Natural perfumes and sustainable perfumes are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same thing. There is a lot of confusion about the numerous terms used in brand taglines and marketing copy to denote a natural cosmetic product, and understandably so. As there is no legal definition of the word natural on personal care products, although the ISO (International Standardization Organisation) has its version, cosmetic brands can pretty much get away with saying what makes commercial sense when using ‘natural’ and ‘sustainable’.
Natural perfumes may be labeled as “organic” or “all natural,” while sustainable perfumes may be labeled as “sustainable” or “eco-friendly.” Of course, if a brand is claiming organic status or aiming to comply with accredition schemes such as COSMOS organic, Natrue, and similar, then it must have undergone rigorous vetting of its products to allow it to use those bodies’ labels. However, natural and sustainable are almost impossible for the consumer to determine even in these days of heightened buyer power and transparency.
If we don’t know what we are buying, there is no way we can determine if a natural is better than a sustainable perfume. And we have to contend with greenwashing that is rife in the beauty sector.
So, let’s start with a few facts and observations.
Natural and sustainable defined
Natural perfumes are perfumes that are made using only natural ingredients, such as essential oils extracted from plants and flowers. We can use the ISO 2013:9235 definitions of aromatic raw material to judge natural. Sustainable perfumes, on the other hand, are perfumes that are produced in a way that is environmentally and socially responsible. This latter definition already takes us into vague territory. Who is the arbiter of socially responsible, for example?
One key difference between natural perfumes and sustainable perfumes is the ingredients used. We expect a perfume defined as natural to be made entirely with only natural ingredients, while sustainable perfumes can be made with both natural and synthetic ingredients.
But where do nature-identical ingredients sit? These have the same chemical makeup as their natural counterparts but are synthesised from other chemicals and/or botanical extracts. Hedione, which is a componont of jasmine, is one such nature-identical chemical. It is used extensively in perfumery to give radiance especially to white florals. It is far cheaper to synthesise than extract from jasmine but do you wish to accept it in a natural perfume? These are decisions the perfumer, brand and knowledgable consumer has to make.
Again, we have grey areas to contend with. At Olentium, we feel at ease with nature-indentical raw materials so long as they are not derived from petrochemical or the extraction industries, and are created in line with ‘green chemistry’ and are biodegradable.
For more on what makes a perfume natural, see our other posts:
Is natural sustainable?
Let’s point out at this stage that if you read the safety data sheet of a pure, natural oil – say rose oil – it will likely have a section showing that the material is harmful to aquatic life with long lasting effects. This is taken to mean in its neat concentration. As chemists will tell you, any material can be toxic, depending on the dose.
The fact is that a pure, natural perfumery oil such as rose may well be natural, but can be harmful in ways that may not occur to perfume consumers. Take for instance field upon field of damask roses growing in Turkey or Bulgaria. They seem the epitome of natural and nature doing its thing.
However, the fields of roses are a monocrop and squeezing out biodiversity. The roses are picked at dawn as that is when they are the most fragrant and undamaged. This removes the rose heads just as they are opening and so deprives insect life of their food source. Could those fields of roses produce much-needed agricultural crops? Perhaps.
With land use so pressured as climate change wreaks havoc on once fertile areas, it is likely we will get our minds to accept us eating lab-grown “meat” and other foods. So, when it comes to perfumes, which are a luxury not a needed daily personal care item (though we love using them!), there is even more of an argument to say let’s be content using synthesised ingredients if they prove more sustainable.
As you can see, there is no simple rule to state that natural is better when we assess the effect of the growing, harvesting, manufacture and transport of botanical ingredients on the sustainability of the planet. We did a deep dive on these issues in this post:
The expense argument
Natural ingredients, such as essential oils, can be more difficult to extract and process than synthetic ingredients, which can make natural perfumes more expensive to produce. In addition, natural ingredients can be less stable and more volatile than synthetic ingredients, which can affect the longevity and strength of a natural perfume.
Sustainable perfumes that may contain a combination of natural and synthetic ingredients allow the perfumer to create a wider range of scents and to control more finely the stability and longevity of the perfume. A botanical perfume can also have radiance, sillage and longevity, but may need to be worked with heavier molecular materials such as you find in base notes to ensure it lasts. Working only with naturals is both wonderful and constraining. A single natural ingredient, like our rose, is complex (rose has around 400 known compounds in it). How naturals interact to benefit a perfume is almost unknown. Synthetic aromachemicals are more predictable.
Sustainable perfumes can also be made with ingredients that are sustainably sourced and produced in an ethical manner. For example, some sustainable perfumes are made with essential oils that are extracted using renewable energy sources, that are sourced from fair trade cooperatives or manufactured with green chemistry practices.
For more on the costs of naturals, see this article:
The production argument
Another difference between natural perfumes and sustainable perfumes is the production process. Natural perfumes are often produced in small batches using traditional methods, such as steam distillation or solvent extraction. This can make the production process of the raw ingredients more labour-intensive and time-consuming, which can drive up the cost of natural perfumes.
Sustainable perfumes, on the other hand, can be produced using lab-synthesised ingredients that are more efficient such as modern distillation techniques or renewable energy sources. This can reduce the environmental impact of perfume ingredient production and make a sustainable perfume more affordable.
Natural perfumes can provide a more natural and organic, photo-realistic scent, while sustainable perfumes using mixed media aromachemicals can offer a wider range of scent nuances, perhaps greater performance in terms of longevity and sillage, along with lower prices.
In addition to the ingredients and production process, both natural perfumes and sustainable perfumes come together when we address their packaging. Both can be packaged in recyclable glass bottles and in a more sustainable manner, such as using recycled materials or biodegradable packaging. The packaging is not a differentiator and as consumers we need to look carefully at our chosen perfume brand’s use of and commitment to sustainable packaging.
In conclusion, is a natural perfume better?
We have made only a few points here to show that this is a nuanced debate with many grey areas. Suffice to say that the issue is not about natural vs sustainable but how perfume per se, irrespective of its ingredients, can be sustainable. It is not an either or situation. We need to assess a perfume’s impact on the planet not based on whether it is all natural or not, but on how it harms the planet.
This is not easy for perfume consumers to find out and a lot rests still on the transparency and honesty of a perfume brand and its ability to truly work to measurable, third-party verified, sustainability goals. Natural perfumes and sustainable perfumes made of synthetics and/or botanicals can both be good options for consumers who want to support sustainable practices and reduce their environmental impact.
At Olentium, we work with mixed media, erring on the side of naturals. As a small, artisanal brand, we stive to do our due diligence on our suppliers and source from respected natural and aromachemical firms such as Robertet, Payan Bertrand and Albert Vielle for naturals and IFF and Firmenich for synthetics. The large fragrance chemical firms are able to pioneer greener production methods and invest in sustainable plantations of botanicals and promote ethical labour practices and fair trade. We work hard to know the provenance of our materials, try to use fewer, and source from nearer to home.
We never compromise on quality, and whether natural, synthetic or nature identical, we source the best. You can see our ethos outlined here. Some natural brands you might like to explore are covered in our article: