The subject of naturals- essential oils and absolutes- versus synthetics in perfume making is one that polarizes some people, with many saying that only naturals should be used. They believe that essential oils are harmless to people, coming from nature as they do, and that synthetics cause health problems since they come from chemical factories. But the story is a lot more complex than that.
An essential oil is not a single molecule. It’s a complex blend of many chemicals. Yes, chemicals- everything is made of chemicals, whether nature does it or people do. If an essential oil of, say, lavender, is analyzed, dozens of chemicals are found in it. When broken down into these chemicals, there is no difference between a lavender essential oil and a synthetic lavender made in the laboratory.
Some synthetics are necessary to save the plant or animal the natural comes from. For instance, I would not use real musk even if I could afford it, because they kill the musk deer to get it. Likewise, I’m leaning to more use of synthetic sandalwood because it takes many, many years for a sandalwood tree to grow to mature size, and they are being cut in record numbers. I don’t want to contribute to the destruction of those magnificent old trees. This isn’t a problem with most natural fragrance elements- there is no shortage of lemons or allspice berries- but it’s something to think about with animal products or products from tree trunks.
Not all natural things can be made into essential oils. Flowers like narcissus, rose, jasmine and tuberose must be made into absolutes, which entails using a solvent. So even though the product comes from the natural source, it’s been made through a chemical process. Tinctures require the use of alcohol, which some people regard as natural and others do not. And some essential oils don’t smell like what you expect, since the process extracts only the oil soluble parts and loses the water soluble ones. Basil essential oil, for instance, smells bitter and strong, very unlike the soft floral fragrance of fresh basil.
There are a few naturals that can create problems. Bergamot oil, which is used in a huge number of perfumes as a top note, can cause a rash when the skin it’s on is exposed to sunlight. The answer is either synthetic bergamot, or rectified bergamot oil, which has the bergaptine (the problem causing fraction of the oil) removed. Lavender oil is suspected of being an estrogen mimic and a possible cause of development problems in boys.
Synthetics expand the perfumer’s palette immensely. Some commonly used fragrance notes, like the aldehydes (which create the sparkle in many perfumes like Chanel #5), cannot be extracted from anything existing in nature. Neither can the ozonic notes used in ‘˜fresh’ perfumes like Dune. Most fruit scents- peach, apple, mango- are synthetic. Citrus fruits are the exception, and even they are synthesized sometimes because the natural citrus essential oils go bad quickly. And of course synthetics are less expensive than absolutes of tuberose or jasmine; the average person would not be able to afford perfumes with much of those in them! On the other hand, sometimes perfumers find that, after constructing a synthetic jasmine or rose, adding just a drop of the corresponding absolute rounds it out and makes it sing in a way that just isn’t possible with all synthetics.
So, does all this mean that synthetic fragrance materials are superior to natural ones? No. Synthetics have their problems, too- like the heavy use of DEP in the past with its pthalates and the way musk xylene persists in the environment. But I feel that they are not to be feared or looked down on, either. They are no more dangerous than natural products, and they add so much to our perfumes. I would hate to have to do without either of them. The perfumer’s organ needs both- we just need to know as much as possible about them before we use them.