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Fragrance Transparency: Synthetic vs Natural Perfumes

on February 19, 2021

The green movement has changed the way most of us shop. Consumers becoming more conscious of product ingredients is an excellent step towards a healthier environment; however, the persistent narrative that organic or natural ingredients are always the most environmentally kind option needs to be examined. The truth is — when it comes to the production of fragrances — natural ingredients aren’t always the most sustainable option.

Why Natural Isn’t Always The Best

Philosophers have been dealing with this problem for years and even have a name for it: the naturalistic fallacy. It works by suggesting that because something is natural, it must automatically be good. Or because something is not natural, it is therefore bad.

Of course, there are many natural things that are good — fruit and vegetables, for example. Likewise, nature contains many things that we should avoid if we can, like earthquakes, poison, and disease. Nature is full of chemicals that are toxic and harmful to humans, which undermines the claim that natural is best. And this is before we consider the environmental impact of using certain ingredients.

The palm oil industry has come under increased scrutiny over recent years. As well as being used in food, it can be found in shampoos and cosmetics; however, the costs of using this oil concerns environmentalists. Palm oil farming is said to be responsible for 8% of the world’s deforestation between 1990 and 2008. Despite being a natural ingredient, palm oil production can lead to the destruction of habitats and an area’s biodiversity.

 


What Is Meant By Sustainable?

It can be hard to get an exact fix on what is meant by sustainable ingredients. It can mean being environmentally sound, using renewable resources, or can even pertain to the communities involved in the processing and harvesting of materials. Most people can agree that for an ingredient to be sustainable, it shouldn’t cause harm to the environment or deplete its natural resources.

 Quite often, sourcing natural ingredients requires harvesting techniques that wreak havoc with the local soil. As consumers demand more natural products, the demand in these areas goes up. The best way to evaluate an ingredient list for its eco-friendly qualities is to research each ingredient, where it comes from, and determine the impact it has on the earth.

As you do this, you’ll soon realize how complex the issue of natural ingredients can get. Many of the more popular raw materials can create a financial incentive in a country or region that drives adverse outcomes, like overfarming. Additionally, there are ethical concerns involved in purchasing certain materials because they are only available from politically sensitive or occasionally war-torn regions.

Natural vs. Synthetic: What Is the Difference?

Many perfume manufacturers choose to use a blend of natural and synthetic materials because of the concerns over sustainability and ethics. Additionally, natural materials are affected by the weather, soil, economic competition, and natural disasters. When you put all this together, using the right synthetics can mean a more practical and more sustainable product.

The clean beauty movement has led to many marketing buzzwords like natural, plant-based, organic, etc. Sometimes these words mean something, but often they don’t. For example, there is no regulatory body that oversees the use of the term natural. It can mean as little as a product contains a certain amount of raw materials.

Part of the misconception that people have around synthetics is down to marketing. For years, truly natural cosmetics had a reputation for ineffectiveness and uneven quality. So, to cleave out a part of the market, many natural brands began a campaign of demonizing synthetic materials. For many, these misconceptions have been hard to shift.

Two interesting examples to consider are Vitamin A and Vitamin C. Vitamin A can be found in oily fish, cheese, eggs, and milk; while Vitamin C can be sourced from citrus fruits, berries, and strawberries. However, when synthesized, both of these vitamins are chemically identical to their whole food form.

A Comparison of Synthetic vs Natural Perfumes

When you strip back the marketing terms like organic, clean, and natural, what most consumers are really asking for is products that are safe, that work as described, and don’t cause harm to the environment. To evaluate the molecules and chemicals present in natural and synthetic scents, we need to look at three areas: procurement, craft, and environmental impact.

Procurement of Natural and Synthetic Fragrance Oils        

Synthetic Materials
Synthetic aromatic raw materials are developed by fragrance manufacturers in laboratories. These materials are either created from certain oils or are chemically altered forms of natural scents. In fact, the vast majority of synthetic materials start out life as a natural scent that is then altered to heighten the smell, making it longer lasting or enhancing the scent profile.

Because of their controlled production environment, synthetic materials eliminate many of the problems involved with sourcing natural materials. This means a steady supply of consistent materials that aren’t at the whim of a poor harvest, a natural disaster, or regional conflict.

Synthetic materials can typically be produced more cost-effectively. They require the purchase of raw materials and time in the laboratory to make them initially; however, these costs can be seen as a long-term investment. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, and certain chemicals require a more sophisticated and lengthy product process.

Natural Materials
The production of natural perfume oils is frequently a labor-intensive and complicated logistical process. The scents are taken from organic matter, which includes fruit, plants, and animals. Typically, these raw materials are boiled, dissolved in alcohol, or distilled in other ways.

Procurement of raw materials is where things can become somewhat complicated. Because these materials require fruit, plants, or animals, they rely on favorable weather and harvests for a consistent supply. Many factors can affect this supply, from over-harvesting, poor weather, natural disasters, or political instability in the region these materials are grown in. Additionally, supply and demand prices change frequently, so shortages of certain materials can lead to a hike in prices.

Depending on the materials, prices for natural ingredients can vary. Some fragrances may use exotic or difficult to find ingredients, and that is reflected in the price.


Craft

Synthetic Materials
One of the reasons for the popularity of synthetic materials within the industry is the possibilities it allows perfumers. Synthetic materials allow a greater level of precision. When combined with natural materials, synthetic materials can use a great palette to create far deep and more sophisticated scents than would be possible with only natural ingredients.

Synthetic molecules have the advantage of being able to replicate scents that don’t expel enough oil to be used in the production of natural materials. This, along with the ability to conjure up scents that don’t appear in the wild, allows perfumers to craft products that are indeed out of this world. With a vastly broad palette and an ability to replicate even the most obscure and unstable molecules, synthetics open the field up to great variety and artistry.

Natural Materials
Natural materials have a frequently complex and distinct odor that is difficult to replicate. These scents and perfume oils are composed of individual scent molecules, ranging from just a few to more complicated arrangements of hundreds. One drawback of these materials is their lack of versatility.

This is partly because there are only about 200 plants that can be used to extract scents reliably. The extraction process requires a decent amount of natural oils that is beyond the capacity of many materials. Production of natural fragrances oils can be difficult, with many scents having a short shelf life.

Of course, one of the best aspects of natural fragrances is their unmistakable feel of capturing nature’s intangibles. Like a beautifully composed and balanced wine, raw materials can tell a story about far more than the grape or the material itself: the soil, the surrounding area, the sense of place and time. There is something profoundly moving about how natural materials can evoke this feeling.

Environment & Health Impact

Synthetic Materials
One strange aspect of the bad press that synthetic materials receive suggests that they cause more allergies and sensitivity than natural scents. This is usually based on dubious or misleading scientific claims. While allergens and chemicals that cause sensitivity do affect a percentage of the population, synthetic molecules can, in fact, make a good substitute for allergens in natural materials.

The International Fragrance Association (IFRA) keeps a stringent list of chemicals that can prove harmful when used in perfume manufacture. Much of its work and regulations pertain to the active amount of the controlled materials used in the product. These regulations are the same for natural and synthetic materials, which means that neither of these materials is permitted to carry higher levels than the other.

All of this adds up to the fact that neither scents are more likely to be allergic than the other. If anything, because of the greater scope and flexibility involved in the production of synthetics, a perfume made in a lab may be better able to reduce certain irritants.

While it would be incorrect to suggest that synthetics have no environmental impact, the process does allow for a far more ethical operation across a number of domains. By not requiring plants, fruit, or animals in production, synthetic materials contribute less to deforestation and the use of natural resources.

Manufacturers can use synthetics to break the industry’s reliance on materials that cause a great deal of environmental destruction. Orchids and rosewood are two notable materials that caused ecological issues that are reduced due to credible synthetic alternatives.

Natural Materials
Contrary to popular opinion, natural molecules contain chemicals that are harmful at high concentrations. Cinnamon, saffron, and rose oil are all on the list of monitored items by the IFRA. This, of course, makes sense because nature is full of compounds that at the wrong level are hazardous to human health, like poison ivy. However, with strict adherence to the guidelines and regulations issued by governing bodies, perfume can be enjoyed without too much concern.

Allergens fall within the same category. While some natural fragrances can irritate the skin, they should only happen in a minority of cases due to pre-sale testing.

Environmentally, natural materials are subject to many of the same concerns of the food industry. Because they require vast amounts of material to produce goods, producing natural oils is responsible for using planetary resources. While this is off-set partially by providing work and employment for many across the globe, as populations grow and the effects of global warming continue to be felt, many in the industry may be forced to examine these processes and look for a genuinely sustainable approach that is kinder to the earth.

Why We Use Synthetics

After all of this, I hope it is clear why we use a blend of natural and synthetic oils in our JYCTY Fragrance oils and roll on perfume oil. It’s essential that consumers have a clear idea of the ingredients and the processes used in producing their goods, and to do that requires dispelling a few of the myths and half-truths that circulate about the sustainability of natural products.
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