Sustainable brands rely on good science; therefore, synthetic fragrances can’t be counted out just yet.  

Pop quiz time: When you heard the words “synthetic fragrance”, what comes to mind? 

If you’re like a lot of people in the sustainable niche, probably not a lot of good things. It’s not hard to see why: synthetic fragrances have built up a reputation of being harsh on skin, allergen-loaded, full of parabens and phthalates, and just plain unappealing as a concoction of chemicals. 

Here at Dip, we took a deep dive into fragrances--the good, the bad, and the ugly. 

The essential oils purists want to overlook the toll that the increased demand for plant based oils & fragrance has a lot of unintended consequences:

  • increased need for land
  • increased use of pesticides & fertilizers
  • pressures on small farmers to increase yields during climate change
  • no regulation of labor practices in remote areas of the world
  • homogenized agriculture that decreases biodiversity of plants and animals in the area
  • supply shortages and panicked substitutions with other cheaper oils to meet global consumer demand 

    Whereas some of the common concerns about synthetic fragrance include: 

    • It’s unsafe
    • It’s harmful for sensitive skin or allergy-prone people
    • It’s harmful for the environment
    • It's full of toxins
    • Chemicals can't be trusted

    But is this really the case? Let’s take a deeper look. 

    What are synthetic fragrances, anyway?

    If you’re unfamiliar, synthetic fragrances are scents that are developed in laboratories: no biomass required (in theory). They’re meant to replicate natural scents via man-made processes (so we don’t need to go straight to the animal or plant sources, unless absolutely necessary). 

    Natural fragrances, on the other hand, tend to come straight from the source.

    These are derived from plant extracts, animal extracts, and essential oils. Some companies want to move away from artificial scents and instead use “natural” fragrance sources for all their aroma needs. 

    “Unscented”, “natural fragrance”, “botanical”, and “derived from essential oils” are all phrases you will see in cosmetics today.

    People trust fragrances from plant extracts more than a formula crafted in a lab, and it’s not hard to see why: many people want to think of freshly bloomed roses when you smell perfume, not a laundry list of chemical ingredients. 

    But an untold secret of the essential oils market is that...

    ...often, the entire plant is cold pressed with the pesticides on the plant--which contributes to allergens & skin irritation.

    (Hate to be the bearer of bad news, folks).

    Why do synthetics exist when natural fragrances are still on the market?

    For one, synthetic fragrances can be customized on a molecular level. That means they can be formulated to last longer, be more concentrated, and even phase out those pesky allergens!

    The result? Synthetics often are less irritating to skin, smell stronger, and offer a potent alternative to biomass-focused fragrances. 

    But are synthetic fragrances safe?

    Yes & no!!

    This truly depends on the development--and the standards a company sets for them.  We proudly built our fragrances with the industry leader Robertet to Credo's extremely strict standards for clean.

    Credo's standards are so strict that, as expensive as it was to meet these standards, we are so proud that we have created fragrances that are a symphony of beautiful scents for our bars--that could pass their litmus test for "clean".

    As a company, that means we can sleep at night knowing we have done the best we could.

    Nature does a lot of things right, but that doesn’t mean everything in nature is human-friendly. (Poison ivy is totally natural, but I won’t be using it as a skin toner anytime soon!)

    Don’t get us wrong: we love natural products.

    However, we get a little wary whenever “natural ingredients” are touted as totally harmless or consequence-free when it comes to the beauty industry. 

    Synthetic fragrances can get a bad rep since other man-made substitutions—like food dyes or sugar substitutes—are normally seen as ticking time bombs.

    And many synthetic fragrances deserve the bad rep!  We see you cheap candles & body mists!!!

    Dip's fragrance ain't no cheap air-freshener--we went above & beyond to create beautiful, sophisticated, phthalate free fragrance.

    Many natural materials can still contain allergens, and some even contain them at high concentrations. Things like oakmoss, rose absolute, and jasmine can all irritate sensitive skin, but they’re also popular fragrance ingredients 

    Much like lactose-free milk can filter out the offending ingredients, synthetic fragrances can also weed out any irritating allergens in their formulas.

    These man-made formulas are also highly standardized (literally drilled down to a science), so you can be assured of their quality in every batch. 

    Mia Davis of Credo says: 

    "Keep in mind that many of the chemicals named in fragrance blends may look long and scary, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t clean."

    Are synthetic fragrances sustainable? 

    Fragrances have certain ingredient and production standards that must be met for them to be certifiably sustainable by official organizations. Note: they don’t HAVE to be natural to earn that certification! In the case of fragrance, sustainable means that they balance economic and environmental protections, including the product’s lifecycle, ingredient sourcings, recycled materials, etc.

    This means synthetic can be sustainable.

    On the flip side, natural fragrances are not sustainable by default.

    Despite their eco-friendly reputation, natural fragrances are made by extracting the scent from plants and animals, and that biomass has to come from somewhere. Cultivating these scents can lead to over-harvested farmlands, deforestation, and pesticide use, among other concerns. 

    The green beauty industry loves phrases like “chemical free”, “no toxins”, but those can get a little greenwashy at the surface level.

    Chemicals aren’t the problem; a 2D understanding of sustainability is. 

    Sustainable beauty is accountable beauty.

    It means consumers must demand that companies show that they’ve done their homework. It means educating people on how to demand hard-hitting sustainability policies, ethical ingredient sourcing, and zero waste packaging. 

    Without synthetics, the natural fragrance sources would be forced to try and keep up with the demand.

    Those natural resources take a lot of resources, a lot of time, and honestly, not a lot of product by the end of it.

    This is why synthetics have become industry-standard for scents like sandalwood (whose natural source has wreaked havoc via deforestation in India).

    Squeezing as much extract out of every inch of farmland simply isn’t sustainable; simply by existing, synthetics let those natural sources (and our earth) breathe.

    The bigger issue

    Synthetic fragrances don’t all have a sustainability problem; they have a branding problem. Unfortunately, many well-meaning consumers have fallen into the trap of pitting science versus natural when it comes to their beauty products. Distrust of science when in the natural vs science debate

    We figure that “natural” products can’t possibly hurt the environment, but that’s not the case at all.

    We haven’t even dipped deeply into the pressures on farmers, the increasing need for land & fertilizers & pesticides to produce more of an essential oil as it becomes more popular–and also the labor that is required to harvest small yields of oils. We'll save that for another read :)

    The real question is: Why do we trust consumerist labels over science in these cases?

    • Science creates vaccines.

    • Science creates anti-venom.

    • Science gets rid of that poison ivy itch pretty fast, right?

    Please push for companies to be more accountable and less worried about buzz words. 

    Robertet's Letters of Clean, front and center (and a little blurry--we can email you any of these if you are interested!):