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Essential Oil or Fragrance Oil ?

People often refer to essential oils and fragrance oils interchangeably because of their similarities, but some important differences distinguish them from each other. Essential oils are natural chemicals that are extracted from the leaves, flowers, stems, roots or bark of plants. They are not true oils, but are the aromatic and volatile essences derived from botanicals. Fragrance oils (also called perfume oils) are usually synthetic; chemists analyze the plants’ components and reproduce their chemical compositions. Although essential oil blends (combinations of essential oils) are not synthetic, some suppliers call them fragrance or perfume oils.

Steam distillation is the most common of the four processes for obtaining essential oils because it produces the purest result: “1000 pounds of jasmine flowers yield 1 pound of oil” (Fischer-Rizzi 18). The distillation process uses heat and would destroy some of the vital substances in citrus fruits. The cold press method is used to safely extract oils from their skins without using heat. Botanicals, whose oil droplets are too heavy to distill, require chemical solvent extraction. Experts prefer to use alcohol as the solvent because it is the safest, although toxic petroleum derivatives are used as well. The most ancient extraction method is enfleurage. Julia Lawless relates: “ . . . the Egyptians were experts in cosmetology and renowned for their herbal preparations and ointments” (Lawless 14). Enfleurage results in a concentrated fragrance pomade or cream, which was sometimes shaped into cones and worn on the head in ancient Egypt. The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language defines enfleurage: “ . . . A process in making perfume in which odorless fats or oils absorb the fragrance of fresh flowers. French, from enfleurer, to saturate with the perfume of flowers . . .” Because of their density, the permeated oils and fats also served as fixatives for the perfumes.

You can find both essential and fragrance oils in perfumery, body lotions and oils, bath preparations and soaps. They are also used in home fragrance products: Potpourri, sachets, diffusers, aroma lamps and scented candles. Aromatherapists not only use the essential oil of certain herbs in physical applications, as herbalists do, but also for the psychological effects applied through our sense of smell. However, synthetic fragrance oils are not effective therapeutically because even though they are copies of essential oils, these synthetic versions have different structures and, the body does not absorb them like natural molecules.

Distillation and cold pressing methods yield liquid essential oils. The results of solvent extraction and enfleurage are resins and concretes--solids and semi-solids. Essential oils will dissolve in alcohol or oil and are volatile; evaporation dissipates their scents quickly (patchouli is one exception). A drop of pure, liquid essential oil on paper will disappear without leaving an oil spot when it is dry. You can use this easy test if you doubt the genuineness of an essential oil.

Fragrance oils are always liquid; they will usually leave an oily residue on paper, and are not as volatile as essential oils so the scents often last much longer. Since fragrance oils can be synthetic, the available fragrances are unlimited, unlike natural oils. In addition to most flower and tree fragrances, you can find Baked Bread and Baby Powder fragrances as well as the fragrance of almost any fruit or berry. Enfleurage is the most expensive extraction method and is the only one that won’t alter the chemical makeup (therefore, fragrance) of some botanicals such as lilac. As a result, commercial production of some essential oils is impractical.

Essential oil prices can fluctuate greatly because of crop conditions or availability and some are always reasonably priced while others seem excessive. Fragrance oil pricing is usually quite steady and relatively reasonable. A few essential oils are less expensive than their synthetically produced counterparts such as lemon, orange, pine and some lavender but they are also more volatile.

It can be helpful to know the differences between these oils before making a decision on what to use. Some people can smell the difference between the natural and synthetic versions of a scent, and have a preference. On the other hand, your choices may depend on what you want to use them for, the availability of a particular scent or the price you are willing to pay. If you enjoy aromatic oils, you may appreciate the sentiment in this poem, “The Song in the Dell” by Charles Edward Carryl: “ . . .When winds are chill and all the sky is gray. I know a way of stealing fragrance from the new-mown hay and storing it in flasks of petals made, to scent the air . . .” (Stedman 248)

Copyright © 2003 A World of Plenty All Rights Reserved

Works Cited

Enfleurage. The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language: 4th Edition. 2000. Oct. 2003

Fischer-Rizzi, Susanne. Complete Aromatherapy Handbook New York: Sterling Publishing Company, Inc., 1990.

Lawless, Julia. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Essential Oils Rockport MA: Element Books, 1995.

Stedman, Edmund Clarence, Ed. An American Anthology, 1787-1900. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1900. Oct. 2003

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