This article is part of our transparency series uncovering what goes into our candles, and how we reached these decisions. Read our articles on palm wax, and how we make our candles here. In this article we take a fragrant dive into the world of natural and synthetic ingredients in perfumery.
We are often asked if our candles contain only natural essential oils. The simple answer is no—we use a combination of natural and synthetically made molecules in our fragrances, which allows us to make fine, sustainable fragrances, with depth, mystery and variety.
The fragrance industry has been slow to educate consumers about the magic behind the mystery of scent; and in particular when it comes to the differences between natural and synthetic. In fact, there’s a general misunderstanding that high quality perfumes are, in most part, natural. Chanel No.5 (Ernest Beaux, Chanel 1921), arguably the most famous perfume of all times, is composed from many man-made molecules and would be impossible to make with just naturals oils. And as Chandler Burr once noted for the New York Times, the use of synthetics in perfumes has been the case ever since for "every great scent, from Armani to Gaultier to Lauren.”
Not so natural? — Chanel No. 5 (Image credit)
This may come as a surprise to you. Isn’t natural better, safer, less toxic? You’re not alone: we did not expect to use anything but natural when we started Keap, but through a deeper understanding of perfumery, and working with a master perfumer, we have learned that natural is not inherently better, safer, or any less risky than man-made molecules.
Natural vs synthetic: what does it mean?
The words “natural” and “synthetic” are often used to create an artificial divide. The word “synthetic” has such innately negative connotations that we will prefer to use man-made throughout this article to avoid bias. It is therefore a surprise to discover that many man-made molecules are chemically identical to those found in nature. For example, almond essential oil contains 90% Benzaldehyde, a chemical compound that can be synthesized in a laboratory. A familiar analogy is Vitamin C: it can can be found naturally in citrus fruits or be bought in man-made form from your local drug store. Neither molecule is better or worse: they’re both the same!
The same in nature and the laboratory - Vitamin C
Natural vs. man-made: why not just stick to nature?
Man-made materials allow us to innovate beyond the limitations imposed by nature.
Often this innovation possesses major benefits for us all. Take for example the construction industry. The use of man-made materials such as steel, glass and polymers gave architects the ability to pursue their structural fantasies. The properties of man-made materials allowed them to build taller, thinner and safer structures. Similarly the aviation industry depends on man-made materials for their physical properties. Would you fly in a natural plane?
Natural beginnings - The Wright Brother's plane
Natural vs man-made: a fragrant history
Perfumery has been around for millennia—the Ancient Egyptians were already extracting natural essences to use on their bodies in 2000 BC—but grew into an industry to be reckoned with during the reigns of Kings Louis XIV and XV in 17th-18th century France. Fragrances at this time were all extracted from natural sources. This was true for florals and animals scents alike—musk, for example, was the direct secretion of the sexual glands of the musk deer which, like some hard-to-find plants, had to be killed for the purpose of the scented exercise.
Steam and copper pots - Extraction method (Photo Credit: Fragrantica)
With the rising popularity of scents came an increasing desire to capture more vividly than before, and push the boundaries of scent creation. Natural essences presented a severe limitation as they were constrained to what you could extract directly from natural products— floral essences smelled more dank and earthy, than the fresh, vivacious flowers on the stem. So, it was the 19th century that gave rise to modern perfumery with the creation of the first man-made molecules, through the work of organic chemists on odorant molecules to produce a more expansive, nuanced creative palette.
Natural vs man-made: a full comparison
Looking deeper, there’s a number of ways in which natural and man-made molecules can be compared and contrasted. We’ll look at these across three areas:
Practicality—the purely practical elements such as extraction methods and costs.
Artistry—what they allow a master perfumer to create.
Ethicality—the impact they have on us and the world.
1) Production: Natural oils are derived directly from an organic matter such as a plant, fruit or animal. This is done via processes of boiling and distillation, dissolving in alcohol or some other method of extraction. Man-made scent molecules are those developed by fragrance manufacturers and synthesized in a laboratory.
2) Availibility: Natural oils, by virtue of being grown at times from finicky plants or from long-lived trees, are dependent on growing conditions, sunlight, natural disasters and political events. As a result natural oils can be extremely difficult to obtain in quantities or reliabily. Man-made molecules are less prone to unexpected impacts.
3) Price: Both natural and synthetic elements can be inexpensive or expensive. Natural oils do tend to have high costs due to the raw materials having to be farmed and harvested by hand. For example, rose oils can range from $3,000-$25,000 per kilogram and would make a fragrance unaffordable while still not smelling of real roses. Man-made molecules still have raw material costs, but since these are typically easier to make and purify, their costs tend to be lower. However in some cases the chemical process can require huge amounts of raw material or scientist time for only small amounts of finished product, pushing prices up as high or beyond naturals.
Part of the process - Production complexity affects price and availability (Image: Fragrantica).
1) Complexity: Natural scents and oils are made up of a few to hundreds of individual scent molecules. This makes them unmistakable, often very complex, but in some cases, hard to replicate, but also lacking in versatility. Man-made molecules, conversely, are singular molecules which can be combined together or with naturals oils, to create more nuanced and much more varied end fragrances. Whereas the essential oil extracted from a rose includes various aspects including a very damp, bitter component (not very bouquet-like), man-made molecules can replicate particular facets of a natural scent, such as a rose’s sensuous and delicate elements. This ability to replicate non-extractable natural elements can be used to create new, fantastical smells. As an analogy, imagine having individual notes and instruments (man-made) or only whole birdsongs (natural) and being asked to recreate a famous rock song.
2) Variety: Many natural substances with pleasant scents do not express enough oil during extraction for it to be possible (or economical) to capture. Some natural oils, like Lily-of-the-Valley, will rot after 24hrs. Thus there are only roughly ~200 quality extractable plantsavailable. Many man-made molecules are direct replicas of their natural molecular counterparts that make up essential oils. On top of this, man-made molecules have been created that are not encountered in nature, expanding the range of scents available to perfumers. Man-made molecules give perfumers an additional ~2,000 elements to work with on their scent organ when composing fragrances. For example, abstract smells like water or crisp air, or scents of plants that cannot be extracted like orchids or lilacs. As an analogy, imagine a painter trying to capture a natural scene, including the blue color from the sky, only with the colors he could extract from the natural matter around him .
3) Poetry: There’s a romanticism to the story behind natural oils, such as the idea of a lavender field having being grown, farmed, distilled, and captured and now scenting your home. However, this often stops at the smell. Natural essences are often sharper and more earthy than expected, or some won’t burn properly in wax. Man-made molecules allow for the poetry that we’ve come to know and expect in refined fragrances
Poetry in motion - The romance of real flowers (Image: Adria Mercuri)
1) Health: Both natural or man-made molecules, like cinnamon, rose oil, saffron or linalool, can be harmful at certain levels. IFRA (the International Fragrance Association) regulates strongly the levels of certain components in fragrances. These levels are consistent across both natural and man-mades i.e. no distinction is made. The main difference is that man-made molecules can be reduced individually (see 2. Complexity above), whereas natural oils have to have the entire oil reduced to reduce a single molecule within the oil. As a result, some naturals are more restricted than some single molecules.
2) Allergens: Naturals can be as allergenizing as single molecules. For example, Oakmoss natural is considered allergenic and are highly restricted by IFRA. The synthetic equivalent, veramoss, is not considered as so, and is used more frequently as a result. Similarly, reconstituted Nutmegs and Saffrons are used over the naturals and smell just as fantastic.
3) Sustainability: Natural oils come from materials which have to be farmed, and hundreds of pounds of plant matter can be required to produce a single pound of essential oil e.g. 10,000 pounds of rose blooms for 1 pound of rose oil. This can have pros, such as helping 40,000 farmers in Haiti grow vetiver plants, or Uganda villages being helped thanks to Vanilla cultivation. At the same time, the destructive pursuits of Rosewood, orchids or even sandalwood and oudh have been brought to a halt in part thanks to the existence of sustainable and safe molecules created by the chemists.
Understanding the real cost - The Amazonian Rosewood Tree (Image: Nate Moore)
Natural vs synthetic: what do we use?
Based on the above criteria, we worked with our perfumer to determine what would best be able to express the desired feelings, memories and places that we envisioned in our scents. Armed with a deeper understanding of the nuances outlined above, the answer was a blend of natural and man-made molecules fully dependant on the act of creation and the desired emotional effect.
We’ve noticed a tendency for the fragrance industry to do little to educate consumers on key areas such as this question of naturals vs. synthetics. There remains a strong bias away from molecular fragrances when marketed as such, despite enabling the products and sensations consumers love, and not actually being a result of greed. In fact we estimate our candles contain 2 to 3 times as much ingredient value as other candles at similar price points given how much we respect naturals and high end molecules for our candles.
We hope this article helped inform your point of view. Keep an eye out for more education and transparency in the coming few weeks regarding the scent making and creation of our candles.