Natural vs. synthetic fragrances: how safe are your cosmetics?

Written by Ross Goodhart

If you haven’t read up on fragrances, let us share a little secret with you: they’re in absolutely everything. Lotion, deodorant, shampoos, sunscreen, hairspray, and even lipstick utilize fragrances - either from essential oils, synthetic fragrance oils, or a combination of both. 

At first glance, this might not seem like a big deal. A pleasant smell enhances the experience of using a product. So what’s the problem?

As many consumers have come to realize, just because a fragrance smells good, it doesn’t mean it’s safe. That’s why there’s a huge consumer movement for natural fragrances. But is all the hubbub over natural vs synthetic fragrance really necessary? As we’ll see shortly, natural fragrances have many advantages.

Consider the health risks

Synthetic fragrances carry far greater health risks than natural fragrances, largely due to a transparency issue. Because fragrance components are considered a trade secret, companies are not required to list all their fragrance ingredients in the USA. Instead, cosmetics companies are free to use the umbrella term "fragrance" on their ingredients list, which is commonly where many unsafe chemicals are hidden rather than listed outright. 

Synthetic fragrances are usually derived from petrochemicals, which are known to be endocrine disruptors and can interfere with our natural hormone production. While some of them might be more stable than their natural counterparts, they still break down quickly when exposed to air. Fixatives like parabens, phthalates, and even formaldehyde are used to slow down the evaporation rate of the aromatic compounds and help the scent last longer. These compounds are also used to prevent bacteria and fungus from growing in cosmetics. 

Unfortunately, these fixatives are all linked to a wide array of health issues, and they can all be absorbed into your skin and accumulate in your body. Phthalates are known to disrupt the endocrine system and cause hormonal imbalance, while parabens and formaldehyde are classified as carcinogens. But since manufacturers aren’t required to list fragrance ingredients on the bottle, many people have no idea these chemicals are in their beauty products.

Even without these additives, some synthetic fragrances have been known to cause problems. They can trigger irritation, allergic reactions, and asthma; and ingredients included in shampoo fragrances may exacerbate skin conditions that cause dandruff.

Why synthetic fragrances aren't always bad

While natural fragrances are usually much safer than synthetic ones, the science isn’t always so clear-cut. For starters, there are plenty of compounds that straddle the line between natural and artificial. Fully synthetic fragrance compounds are mostly derived from petrochemicals. But some compounds are synthesized by modifying the structure of naturally occurring chemicals for fragrance material. 

Just because a chemical is synthesized in a lab doesn’t necessarily mean it’s dangerous or inferior to a naturally occurring compound. In fact, many synthetic molecules are structurally identical to the ones found in nature. Producing them is much cheaper, and can often have a lower impact on the environment.  For example, synthetic Vitamin C is often used as a safe way to extend the shelf life of food. 

And similarly, just because a product is natural doesn’t mean it’s non-toxic. For example, wild almonds contain deadly amounts of cyanide. Fruit and leaves from potato plants contain poisonous tropane alkaloids that can wreak havoc on your nervous system. Botulinum, one of the most toxic compounds out there, is an all-natural byproduct of botulism bacteria.

Still, many people prefer natural perfumes and cosmetics because they are much more subtle, and safer to use. A perfume with a potent synthetic scent and powerful fixatives can draw a lot of attention when you walk into the room - and no matter how pleasant it smells to you, others may find it overpowering.

...cosmetics companies are free to use the umbrella term "fragrance" on their ingredients list, which is commonly where many unsafe chemicals are hidden rather than listed outright. 

What about environmental impact?

Both natural fragrances and synthetic ones may have an impact on the environment. While natural fragrances are generally safer, over-harvesting plants or animals to create a natural fragrance can lead to scarcity. 

Rather than harvesting these compounds from rare plants and animals, some cosmetic companies instead produce synthetic ingredients in a lab at a fraction of the cost and with a much smaller carbon footprint. 

Does this mean synthetic fragrances are better for the environment? It’s not that simple. While some fragrances are modified from naturally occurring compounds, the majority are derived from petrochemicals. On top of that, these synthetic fragrances are not effectively removed during the typical wastewater treatment process and can contaminate water supplies. These compounds weaken wildlife’s defense mechanisms and make them more vulnerable to chemical spills and other toxic events.

So which is more ecologically responsible - natural or synthetic fragrance? There’s no simple answer, but your best approach is to read the label, avoid synthetic fragrances, and make sure the natural fragrances are responsibly sourced. 

Choosing a safe fragrance for your shampoo

If there’s one place you want to be especially cautious with fragrances, it’s on your head. Your scalp microbiome is incredibly sensitive, and synthetic chemicals that throw it off can lead to itching, dandruff, and flare-ups of conditions like eczema and psoriasis. When shopping for a shampoo ensure the word “fragrance” is not listed in the ingredients.

Unfortunately, conventional shampoo brands don’t always offer a safe scent. Many use synthetic fragrances in their shampoos, along with harsh chemicals like sulfates, parabens, and phthalates that can strip the natural oils from your hair and scalp. This leads to dry or greasy hair, tangling, and frizz. If you’re already dealing with dandruff, this can make your flaking even worse.

That’s why you should look for shampoos with natural, safe essential oils that make up a natural fragrance. Scents like rosemary and lavender essential oil aren’t just a beautiful, alluring part of your daily hair-care regimen - they can actually be beneficial to your scalp and hair. 

If your shampoo lists a ‘fragrance’ on its label that may contain unsafe ingredients, then it’s time to ditch it for a safer alternative. Look for an effective, gentle product that keeps your scalp clear and your hair strong and silky. Jupiter’s dandruff and scalp care products are all formulated with clean, effective, and nourishing ingredients that make for a soothing, delightful scent. You won’t see “fragrance” listed on Jupiter’s ingredient labels, but rather key ingredients like lavender, coconut oil, rosemary, and peppermint that both nourish the scalp and lend a spa-like scent to the products. Learn more here

Balancing Shampoo

Meet our medicated head honcho. This soothing cleanser gets to the root of dandruff (flaking, irritation, dry scalp), thanks to our star active ingredient, Zinc Pyrithione. Proven to also reduce hair breakage by 30% - with a lush aroma of mint, vanilla, sage, and lavender - it’s bound to elevate your mood and your shower.

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