From the fragrant days of cave dwelling, to the glory of the ancient incense and spice routes, to mass-produced, chemical-based, aromatic mimicry, the evolution of humanity’s relationship with scent is a bittersweet story. 

As mammals on this Earth, scent has always been intrinsic to our survival, and has played a major role in our pleasure and our connection to the divine. Though our ancestors certainly relied on their sense of smell more than we do in today’s world. 

To our primitive ancestors, the sense of smell was a tool used daily for things like protection from certain dangers and alerting them to food that had spoiled that could make them ill. Scent was also a crucial conduit for attraction and connection, not only through attracting a love partner through the body’s natural pheromones or adorned botanical aromas, but also in the way they would use aromatic plants in sacred ritual for attracting and appeasing the spirit world and their deities. 

Sadly, for most of us modern humans, our sense of smell has been banished to the back seat behind taste, sound, sight, and touch. Equally as sad, what our ancestors relied on to meet their natural aromatic needs has been essentially replaced in modern societies by fabricated chemical replicas of long-revered, botanical-derived fragrance. 

As the divide between humans and nature grows wider, it only makes sense we’re surrounded more and more with lab-derived fragrances. Today, synthetic fragrances can be found in most commercially made aromatic products, and even in many handcrafted incenses, body products, and perfumes. 

Over the past few decades, it seems we've become accustomed to strong fragrances infusing the world around us. But it is important to think about what the fragrances that fill our sense of smell are made of and what impact they may have on our health for the long-term.

What are Fragrance Oils?

When you walk into a bath and candle shop, or down the aisle of laundry detergent in a grocery store, your sense of smell will surely be enveloped by the powerful aromas of fragrance oils. 

Chemical fragrances are commonly found in candles, plug-in room fresheners, wax melts, commercially produced incense, soaps, shampoos, baby wipes, perfume, skin lotions, sunscreen, deodorant, hair and personal hygiene products, detergents, fabric softeners, dryer sheets, toilet paper, even scented garbage bags and diapers. And they are of course found in nearly all commercial bath and body products, as well as most cosmetics. 

Artificial fragrances, or fragrance oils, are chemical compounds that are generally used to replicate pleasant, naturally occurring scents. They are typically either used for our enjoyment or to mask other not so pleasant odors. Fragrance oils can either be made up 100% of chemicals, or from the process of isolating certain aromatic constituents from botanicals. 

For example, vanillin is an organic compound isolated from the seed pods of Vanilla. The latter is more often referred to as an isolate, whereas the pure chemical compound is known as a fragrance oil. Though technically, both products are fragrance oils. 

Chemical-based artificial fragrances are made from chemical reactions and are often derived from petroleum or petroleum by-products. Though, over 3,000 materials have been reported to be used in fragrance compounds by the International Fragrance Association [2]. 

The label on many products could say “fragrance,” “fragrance oils,” “perfume,” “parfum,” “essential oil blend,” or “aroma,” but these can all typically be a blanket statement for a longer list of ingredients that actually make up the fragrance. There is no regulation over the fragrance industry to list all the specific constituents that are used to create a fragrance [2]. 

We must also be aware that some essential oils, although appearing to be all-natural, can also contain fragrance oils. This is why it is important to source essential oils carefully and read the labels to ensure all of the ingredients are clearly listed. Some essential oils can contain synthetic fragrance ingredients such as pulegone or methyleugenol [2]. Some essential oils, perfumes, colognes, and other products can also contain solvents, dyes, and preservatives.

History of Synthetic Fragrances

The sense of smell was once thought of as the most exalted of our senses, the most sacred; shrouded in Biblical lore and cultural mysticism around the world since the beginning of time. It's found present in countless forms, like incense, anointing oils, and natural perfumes, in nearly every sacred rite, ritual, and spiritual and religious ceremony around the world. 

Throughout history, we have also used our sense of smell for healing and pleasure through the evolution of the aromatic arts. Aromatic plants have been a major part of humanity’s story and have been used in nearly every culture for thousands of years, for offerings, traditions, as foods, as medicines, as preservatives, and in perfumery and incense crafting. 

Since ancient days, humans have been drawn to aromatics and have used them for utilitarian purposes as well as for pleasure and attraction. In feudal Japan, nobles, geishas, and samurai would scent their clothes with incense smoke using special incense burners. They would also scent their letters, immersing them in rich plumes of Agarwood or Sandalwood smoke before mailing them off. Throughout the ancient world, incense would be used lavishly to greet guests with plumes of pleasant fragrance, and natural perfumes would fill the air at courts and palaces.

For ages, aromatic plants have been enjoyed in the form of incense, pastes, oil and alcohol extractions, and through distilled essential oils and floral waters. Through the evolution of science and chemistry in the 19th century, came the birth of the first synthetic fragrances, as chemists began to isolate specific compounds from plants, such as cinnamaldehyde from Cinnamon. 

The first synthetic oils were introduced around the years of 1845-1850 and were made from esters of fatty acids [1]. Fatty acid esters are a chemical compound made from combining fatty acids with an alcohol. An example of this is methyl salicylate, which is the methyl ester of salicylic acid and was created to mimic the smell of Wintergreen. Another example of an early artificial fragrance is benzaldehyde, which is a chemical compound that was introduced to replicate the smell of almond oil [1]. 

The science of chemical fragrances was so appealing in its early years as it created an opportunity for fragrance and perfume companies to acquire natural replicas of botanical aromas that were difficult to obtain. At a fraction of the cost, they also became a clear choice in the business world. Why pay thousands of dollars for a barrel of Sandalwood essential oil back then when you could pay hundreds for an artificial fragrance oil that smelled near the same? The 19th century consumer would likely never know the difference, and many wouldn't have cared for that matter. 

The progression of synthetic fragrances quickly expanded around the world as they found their place in countless industries, from bath and body, to household products, food and beverage, and so much more. Throughout the 1900's they became the norm above botanical aromas. Today, synthetic fragrances make up a massive industry of 14.5 billion dollars — only 25% below the current essential oil industry. In the perfume industry, synthetics make up of 85% or more of products on the market. When you buy a scented product from the store these days, chances are, its scent was created in a lab.

How Fragrance Oils Can Impact Your Health

Collectively, we tend to want our clothes, home, and body smelling fresh, and though some products may offer a pleasant aroma, it is critical to keep our well-being as the top priority. 

Exposure to the chemical compounds in synthetic products can cause effects such as headaches, dizziness, sinus and throat irritation, and can trigger asthma attacks or allergic reactions right away for many people. Though, fragrance oils can also impact our health, even if we don’t show an immediate reaction to it. 

Synthetic fragrances can disrupt the air quality in the home and enter our respiratory system. They can also enter the body via the skin through washing our clothes with scented detergents, or using various artificially scented body products and cosmetics. It's easy to overlook, but the skin is a receiving channel of the body, so it's important to only topically apply or expose the skin to things which are supportive to the body’s health, if possible. 

Today, many of these scented products carry phthalates, which can disrupt the endocrine system, hormones, liver function, and have been linked to breast cancer, as well as metabolic and nervous system disorders [2]. Other ingredients to look out for include ethylbenzene, vinyl acetate, titanium dioxide, synthetic musks (tonalide , galaxolide, musk ketone, musk xylene), styrene, propyl paraben, benzophenone, oxybenzone (BP-3), methanol, eugenyl methyl ether (methyleugenol), dichloromethane, benzyl benzoate, chloromethane, and acetaldehyde. 

With prolonged use, all of these chemicals can impact the vital organs, have an irritant effect on the skin and eyes, and can have a neurotoxic and carcinogenic effect on the body [2]. This list of ingredients is not all-inclusive, as there are a multitude of chemical compounds in fragrance products that can adversely impact human health. 

The easiest way to rid ourselves of synthetic fragrances is to simply be a conscious consumer, by always being aware of the products we invite into our life. Unfortunately, in the world we live in today, we are exposed to countless toxins. But we can empower ourselves and our health by choosing to avoid chemicals as much as possible once we know what to look out for.

How to Avoid Fragrance Oils:

Read labels closely and avoid products that only list “fragrance” or “perfume” instead of a full ingredient list
Be sure to look for plant names in the ingredients list. If you find latin names of plants (which is a bonus for many products), the aromatics are certainly of botanical origin
Shop local and buy from trusted sources

Remove products with synthetic fragrances from your home and reduce the amount of cosmetic products used

Buy fragrance-free products
Local health stores and even grocery stores can carry products without any fragrances or with only natural aromatic ingredients, you just have to read the labels carefully

Conclusion

Fortunately, there are so many options for fragranced products that use only natural aromatic ingredients, so you don’t have to let go of smelling beautiful and enjoying plant aromatics. 

It's also relatively easy and inexpensive to add your own fragrance to household items. You can use organic, natural essential oils to make your own candles, perfumes, or natural cleaning products. If you are interested, you can check out our article on how to safely use essential oils and learn more about making your own aromatic preparations by checking out some of our previous blogs. 

To bring beautiful aroma into your home, you can burn natural incense with pure ingredients, or add botanical essential oil to a diffuser. There are many ways to avoid using synthetic fragrances, and in the process of exploring the natural world of aromatics... fun, learning and healing may unfold!

Article Written By Dawn Gibson

References

1.  K. Bauer, D. Garbe,  H. Surburg, J. Panten. (1985). Common Fragrance and Flavor Materials: Preparation, Properties and Uses.
2. Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.   https://www.safecosmetics.org/chemicals/fragrance/#end1.

© 2023 The Northwest School of Aromatic Medicine. All rights reserved.

*The statements above have not been evaluated by the FDA, and are for educational purposes only. This article is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. This article should not be taken as medical advice. Please consult your physician before you use this information for health purposes.

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