Should You Be Using Synthetic or Natural Fragrance?

One's not necessarily better than the other.

Synthetic Vs. Natural Fragrance

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There are dozens of terms being thrown around in the beauty industry (many of which are misleading) that it makes navigating the aisles of your favorite department store a bit tricky. Clean beauty is a prime example of this. There isn't an FDA regulation for what can be considered a clean product, and the term "clean" itself doesn't necessarily mean that other types of products are "dirty."

We see this happen over and over again in the skincare, makeup, hair, and even nail categories. And while "clean" perfumes do exist, there's another term that can be a point of confusion for some: synthetic vs. natural fragrances.

To better understand the differences between the two, we tapped three fragrance experts. Below, find out what each type of fragrance is, what the pros and cons are for each, and how to best determine which one you should purchase.

What is a natural fragrance?

Let's begin by stating the most important fact: There's no definition of "natural" when it pertains to beauty products. As such, any brand can use it as it sees fit.

"For us, natural means that every ingredient we use started its life as a plant," says Frances Shoemack, founder of Abel. For her brand, ingredient transparency is also a core value so that its consumers can learn about every ingredient they're putting on their skin. Other clean fragrance brands, such as Michelle Pfeiffer's Henry Rose, take the same approach for the same reason.

According to Veronique Gabai, founder of her eponymous fragrance brand, the term "natural" falls under a broader umbrella. "Natural ingredients are basically issued from nature, flowers, plants, trees, fruits…," she says.

On a more granular level, David Moltz, co-founder of D. S. & Durga, explains that natural materials come directly from their source, i.e. distilled rose oil and expressed orange oil. "When you use a natural material like rose oil, you're working with something that may have hundreds of different molecules," he says. Some naturals can contain hundreds of molecules, and as such, creating a natural fragrance is typically pricier and more challenging.

What is a synthetic fragrance?

Going off how natural fragrances can have hundreds of molecules, Shoemack explains that synthetic fragrance ingredients are single aroma molecules. "They're synthesized in a lab — they may be sourced from natural materials i.e. separating a single molecule from a rose or an orange, or they may be created from base materials," furthers Moltz.

Since they're made in a lab, synthetics give perfumers the freedom to create any smell they want from scratch and pick and choose what they want from a natural ingredient. For example, Moltz says that if all he wants in a fragrance is the dewy scent from jasmine, he can achieve that with synthetics as he wouldn't have to work through the 200+ molecules present in natural jasmine oil.

The formulation process is also cheaper and easier than it is with naturals. "Natural fragrance ingredients such as iris, neroli, and vetiver all cost thousands of dollars per kilogram and a lot of time, skill, and knowledge to grow and produce. In comparison, molecules created to replicate these beautiful natural ingredients can be sourced for less than a tenth of the price and produced quickly in a laboratory," explains Shoemack. Furthermore, she says that working with synthetics means that there will always be consistency and availability. "You don’t have to deal with the complexity of seasonality, sourcing, and what I like to call 'terroir' — the French wine term for the impact of the local environment on the ingredient profile: the people, climate, and culture," she adds.

Are there hybrid fragrances that blend natural and synthetic scents?

Yes! In fact, this is the most popular type of fragrance on the market.

"In my mind perfumery needs both, and to make sure the scents we create are respectful of our environment, naturals should be sourced ethically and sustainably and synthetics should be processed through green chemistry," says Gabai. (But more on green chemistry later.)

Not to mention, combining them allows perfumers to create exciting new scents that balance lab innovations and inspiring natural ingredients.

Safety is another reason many hybrids exist. While it's entirely possible to create a safe all-natural fragrance, doing so is expensive and challenging. As such, working with synthetics is often easier. "Any perfume brand that is above board is complying with the very latest safety standards of the internally regulated regulatory agency of our industry: International Fragrance Association (IFRA)," adds Moltz.

What are some misconceptions about natural fragrances?

"Natural perfume suffers from a ‘hippy hangover,’ unsophisticated blends made at the hands of the untrained," says Shoemack. She further explains that his brand, Abel, uses the latest natural science and biotech ingredients and works with the world’s top perfumers and labs to create its scents, such as its best-selling Cobalt Amber. "Not only are they the most rare and expensive ingredients, but naturals are the most complex and beautiful ingredients in a perfumers palette," she adds.

What are some misconceptions about synthetic fragrances?

Words like "synthetic" and "chemicals" tend to get a bad rep, but not all of them should. (After all, water is a chemical.) While Gabai points out that some chemicals used in perfumes are derived from petrochemicals, the rise of green chemistry has led to more sustainable fragrance production — and it's becoming increasingly popular. Brands such as hers, D.S. & Durga, and EAUSO VERT all use safe synthetics in their formulations — and they're far from the only ones.

How to pick between synthetic and natural perfumes

Ultimately, it depends what you're looking for, but most fragrances on the market combine a mix of natural and synthetic fragrances, anyway.

However, if you want to be more clear-cut about it, think of it this way: For long-lasting complex scents, synthetics are the way to go. Consider Maison Margiela's REPLICA line, for example. It's best-selling Jazz Club fragrance is reminiscent of heady cocktails and cigars, which is the result of synthetics working to create this creative blend. D.S. & Durga's Radio Bombay is another excellent example, as it evokes an aromatic blend of what can be best described as musky-sweet skin on a humid day.

Now, if you don't mind if your fragrance doesn't last as long as synthetics and you feel better sticking to naturals and brands that offer complete ingredient transparency, opt for that. (And keep you perfume with you so you can refresh your scent throughout the day!) Try one of the fragrances in Veronique Gabai's AROMA Line if this sounds like you. "They are natural but also clean, biodegradable, sustainable, and vegan," the founder says. "This was not easy to achieve but the experience is nothing short of spectacular — it's worth every effort." 

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