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What are Natural Fragrances?

What are Natural Fragrances?

Disclaimer: These are my personal views and I do not any way guarantee or warrant the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of any message and will not be held responsible for the content of any message.

As the Beauty Market continues to strongly embrace more "clean beauty" i.e. products mainly made natural ingredients and free from nasties like parabens and sulfates, I thought it might be a good idea to discuss what "natural fragrances" are as opposed to what I might describe as "generic" fragrances (think big brands like Calvin Klein; YSL; Aramis; Jo Malone etc).

All fragrances are generally derived from essential oils made from roses; herbs etc. Such ingredients aren't cheap and advancements in technology have made headways into making fragrances more affordable to the general public. This is through the creation of "synthetic raw materials" as opposed to "raw materials extracted from natural sources."

For example, the synthetic ingredient "coumarin" smells like Tonk Bean. The price difference is Coumarin costs £10 a kilo compared to Tonka Bean Absolute at £400 a kilo (source "The Secret of Scent by Luca Turin, 2006).

In terms of safety, both natural and common commercial fragrances all advise that you should do a patch test. Synthetic/chemical ingredients are not always bad, as they have to undergo rigorous testing to ensure safety. Natural ingredients can make you break out into a rash as often as synthetic fragrances (source "The Secret of Scent by Luca Turin, 2006).

So what are Natural Fragrances?

Natural fragrances are generally understood to be "complex compositions of natural aromatic raw materials such as essential oils, fractions of essential oils, isolates, exudates such as resins, distillates, extracts and volatile concentrates." They must not have any silicones or petroleum compounds. The extraction process of these raw materials must also not involve the use of petrochemical solvents. They must also not have purely synthetic additives.

Say for example, rose oil. Rose oil composed of 100% rose extract, does smell like a rose but also within that oil, you pick up other individual notes like sometimes, citrus or herb notes.

What are Natural Fragrances according to International Standards?

As far as my research as revealed, there appears to be no official regulatory definition for the term "natural" for the fragrance industry. The International Fragrance Association (IFRA) (refer to ISO 9235) defines natural aromatic raw materials as being physically obtained from plants using distillation, expression and extraction. Synthetically reconstituted essential oils, synthetic nature-identical ingredients and intentionally chemically modified natural raw materials (e.g. chemical acetylation of essential oil) cannot be used in fragrance compounds that are described as being natural. See IFRA's "Guidance to 'green' fragrance terminology" (linked below).

It is interesting that IFRA makes the point to say:"There is no official regulatory definition for the term “natural” for the fragrance industry. However IFRA (International Fragrance Association), as outlined in IFRA IL 737, considers fragrance ingredients to be natural when these pre-exist in natural source materials from which they are isolated exclusively by physical means. IL 737 largely refers to what is described in ISO-Norm 9235

The IFRA position allows the presence of traces of synthetic solvents, antioxidants, etc. provided their presence is declared.

The “100%” natural approach is very restrictive for the fragrance industry. However, there remains the possibility to claim the presence of a certain percentage of natural ingredients or alternatively a few well-identified natural ingredients present in the fragrance compound.A natural product is not necessarily organic, as it can be grown with chemical fertilizers, pesticides etc. Inversely, an organic product is always natural.

Moreover, a natural product is not automatically sustainable (nor is synthetic equal to nonsustainable activities).

The ISO norm 9235, on which IFRA's natural definition is mainly based, does not define the term 'Natural Origin', which is more and more used by the industry. Although the natural origin concept is basically related to feedstock, there is no unanimously approved and clear definition in the industry.

IFRA stresses that it does not make a distinction between a substance termed “natural” and of“natural origin” as long as it respects the criteria of ISO norm 9235."

The Natural Products Association (NPA) is extremely strict in terms of granting certification of what is a "natural fragrance". See below for an extract from the NPA's on "Natural Personal Care".

NPA developed the Natural Standard and Certification for Personal Care Products, a set of guidelines that dictate whether a product can be deemed truly “natural.” The standard encompasses all cosmetic personal care products regulated and defined by the FDA.

The Essence of the NPA Natural Standard

You can get the NPA to certify that your fragrance is "natural". It is a rather rigorous process that mainly reviews each ingredient in the product.

All products that are labeled or branded "Natural" must:

  • Be made of 95% natural ingredients - excluding water

  • contain only synthetic ingredients specifically allowed under this standard and environmentally-friendly products that are nurturing to us and as harmless as possible to the Earth (see Appendix 1).

What is "Natural"

  • ingredients that come or are made from renewable resource found in nature (Flora, Fauna, Mineral) with absolutely no petroleum compounds (see Appendix IV for allowed processes).

Ingredients that are prohibited

  • Ingredients that have suspected human health risks as indicated by peer-reviewed third-party scientific literature

  • ingredients that incorporate synthetic sillicone or petroleum compounds, for example:

  • parabens

  • sodum lauryl sulfate;

  • petroleum/mineral oil/paraffin

  • Avobenzone/Oxybenzone (chemical sunscreens)

  • Glycols; phthalates and ethoxylated ingredients like sodium myreth sulafate; PEGS or PPGS.

  • Synthetic Fragrances - fragrances that use petroleum-based solvents for extraction as well as purely synthetic additives. Prohibited fragrance ingredients include absolutes, concretes, gums, resins, exudates, essential oils, isolates and chemicals*.

(*Any natural fragrances are allowed, if the extraction/processing uses an allowed process as stated in the Natural Standard).

Examples of "Allowed Processes" include "distillation of essential oils using water (high pressure steam)"; cold-pressing plant material; splitting natural fats and oils into glycerin and fatty acids; and fermentation.

The NPA does also provide a list of prohibited ingredients.



Conclusion on "What are Natural Fragrances"

I note that this is not a thesis on "what are natural fragrances" but a fairly brief article to give you an idea of what you should be looking for if a fragrance brands itself as "natural". As the esteemed Luca Turin has said, a natural product may not be as safe as a synthetic product that has undergone stringent testing.

So it seems that for a fragrance to be truly considered as "natural" is requires it to undergo very strict requirements. However, as noted by IFRA there is: "no official regulatory definition for the term “natural” for the fragrance industry."

If a fragrance claims to be a natural fragrance, I think there are two alternatives:

  1. Be certified by a well-established organisation like the NPA; or

  2. FULL disclosure of all ingredients used including disclosure of the process used to obtain the components of the "natural fragrance".

It's tough I know, but with the "clean beauty" movement in the Beauty World becoming such a huge selling point, I think it is a "buyer beware" situation. Check the ingredients label!


So I hope you enjoyed this article and found it useful. I'm pretty much on my social media platforms in some way or fashion 7 days a week. I hope you enjoyed this review.

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