What Is a Fragrance Oil?

What is a fragrance oil? The market is filled with these products, also called essential oils. But is there a difference or they are all the same? Which ones are “good” and which ones are “bad”?

Fragrance oils are a blend of synthetic aroma compounds, and/or essential oils (!), diluted in a carrier like propylene glycol, a vegetable oil or a mineral oil. They contain allergen substances like limonene, geraniol, coumarin, among others. These substances are also the ones responsible for aromas. 

This post will hopefully shed some light to what is a frangrance oil and this unregulated market: fragrance oils and essential oils.

Table of Contents

The Importance of Scent

Scent is very important in our daily lives. It triggers pleasant memories. alters moods, raise spirits and boost self-confidence. When it comes to cosmetics, we are used to pleasant scents, sometimes strong and very lasting. For natural homemade products that can be a chalenge. Usually, they are miilder in everything, including scent. And while being milder on your skin is very positive, being milder in color and scent might come as dissapointing.

Soapmakers and cosmetic formulators add scent with the help of essential oils or fragrance oils. Due to the rising of these crafts, as well as the importance of aromatherapy, the market is filled with small flasks of both, some of good quality, some not so good – usually these are the cheapest. The problem comes when naming these products. Fragrance oil, essential oil, and fragrance or essence are interchangeably used, without any regard for the actual product. So…. which is which?

What Is an Essential Oil?

Essential oils are highly concentrated plant extracts, where the “essence” is the plant’s fragrance and properties. They are the base ingredients of many perfumes, especially expensive ones. I have extensively covered the subject of essential oils in the following posts:

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Give it a go to one or all of them to know more about essential oils. The takeway, however, is that essential oils are made from plant material only, with extraction processes such as distillation, cold press or CO2 extraction. A deviation from this, such as using addictives, and the final product is no longer an essential oil.

What Is a Fragrance Oil?

Natural fragrance oils use essential oils. The main difference from essential oils themselves is the process: for a natural fragrance oil, laboratory processes are used to isolate essential oil scent molecules, then they are blended together to get a specific scent. They are always replicating a scent already existing in nature.

Synthetic fragrance oils are fully made in a laboratory with synthetic compounds mostly made from petroleum-derived products like benzene derivatives. They are much cheaper, offer a great variety of scents, and may use scent binders, like the badly-reputed phtalates, to help the scent to last longer. chemists can create pretty much any aroma, sometimes creating lovely scents that have no corresponding scent in nature. These are the base of many perfumes and colognes.

Nature-identical fragrance oils are a mix of the above. They are basically a man-made molecule of an existing essential oil, produced with both essential oils and/or synthetic oils. They artificially replicate an existing natural fragrance.

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Fragrance Oils vs Essential Oils

By now, it might be clearer what is a fragrance oil and what is an essential oil, but there’s more.

There are fragrance oils sold as essential oils. Especially when a so-called essential oil is cheap, it’s most likely that it has synthetic petroleum-derived substances (usually way cheaper) to keep the same scent and strenght as if it was a true essential oil, but using much less of the real stuff… if any! 

Be especially aware of Amazon and Ebay cheap essential oils kits. If you want to know more about it check out Best Essential Oils for Soap Making.


Are these companies cheating on us? Yes and no. They are actually NOT selling essential oils and they are stating that they ARE essential oils. In that sense, they are cheating. But legally, without any specific regulation to such products, they are not breaking any law.

They can’t be blamed to sell an adulterated product when the definition of the product itself is not stated anywhere. It’s what happens when the definition of things is based on common sense… You can use it anyway you like it.

Then you get confused when you search for essential oils and you see both fragrance and essential oils in your google searches.

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What To Do?

So, where does this leave us? What should we use afterall?

In the end it’s a matter of personal choice. 

You can use essential oils to scent your natural cosmetics. You can also use fragrance oils. Respect the maximum percentages when making your own cosmetics, and look for the quality ones – i.e., not the cheapest ones. Do a skin test to know if you have any allergy. Do not purchase big quantities until you are certain that you like it, and you know you can use it on your skin. 

And go for your favorite scents, that is the benefit you will get for sure, from both fragrance or essential oil – the pleasure of smelling a good scent. Unlike some medicinal hidden property you really can’t tell if it’s there or not.

Find a balance between quality and price, as I don’t believe that going bankrupt to make natural cosmetics is something wise to do…

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How Do You Know If It Is a Good Quality Product?

Well, you can never be completely sure, but one way to know is to buy a plant or herb of the corresponding essential oil and see how similar (or not) it is. If possible, buy different brands of the same essential oil (one or two) and feel the differences.

More natural products don’t feel so “alcoholic” and have softer, milder scents. They also might change from batch to batch as nature is much more unpredictable than man-made formulae.

Another way to check if a brand has some quality is to see the degree of detailed information on the net. Reputed companies, willing to pass an image of absolute trust, publish their products’ ingredients on the net.

Even if a full list of ingredients is not available, check for testing reports, allergens list (allergens are present in both natural essential oils or synthetic fragrances – they are the active scent substances).

Suspicious, low-quality essential oils or fragrances do not have that available on the net. Instead, they usually have a big amount of low ranked reviews…

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The Outcome

I personally prefer to use a mix of essential oils and fragrances on soap. On leave-on products (lotions, creams) I like to use essential oils only, as, in the end, they are more natural than fragrances, I only need a few drops to get a good scent, and its chemical compounds do not suffer any change and I can benefit from the plant’s medicinal properties (even if few).

Still, I don’t use essential oils mainly for their medicinal properties, but for their scent. Essential oils to me always recall the experience of walking on a garden, a wood or a forest. If I want more “perfume-like” scents, I go for fragrances.

Basically, to use essential oils or fragrances is a matter of personal choice and the amount of money you are willing to spend. 

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4 thoughts on “What Is a Fragrance Oil?”

  1. Thanks for this interesting article What Is a Fragrance Oil? I used to often use these fragrant oils in fragrance oil burners to scent the room and in baths. But I never thought about the difference between fragrance and essentials oils. In this article, I really learned a lot about the difference and the principles of selling these different products, thank you!
    I wish you much success,

    • Hello Nina and thanks for your nice comment.

      It’s precisely the confusion and lack of understanding of what is one product and what is the other that drove me to write this article. It’s handy for manufacturers to not have a strick legislation to follow, and to be able to add whatever they want and call whatever they want to the products they sell….

      In the end, we are burning alcohols and other chemicals thinking it’s lavender essence :/ nothing against burning alcohols to scent your house (I use fragrance oils consciously to scent my house 🙂 ), but at least know you are doing so.



  2. Hello and thanks so much for a well-detailed post that is filled with tons of good information, I did not know that fragrances were broken down into these many categories. It is good to know your oils or fragrances. I love to use oils because it stays on you much longer than the fragrance sprays. How is it that oils are stronger and why do they last longer?

    • Hello Norman, thanks for your comment.

      I hope when you say “I love to use oils” you mean a carrier oil scented with a fragrance or essential oil 🙂 both fragrance and essential oils, as I speak about in this post, are concentrated products and never meant to be used undiluted directly on skin or any other place.

      Having said that, oils with a fragrance are probably more lasting than a fragrance spray, assuming the spray is made with alcohols and water, because oil hardly evaporates while water and alcohol evaporates within hours.

      I have a hack for home mikado air fresheners, where I make a perfume with alcohol and essential oils or fragrances, and then I add a bit of oil 🙂 the air freshener lasts for months. Otherwise it won’t last more than a couple of weeks as the alcohol evaporates fast.

      In addition, just by curiosity, check out this post about how to make homemade perfumes with essential oils. The one about air fresheners is here



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