Are essential oils better than fragrance oils? And why?

What is an essential oil versus a fragrance oil – why does it matter? 

My first introduction into using fragrance oils commercially was back when we were making candles. I love fragrance! And I absolutely loved smelling my candles. Then along came essential oils. The first batch I purchased smelled (I thought at the time) pretty awful – I mean compared to my spiced apple and antique lilac! I purchased them because I had learned that essential oils have medicinal value that can’t be denied. I’ve learned since then that essential oils smell so much better once you’ve gotten off the “fragrance oil addiction wagon”. There is a difference. Other than the fact one causes me to have headaches and the other helps me relax, heals wounds, relieve depression, and helps me have a good night’s sleep. 

So, why is there a debate about which is better than the other? Synthetic fragrances used to be cheaper. Not necessarily the case anymore as many of the “synthetic” fragrances also contain essential oils and the price of many essential oils has gone up drastically. Synthetic fragrances always smell consistent – at least from one brand or supplier to the next. Essential oils can vary from batch to batch depending on something as varying as the weather at the time they were grown, not to mention the differences in how they are distilled. Although I read somewhere that there are anywhere from 2000 to 5000 raw fragrance components used to formulate fragrance oils. 

So what's with the phthalates? 

Then there are the phthalates. Phthalates are those unsavory elements in fragrance oils that we are reading more and more about.  I won’t go into details here – just google it and someday I will blog about it, but in our opinion phthalates are to be avoided. Have we always done that? Well, no. We had to learn better. To my delight, it is now possible to source fragrance oils that still smell good and ARE phthalate free. Fragrance oils, even phthalate free, can still give me a headache though. I can use them in our soaps without problems – and I don’t say that just so you’ll think our using fragrance oils in our soaps is okay. It’s actually the other way around. I had pretty much ditched our fragrance oils and they were locked up in a closed cabinet in a closed bedroom until I could figure out how to dispose of them, but upon request from a customer made a batch of lilac soap. It smelled heavenly, I could even use it on my face and it didn’t cause my eyes to water or my head to ache. We’ve since tried different fragrances in our soaps to see if we have the same results. Bottom line though, the essential oils, although expensive, serve many purposes. And again though, saying that, our magnolia soap is one of my most favorite soaps to use, especially if I want to relax and soak for a long period of time. I realize the health benefits aren’t there, but aromatherapy isn’t always about aroma-THERAPY and for most of us the wonderful smell of freshly baked apple pie makes us feel warm and fuzzy - and that in my book IS therapeutic! So, even I'm conflicted about it and you'll be hard pressed to find anyone more passionate than I am about essential oils and their benefits. There have been discussions in the aromatherapy industry to which I belong that we need to change the name of what we do from "aromatherapy", since the term has been diluted and overused, to a different term to give the public a better understanding of the medicinal therapeutic properties of essential oils when used correctly and safely. And, of course, then we have to factor in the interference of the FDA (influenced of course by Big Pharma) as to how we word everything we write or talk about. Big Pharma is not happy about the proliferation of the use of essential oils and as the old saying goes - "they should be afraid, very afraid." Truthfully, even making that statement makes me a little uncomfortable and indicates clearly to me that the American fiction that we still have "free speech" is just that - fiction. Ahh - I digress. 

So which is better? 

That is your choice. You do have the right to know, however, which one is being used in the product you are purchasing. Many more people are coming to us with fragrance sensitivities – many more! You will see products on the store shelves that say they are full of “lavender”, when in fact they are full of synthetic chemicals. Even natural isolates are being used in many of the “natural” or “organic” products on the shelves. These are cheaper and again, more consistent in their fragrance and easier for the large commercial companies to use. Believe me – they could NOT sell you their lavender cleaning sprays and laundry wash if they were using pure aromatherapeutic (for lack of a better term) lavender essential oil. Even the high-end cosmetic companies are using isolates and you will see words such as "linalool" and "linalyl acetate". These isolates do not contain the full benefit of the plant as nature intended. There are many ways you can be fooled and fragrance companies do not have to disclose their ingredients as they are allowed to claim intellectual knowledge and seriously, the list would be too long to put on a label anyway. And would you even know what those names were? It’s an individual choice and I don’t like that people are demonized because they may like fragrance oils and choose to use them. I personally have been criticized and my credibility questioned as a certified clinical aromatherapist because we choose to use some fragrance oils in our soaps, a wash off product (seriously?!). It hurt at the time, but it seems many people are conflicted on this subject. Essential oil use in soaps is an entirely different discussion as not all essential oils will come through the soap making process - what a colossal waste of a good essential oil if it doesn't, just to be able to say you use ONLY essential oils in your soaps. 

The bottom line – educate yourself. 

If you have sensitivities to a particular brand of lavender, don’t throw out ALL lavenders as being bad – the real deal lavender essential oil  may be just what you need to calm your sensitivities! Lavenders are the most adulterated and there are many different varieties with varying properties from relaxing to stimulating. Know what plants DO produce “essential” oils and from what part of the plant. You won’t find a strawberry essential oil – you might now find a “natural” strawberry fragrance made from what they call nature identical – made in the lab or even extracted from the plant itself. If it is an essential oil, it will have a country of origin, it will have a botanical name and chemotype – and MOST IMPORTANTLY – it will have the natural synergy from the true plant. Once you learn how essential oils really smell, you WILL know when you are smelling a synthetic fragrance oil – or even a nature identical – just not the same. When I compare the true lavender essential oil that we use in our products versus the lavender fragrance oil we once used in our candles (and thought at the time that it was SO NICE), it is amazing to me that I ever thought that! Now, I just wrinkle my nose when I smell the false lavender. You may find just as I did that essential oils are something you can breathe in deeply, but if you take an opened bottle of synthetic fragrance oil, you simply can’t do that. Or if you do, it’s not enjoyable. All of that being said, people can have allergic reactions just a easily to essential oils. Always test one before using to see how you respond. 

 An expert's opinion: 

And finally, I decided rather than just trying to explain it myself, I'm attaching a link to the very BEST explanation of what defines an essential oil. This is from someone who can easily be said to be the foremost authority on all things pertaining to essential oils. Take a moment to peruse his blogs. You will get hooked on essential oils. 

Oh! And did I mention that essential oils are natural - truly natural - so they are not a threat to our environment. 

Thanks for listening!


Ann's mission statement is to provide health and wellness information to you and your family that you may not find in your every-day newspapers or Prevention magazines. Her college studies, certifications and passionate self-study have provided her with a huge spectrum of understanding of the intricate issues and debates concerning true aromatherapy, health, nutrition and skin care. Ann was a Critical Care Registered Nurse, is a Certified Clinical Aromatherapy Professional, and has been studying nutrition, aromatherapy, skin care health and medicinal herbalism for at least 13 years. Not so surprisingly, all of these interact for health and wellness at a level we all want to achieve. She is an ardent pursuer of verified research and information and spends huge amounts of time searching for information that is relevant and evidence based. We sincerely hope you benefit from her efforts.

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