Synthetic or Natural Fragrances - Is There a Difference?

When selecting brands for INDISHA, I struggled for a while with the question of whether or not natural fragrances in products are harmful to your skin. Because there is literature that indicates that all fragrances can cause skin irritation, as well as other studies that show the ancient aromatherapeutic and healing effect of essential oils and that there is no skin irritation. Now what is truth?

Natural Fragrances vs. Synthetics

Essential oils, obtained by steam distillation or via costly CO2 extraction, naturally contain a blend of fragrances from the flower or plant from which the oil is obtained.

Synthetic (composite) fragrances are counterfeit fragrances created by humans. And are added separately or as a combination of separate fragrances to cosmetic products, but also, for example, to foods. Its production is cheap. A scent is always identical, because it is not influenced by ever-changing factors in nature.

For example, to extract the vanillin fragrance from a vanilla pod, a fermentation process that takes several months is required. Most 'natural' vanilla flavors are therefore factory-produced. From lignin, a by-product of the paper industry. It is therefore not surprising that the natural vanilla aroma from the organic store is so much more expensive than the bottles from the supermarket.

Natural fragrance is not always pure nature

Under EU legislation, biotech fragrances, produced enzymatically or bacterially using (genetically modified) yeasts or bacteria, may also be called 'natural'.

For example, vanillin (vanilla aroma) can be biotechnologically produced with the help of bacteria from the ferulic acid found in many plants. This may be called 'natural aroma'. While there is no vanilla pod involved.

The industrial processes to make such a fragrance are not identical to the natural processes in a plant to produce a fragrance. In addition, possible by-products from the industrial process can end up in the final product. For the plant, producing a fragrance has a natural function.

Confusion on the label

Synthetic fragrance cocktails can often be found on the label of your cosmetic product as 'Parfum' or 'Fragrance' or as loose perfume substances such as eugenol, linalol or limonene.

However, you also regularly see the term 'Perfume' on the ingredients list with natural cosmetics. These are perfume substances from the natural essential oils in the product. No synthetic fragrances.

It is legally required to state separate fragrances such as eugenol or linalool on the label of a cosmetic product if the product contains more than a certain percentage. Even if these 'loose' fragrances are part of a natural essential oil. Instead of added 'loose' synthetically produced fragrances.

Are all fragrances skin irritants?

According to a number of scientists, it does not matter whether a fragrance is synthetic or natural, the molecular composition is the same. And are all potential skin irritants. Another school of thought indicates that there is a difference between synthetic, isolated fragrances (for example artificially made vanillin, geraniol or citronellol) or a mix of these, or natural fragrances in 'complete' form. The latter is a natural essential oil obtained from a plant or flower, which contains a combination of fragrances such as geraniol and citronellol.

In my opinion there is indeed a difference. For example, the essential oil of lavender and rose contains linalol, geraniol and citronellol as main components. Which would mean that a lot of people should react to these oils. Practice shows that this does not happen often. Essential oils have been used in cosmetics or therapeutically for hundreds of years. With a proven therapeutic effect. For example from the Ayurvedic teachings.


In my opinion, for most people, the use of 100% pure essential oils in cosmetics can do no harm and have an added value for the skin. Used wisely. They are used in pure cosmetic products for their therapeutic and/or aromatherapeutic effect. And obtained in a pure way from plants or flowers. In addition, the effect on the skin of these products has been extensively researched by the developers. Also for long-term use.

Everything that stands for 'too' is not good for us, that also applies to pure fragrances. Use with your own essential oil blends for your skin, always a plant oil as a base. Never the pure essential oil, the oils are too concentrated for that. And possibly change cosmetics every so often. So that your skin gets some variety.

Just like perfumes with synthetic fragrance blends, pure perfumes contain relatively high percentages of fragrances. Using this occasionally on the skin is fine in my opinion. If you use them daily, spray them on you if necessary

Sources: Dr. Saulius Alkaitis, Dr. Baumann, Dr. Hauschka, NRC; Grapefruit flavor from the bioreactor; 07-02-2015; Hester van Zanten , The Beauty Professional; 2022; edition 2; page 12, Wikipedia