Let’s clear up a common misconception: synthetic perfume ingredients are not bad. The rise in popularity of organic and green products in beauty and cosmetics has led many people to associate all things chemical with bad. In many cases, synthetic ingredients — aroma molecules that are synthesized in a lab — are less harmful than natural ones. Synthetic materials allow perfumers to expand their palettes, reinvent naturally occurring smells, and create entirely new smells.
It’s not uncommon for modern perfumes to contain at least 50% synthetic ingredients.
The use of synthetic perfume ingredients began in the late 19th century allowing perfumers to expand their palettes beyond natural essential oils. Today, many synthetic ingredients are created as alternatives to natural ingredients due to high costs (ie. iris), overharvesting (ie. sandalwood), or regulation. Ingredients are restricted or banned if they are allergens (ie. oakmoss), or because obtaining the ingredient causes harm to a species (ie. musk).
Environmental Impact & Safety
Synthetic ingredients are simpler in composition and potentially safer because only safety-tested ingredients are used. A synthetic ingredient is one molecule. Natural rose essential oil, on the other hand, contains hundreds of different molecules. So what? When you put rose essential oil on your skin, any one of the hundred molecules within it could cause irritation. Because synthetics are single molecules, the chances of a bad reaction are actually much lower.
Natural and synthetic perfume ingredients are regulated by the Research Institute for Fragrance Materials (RIFM), independent experts, and the International Fragrance Association (IFRA). RIFM conducts environmental studies and safety tests on every ingredient on the market and the resulting recommendation are codified by IFRA as an industry standard.
Some synthetic molecules are also found in nature. Linalool, a molecule found in lavender, bergamot and coriander, is one of the most popular perfume ingredients. It is called “nature-identical” because the synthetic and natural molecules are exactly the same. The synthesis of nature-identical molecules allows their specific scent to be utilized, preserves resources and is cheaper.
Synthetic ingredients that are not found in nature are a large part of the fragrance industry and an important source of competitive advantage for the world’s top fragrance suppliers. The top perfume suppliers also manufacture synthetic ingredients—for example, Firmenich, IFF, and Givaudan. Some synthetic ingredients they develop in-house are sold to competitors for use, and others are kept for exclusive use.
Synthetic materials allow perfumers to expand their palettes, reinvent naturally occurring smells, and create entirely new smells.
In 1959 Firmenich discovered Hedione, a popular synthetic ingredient that lends diffusion and warmth to jasmine and floral notes. Hedione is extremely popular in modern perfumery. Hedione is Firmenich’s top selling synthetic ingredient in volume, but Firmenich keeps the high-quality (+)-cis version of the molecule for exclusive use in their own fragrances.
Synthetic perfume ingredients are used for a variety of reasons (creativity, cost, etc.) and in many many products — don’t believe otherwise. They are a vital part of the modern cosmetic and fragrance industry and they are safe. Whether a perfume is made of 5% natural ingredients or 45% should not be your main concern. Focus on the scent and wear what you love.