Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Abducted Sense: How Science Has Hijacked Our Olfactory Glands

My adult son recently brought a friend over, and as soon as I opened the door, my son says, “See, I told you my mom’s house always smells good!” to which the friend responded with a deep breath and a nod – a compliment from someone with a sensitive nose that says the only smells he likes are food. Between the soaps I have curing and the oils I'm blending and the candles I have burning – it should smell good, if not a bit overwhelming to a scent-a-phobe.

I admit it. I love Yankee Candle. I know, I know…they do not use soy wax, nor do they use essential oils for their fragrances - even their “aromatherapy” line is synthetic, I’m sure. My favorites are always discontinued, sometimes to be reincarnated with a new name. Lakeside Birch smells nothing like lakesides or Birch trees, but it does smell fresh and clean with a hint of an imagined autumn breeze (and it has been discontinued!). And with a coupon, I can stock up on enough wax tarts to get me through the season with a delicious smelling home for the regular price of one of their large jars.

Marketing: 1 – Me: 0.

Walk through any mall in the world and your sense of smell will be accosted with an overload of synthetic, and sometimes headache-inducing fragrances. From department store perfumes and potions promising endless nights of reckless abandon and romance, to teen-inspired body sprays (or Migraine Magic, as I like to call them) that lead you to believe they will improve your swag, to my beloved Yankee Candle that makes you aspire to clean your house top to bottom and make it smell like a Parisian spa – they all have one thing in common: synthetic, lab-created scents.  So how did we get so far away from the scents that Mother Nature herself provides us?

Let’s start with a few facts:

The aroma of true Sandalwood has caused entire forests to be cleared, and actual acts of violence against humans and depletion of habitats for animals, in the pursuit of fat wallets.

Animal derived scents, like civet musk and ambergris, drove trappers to endanger certain species for monetary gain, inciting activists groups to push for regulation and banning of certain animal derived fragrance components.

It takes tons of roses to produce one pound of Rose Absolute, making it a very expensive oil to produce, which is reflected in the cost to the buyer.

Lavender from this province in France smells better than the Lavender from that field in Spain.

Crops fail due to weather conditions. A drought or flooding may make an essential oil crop yield less than satisfactory in quality and quantity.

Demand for scents not easily captured naturally, like the smell of fresh bakes cookies.

All these reasons have opened up a market for producers to create scents that mimic some natural aromas, and for their marketing teams to trick us into believing that “this” is what “insert aroma herereally smells like. We are so over saturated with synthetics scents, that most people cannot recognize the true fragrance essence when naturally derived. The desire for a fragrant world has pushed for labs to create for us an endless selection of scents and aromas that nature can’t keep up with. We want them strong, and we want them convenient, and we want them cheap.

Aromatherapy, the practice of using the natural oils extracted from botanical matter, known as essential oils, to enhance psychological and physical well-being, operates on the idea that aroma chemicals travel pathways through the olfactory glands, responsible for your sense of smell, to certain receptors in your brain to alter mood (like calming or stimulating effects) or physiological functions (like pain relief or wound healing). It is believed that your sense of smell is deeply connected to emotion and memory, so it’s no surprise that we humans seek out that which smells pleasant to us and are repelled by that which does not smell pleasant. Where would we be if we didn’t recognize the smell of rotting food, or the smell of smoke when something is burning? Or better yet, where would mankind be without the instinctual attraction produced by pheromones – those primal scent chemicals that attract us to one another? It’s no wonder that scent plays such a big role in our world.
There is a huge marketing blitz with the buzzwords “natural” and “organic” these days. However, the scents alluded to in these products under this marketing are so far removed from their origins that now, when the “real deal” is experienced, people say “Well that doesn’t smell like Lavender. Bath & Body Works lotion smells like the real thing!” … I try to remain calm in these circumstances. It’s tough.

Think about the last time you smelled an actual peppermint leaf, straight from the plant. Green, herbal, perhaps a bit earthy, and yes, minty – but did it smell like a York Peppermint Patty? Probably not. Real Madagascar Vanilla does not have a plastic-ish base note (dollar store vanilla candle, anyone?). True Lavender does not smell like baby powder or fabric softener. Ever carved a pumpkin and realized they don’t actually smell like the Autumn Pumpkin body lotion that every store carries from September through December? And that bottle of celebrity-inspired perfume, if handblended with real Rose Damask Absolute and Oud Wood, would not cost $65 for 3.3 fl oz.

So let’s start with the differences between an essential oil and a synthetic fragrance oil.

An ESSENTIAL OIL (or Absolute) is the aromatic essences extracted from a plant – flower, leaf, bark, root, seed, or resin – by steam distillation, cold pressing or expression, or by solvent. Each essential oil is made up of many chemical components. The season collected, region grown, and species of the same plant can produce varying strengths and qualities of scent. Some common essential oils are Peppermint, Lavender, Patchouli, Sweet Orange, Tea Tree, Clove, Anise, Spearmint, Lemon, Lime, and Eucalyptus. Expensive essential oils, like Rose, Sandalwood, Jasmine, and Vanilla are usually reserved for perfumery and therapeutic aromatherapy, and sometimes to be more cost effective, are heavily diluted with a carrier oil like Jojoba or Coconut Oil.
An ounce of Rose Absolute costs approximately $100, while Sandalwood essential oil costs about $200 an ounce. (

A synthetic FRAGRANCE OIL is a proprietary blend of aromatic chemicals produced systematically in a lab and usually in large production for consistency. Some fragrance oils have essential oil components, or the aroma chemicals found in plants, such as linalool and eugenol. Most fragrance oils also contain a dilutent, or carrier, such as dipropylene glycol or other oil or alcohol bases. In recent years, the use of phthalates, esters of phthalic acid used to make plastic more flexible and to “dissolve raw fragrance materials” has been frowned upon in the fragrance oil industry, but some are still in use (and have been approved by the FDA) as the controversy over whether they are a health concern or not wages on. Some common scents that are always fragrance oils are Blueberry, Cherry, Strawberry, Peach, Pear, Coconut, Pumpkin Pie, the “ocean” scents, “baked food” scents, and most all berry scents are fragrance oils.
An ounce of Rose Fragrance Oil costs about $2.20, and an ounce of Sandalwood Fragrance Oil cost about the same. ( A huge difference from their essential oil counterparts!

So which is better - essential oils or fragrance oils? Safer? Less likely to cause allergies?

The answer, dear readers, is not an easy one, nor is it a black and white issue. It is an issue that comes into much debate in the handmade soap and cosmetic industry, along with the ever-growing debate over the term “natural”. The FDA does not have a regulated definition of the word “natural” (so anyone can use it without regard), but as this is my personal blog, I will share my opinions on the matter.

In order to use the term “natural”, I believe that the product in question should be made of materials found in or derived from nature with the least amount of processing possible: plants, minerals, trees – or of the four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. If we get carried away, that could mean just about everything at some point. That’s a pretty broad standard, but can be broken down further. I will use essential oils in my explanation, since this blog post pertains to our sense of smell.

Are essential oils found in nature? Yes, plants and botanicals contain natural aromatic chemicals. We must extract them by various means (as mentioned above), however, they are not altered by these processes, with the exception of solvents that may possibly remain in some essential oils if not processed correctly.

My reasoning behind using essential oils exclusively to scent my products and deeming them natural is based on that information. As long as I am purchasing my essential oils from a reputable distributor (which, of course, I always do) that can prove the purity of their oils by quantifiable testing, like Gas Chromatography and Mass Spectroscopy, then I know I am using an unadulterated substance.
For an easy to understand explanation of these testing methods, check this out:

Essential Oils, as mentioned before, naturally contain a multitude of chemical components. Some of these chemicals produce scent alone, others are similar to natural bug repellant for the plant, and still others are extracted for their medicinal properties, like being an anti-inflammatory or antifungal. Aromatherapy utilizes essential oils for all of their beneficial properties, and understands that some oils, due to their chemical makeup, can be harmful, like dermal irritants. Some view them like an over-the-counter medication, and should be used with caution just as if you were using Ibuprofen. The use of essential oils requires education and research – they are not “just perfume”. Let me point out as I have before, that just because a substance is “natural” (using my definition) does not always equate it with “safe”, or make it safer than its synthetically produced alternative. This is where research and education come into play, and should be the catalyst for your decision on whether to use essential oils or fragrance oils. If nothing else, it gives you the chance to have an informed opinion, which personally, carries a lot of weight with me.
For more information on Essential Oils and their safety, I suggest reading material by Robert Tisserand, Kurt Schnaubelt, Julia Lawless, and Valerie Ann Worwood. Websites like be very useful, too.

Now I’ll share the reason I choose not to use synthetic fragrance oils.
The fragrance industry is rife with secrecy, and the term “proprietary formula” is thrown about like tumbleweeds in a tornado. “Proprietary” means that the company does not have to disclose their “secret ingredients”. I don’t like secrets. You don’t need to tell me the exact ratios of your 138-ingredient blend. I don’t need to know your suppliers, nor do I expect companies, big or small, to share information that has taken years of education and research to acquire. But most doctors will tell you that fragrance is one of the main culprits of allergies to products that come in contact with your skin, like soaps, lotions, and perfumes. 

So here’s some ‘food for thought”… How do you feel about food companies labeling their packages like this:
Ingredients - Some grains, a meat product, and a proprietary formula of spices and preservatives.
Huh? What if you’re allergic to gluten? What if your religion admonishes eating pork? What if you have a severe reaction to garlic? Wouldn’t you want to know what was in that package before you ate it? People are in an uproar when they hear that a fast food company is using subpar non-food ingredients to bulk up their meats, but when it comes to products that come in contact with their skin, will spritz perfume on  like it’s holy water without questioning what’s in it.

I’m not here trying to tell you that your skin will melt off if you use a product with fragrance oil. As a matter of fact, some people believe that fragrance oils are actually safer than essential oils, due to the fact that they are lab created for consistency and are tested for skin safety. It’s a matter of educated opinion. However, in my opinion, it’s hard to have an “educated opinion” when you aren’t given all the information – like “proprietary formula” information. What are they using to dilute the fragrance chemicals in? How are those fragrance chemicals created? Which chemicals are derived from plant essences and which are purely synthetic? And if they’re synthetic, how are they created? And if you’re looking for a “natural” product (by my definition), how can it be labeled “natural” if a synthetic fragrance oil was used to scent it?

The FDA only requires that I list ingredients on my soap IF I want to make claims such as “moisturizing” or “exfoliating”. Otherwise, if it’s simply soap (comprised of fatty acids and an alkali) that’s intended to just clean your skin, I only have to label it with the word “soap”, the manufacturing address, and it’s net weight - I don’t have to tell you what’s in it. BUT WHY WOULDN’T I? Maybe I’m not business saavy, or I’m missing something here, but…I want you to know what I use. I want you to be able to look at my ingredients list, if you so choose, to avoid any allergens or other ingredients you are trying to avoid for whatever reason you want to avoid them. I’m only required to list “fragrance” if my soap will be considered cosmetic (moisturizing, beautifying, deodorizing). I’m not required to tell you with what I fragranced it with. BUT WHY WOULDN’T I? For “proprietary” reasons? Even though I list every essential oil I use to make a particular scent blend, an expert perfumer would still have to try and figure out the ratio of each oil to mimic my blend…and even then, different essential oil manufacturers will have different qualities of oils from various distillations, which would still result in a blend that wasn’t exactly the same as mine. I’m not concerned with “copycats”. I’m concerned that when you purchase my product, you do so with all the information you need to feel good about your purchase.

With a scented product, our nose is going to have the biggest say in what we buy, with price being second for most folks. So have your olfactory glands been hijacked? It comes down to this: does your nose appreciate the synthetic aroma of Lavender created in a lab to smell exactly the same every time? Or does your nose prefer the eccentricities of Lavender essential oils, which can vary slightly or widely, but give you that connection to the field in which it was harvested?