Are fragrance oils natural?

The gorgeous sweet floral scent of Mayday trees is everywhere in my neighbourhood this week. Besides lilacs, it is one of my favourite scents of spring.

Even though they are so aromatic, both Mayday and lilac blossoms – as well as many other beautiful florals (like peonies) – do not produce an essential oil.

However, the “aroma” of these beautiful blooms are readily available as fragrance oils. Do you remember the Body Shop’s lilac oil? 

What’s the difference between an essential oil and a fragrance oil?

Essential oils are highly aromatic substances found in specialized cells of certain plants.

Technically, when this substance is in the plant, it’s called an essence. After it’s extracted, the aromatic substance is referred to as an essential oil. The majority of essential oils are extracted from the plant through a process of steam distillation.

Essential oils are complex chemical compounds. A typical essential oil will contain more than 100 different chemical constituents. Essential oils have a variety of therapeutic properties; some may be stimulating, calming, antiviral, antiseptic, grounding, and uplifting – all depending on the chemical constituents that are present.

Fragrance oils, are blended synthetic aroma compounds. More than 95 percent of the chemicals in synthetic fragrances are derived from petrochemicals.

Fragrance oils are cheaper to produce and are available in a wide variety of scents – like lilac or peony or summer breeze.

Fragrance oils may smell pleasant, but they don’t contain any of the therapeutic and healing properties of essential oils.

In fact, of the thousands of chemicals used in fragrances, most have not been tested for toxicity, alone or in combination. Many of these unlisted ingredients are irritants and can trigger allergies, migraines, and asthma symptoms (David Suzuki Foundation, n.d.).

Environmental Working Group researchers found more than 75 percent of products listing the ingredient “fragrance” contained phthalates which have been shown to disrupt hormone activity, reduce sperm counts, and cause reproductive malformation, and have been linked to liver and breast cancer, diabetes, and obesity. Pretty horrible, right?

You can read the EWG’s full report here: Not So Sexy: The Health Risks of Secret Chemicals in Fragrance

Reawaken your sense of smell

When I facilitate an aromatherapy workshop, there are usually a few participants who smell organic lavender essential oil for the first time and they can’t quite believe what they are smelling! It smells so good and real and…so much better than synthetic lavender fragrance oil.

If you are new to aromatherapy and essential oils, it might be difficult to distinguish the difference between a synthetic lavender oil and a true lavender essential oil. But over time, your nose will become more experienced and sensitive to the many different layers of aroma.

And it won’t be long before you’ll notice how fragrance oils smell inferior when compared to pure essential oils (Aromaweb, 2017).

Even the scientist responsible for the most patents on synthetic aromas acknowledged that “nature is the greatest inventor in the universe” and that the scent of living plants was ultimately too elusive to fully re-create (Balahoutis, 2013).


Aromaweb. 2017. What are fragrance oils? Retrieved from

Balahoutis, A. 2013. Retrieved May 14, 2017, from

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