Synthetic fragrance vs Natural fragrance

Fragrance in products causes a lot of concern among some of the beauty buying public. Most often in people with sensitive skins, but it is becoming more and more of a contentious issue across the board.

Having heard the words ‘cell death’ and ‘cell toxicity’ one too many times in scare-mongering marketing, and especially through websites like goop,  I approached three experts across various fields in the industry for their opinions on using much-maligned synthetic fragrance vs ‘cell-death’ essential oils when used in skincare – facial skincare in particular. It is by no means a clear issue, but their answers may surprise you, and make you rethink your future purchases.

From Dr Marko Lens, founder of Zelens:
‘Synthetic fragrances contain chemicals that are not of a natural origin while natural fragrances contain ingredients only from a natural origin- basically a mixture of essential oils. Not all synthetic fragrances are bad and many of them contain essential oils. There has been a lot of negative publicity given to parabens, phthalates and synthetic musks used in synthetic fragrances. However, you can make a synthetic fragrance without these ingredients.
It is important to mention that synthetic fragrance does not necessarily cause more allergic reactions than natural fragrance. Both of them contain ingredients called allergens – substances that cause allergies. Almost all essential oils contain allergens and in my clinical practice I see more allergies due to the use of the mixtures of various essential oils than with the use of products containing synthetic fragrances.
Regarding fragrance and cytotoxicity (cell death): both synthetic and natural fragrances can be cytotoxic. However, I would be very careful when interpreting results from these tests since they are done in the lab using different types of human cells in vitro. For example, the product may be cytotoxic for human liver cells, but that does not mean it is the same for human dermal cells. Also, results of in vitro tests (petri dishes) ideally should be validated in vivo (on people).’

Lorna McKay – co-founder of The Perfume Society and a consultant to leading fragrance houses:
‘It is not that one is better than the other, rather the “combination ” often allows the perfumer to create longer lasting and more complex smells. Some of the great masterpieces e.g. Chanel No 5 and CK one would not exist without synthetic ingredients. In some instances we are “helping save the planet” by using synthetics.
Essential oils can be potent and should be used with care. Some need to be diluted and some react if not used carefully. e.g.  citrus oils in the sun can cause a reaction. Some essential oils are dangerous for pregnant women and babies. I believe essential oils have fantastic qualities but should be used with knowledge and caution. Just because it is natural it is not always good!’

Sam Farmer -founder of the Sam Farmer brand and a trained Cosmetic Scientist, Sam approached his group of friends at the SCS (Society of Cosmetic Scientists) who came back unanimously in favour of synthetic fragrance or a combination of synthetic/essential oil mix.
‘Naturals are far higher in allergenic compounds such as limonene, citral, cinnamyl alcohol, geraniol and eugenol just to mention a few. In fact, more than half of the allergens that need to be listed in the INCI list are naturals.
Using synthetics allows for a wider number of fragrance components so, you can argue, they are better as the risk is spread, so to speak.
Also, from a sustainability angle, fragrance from rare or protected raw materials, such as Sandalwood, can be reproduced without the risk of extinction!
As an aside, the SCS also stated unequivocally that it would be ‘impossible’ to create all of the top fragrances in the world without synthetics.

Bottom line? If you use skincare with no issues then you are probably not intolerant of either synthetic or natural fragrance. Crack on. If however, you know you have sensitivities, or you’re overly worried about fragrance in your skincare look for fragrance-free, if you do not already do so.
I flag up the presence of synthetic fragrance and essential oils in reviews for your information as a purchasing customer, not to instil fear. Synthetic fragrance goes through stringent testing, despite what certain websites would have you believe.

Do bear in mind, natural is not always better.

Further reading if you are interested:

Dweck Data –

Society of Cosmetic Scientists –

Whatever you do, for the love of sanity, don’t listen to goop and take the EWG with a pinch of salt.