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March 17, 2017 8 min read 1 Comment

What is natural?

Cambridge dictionary defines natural  "as found in nature and not involving anything made or done by people."

In other words, something is natural when it was not transformed/ intervened by human beings. Based on this definition, no product of the perfume/ aroma industries are natural. For example, if an essential oil is extracted from a flower which is completed by a human, either solvent extracted, hydro-distilled, steam-distilled, CO2 extracted, then this is no longer natural.

Also, by this definition, dog poo is natural as it is completely untouched by a human, is it toxic? 

Ok, that is one side of the coin. Let's discuss another side.

What is synthetic?

Often, it was known as compounds derived from petroleum. However, petroleum is natural, that is a fact, as it is fossil fuel was formed from the remains of the ancient marine organism for centuries.

What makes it more interesting is people perception. To illustrate, below are two natural resources but labelled differently: 

  • The essential oil distilled from plants labelled as "natural". Was it because of the word "plants" which is natural; hence the essence from it is natural? If yes, then what about the below:
  • Petrol is made from crude oil, by gradually increase in temperature to break its hydrocarbons and carbon atom chains. Crude oil is 100% natural, and the products made from it (crude oil) were labelled as synthetic?


It is all about safety.

Peanut (yes it is natural) seems harmless, but it can kill people who are allergic to it. Similar case applied to capsicum, so it is case-specific not everyone. Science has shown us that smoking killed yet many lives over 100 years by smoking over 30 cigarettes a day,  

If you use a body lotion, a fabric softener, or even a perfume and experience headache every time you use, the best way is to stop using it completely. The real challenge: you are not able to stop people around you using it.

Blue swimmer crab is an excellent natural ingredient of many seafood dishes. However, some consumers may experience skin irritation, and some may not occur after consumption.

Not all synthetic ingredients are harmful. For example, some synthetic anti-biotic drug saves lives. In the perfume industry, the renown icon Channel no 5 is 100% synthetic, there may be some un-reported allergy, but overall, it is a big success over time generating billion dollars. Again, this means safety is the primary concern; the label of "natural" or "synthetic" is just personal preferences.

There is a common misconception among consumers: natural products are assumed to be safer than synthetics. There are hundreds of organic compounds, and some are undesirable of which causing irritants and photo toxins, for example, bergaptenes in bergamot oil (S Herman Fragrance Cosmetic Science and Technology Chapter 18)

Interestingly, several well-known compounds in perfumery, which could be naturally extracted from plants or synthetically produced, is a carcinogenic (Grenville, 2017). Coumarin is a good example.

According to the Perfume Handbook (Groom,1992)

"Coumarin An important constituent of many fragrant herbs and fruits which occurs as a white crystalline substance once they have begun to wither and which carries the odour of new-mown hay. Certain plants, such as melilot, tonka bean and woodruff, are rich in coumarin and are used in perfumery both for their fragrance and because the coumarin content makes them good fixatives. But most coumarin used in perfumery today is manufactured synthetically from coal tar."

Coumarin is a carcinogen, at least to this point in time, to laboratory animal.

Let us look at another substance.

Isoeugenol is a substance with the fragrance of carnations ( small flowers with a sweet smell) which is found naturally in the essential oils of nutmeg and ylang-ylang and is
obtained from eugenol. It provides perfume makers with excellent fixative. Isoeugenol also could be made synthetically. 

"When the US National Toxicology Program (NTP) tested it on lab animals, they found "clear evidence of carcinogenic activity" in the liver, blood, nose, mammary gland and thymus (part of the immune system), as well as damage to kidneys and stomach."(Grenville, 2017)

Is synthetic likely to cause an allergic reaction than a natural one? Below is the quote from Burr (2006)

"Then there’s the slightly more sophisticated level of ignorance: “A synthetic is more
likely to cause an allergic reaction.” Wrong again. A natural is more apt to do that.
Take Sandalore, a synthetic molecule that smells like sandalwood. It’s exactly onemolecule: C14H26O. Use Sandalore to get your sandalwood note, and there will beonly one possibility of an allergic reaction. Use natural sandalwood, which contains
hundreds of molecules — alphaand betaSantalol, Spirosantalol, betaCurcumene,(Z)Nucifero, etc. — and you’ve got hundreds of different possible allergic reactions.
Moreover, synthetic sandalwoods are ecofriendly. The sandalwood forests of Indiaare being destroyed at a terrible rate, and the price of natural sandalwood isskyrocketing (currently heading up to $800 a pound). One perfumer I know told methat because of this, he now refuses to use natural materials in perfumes."

What he said is true. Don't get us wrong; we do care about consumer health and safety. We are trying to get to a point " Be an informed consumer, backed up with science". It is about the ingredients whether they are allergens or carcinogenic agents, and it is irrelevant whether the ingredients are natural or synthetic.

The below page give you an idea if the product is safe to use (inconclusively), many of them are synthetic but safe to use (click on the below image)



How much is too much?

Andrea Buettner(2017) suggested that dose/unit area plays a vital role here. As long as you are using less than the skin penetration dosage, the risk of having an allergic reaction is small.

The issue: no one knows the exact safe dose is as the ingredients are hidden for these toxic compounds (essential oils and synthetic)

The allergic reaction could be less compared if spraying on clothes, preferably on the skin directly.

In short, it is about safety, natural and synthetic compounds both are beneficial as ingredients in the perfume industry but also quite toxic at the same time. Just because it is natural does not make it better than synthetic. We need to stay informed and stick to science facts.

Bonus, synthetic vs natural, a point of view from a perfumer

Source: Perfumer and Flavourist

More influencer opinions

Let's look at Michael Edwards' FAQ (n.a) from  Fragrance Of The World.

Are natural fragrance oil better than artificial ones?

Below is what Michael answered

"Emphatically not. Modern perfumery is based on the synergy of natural and human-made ingredients. Both are of equal importance to the perfumer. Technically, a perfumer differentiates between natural oils, extracted from blossoms, woods and leaves, spices and resins; semi-synthetic oils separated from natural sources; and completely synthetic oils or aroma notes, created to enhance natural essences, to make them vibrate with notes quite unlike anything you have ever smelt before. Think of the synthetic aroma notes as the perfumer’s notes, created in laboratories to add originality, character and tenacity to nature’s notes. Coco Chanel was the first designer to encourage perfumers to give a leading role to synthetics, “I wanted to give women a perfume that was artificial, that is man-made. I’m an artisan in dressmaking...I don’t want the smell of rose or lily of the valley. I want a perfume that is a composition.” The result was Chanel No 5, the first floral aldehydic perfume, a bouquet dominated by the soft, clean notes of synthetic aldehydes intertwined with the costliest jasmine and may rose from Grasse. “It is well known that there are natural essences that cost very little, other chemical aroma notes that cost a huge amount,” said perfumer Edmond Roudnitska. “It is therefore not a matter of economy if we use chemical products for the composition of haute couture perfumes. If we use them, it is that we do not want to dispense with the glorious nuances of scent that simply do not exist in nature and which only chemistry can provide us with. Often a synthetic smell is more beautiful that a real one - think of a flower when you pick it, it only smells good for a day or so, then it begins to smell awful. With synthetics, one can achieve the same odour and leave most of the flowers in the field.”

It is agreed that there are therapeutic properties in some essential oils, and this is best to leave it to doctors, researchers, drug manufacturers as they are the expert to invent and cure diseases. If you are after fragrance or perfume, synthetic and essential oil could work very well together, not against each other.


Jonathon from Damask Perfumery

"The cosmetic designer was an out-n-out “Natural Head”: he refused to use anything not “Natural”, including those shocking preservatives with really dangerous-sounding chemical names. I felt that, given his background in Chemistry, he should have known better. But, so obsessed was he with this “Natural” horse-shit, he ploughed on regardless. Result?
After a couple of months, ALL the cosmetics grew “beards” larger than a Hipster’s!!!
The cosmetics became genuinely toxic, and we had to ditch thousands of dollars’ worth of beautifully packaged cosmetics!"

It is quite challenging to create fragrances exclusively with only natural materials because they are expensive and not as safe as people think. The components/ingredients are "prone to oxidation and decomposition, and they frequently discolour and change odour" (Sakamoto, Lochhead, Maibach, and Yamashita 2017)


Synthetic Agarwood (Oud) oil

We have tried around three versions of Synthetic Oud created by different companies.

The price is not low either: approximately between $800 AUD to $1200 AUD per litre. 

Genuine good grade cultivated agarwood oil is $12,700 AUD to $19,000 AUD per litre (wholesale rate only)

Surprisingly, the smell of synthetic Oud is quite good. It does contain the vanillic and woody note, although it is not as complicated as the real one. Therefore, it is a suitable ingredient for Oud or Attar Perfume. Good woody note, quite long-lasting in a tissue which I tried. Again, this is our opinion only, and there is always someone who will suffer a headache when smelling synthetic oil and someone who enjoy it. 

As for the price point of view, unless consumers are willing to pay for it, it is quite risky to produce perfume with real agarwood oil commercially. It is forbiddingly expensive. 


Genuine Agarwood Oil

If you look at the lab test compound, agarwood oil contains over 50 volatile constitutes making it is tough to "synthesise" this ingredient.

Source: Pripdeevech (et al. 2011), Identification of Odor-active Components of Agarwood Essential Oils from Thailand by Solid Phase Microextraction-GC/MS and GC-O 

For wild agarwood (oud) oil, the list expands, even more, making it is a fine perfume itself. Excellent Agarwood Oil contains top, middle and base notes and making it a pleasant journey to enjoy. Today, there is rarely (we have not seen any) any incident or report about allergic reaction to this holy oil which makes it suitable for someone like the "natural" way. Incredibly, agarwood (oud) oil if distilled by different distillers have different scents. Factors considered:

  • Agarwood raw materials (different regions have different aroma profiles)
  • Distillation apparatus
  • The skill of distillers

To illustrate more, please see the chemical compounds found in agarwood oil, each of which offers a distinctive smell.

Due to its complicated scent profile, create a genuine agarwood perfume out of this oil is a challenging task which we think there are many success stories. Please let us know if you know some of them. 

What are your thoughts about synthetic vs natural, a long debate topic?

Why do you use genuine Oud oil?

Synthetic fragrances are great ingredients for perfumer because they allow them to get creative. However, sometimes, there is some scent which is not possible to imitate precisely; in this case, it is agarwood (oud) oil. 

There are rarely any reported cases for agarwood (oud) allergic. Generally, it is skin-friendly and smells fabulous on its own. The quality of Oud depends on three main factors which are equally important:

  1. Material
  2. Distilling unit
  3. Distillers

Some oud oil does have a strong barnyard smell due to bad distillers who do not know what they are doing. For example, they over soaked the pulverised agarwood, left it too long hence the contamination with bacteria during the process.

Get it right from the right vendors; you would have a great experience with oud as it is perfectly fine as a perfume on its own. The complexity of oud smell, making it difficult to synthesise oud compound. Therefore, if you are sensitive to synthetic fragrance, oud is an excellent alternative.

1 Response


August 10, 2021

To me this article is clearly bias towards selling the general population on using synthetic (The synthetic designation is used to describe any compound that has been transformed by an abiotic (i. e., occurring outside a living organism) phenomenon on a voluntary basis, independently of its method of extraction.

Why not include the fact that Channel No 5, while a financial success, has only been used and tested on humans for less than a century, like nearly all other synthetic compounds.

Essential oils on the other hand have thousands of years of documented use.

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