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Fragrance Oils and Essential Oils – What’s the Difference?

Have you noticed lately that many household cleaning products and deodorizers are scented with “aromatherapy essentials” or with “Jasmine” or some other exotic fragrance like “Calming”?  Do they really add essential oils to dishwashing detergent in quantities significant enough to be of any value and are they therapeutic grade?  Well, of course not but with a growing popular interest in health and wellness, essential oils and aromatherapy make great marketing even when products only have artificially produced scents “inspired” by aromatherapy plant essences.

Most consumer products use fragrance oils to achieve their scent and although some mimic the scent of well known essential oils they are quite different.

Essential oils are natural and fragrance oils are synthetic

Essential oils are the natural aromatic oils that are extracted from plants.  Technically they are not oils at all but complex mixtures of organic compounds that exist within the cells of the plant.  Each essential oil is derived from a single plant source and depending on the species is extracted from the flower petals, leaves, stems, roots, rind of the fruit, seeds, or even the wood of trees.  It is likely these compounds have evolved over time to aid the plants in survival by providing resistance to disease or by attracting pollinating insects with their fragrance.

Fragrance oils are man-made organic mixtures that are engineered by chemists to produce an attractive scent.  This can be anything from “Lilacs” to “New Car” scent.  Although fragrance oils may contain essential oils as ingredients they will also contain animal and synthetic fixatives, and synthetic compounds derived from petroleum.

Essential oils are therapeutic and fragrance oils are not

Essential oils are not only fragrant but they are also therapeutic and have been used for centuries, medicinally and cosmetically to improve physical and psychological health and well being.  Specific pharmacological effects are produced by essential oils through skin absorption and inhalation, which is the very basis of Aromatherapy, a widely used form of natural alternative medicine.

Fragrance oils are used to scent hundreds of consumer products and their sole purpose is to improve the smell of the product.  Although fragrance oils may contain many ingredients, they are biologically less complex than essential oils and provide no therapeutic benefits.

Why do most commercial products use fragrance oils?

With such a profound difference, why do most commercial products use fragrance oils and not essential oils?  The main reason is cost but there are issues with supply and the range of scent as well.

The harvesting of plant materials and the production of essential oils can be very costly.  Some plants such as lavender are grown on commercial farms and are harvested mechanically.  But many are hand picked and in some cases from plants that grow in wild habitat.  The yield of oil from the plant material is very small and can range from as much as 10% to as little at 0.02% by weight.  The highly prized rose and jasmine essential oils are both derived from hand picked blossoms that yield only 0.02% oil by weight of fresh blossoms.  Fragrance oils on the other hand, can be mass produced from relatively inexpensive organic chemicals.

Being crop-based, the supply of plant material and yield of oil will vary from year to year and some plant species have limited habitat.  The supply of many essential oils is too limited and unreliable to economically serve the needs of large scale commercial production.

The essential oil industry is analogous to the wine industry.  The quality of the final product will vary according to the plant subspecies, the growing conditions and the manufacturing.  This variability is not suited to the mass production market.

Only a very tiny percentage of plant species can economically yield usable essential oils and although the range of scent is tremendous, all essential oils have a “natural” fragrance.  So if you want to produce the scent of “fresh baked bread” or for that matter “Lily of the Valley”, you have to use fragrance oil.

Are there products available that use essential oils?

Yes.  Essential oils are the perfect choice for adding fragrance to skin care and bath and body products that are made with natural ingredients.  By selecting the right combination of oils, it is possible to achieve a wonderful scent and also enjoy the therapeutic benefits of the oils.  The essential oils complement these products.  They treat many skin conditions, contribute to healthier skin, relieve aches and pains and have a balancing effect on your mood and sense of well being.

Natural perfumes made exclusively from essential oils can also have a positive effect on your mood.  They can reduce anxiety and stress, combat fatigue or be invigorating and stimulating.  They tend to be softer than most commercial perfumes produced with fragrance oils.  Essential oil based fragrances are not overpowering, and are less likely to irritate you and the people around you than commercial, synthetic scents.

If you enjoy fragrance, but are sensitive to certain synthetics and chemicals, essential oil fragranced products are a good alternative.

It’s your choice

Knowing the difference between fragrance oils and essential oils is an important first step in deciding which products are most suited to your needs.  Mass produced low cost consumer products will use fragrance oils to produce an attractive scent.  This is perfectly acceptable for dishwashing detergent but shouldn’t your face cream use pure essential oils?  Don’t be fooled by the marketing.  Read the labels carefully and make your choice.

Marilyn Flook manages the Forever Fragrant website which promotes aromatherapy and natural products. Learn more about luxurious natural skin care treatments fragranced exclusively with pure essential oils and all natural perfumes that use no artificial additives.
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