Natural vs Synthetic — Uncovering the Hidden Ingredients in Fragrance

It seems like, when it comes to fragrances, there are two sides most of us fall on:

Side 1: All fragrances are chemicals and they’re highly toxic substances to be avoided as much as possible.

Side 2: What’s wrong with fragrances? I love my scented candles.

scented votive candlesThe problem is that fragrances are a problem, and it’s incredibly important to be aware. But the issue is also that there is so much fear around synthetic fragrances, that sometimes, even safe, natural fragrances fall under fire.

We’re here to help you understand the difference between the two so that you are able to identify synthetic fragrances in your personal and home care products and know how to replace them with safe, natural alternatives.

What are Synthetic Fragrances?

There are more than 3,000 chemicals that are routinely used to create synthetic fragrances. Most of these are petrochemicals. Common petrochemicals include benzene derivatives, aldehydes, phthalates, and more. Some petrochemicals used in fragrances are even cited on the EPA’s hazardous waste list.

Not that you’d know any of this by checking the ingredient list on any of your scented products.

Fragrances are protected as ‘trade secrets’, and are therefore not required to be listed on product labels. Manufacturers can legally list just one ingredient, such as ‘fragrance’ or ‘parfum’, as a blanket term to cover any number of 3,000+ ingredients.

The result is that we’re exposed to many, many potentially harmful substances every day, without even knowing it. Research conducted by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics found an average of 14 chemicals in 17 name brand fragrance products. All potentially harmful, and yet none of them were listed on the label.

So, Where are Synthetic Fragrances Hiding?

The short answer? Everywhere.

Any conventional ‘non-natural’ scented product is hiding unlisted fragrance ingredients, and even some products marketed as ‘natural’ do as well. Who’s to stop them, after all? It’s trade secrets that are protected under law — not your health.

The reality is, the government is allowing manufacturers to knowingly poison the public with dangerous synthetic fragrances that are being absorbed, inhaled, and even ingested every single day.

Here are some likely places you’ll find ‘fragrance’ hiding:

  • Dryer sheets
  • Laundry detergent
  • Cleaners
  • Cosmetics
  • Air fresheners
  • Plug-ins
  • Wax melts
  • Scented candles
  • Deodorant
  • Lotions and serums
  • Shampoo and hair care products
  • Soap
  • Sunscreen
  • Perfumes, colognes, and body sprays

woman applying perfume at vanityHealth Hazards Associated with Synthetic Fragrances

Synthetic ingredients attack our bodies through two major organs. The first is the skin, the largest organ in the body.

Up to 60% of what you put onto your skin can be absorbed into your bloodstream, where it is then carried to other organs and tissues within the body. What we put onto our skin has a deep and profound impact on the health of our bodies as a whole. (Think of Nicotine patches or hormone therapy, for example).

The second major organ affected is our lungs. The delicate tissue of our lungs was designed to oxygenate our bloodstream by bringing fresh air into contact with tiny blood vessels. What we inhale, whether cigarette smoke, paint fumes, exhaust, carbon monoxide, or dangerous synthetic fragrances, is passed into our bloodstream, through our heart, and then throughout the rest of our bodies.

Possible Side Effects of Synthetic Scents:

  • Respiratory irritation
  • Eye, nose, and throat irritation
  • Decreased airflow when breathing
  • Aggravate asthma
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Decreased sperm count
  • Birth defects
  • Hormonal disruption
  • Trigger cancer cells
  • Endocrine disruption
  • Developmental and reproductive toxicity
  • Neurological disorders
  • Loss of muscle control
  • Headaches
  • Memory loss
  • Problems with speech, hearing, and vision
  • Liver and kidney damage
  • Rashes, dermatitis, eczema, and psoriasis
  • Acne

Natural Vs. Synthetic Fragrances — How Do You Know if Natural is ‘Safe’?

ISO 9235 defines natural fragrances as, “…natural aromatic raw materials that are physically obtained from plants using distillation, expression, and/or extraction.” These natural aromatic raw materials might be from resin, flowers, wood, or, unfortunately, even animals (not ours!). Examples of natural fragrances include essential oils and natural plant essences or oils.

It’s important to note that ISO 9235 goes on to state that, “Synthetically reconstituted essential oils, synthetic nature-identical ingredients, and intentionally chemically modified natural raw materials (e.g. chemical acetylation of essential oil) cannot be used in fragrance compounds described as natural.”

Unfortunately, a lot of manufacturers get away with calling their products ‘natural’, when they are really anything but. Additionally, thanks to those pesky trade secret laws that allow manufacturers to refuse to disclose all of their ingredients, it can be hard to know for sure.

But, here are a few good rules of thumb:

  1. If you see other questionable ingredients on the list, it’s not worth the risk.
  2. If the product is produced by a trusted brand known for purity and safety, it’s probably okay.
  3. Check to see if the product has been evaluated by the EWG.
  4. Choose products that are certified by established regulatory organizations, such as Certified Cruelty-Free by Leaping Bunny, Certified Vegan, or Safer Choice compliant, etc.

lemon balm with mortar and pestleOur Commitment to Pure, Safe Natural Fragrances

We are passionately committed to creating products that are Always Safe for People and the Planet. For us, fragrances hit especially close to home because of the health ramifications on unborn babies and infants. (Read our story to learn why.)

What We Use:

  • Natural fragrances. We know, the use of this phrase is bound to cause some suspicious side-eye, but our natural fragrances truly are just that. They are only derived from natural plant essences and oils, with no Frankenstein manufacturing methods, petrochemicals, or hazardous processing. All of our natural fragrances are Safer Choice compliant and free of petrochemicals, solvents, dyes, and pesticides.
  • Essential oils. These are concentrated oils containing the volatile aroma compounds of plants. Whenever possible, we source from organic farms or wild-crafters committed to sustainable harvesting practices.

Still curious? Learn more about our ingredients.

lavender fieldHere’s How You Can Go Natural

We promise it’s easier than you think.

  1. Get rid of all products in your home that use synthetic or artificial fragrances.
  2. Choose natural laundry care and home care products.
  3. Choose natural personal care products. The EWG has many recommended companies to choose from.

You might not be able to make it all happen in one day. Start making changes where you can as you find natural alternatives you like. Use the EWG as your guidebook, and investigate online markets devoted to safety such as Grove Pantry, Thrive Market, and more.

And, of course, we’re here to help as well.