Fragrance oils versus essential oils:
I don’t profess to be an expert on the subject of essential oils or fragrance oils, what I know I have picked up from books on the subject, because I do think it is important as a soap maker to understand the difference between fragrance oil and essential oils. It is after all the scent, or fragrance, that attracts many of us to buy one soap over another. I have noted that people are divided over which is better and many have very strong opinions over natural versus synthetic.
I went to perfumery to try to understand the different terms and how fragrances and essential oils are made and how they are categorized. Most perfumes and fragrance oils on the market today are made from a combination of natural and synthetic ingredients, and nearly all of them are kept secret from us.
These are concentrated oils created from the roots, bark, leaves, stems, flowers, or other part of a plant. Essential oils are the natural oils that contain the “essence” of a plant. They are generally, but not always, distilled using steam or water. It takes hundreds of pounds of plant material to make a pound of essential oil. For example, it takes about 30 pounds of lavender to make approximately 15mls of essential oil.
Essential oils make us feel good so it’s no wonder they have been used for centuries to promote physical and mental well-being. Typically these oils are more expensive than fragrance oils and it’s always a delicate balance in deciding to use essential oil over fragrance oils in the making of soap.
Fragrance oils are generally a combination of synthetic and natural substances that have been put together, typically by a perfumer, whose goal it is to design a scent. From Wikipedia = “Perfumer”:
“The perfumer is effectively an artist who is trained in depth on the concepts of fragrance aesthetics and who is capable of conveying abstract concepts and moods with their fragrance compositions.”
Sometimes fragrance oils are designed to mimic something in nature like rose or sandalwood, or sometimes they are created to smell like an idea or a concept like Ocean Breeze, or Summer Rain, or even Fresh Cut Grass. Some fragrance oils contain essential oils and some contain synthetically made constituents of essential oils and they are typically diluted to create some uniformity of strength across the fragrance oil. There are literally thousands of various aroma chemicals to choose from that blended together create a fragrance oil.
Here is just a small list of fragrance oils, the note and the fragrance family (explained a little later in this post).
Amber: Heart note / Gourmand (edible)
Apple: Top note / Fruitaceous (fruity)
Coffee: Base note / Gourmand (edible)
Fresh Cut Grass: Heart note / Verdant (green)
Green Tea: Top note / Verdant (green)
Lilac: Top note / Efflorescent (floral)
Maple: Heart note / Arboraceous (woody)
Oakmoss: Heart note / Terrestrial (earthy)
Rose: Heart note / Efflorescent (floral)
Sandalwood: Base note / Arboraceous (woody)
Strawberry: Heart note/ Fruitaceous (fruity)
Vetiver: Base note / Terrestrial (earthy)
Fragrance oils (and essential oils) are classified by their “notes” or scent characteristics.
Top notes: These normally fade fast, they tend to be light, fresh and uplifting in nature and they also tend to be expensive. They are the first impression you get and they don’t last very long.
Heart notes: These are normally warm and soft fragrances. These take a little longer to come through. These are also referred to as middle notes, but I quite like the idea of calling them heart notes.
Base notes: These are the heavy fragrances. The scent will be present for a long time and they tend to slow down the evaporation of the other oils. These are intense and invigorating fragrances rich and relaxing in nature and typically they are the most expensive of oils……think Sandalwood. I use Sandalwood fragrance oil because the essential oil is so very expensive and because the scent is one that people love. It’s one of my favorite scents too.
As you can see from our list above the fragrance families of Efflorescent (floral), Fruitaceous (fruity), Gourmand (edible), Arboraceous (woody), Verdent (green) and Terrestrial (earthy) are self-explanatory. This classification system of notes and families comes from the book I found that has helped me a lot to understand fragrances, written by Angie Andriot and Alyssa Middleton called Introduction to Artisan Perfumery. Here is the link if you are interested in knowing more about perfumery.
Perfumers and fragrance oil blenders are guided by IFRA, the International Fragrance Association, which is the official representative body of the fragrance industry worldwide. Its main purpose is to ensure the safety of fragrance materials through a dedicated science program. They focus on fragrance safety both as it relates to the consumer and to the environment.
I use both essential oils and fragrance oils in my soaps. I love essential oils and I also love fragrance oils. I try to keep current and learn as much as I can so that I can make educated choices about the products I make. I only buy fragrances from companies that do not test on animals. All the fragrance oils I use are Phthalate-Free & Nitro Musk Free and if packaged in PET plastic bottles these too are phthalate-free, recyclable and almost all are manufactured in Australia.