Myths to debunk: natural vs. synthetic, what's the truth?

There is a dilemma that all fragrance enthusiasts eventually ponder: when creating a fragrance, are natural raw materials always preferable to synthetically obtained isolates and molecules? One of Aquaflor's Fragrance Specialists helps shed light on this controversial topic.

A perfume is born from the combination of multiple odoriferous raw materials, which can be extracted from natural ingredients through a distillation process, yielding essential oils, extracts, and absolutes. Alternatively, they can be recreated in a laboratory by isolating a natural molecule (in this case, referred to as isolates) that is exactly identical to the one found in nature. When attempting to reproduce a natural scent that cannot be extracted from nature itself, pure synthesis is employed using so-called aroma chemicals—synthetic molecules created from scratch, which do not exist in nature.

While it is crucial to rely on natural extracts as much as possible to give a fragrance that special touch of uniqueness and distinctiveness, relying solely on natural materials is inherently complex from a production standpoint and comes with a series of implications to consider. On one hand, there is a safety issue related to possible allergies or adverse reactions that certain natural ingredients may cause. From this perspective, Europe is now much more vigilant than in the past thanks to the oversight of an organization called IFRA (International Fragrance Association), which conducts skin tests each year to monitor the reaction and potential toxicity of various raw materials. All findings from IFRA studies result in regulations that manufacturers must strictly adhere to, requiring perfumes made with natural components to undergo an analysis that indicates the presence of flagged raw materials, ensuring consumer protection as much as possible.

From this perspective, the use of isolates provides an additional element of safety for customers while also facilitating production. Synthetic molecules obtained through synthesis are not only safe but also guarantee constant production over time by freeing it from problems related to the availability of certain natural ingredients, which can sometimes take years to become available again. Without the support of synthesis, production would not be able to keep up with demand and would fail to ensure a stable standard of quality. Isolates enable the creation of perfumes that remain constant throughout the years, not only because they solve the problem of ingredient availability but also because nature often provides us with raw materials that possess different characteristics, resulting in olfactory differences as well.

Lastly, there is the issue of sustainability and respect for the environment. Intensive extraction of certain natural raw materials contributes to the extermination of entire plant species or severely damages particularly delicate ecosystems, as is the case of the ambergris: a secretion produced by the digestive system of the sperm whale, is an extremely valuable raw material widely used in perfumery and also one of the least sustainable, as its production requires specific conditions that involve significant energy waste. Furthermore, despite efforts made for years to protect this endangered species by extracting this material only from stranded whales or blocks found on ocean coasts, unfortunately, there are still hunters of this animal who, enticed by the high profitability of ambergris, disregard the survival of the species.

Using natural ingredients is crucial to give a product a truly unique essence, but it is important to do it responsibly, without harming the environment that surrounds us and considering the other implications. Today, maintaining the right balance between natural and synthetic is possible without compromising the olfactory quality of a fragrance. With proper balance, we can have perfumes that are safer, more readily available, consistent, sustainable, and environmentally respectful.