Essential Oils, Fragrance Oils - What's the Difference?

When I began learning about making soap and other bath and body products, I belonged to about three or four Yahoo groups for soapmakers, which is today’s equivalent to Facebook soapmaker pages.  Often, a debate would flare up over a simple comment that questioned the safety or quality of synthetic fragrance – and the battle would begin.

This was about 10 years ago, and the debates continue on, at times escalating to virtual bloodbaths.  Comments are made in blind rages, with raw emotion that’s normally associated with religion or politics.  (But don’t worry, I’m not going *there*).  Members leave groups like wounded puppies, tails between legs, or are banned by admins for breaking group rules.  Cussing, name calling, memes, and flouncing abound.  But who is right?  IS there a right or wrong in this debate?  Personally, I think that there are some truths that should be brought out in the open, so each of us can decide for ourselves.

Fragrance oils are often referred to as an acronym, FO’s, in soap and cosmetic circles.  In the fragrance industry, perfumers use the word “fragrance” when referring to synthetic FO’s.  In the late 1800’s synthetic chemicals began to be used for scenting soaps and making perfumes.  Early versions of fragrance were made with ingredients such as benzene (a carcinogen) and coumarin (toxic to the liver and kidneys), although the dangers weren’t known at that time.  Today, there are still fragrances that are made with benzene and coumarin, as well as aldehydes (inhaling aldehydes can cause airway constriction and cell damage) and phthalates, which are toxic to the liver, kidneys, lungs, and reproductive organs, also known to be hormone disruptors.

Further muddying of the waters is accomplished because the fragrance industry is allowed by law to keep their ingredients secret, under the veil of “proprietary information.”  Some fragrances are marketed to cosmetic makers as phthalate free, but what about all the other ingredients?  If some ingredients are known to be toxic or carcinogenic, don’t we have a right to know, to make an educated choice?

On the other hand, we have essential oils, which are derived from plants.  Ah, natural equals safe and somehow better – right?  Well, arsenic is natural, and so is poison ivy, so we can put aside that happy and naïve little thought.  But essential oils, or EO’s, have their own controversial issues as well.  EO’s are extremely concentrated parts of plants, made by distilling plant material.  If you ever wondered just how concentrated they are, try putting a little EO in a plastic container and see what happens.  Most of them only take a few seconds to eat right through plastic, leaving a gaping hole in the container.  And if that container is sitting on a table made of wood, it can strip the finish right off the wood as well.  Knowing that, who would want to put undiluted EO on their skin, or their children’s skin? 

I’m not against essential oils – but I am in favor of knowing what materials you are working with to use them safely and intelligently.  Using EO’s to create scent in handmade soaps and cosmetics without doing research about safe usage and handling is foolish and irresponsible.  It can – and undoubtedly has – caused damage to many people.  Not all EO’s are safe to use, some are safe to use within certain limits, and some are not safe for certain groups of people, such as infants and people with certain medical conditions.

As a maker of soaps and cosmetic products, I make sure that I am using safe levels of essential oils, according to industry standards.  Since synthetic fragrance can contain a multitude of questionable if not downright toxic substances, I try to avoid FO’s as much as possible.  Logic dictates that handling FO’s in their concentrated forms would mean a more concentrated exposure than just exposure to a finished product, so I definitely want to avoid exposure to FO’s when making products. 

The whole reason I started making soaps, body oils, and lotion bars was to offer a high quality version of these things to my family and myself, and ultimately my customers.  It just didn’t feel right to choose any ingredient that I couldn’t know what exactly it was made of, and that it was possibly toxic.  I studied and researched for years before I made my first batch of soap, and I continue to study and research to learn as much as possible so I can continue to offer the very best – and that is the answer for me to the question of EO vs FO.