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Synthetic vs. Natural Fragrance: Pros, Cons & What You Should Pick

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Image by max-kegfire / iStock
June 13, 2021

Readers, welcome to the world of "clean fragrance." By all accounts, it's a confusing one. Of all the categories of clean beauty, fragrance tends to be the most complicated to have a discussion about. Namely, because it's an often misunderstood world—and even an emotionally charged one (fragrance is intricately tied to memory and mood, after all.) The topic becomes even more dense when you start discussing the fragrance ingredients, their sourcing, and how they interact with the body. Wrap that all together, and you've got quite the hot-button topic. 

The good news is that we're never ones to shy away from a thorough conversation. Recently, in an episode on our beauty podcast Clean Beauty School, I spoke with Mindy Yang, fragrance expert, reiki healer, and founder of Perfumarie. In it, we got into the nitty-gritty of what option is best for clean fragrances. Spoiler alert: "Unfortunately, not as straightforward as you would hope," says Yang. 

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Why is the fragrance conversation so controversial? 

First, there are a lot of differing opinions in the space. Depending on who you ask, you'll get a vast range of stances that goes from "synthetic is always safer for the environment and health" to "essential oils or bust." And these differing viewpoints often come from the best of places but are often at odds with each other—thus making seeing eye-to-eye challenging. For example, those who lean heavily into the camp of synthetic may argue that it's the option that is kinder to the environment, while those who lean on naturals argue that many synthetic fragrances contain ingredients that are potentially harmful to health. 

The second is that fragrance ingredient lists are long (like could be dozens of ingredients in a single scent) and don't need to be disclosed on the label thanks to trade secret laws. And because of the veiled ingredient lists, consumers have a hard time trusting what's in the final product. And the lack of transparency has spiraled into a demonization of the word "fragrance" itself. We should note that this is getting vastly better: Many brands and retailers have started disclosing what's in their fragrances due to growing consumer demand. 

Third is that fragrance notes are volatile molecules—no matter whether you are using natural or synthetic—and therefore can be irritating to the skin, with some being potential allergens. So some people suggest skipping fragrance altogether.  

OK, so that's (some of) the groundwork. Now, what options should you go with? Let's lay out the pros and cons. 

Why natural notes?

Considering how much we support natural beauty here at mindbodygreen, it's no surprise that we see the many benefits of natural fragrance notes.

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Smell and use preference.

Listen, some of us just want to use natural products, full stop. That's reason enough for us! Natural notes tend to have a more grounded, earthy flavor, and many people find that intimate aroma more soothing. Natural fragrances also tend to be more subtle and don't stay around all day—this is ideal for those with sensitive noses, who prefer wearing fragrances that don't come off as overpowering. 

Therapeutic benefits.

Perhaps the most impressive reason to opt for naturals—like essential oils or extracts—is many of them come with therapeutic benefits as well. (Hence, aromatherapy.) This means your signature scent isn't just for adornment; it can actually improve your mood, offer a moment of calm, and even improve your sleep, as is the case with lavender.

"Personally, I've been really drawn to materials and botanicals that have medicinal and healing properties that also smell nice—largely due to my background in aromatherapy and reiki," says Yang. "There's something so beautiful about functional fragrances that do not smell like medicine and, yet, you're using that in an innovative way so they do help your body. Timeless solutions to basically everyday problems." 

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Fewer ingredients.

If you like keeping your ingredient lists small, natural fragrances tend to include fewer notes. This is simply the case when formulating naturals: Synthetic fragrances are made up of dozens of molecules and notes to achieve the outcome, whereas naturals typically only utilize a handful of botanicals for their final, edited scent.  

Why synthetic notes? 

For so long "synthetic" got a bad reputation in the natural and clean world. But as we learn and develop more in this space, consumers are becoming more and more educated that synthetics aren't the problem. (The problem is ingredients like endocrine disrupters, environmental toxins, and carcinogens—which actually aren't exclusive to either the natural or synthetic world.) Here's why safe synthetic ingredients may show up in your fragrance—and why that's to your benefit. 

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More consistent output.

There's inherent steadiness with synthetic ingredients—as the creation of the notes is in a controlled environment. This means the consumer experience is the same for each bottle purchased. That doesn't exist with naturals in the same way.

"And when we were working with ingredients—especially with naturals—it's very much like the food, wine, and spirit world; your harvest from a year, two years, is very, very different," she says. "The cost is different. The quality is different. The materials that get yielded from batch to batch vary a lot."

And the changes to the ingredients are so nuanced, it may even come down to the soil: "If you have an oil from one farm in one region of the world, and then all of a sudden—because of climate change, the supplier chain got disrupted, or the farm got bought up or went out of business—you have to buy from another supplier of the oil. It may smell similar to number one, but there will be differences because of the terroir," says Yang. "It's basically like wine: You have to think about the variations of regional climate and how they process the materials." 

Environmental concerns.

While harvesting from the earth is a beautiful, life-sustaining endeavor—oftentimes with fragrances it comes with environmental drawbacks. "We are actively engineering and creating new molecules and formulas that are inspired by natural ingredients as they become extinct or more expensive due to climate change," says Yang. "Frankincense, for instance, it takes so many years to even be able to get a new harvest, but if you create it synthetically, the ingredient becomes a bit more accessible and you're not depleting the supply."

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Safety and sensitivity.

We must say that fragrance, of any kind, is a challenge for those with sensitive skin. This is why derms tell you to avoid scented products and perfume if you are easily irritated. However, in these new developments in fragrance, many brands have crafted molecules that tend to be easier for those with finicky skin—and cuts out many common allergens, like the EU 26.  

The verdict.

Ultimately, the type of fragrance you want to wear is the right choice for you, your olfactory preferences, and overall priorities. But as Yang notes, don't think of this as an either-or, black-and-white: Fragrance can contain multitudes, and it's OK to embrace that. 

"If we think about fragrance as music, the entire fragrance is a song composed of all different notes. If you're using only naturals—unless the perfumer, or 'composer' is a genius—the final composition is going to be a little flat because natural fragrances play together in a predictable way. If you're only using synthetics, it, too, will feel stiff," she says. "If you use both, it's like having a beautiful song and then adding in amplifiers." 

And, like most things in the beauty space, this just means finding brands that are transparent about their sourcing, ingredients, and efforts. Luckily, those options are more prevalent now than anytime before in beauty (check out our favorite clean fragrance brands here). So it's entirely possible to find scents that are sourced ethically, are made safely, and—not so small bonus—smell wonderful. 

"This is why in modern perfumery, we do work with both natural and synthetics. I have fallen in love with working with both," says Yang. "I love to start with naturals and then use safe, but interesting, synthetics to add the special effects to round out and enhance the formula." 

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Alexandra Engler
Alexandra Engler
mbg Beauty Director

Alexandra Engler is the beauty director at mindbodygreen and host of the beauty podcast Clean Beauty School. Previously, she's held beauty roles at Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, SELF, and Cosmopolitan; her byline has appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and In her current role, she covers all the latest trends in the clean and natural beauty space, as well as lifestyle topics, such as travel. She received her journalism degree from Marquette University, graduating first in the department. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.