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The Ultimate Guide to Essential Oils vs Fragrance Oils (2021 Update)

The Ultimate Guide to Essential Oils vs Fragrance Oils (2021 Update)

As you discover the power and healing benefits of aromatherapy, and dive into the different types of oils available to you — it can start to get intimidating.

With so many oil options available in the market, it can be difficult to decide which ones to opt for. One common question that pops up for most people is the difference between essential oils vs fragrance oils. 

At times, they are confused to mean the same thing, but they couldn’t be more different!

In this guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know about the key differences between essential oils vs fragrance oils. Let's get started!

Table of Contents

Essential Oils vs Fragrance Oils – What’s the Difference?

To put it simply, essential oils are natural oils extracted from plants, and fragrance oils are synthetic concoctions created in a laboratory.

There is a lot of misrepresentation in the market today, with soaps and candles especially, that are sold as “natural” or good for aromatherapy, although they contain synthetic fragrance.

Sure, both essential oils and fragrance oils smell nice — but is that all that really matters?

While both types of oils provide an immediate pleasant sensory experience, essential oils work on a deeper level and can offer many health and healing benefits, that go beyond just making a room smell nice.

Fragrance oils provide brief enjoyment, but may in fact be detrimental to your health, as they are a concoction of artificially created chemicals.

Next, let’s understand what each type of oil is, to better understand how they differ.

What are Essential Oils?

  • Essential oils are 100% natural compounds derived from the leaves, flowers, bark, seeds, roots, nuts or fruits of plants
  • Extraction methods include physical extraction methods such as steam distillation and cold pressing using water or heat — not chemical solvents
  • Essential oils are volatile, meaning they evaporate when they come into contact with air
  • EOs are highly concentrated and are the "essence" of the plant — neem essential oil comes from cold-pressing the seed kernel of the neem tree, while jasmine oil is derived from jasmine petals, and lemon oil is extracted from lemon rinds
  • Due to high potency, essential oils are usually combined with carrier oils like coconut oil, jojoba oil, moringa oil and more for aromatherapy massage directly on skin
  • EOs can be used directly in diffusers or diluted and used in sprays, household cleaners and more
  • It’s important to look for 100% pure essential oils that have not been manipulated or processed with additives, stabilizers or preservatives
  • The best are 100% pure organic essential oils, as you can be sure that they are free from pesticide residue. Check for the certified USDA organic stamp

What are Fragrance Oils?

  • Fragrance oils are man-made and created in a laboratory
  • Each scent is a specific composition of different chemicals and natural elements like extracts, resins and sometimes a small fraction of EOs which are usually diluted and adulterated
  • Fragrance oils are non-volatile, meaning they do not evaporate easily, making them the popular choice for candle making
  • There are a lot more varieties available in fragrance oils, simply because different chemicals can be mixed into many types of scents and not all oils can viably be extracted from nature — for example, there is no such thing as apple essential oil, but there is lab-created apple fragrance, commonly used in soaps and candles

There are mainly two types of fragrance oils available in the market:

Synthetic Fragrance Oils

Synthetic oils are composed in a lab and are a mixture of chemicals and natural compounds.

  • Synthetic oils are created from chemicals, that do not naturally exist in nature.
  • These oils are mainly made from petrochemicals which are manipulated to mimic the scent of specific plants and aromas
  • Fragrances can also contain solvents, preservatives, stabilizers, dyes, and UV-absorbers
  • Most commercially scented products such as detergent, cleaning products, air fresheners, diapers, shampoos, personal care products, candy, food and beverages and more use synthetic fragrances because they are much cheaper, and are able to retain their scent for longer periods of time.

Natural Fragrance Oils

Natural fragrance oils are also created in a lab. However, they use a combination of raw materials from nature to create layered scents.

  • Natural oils are created by isolating natural aromatic ingredients from complex scents and aromas
  • Although, definitely better than synthetic oils, there’s still debate as to whether these can be considered “natural” as they are still created by human science in a laboratory

Read on to discover more about the disparity between essential oils versus fragrance oils, and what you should look out for before purchasing products that contain these oils.

Buying Essential Oils vs Fragrance Oils — What to Look For?

Most people in the aromatherapy industry and practitioners using oils for aromatherapy know that purity is imperative when it comes to experiencing the healing benefits of essential oils.

The essential oil manufacturing industry is known for its extensive testing and quality control practices.

If you’re unsure whether a product contains pure essential oil or fragrance, the first giveaway is whether it says “100% pure essential oil.” For example, take our 100% Organic and Non-GMO lavender essential oil, which is 100% USDA certified organic, and lists the only ingredient as therapeutic-grade 100% pure lavender oil, along with its scientific name.

In comparison, synthetic fragrances do not need such demanding and laborious testing. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defines “fragrances” as an amalgamation of chemicals that give perfumes or colognes their unique aromas.

While some fragrances may contain natural ingredients, they are the result of chemical processes, and are usually mixed with synthetic compounds to create the final scent.

So, while essential oils will list their ingredients, labels that contain fragrances will usually mention either of the following:

  • fragrance
  • fragrance oil
  • FO
  • perfume
  • fragrant oil
  • parfum

If you see any of these words, you know it’s chemically scented and not all-natural, even though the label might state that it is a “natural” product.

Why Choose Essential Oils Versus Fragrance Oils

There’s a huge difference between choosing natural essential oils versus fragrance oils.

Do you ever get a headache or feel sick after smelling certain fragrances? Many people have this reaction to fragrance oils, and are sensitive to these artificial chemicals.

If you have sensitive skin, it’s highly recommended that you avoid synthetic fragrances — in fact you’ll find that beauty experts list this as one of the top toxic ingredients to avoid.   

“When an ingredient label simply says “fragrance” or “parfum,” it’s often an umbrella term for hundreds of chemicals that brands aren’t required to disclose.”

Fragrances are a cocktail of chemicals

Fragrance or parfum on a label can literally encompass a chemical cocktail of hundreds of undisclosed ingredients.

The FDA does not even require fragrance manufacturers to reveal the ingredients in synthetic fragrances because the formulas are considered to be "proprietary," protected under the FDA’s "trade secret" law, even though a lot of the compounds are known to be harmful and even carcinogenic.

One research review states that when it comes to fragrances, a “complete list of such compounds is rarely found on the ingredients-list of such products, as “fragrance mixtures” are defined as “trade secrets” and thus protected by law. While some information regarding the general toxicity of some of these compounds is available, their neurotoxicity is known to a lesser extent.”

Common side effects of these toxic chemicals may include headaches, nausea, dizziness, rash, cough, skin irritation and more.

Fragrances may contain phthalates

Phthalate diethyl phthalate or DEP, is used in fragrances to make the aroma linger and help perfume cling on to the skin. It’s also widely used in cosmetics.

Phthalates have been linked to a mountain of health concerns such as being hormone or endocrine disruptors, reducing sperm count in men, and even causing cancer and obesity.

When sprayed, diffused or applied to the skin these toxic chemicals can accumulate in the body and cause long-term health problems.

Some companies who use fragrances in their products will often claim that their products are phthalate-free, but that does not mean that they don’t contain other toxic substances.

Fragrance oil labels can be misleading

Another devious way companies list fragrance oils on labels are by mentioning them as plumeria oil or pikake oil.  This is nothing but a synthetic concoction that mimics the scent of the plumeria flower extract — but not the real extract itself.

What’s more is that synthetic fragrance oils are often marketed using “natural-sounding” names such as lilac, freesia, lavender, Japanese cherry blossom, and fruity scents like watermelon, banana, green apple and peach.

Fragrance oils rarely ever contain the actual natural ingredient they’re duplicating, and offer none of the benefits that their 100% essential oil counterparts offer.

Many products such as soaps and candles may be labeled as “natural” and will state “contains essential oils.” However, it’s important to check if the product ALSO lists “fragrance” on the label.

Also, if you see scent names on products such as rainforest, apple blossom, island breeze, citrus fresh and more, they are almost always synthetic.

“Fragrance-Free” vs “Unscented”

When a product label states that it is “fragrance-free,” it means that there is no added fragrance in the product. “Unscented” simply means that a specific type of fragrance was added to mask the smell of the product.

This means that “unscented” products can contain harmful artificial chemicals including phthalates.

If you have to choose between the two, always opt for “fragrance-free” rather than “unscented’ products.

Fragrance Oils are NOT Aromatherapy

The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA) defines aromatherapy as:

 “The therapeutic application or the medicinal use of aromatic substances (essential oils) for holistic healing.”

The keywords here are “essential oils” — meaning that only natural plant extracts need to be used for aromatherapy to promote health and well-being.

Essential oils are complex, and are made of more than just aromatic components, making them almost impossible to recreate in a lab. When only the scent components are isolated in a lab, the holistic healing properties of the plant as a whole are missed out.

Synthetic fragrance oils are definitely not aromatherapy. On the contrary they can actually be quite problematic, as the synthetic compounds can dry and irritate the skin, and may cause other health problems when inhaled.

Essential oils have many different uses in aromatherapy. Depending on the oil used, many are naturally:

  • Anti-inflammatory – reduce inflammation
  • Antibacterial – fight bacterial infections
  • Antiviral – weaken and combat viral infections
  • Antifungal – protect from fungal infections
  • Antibiotic – curb and kill bacteria
  • Antimicrobial – stop the growth of microorganisms
  • Antiseptic – keep microbes from growing and spreading
  • Analgesic – relieve pain
  • Decongestant – relieve congestion
  • Immunostimulant – stimulate an immune response 

Essential oils can be used therapeutically to fight infections, boost immunity, relieve joint pain, treat skin problems, uplift the mood, relieve migraines, combat stress and anxiety, soothe congestion and coughs and A LOT more.

Certain essential oils can also be ingested, while fragrance oils cannot be taken internally. Since essential oils are so concentrated, it’s important to dilute them first using a carrier oil and do a patch test on a small area of skin before use, in case of an allergic reaction.

Essential oils can be used for aromatherapy by applying them on the skin, direct inhalation, steam inhalation, massage, using them in baths, diffusing them in the air and more.

Fragrance oils are designed to only mimic a scent.

Putting fragrance oils where you’d usually use essential oils — such as in a diffuser or directly on the skin is not advisable.

You don’t want to expose your olfactory system, mucous membranes and sensitive skin to hundreds of undisclosed ingredients we still don’t fully understand.

When it comes to using essential oil vs fragrance oil in a diffuser, and for aromatherapy, there is simply no comparison.

Essential Oil vs Fragrance Oil Candles

This is an important topic to include, as fragrance oils are most commonly used in soap and candle making.

Scented candles are extremely popular today and are available in a large variety of scent combinations — everything from apple cinnamon and pumpkin spice, to fresh linen and Christmas cookies.

When you buy a candle it’s especially important to check the ingredients.

Igniting a candle with synthetic fragrance means that you are lighting a chemical concoction, that is anything but healthy. 

If you must use candles, avoid paraffin wax as it’s a petroleum by-product and emits toxic fumes and soot. Instead, opt for candles made from 100% palm oil, soy or beeswax.

Some companies attempt to create a longer-lasting odor and cut costs by using a small amount of essential oils combined with artificial fragrance in their candles. The label might say "Made with pure essential oils" but a closer look at the ingredient list will reveal that the majority of the scent is coming from toxic synthetic petrochemicals.

To avoid artificial ingredients, look for brands that promote natural products containing 100% pure essential oils only.

Sure, these might be pricier, as it is unbelievably cheap to scent a candle, fragrance or soap synthetically, but there really should be no compromise when it comes to your health, so always choose natural.

Using Essential Oil versus Fragrance Oil in Products

In this section, we’ll cover products available in the market that usually contain fragrance oils, that you can easily replicate using essential oils at home.

Natural Essential Oil Perfume

Why use synthetic perfumes when you can use natural essential oils? You’ll not only smell great but also experience the aromatherapy benefits, without the toxic chemicals which can often trigger headaches and allergies.

Watch the video below to learn how to make your own natural essential oil perfume at home!


Every good perfume needs the right base notes, middle notes and top notes. See which essential oils fit into base, middle and top fragrance notes.

DIY Essential Oil Candle

Try your hand at making your own DIY essential oil candles at home, by using 100% pure essential oils, as shown in the video below:


Ready to switch to using essential oils vs fragrance oils?

Why not diffuse natural essential oils instead of burning an artificially scented candle? Or rub on a natural roll-on blend with aromatherapy properties, instead of synthetic perfume.

Discover Calmoura’s line of 100% natural essential oils and carrier oils!

Key Takeaways 

  • The world of aromatic oils can be confusing — essential oils and fragrance oils are not the same thing, and are worlds apart
  • Essential oils are potent natural compounds extracted from plants, while fragrance oils are created in a lab
  • The word “fragrance” on a label can mean a chemical cocktail of hundreds of different ingredients including toxic petrochemicals, solvents, stabilizers, and more
  • Synthetic fragrances are known to cause headaches, skin irritation, allergies, and more
  • It’s best to choose products that are fragrance-free, those made with only natural essential oils, or make your own DIY candles and perfume at home
  • When buying essential oils, make sure to use 100% pure essential oils, that are also preferably USDA certified organic and GMO free, to reap the best therapeutic healing benefits

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