What is the difference between fragrance oils and essential oils – especially as they relate to candle making and soap making?
If you’re a candle maker or soap maker who uses them interchangeably – who makes candles and makes soaps that just smell good (to you and others,) regardless of whether it’s natural or not, then there’s probably not much difference at all. As long as it’s a quality fragrance or essential oil, and has been tested to be safe in the application you're using it for.
But if you want to make only natural soaps and natural candles (and there's debate on just what qualifies as "natural"), then there is all the difference in the world! Few topics in soap making and candle making have engendered so much discussion, debate, and controversy as fragrance oils vs. essential oils in candle and soap making.
But let’s start with the basics:
What is a fragrance oil?
A fragrance oil is a mix of various chemical components, some natural (from plants or even animals), and some synthetic. They are carefully formulated and/or blended to the exact specifications of a perfumer whose goal is to design a scent. “The perfumer is effectively an artist who is trained in depth on the concepts of fragrance aesthetics and who is capable of conveying abstract concepts and moods with their fragrance compositions.” --Wikipedia - "Perfumer" Sometimes they are formulated to smell like something occurring in nature (e.g. lavender, pine, bluebonnets, strawberries), or sometimes they are formulated to smell like an entirely new creation or concept (e.g. spring rain, love spell, winter wonderland.)
There are literally thousands of various compounds that each have their own scent…that blended together create a fragrance oil. Some fragrance oils contain essential oils as part of the natural components or constituents. Some do not. Some contain synthetically made constituents of essential oils. To help thin the various compounds, and to help create some uniformity of strength across fragrance oils, they are usually diluted with a “diluent.”
Whether the constituents of the fragrance oil are safe on your skin will determine whether or not a fragrance oil is “skin safe” for soap, lotions or other cosmetic applications. Fragrance oils, and especially the constituents that make up fragrance oils, are guided by the Research Institute for Fragrance Materials (RIFM) which generates, evaluates and distributes scientific data on the safety assessment of fragrance raw materials found in perfumes, cosmetics, shampoos, creams, detergents, air fresheners, candles and other personal and household products. Perfumers and fragrance oil blenders are also guided by IFRA, the International Fragrance Association, which is the official representative body of the fragrance industry worldwide. Its main purpose is to ensure the safety of fragrance materials through a dedicated science program. They focus on fragrance safety both as it relates to the consumer and to the environment.
The DuPont Corporation used to use “Better Living Through Chemistry” as their slogan.
Think of fragrance oils as “Better smelling through chemistry.” Just like chemistry has created many wonderful and safe things that make our world better, easier and more pleasant - chemistry has created many wonderful-smelling things that are a part of our everyday lives.
However, not everyone believes in "Better Living Through Chemistry", especially as it relates to chemicals in our soaps and candles. What if you want it natural?
What is an essential oil?
Much of the renaissance of soap and candle making in the 20th Century was due to people wanting to get back to more natural ways. Whether out of fear of cancer or other health problems, wanting fewer chemicals in our environment, or just a desire for a simpler existence, people began wanting the things around them to be more natural. From the food they eat to the soap they bathe with, some people want nothing in or on their bodies but the pure basics. These are the warriors for the use of essential oils in candles and soap.
Julia Lawless, in her book The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Essential Oils, states, “When we peel and orange, walk through a rose garden or run a sprig of lavender between our fingers, we are all aware of the special scent of that plant. But what exactly is it that we can smell? Generally speaking, it is essential oils that give spices and herbs their specific scent and flavor, flowers and fruit their perfume.”
That about sums it up. Essential oils are natural oils that contain the “essence” of a plant. They are the liquid or resin that is distilled, pressed or extracted from different parts of the plant – leaves, flowers, bark, berries, root, needles, seeds, beans, peel, cones, wood, stalks etc. Essential oils are generally extracted by distillation, though some oils are gotten through other processes like expression or solvent extraction.
Sometimes the oil can come from different parts of the plant – a few plants (like an orange tree) contain several different essential oils in different parts. Orange essential oil is derived from the fruit, neroli from the flower blossoms and petitgrain from the leaves.
It takes many, usually hundreds of, pounds of plant material to make a pound of essential oil. It takes about 200 pounds of lavender to make a pound of lavender essential oil. It takes over 2000 pounds of rose petals to make a pound of rose essential oil. (That's why it's SO expensive!)
Essential oils can be used in making soap and making candles – as well as in making many other fragrant items like room sprays, lotions, bath salts and oils, balms etc. They are also, of course, the foundation for the whole practice of aromatherapy.
For the most part, they can be used in about the same concentrations, and used in the same ways as fragrance oils. Remember, many fragrance oils contain essential oils as part of their blends.
Some people may be concerned about the safety of essential oils - and rightly so. Essential oils are powerful organic chemicals. But the same care should be taken whether using fragrance or essential oils in your candles and soap. Chemicals are chemicals whether they're created in a lab, or created in nature. Just because something is natural doesn't mean it's safe to put in or on your body.
So which is better?
I love essential oils. I also love fragrance oils. I use both of them in my soaps and candles. I do not believe that either one is inherently better than the other. They both have their proper uses, cautions, and advantages. Like with all things, it is up to us candle makers and soap makers to learn all we can so that we can make educated choices about the products we make.