Fragrances can be either natural or synthetic. Synthetic fragrances have been linked to adverse effects, whilst natural fragrances (essential oils) can have a positive therapeutic effect upon our body and mind. Visit our shop, where you can buy our scented candle, made from 100% natural wax and fragranced with the pure essential oils of geranium, lavender and bergamot to help you to relax and unwind.
Fragrances are all around us, and are found in many everyday products and items, from air fresheners to kitchen sprays and make-up wipes to scented toilet paper. We are quick to decide which fragrances we find appealing and which we want to avoid. But how much do we know about what’s in them? With a focus on scented candles, we will explore the differences between natural fragrances (essential oils) and their synthetic counterparts to help you to make a more informed decision about which products to choose for your home.
What is a fragrance?
A fragrance is an aroma we can detect with our sense of smell and is usually made up of a combination of different scents. Some fragrances are very familiar, whilst others we may not recognise at all. We all have particular likes and dislikes when it comes to fragrance. A fragrance is normally made up of a combination of different chemicals. These parts can be obtained entirely from natural sources, be chemically synthesized, or be a mixture of both. Candles can be scented with either synthetic fragrances or essential oils.
Fragrances are commonly made up of top, middle and base notes. Top notes are the most volatile (evaporate most quickly) and are usually citrus oils (like lemon or lime). Middle notes form the ‘body’ of a fragrance and are often floral oils (like lavender). Finally, bottom notes, perceived last by our sense of smell, are normally woody oils like cedarwood. Base notes are the least volatile and longest lasting (Draelos, 2013).
We will go on to explore the difference between essential oils (obtained from natural sources) and synthetic fragrances.
Essential oils are a natural source of fragrance, which have been used since early civilization. Essential oils can be defined as the natural concentrated essence of plants and form the basis of aromatherapy.
Where do essential oils come from?
The oils are derived from different parts of plants, for example, the leaves, seeds, flowers, fruit or bark.
Here are some examples of essential oils and where they are normally extracted from:
• Flowers: ylang ylang, roman chamomile, lavender
• Flowering tops and leaves: clary sage
• Leaves and twigs: tea tree, lemongrass
• Rind: bergamot, orange
• Seeds: coriander
• Roots: ginger
• Bark: cinnamon
How are essential oils extracted?
Two common methods of extraction of essential oils are:
• Steam distillation: the heat releases the fragrance materials and the steam is then condensed, causing the essential oils to collect on the top of the water. Examples of essential oils extracted in this way include lavender, sandalwood, ylang ylang and cinnamon.
• Expression: the peel is pressed, releasing the fragrant oils. Examples of essential oils extracted in this way include the citrus fruits of orange, lemon and bergamot.
The therapeutic value of essential oils
Each essential oil has its own chemical composition and specific therapeutic properties (IFPA, 2015). For example, lavender is known for its calming and relaxing properties (Diego et al. 1998).
Aromatherapists use only essential oils in aromatherapy, rather than artificial fragrances as it is these natural oils that have true therapeutic benefits (Lawless, 2012).
In contrast to essential oils, the use of synthetic fragrances has a much shorter history. Advances in organic chemistry in the first half of the 19th century meant that natural fragrance materials could be analysed and artificial imitations could start to be developed.
In the second half of 19th century came commercial production of specific chemicals which meant that further variations of fragrances could be developed, along with completely new odours.
What actually is a synthetic fragrance?
There are different ways that synthetic fragrances can be categorised and these are outlined below. Synthetic fragrances can contain natural ingredients but if at least one of these is synthetic, then the fragrance is still synthetic.
• The starting point of the fragrance development can be natural but the structure is chemically modified.
• The fragrance may be a synthetic ‘copy’ of its natural equivalent, with the same chemical structure.
• The fragrance may be synthetically developed and have no natural equivalent.
Why don’t synthetic fragrances smell like essential oils?
The simple answer to this is because they are not essential oils. Rose, for example, contains more than 300 different constituents and not all of these have been identified. Its synthetic version is a world away and it’s not hard to spot the difference! (Lawless, 2012).
Synthetic fragrances – adverse effects
Some people suffer from fragrance allergy (or sensitivity) and this problem is now more widely recognised. Symptoms can include headaches, sneezing, runny nose, and nasal congestion.
It has been estimated that there are more than 3000 chemicals used in fragrances in everyday products. Some research has suggested a link between synthetic fragrances and health problems, such as reproductive issues and asthma.
In order to get synthetic fragrances to smell for longer, chemical such as phthalates can be added. They are a group of chemicals which can mimic the effects of naturally-occurring hormones in our body (Ali, WEBMD, 2014).
In Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) sufferers react to exposure to chemicals in the environment, and can experience symptoms such as headaches, fatigue and skin rashes. Although not a formally recognised disorder, it is believed by some to be a chronic condition (Allergyuk, 2012).
Silva-Néto et al. (2014) conducted a questionnaire study and found that of all the odours migraineurs were asked about, the ones which triggered migraines most frequently were those of perfumes (even after just a few minutes of exposure).
By contrast, the inhalation of lavender essential oil has been found to reduce headache severity in migraine sufferers (Sasannedjad et al., 2012).
This would suggest it’s the synthetic nature of fragrances that makes them problematic for migraine sufferers.
Synthetically scented candles
A recent study tested different synthetically fragranced candles (clean cotton, floral, kiwi melon, strawberry and vanilla) to assess their chemical emissions. It was found that some chemicals were emitted from certain candles even when they were not lit. It was concluded that these artificially scented candles were a significant source of certain pollutants. Some scented candles produced toxic compounds like formaldehyde in high quantities, particularly when lit.
Advantages of synthetic fragrances
• Can be stronger and longer lasting
• Greater choice
• Normally cheaper
Disadvantages of synthetic fragrances
• Reportedly can have adverse effects on health
Advantages of essential oils (natural fragrances)
• Therapeutic benefits for body and mind
• Derived straight from nature
• Many people prefer the aroma to a synthetic fragrance
Disadvantages of essential oils (natural fragrances)
• More expensive
• May not have as strong a scent as synthetic fragrances (but often a higher proportion is added to compensate for this, which is good in terms of the therapeutic benefits too!)
If you want a candle or other product with only pure essential oils, make sure you understand the product information. ‘Made with essential oils’ does not mean 100% of the fragrance is essential oils. Look for comments like ‘No synthetic fragrances, fragranced exclusively with essential oils’.
• Fragrances can either be natural or synthetic, and can be used to scent candles and many other products.
• Essential oils are natural fragrances. They are the concentrated essence of plants and have been used since early civilization.
• Essential oils form the basis of aromatherapy; each has it’s own individual therapeutic properties.
• Synthetic fragrances aim to replicate natural aromas, modify those that already exist naturally or to simply create a new aroma which has no natural equivalent.
• Synthetic fragrances have been linked to some adverse health effects, and can be particularly problematic for to those with chemical sensitivities.
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