What is the Difference Between Natural and Synthetic Fragrances?

What is the Difference Between Natural and Synthetic Fragrances?

Why is everyone afraid of fragrances?

“Fragrance” is a trigger word.

Sometimes, they can be good. Multi-tasking ingredients like lemon or coconut oil disinfect surfaces and moisturize your skin while they clean.

Other times, they can be bad. A lot of “green” cleaning brands use fragrance as a mask. They trick consumers into believing that because their product left behind a pleasant scent, it must have done something to dirt and bacteria, regardless of whether or not that’s true. 

You can probably see where we’re going, but people usually think of natural fragrances as good and synthetic ones as the bad.

Today we’re going to examine whether or not there’s any truth behind that commonly held belief and what that means for your cleaning routine.

But, first thing’s first...


Are all fragrances bad?


All fragrances - natural or synthetic - can be an allergen if you have an allergy.

For example, if you’re allergic to cats, you probably shouldn’t be using cat hair perfume (yes, that’s a thing). But just because you’re sensitive to one fragrance, it doesn’t mean you’re sensitive to all fragrances. 

If you have a lot of allergies or you’re fragrance sensitive, patch test your cleaners. Put a small sample on your skin and see if you react.  

Nervous about putting a cleaning product on your skin? Then you probably shouldn’t be using that product to clean your home.


What is a natural fragrance? 

Natural fragrances come from nature. 

They haven’t been processed in a lab and have no added chemicals. Natural fragrances are distilled (similar to how you steep tea) and suspended in an oil or water solution.

Common natural fragrances are lemon oil, litsea oil (pine), and lavender oil.


What is a synthetic fragrance? 

Synthetic fragrances are developed in labs from artificial compounds and natural materials. 

Think of synthetic fragrances like processed foods. They might have some natural ingredients, but they also have a whole slew of added chemicals, not many of them good.


Are all synthetic fragrances bad?

A synthetic fragrance is any fragrance created through the combination of two or more ingredients. A synthetic fragrance could be a combination of two all-natural, organic ingredients (pineapple oil + coconut oil = pina colada bathroom cleaner?).

But more often than not, synthetic fragrances are made from more than two ingredients, including natural and synthetic ones. And the majority of synthetic fragrances contain chemicals called “fixatives.”

Fixatives adhere fragrances to objects to make the scent last longer. Natural fragrances don’t naturally adhere and fade away sooner.

However, fixatives don’t just fix the fragrance to your skin, dishes, carpets, and surfaces. They also fix all of the chemicals in a cleaner to your surfaces.

That means that if there’s formaldehyde in your bathroom cleaner and a synthetic fragrance, the formaldehyde will “fix” onto your tub.


Why do synthetic fragrances get a bad rap?

Because there’s no way to know how many toxic chemicals are hiding in a synthetic fragrance. 

Synthetic fragrances are classified as “trade secrets,” meaning cleaning companies aren’t required to list the ingredients in a fragrance on the label. Instead, they get away with putting “parfum” or “fragrance.”

Parfum and fragrance are blanket terms that cover over 3,000 ingredients - natural and synthetic - according to the FDA.

Synthetic fragrances expose your home to any number of toxic chemicals without your even knowing about them. According to research by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), the 21 most commonly used multi-surface sprays emit 450 different chemicals into the air. Because fragrances are “trade secrets,” the majority of those chemicals aren’t put on labels.


What toxic chemicals are in synthetic fragrances?

It depends on the cleaner, but most synthetic fragrances contain petrochemicals and stabilizing ingredients. 

Petrochemicals are ingredients like benzene derivates, phthalates, and aldehydes. Most petrochemicals show up on the EPA’s hazardous waste list.

Stabilizing ingredients are things parabens, BHT, VOCs, and ketones. 

Both stabilizers and petrochemicals have been linked to asthma and increased allergies in children, birth defects, and respiratory illnesses later in life. 


How can I tell if a product has a synthetic fragrance?

Two words: “fragrance” and “parfum.”

When you see either of those on a label, the fragrance is probably hiding a host of toxic chemicals.

If a product has fragrance, make sure the label lists exactly what’s in the fragrance, not just “fragrance” or “parfum.” Think again of “organic essential lemon oil” or “coconut oil.”

If it’s not on the bottle, there’s no way to know if it’s safe. 

Want to learn more about what to look for on labels? Read our post about the dirty truth behind toxic cleaning products.