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How essential are essential oils in your perfume?

Synthetic molecules have replicated almost all natural fragrances. So do we really need the ‘concentrated absolutes’ of fragrance oils?

With the seismic shift towards natural and green products, there is a resurgence of interest in essential oils
With the seismic shift towards natural and green products, there is a resurgence of interest in essential oils

Chanel No.5 is considered an iconic fragrance for many reasons, but from a perfumery point of view, it is one of the first fragrances to have introduced aldehydes—synthetic molecules to add “sparkle” to its floral accord. This, coupled with the fact that the 1920s were a time of new breakthroughs in molecular chemistry, inspired a revolution in fragrance-making.

Today almost all fine and famous fragrances are made with a mix of natural oils and synthetic molecules. Hediones and Indoles are just some of the popular classes of molecules used but there are over 3,000 chemically derived smells for you to choose from, including all the natural fragrances.

Synthetics have democratized fragrances, making them cheaper and easily available to a wide audience, providing lab alternatives for endangered species like musk from musk deer leading to great experiments in complex perfumery.

On the flip side, however, there have been rising concerns about the use of petrochemicals, crude oil and coal tar to synthesize molecules coupled with the use of phthalates, parabens and synthetic alcohols in sprays that could be potential endocrine disruptors or allergens. There have always been issues of transparency as well.

Now, with the seismic shift in beauty for natural and green products, there is a resurgence of interest in essential oils and clean processes.

Essential oils have always been known for their healing qualities in aromatherapy. As “concentrated absolutes”, the term used in perfumery, floral oils are the most “essential” and expensive ingredient.

Traditionally oils are extracted through processes like steam distillation, hydro distillation (often used in making attars) or cold pressing. These are non-polluting processes but are also time-consuming and expensive, dependent on seasons, and in the case of flowers, plucking at the right time. Not surprisingly, the more natural concentrated oils in a fragrance, the more expensive it is likely to be.

When used as fragrance, essential oils are stabilized with organic alcohol or a carrier oil—they can’t be used on their own. They are aged for their fragrance to develop. They will not last as long or smell as intense as a perfume with a mix of synthetics and natural oils. But they will enhance the wearing experience.

“Essential oils rather than synthetic ones bring emotional and physical healing properties that can calm you or energize or uplift your mood. Unlike perfumes made with synthetic compounds that mask the skin’s natural and unique scent, essential oil based natural and organic fragrances create an individual and more personal and unique aroma on the wearer, says Taruna Yadav, senior Ayurvedic doctor at luxury Beauty brand Forest Essentials.

Forest Essentials has a range of single flower note fragrances like Madurai Jasmine and Desi Gulab, made the traditional way with steam distillation and the use of organic grain alcohol as a carrier.

When you look at the fact that it takes roughly 1,000 pounds of fresh roses or jasmine flowers to extract one pound of very expensive absolute, is it really a sustainable practice, I ask Shubika Jain of RAS Luxury Oils, a farm-to-face skincare and wellness company.

At the family-owned farms in Chhattisgarh, she and her team harvest their own organic herbs and flowers and then extract them via traditional steam distillation into luxury therapeutic oils. Nagarmotha patchouli, palmarosa, vetiver, lemongrass, rosemary and peppermint are some of the essential oils they extract.

Jain is a passionate eco warrior, “To grow something in open fields using sustainable and responsible practices to ensure we are not destroying anything or harming the environment also ensures that natural regeneration is quick. In the case of synthetic molecules, first and foremost only a few labs benefit from it economically and then there is the environmental impact, whereas here we have an entire local economic ecosystem in place in partnership with rural communities.”

If you want to go greener in your fragrance choices, opt for ones where the essential oils and carrier oils are responsibly sourced, have minimal additional ingredients and fillers and are transparent about their processes and eco commitment.

That way essential oils may prove to be gentler on your skin and your conscience.

Geeta Rao is a Mumbai based writer who writes on luxury and wellness

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