can skincare be unscented or fragrance-free?
Yes, definitely. Very Good Light describes an unscented product as one that “will still contain limited amounts of scented natural extracts, typically licorice root, to help neutralize the base scent of the product formulation.” The publication goes on to say that “fragrance-free products are truly fragrance-free, meaning the product contains absolutely zero fragrance additives, natural and synthetic. Fragrance-free products are the safest and most effective products you can buy for sensitive, acne-prone, and irritated skin.” For someone with fragrance allergies or sensitivity, fragrance-free skincare is the best option.
What types of fragrances do glowoasis products contain?
Here at glowoasis, we use synthetic or semi-synthetic fragrances in our formulas. We’re also HICC-free, or allergen-free, as in accordance with the European cosmetic guide. Dr. Hu shared that “there are key ingredients that have been identified by the scientific bodies of the European Union as the most common fragrance ingredients that have the potential to cause skin irritation, sensitivity, or other related problems.” As part of Our Clean Commitment, we proudly ban over 2,100 ingredients (and counting) deemed questionable by the EU including parabens, synthetic colors, and synthetic sulfates.
Shop our glowoasis fragrance-free collection
Additionally, we offer two fragrance-free skincare options. They are our probiotics + murumuru ultra calming toner and probiotics + murumuru hydra surge moisturizer. Both of these products are even EWG verified. This means they are free from EWG’s chemicals of concern and meet the strictest standards for your health. Shop this fragrance-free collection together here with our calming essentials kit.