When it comes to the uninitiated in the realm of natural medicine and aromatherapy, the terms ‘essential oils’ and ‘fragrance oils’ can end up being used interchangeably. There is, however, a huge difference between the two, and knowing what goes into both can be vital in figuring out which one is the best option for you.
An essential oil is an oil that has been extracted from a plant.
They’re typically obtained through distillation, a process that uses steam and/or water. This means that the compound created is entirely natural; there is nothing synthetic involved in an essential oil. If it’s created through any type of chemical (synthetic) process then it’s not considered an essential oil anymore. It’s through the mechanical/steam process that the oil is able to retain the natural scent and taste of the source the oil has been extracted from.
Essential oils can be made from certain plant’s roots, leaves, bark, seeds, flowers and rinds. Part of why it's so important to source smart and pay attention to what is and isn’t an essential oil is for the sake of your health. Since Fragrance Oils can include any number of synthetic or man-made chemical components, they can cause reactions in and on the body, including allergic reactions. If you’re somebody who has sensitive skin or allergies, high quality essential oils are your best bet as fragrance oils can have other products going into them that can cause a reaction of some kind.
All of this means that essential oils are, in general, more expensive than fragrance oils.
A fragrance oil is man-made.
There is a far higher amount of variation in fragrance oils compared to essential oils. This is because the process to create them, unlike essential oils, allows for things like apples or strawberries or vanilla to be created into an oil. This happens when the scent-base in question is broken down, isolated, and then the essence is added to a carrier oil to create the finished product.
However, they lack the medicinal benefits that can be found in essential oils. They are made using aromatic chemical compounds that are combined to imitate scents that we know and love–sometimes this involves essential oils, but not necessarily. You will find things like absolutes, alcohols, aldehydes, carrier oils, essential oils, esters, and resins in the makeup of fragrance oils. There’s a huge amount of variation in how much of everything goes into their final product, at points being 100% synthetic and at other times including up to 80% essential oils.
Synthetic oils, as much as they might smell like something we know, have a chemical makeup that can’t be found anywhere in nature. This leads to a lot more difficulty when shopping for fragrance oils if you want to know what’s inside of them. The term fragrance oil is broad and can include a huge amount of different products.
What can they be used for?
Essential oils can be used for aromatherapy and as natural healing remedies. The distillation process used for essential oils allows them to retain their medicinal properties. Due to their pure quality, they are also safer to use on skin because they are predictable; you don’t have to guess at what might have been combined with the essence or what went into the makeup of that essence, assuming your essential oils are high quality and from trusted sources.
There have been a lot of studies done on the benefits of incorporating essential oils into our everyday lives, primarily for external benefits–think skincare and aromatherapy. Tea tree oil, for example, is widely loved as an acne-fighter and dandruff reducer. Lavender is celebrated as the champion of stress-relief aromatherapy. Among many others, both of those oils can also easily be found in body lotions. Essential oils are fairly common ingredients in the world of beauty and self-care.
Fragrance oils smell nice. A fragrance oil can create a beautiful scent, but they tend to lack the strength, fullness, and (as mentioned) healing benefits of essential oils.
So, if all you want to do is make your soap smell like cupcakes, you may consider fragrance oils, especially as they’re generally cheaper to purchase and may tolerate temperature variances that essential oils do not. If you are looking for something a bit more beneficial to your health and overall well-being, though, you’re going to want to seek out an essential oil instead.