There are a wide variety of materials used in formulating fragrances. Traditionally these have been divided according the their origin as synthetic or natural. Actually this designation is not as clear-cut as it may seem. One of the most frequent debates concerning materials used in perfumery is natural verses synthetic material. Like many other aspects of fragrances, this is not a simple issue. Whether a material is "natural" or "synthetic" does not determine it's safety. There are many other factors involved. As a general rule there is more known about natural materials because they have a history of use, often for centuries. Synthetics have been in common use for less than 100 years. Even "nature" identical chemicals may not have the same affect because in nature substances are not isolated and the other substances in the material modify its effect.
"Natural" has traditionally been used to mean the materials were derived directly from botanical or animal sources through physical separation means such as distillation and extraction. The resulting material contained about the same chemicals in the same ratios as the original material only in a more concentrated form. These essential oils often contained hundreds of different chemicals. Even materials obtained in this manner were not exactly like the natural source that it came from.
In ancient civilizations materials were macerated in oils and used for perfuming the skin. In the middle ages Arab scientists developed steam distillation techniques. In the 18th century concentrated alcohol was used to make tinctures. Solvent extraction was available in the early 1900's.
Technology now can extract relatively pure single aroma chemicals or isolates from natural materials. The isolates though predominately one chemical, still contain trace amounts of other substances from the original materials. As a rule the purer the materials the more costly it is. The impurities can change the odor quality.
In the fragrance industry the term "natural" refers to the source of the material and physical extraction means, not to how closely the substance resembles it source in nature.
The Good Scents Company has the most information available on the Internet on perfumery materials. There is a listing of natural materials with descriptions available at their website. If you have specific questions about fragrance materials this is the best place to get information.
The term synthetic is used to describe materials that are derived by chemical reactions. Source materials are usually petroleum or turpentine. Many of these synthetic chemicals are also found in nature. Others have never been isolated in nature and are only available through synthesis.
Since synthetics are created from reaction processes there are trace amounts of materials contained from the reaction process. The purity of the material can vary greatly. As a rule increased purity means increased costs. The impurities present can effect odor quality. The residuals left from the reaction process also causes concerns because many are highly reactive substances that can impact the safety of the materials.
Most chemicals used in modern fragrances are synthesized. Synthetics are generally more readily available. The impurities are known and are often easier for the perfumer to work with. As a rule synthetics are more economic to use than the corresponding natural material.
The Good Scents Company has the most information available on the Internet on perfumery materials. There is a listing of synthetic materials with descriptions available at their website. If you have specific questions about fragrance materials this is the best place to get information.
Between Natural and Synthetic
The division between naturals and synthetics is not always clear. Some chemicals can be synthesized from either natural or synthetic materials. Though the chemical structure of the principle material is the same, the trace materials make the odor qualities of the two materials different.
Other naturals are chemically treated to obtain complex compositions that behave as naturals, but are not totally natural. Natural materials are often cut with synthetics to obtain a more standardized product or to cut costs by extending the more expensive natural materials.
In these cases problems occur when these materials are passed off as naturals when in reality they are not. At one point it was very difficult to tell if materials were from nature or synthetic.
With the event of gas chromatography this is less of a problem. It is easier to determine if a substance is natural or synthetic. Some companies utilize techniques such as carbon dating to determine if the source materials were fossil fuels or botanical sources. Such testing may seem extreme for fragrance material, but the market value of "natural" verses synthetic material makes verifying the source economically feasible. For example a kilogram of synthetic acetaldehyde may sell for $47 while the same amount of a "natural" acetaldehyde could cost over $500.
Perfumery Practice and Principles by Robert R. Calkin & J. Stephan Jellinek; pp 19 - 23
Aldrich 1997 Flavors & Fragrances Catalog
Good Scents Company Website
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since Feb 27, 1998
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