Monday, February 22, 2016

Fragrance Oils vs. Essential Oils: What's the big deal?

There are lots of different kinds of soapers in the world.  Some are all organic (I'm not).  Some are all colorant free (not me).  Some use only essential oils to scent their soaps and eschew fragrance oils entirely (not me, either).  So what's the big deal about essential oils anyway?

Here's what I know about essential oils:
  • They are extracted, in one way or another, from natural plant matter.  Because they are made from natural materials, there tends to be some variability in the end product.  Some of them are just squeezed out.  Some require steaming to extract the oils.  I hear there are other methods, but I don't know about them for sure.
  • Essential oils can be very concentrated.  The name brand oils you see out there being sold for aromatherapy or other uses are often diluted in a carrier oil or the manufacturer recommends that you dilute them yourself so they can be applied directly to the skin.  That's not something you will want to do with full strength essential oils.  Some of them, like peppermint and cinnamon, can cause unpleasant reactions when the concentration is too strong.  
  • You won't see me using those brand names in my soaps for a couple of reasons: 
    1. As I just said:  Some of them are diluted so they aren't very strong smelling when they become even further diluted in the soap.  The carrier oil isn't always specified.  The type of oil can be important to soap making.
    2. They are expensive.  For my soaps, I use about an ounce (give or take) of concentrated essential oil per batch of soap I make.  In order to use enough of those name brand oils to get an equivalent fragrance strength, I might need to buy several ounces for each batch.  That's not cost effective at all and the soaps would be very, very expensive.
  • The cost of essential oils is typically higher than fragrance oils.  Because they rely on the production of natural materials, the cost can vary quite a bit from one year to the next depending on the availability of the plant matter.  If a crop fails, it might not be available at all. 
  • Over time, essential oil scents will fade in stored soaps.
 On the other hand, we have fragrance oils:
  • Fragrance oils are scents that are largely lab created.  As a chemist, I don't see lab creation as necessarily an automatic bad thing.  After all, there is no such thing as strawberry essential oil for a very good reason:  There isn't any oil in a strawberry!  Or at least not enough to make it a viable candidate for essential oil production.  Besides, strawberries are way too tasty to waste on smashing for their miniscule amounts of oil.  If you're going to smash strawberries, make jam!
  • Because they are artificially created, fragrance oils can be allergy inducing.  There are some that I absolutely cannot abide.  Back in the day, when I worked in the lab, there was a product I helped to develop that had the flat out nastiest fragrance added to it.  Trouble is I was the only one who objected.  Everyone else thought it smelled pretty darn good.  It gave me a headache.  Icky.
  • Fragrance oils tend to be less expensive.
  • Fragrance oils can cause problems when making soap because of the composition of the oil.  Some do.  Some don't.  Some aren't worth the risk.
  • Fragrance oils can smell, well, artificial.  
  • Fragrance oils often stick in the soap better than essential oils and will degrade less over time.
I prefer to use essential oils and I will use them when possible because I know people tend to prefer them.  But in some instances, like the strawberry situation I mentioned before, it just isn't going to happen.  And, no, it is unlikely I will attempt to make a strawberry soap any time soon.  Mostly I don't like soap to smell like food.  But I make a few that do.

There are only a few instances in which I will choose a fragrance oil over an essential oil:

  1. When the essential oil is not available or is so prohibitively expensive as to make it impossible to use or;
  2. When I am unable to formulate a soap recipe that will hold onto the essential oil scent.  For example, my citrus soaps will sometimes be scented with fragrance oil instead of essential oil.  Citrus essential oils just don't stick.
I don't really buy into the ideas that essential oils can cure this or fix that thing.  There might be something to it, but that's not what I'm about here.  I make soap that gets you clean and maybe smells good while it's getting you clean. That's it.

I think that lots of essential oils smell good and some just plain smell awful.  We all have our preferences.  What scents do you like best?

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