In the world of candles and soap, few topics are more controversial than “all natural” ingredients. If you’re looking for clean and environmentally friendly ingredients for your products, you’ve probably come across tons of different opinions on this topic in groups and forums. Unfortunately, greenwashing is everywhere, and while it may make people look good, it causes a lot of unnecessary confusion for customers.
At NorthWood, we try our best to create products that are as healthy as possible for you and the environment. We never opt for harmful chemicals when safer options are available for a fragrance formula. We don’t just sell our products; we use them ourselves too.
With that in mind, it’s impossible to avoid the fact that fragrance oils are made from chemicals. While many fragrances are marketed as being clean, green, and non-toxic, there’s really no such thing as a completely toxin-free fragrance oil. Even essential oils are toxic in large enough quantities.
It’s true that some fragrance ingredients are less harmful than others, but we don’t believe in marketing our fragrances with phrases such as All Natural, Clean, or Toxin Free. These claims might be true for some products, but they are nevertheless vague terms with tons of room for interpretation. We think it can do more harm than good to use buzzwords like these to represent fragrance oils.
Although we don’t think these terms are used maliciously by any means, it can create a false sense of security for consumers. When a fragrance is marketed as being all natural, for example, it may result in customers not looking at SDS sheets for safe handling procedures and disposal methods. For example, most skin-safe fragrances aren’t meant to be rubbed on your skin in their pure, undiluted form, as this can cause serious skin irritation or allergic reactions. Likewise, fragrances aren’t meant to be dumped down the sink where they may enter waterways and cause harm to the environment. We don’t think that consumers would intentionally ignore safe handling procedures, but it is much more likely for customers to falsely believe that they don’t need to follow safety precautions when using a ‘clean’ fragrance oil.
What does “natural” mean?
Lots of things are “all natural” but still harmful. For example, Arsenic is a completely natural substance, but you obviously wouldn’t seek this out for your products. At the same time, many things classified as “chemicals” are completely harmless to human health. When it comes to fragrances, we find terms such as “all natural” to be highly problematic because anyone can claim a product is natural, which instantly gives it a boost of credibility it may not deserve.
Keep in mind that there is no regulatory body that says what counts as “natural” and what doesn’t. You don’t need to meet a specific set of criteria laid out by the FDA, USDA, or any other organization for that matter, to claim that a product is natural. Again, we are aware that there are many products that can rightfully claim to be all natural and free from harmful substances. We just don’t think terms like clean and all natural should be used lightly in the world of fragrance oils. There’s simply too much room for interpretation when it comes to the term Natural.
We are aware that numerous companies use these terms, and we’re not by any means calling anyone out. There’s nothing inherently wrong with using this terminology to market your products. We simply feel that buzzwords can be problematic in cases where there’s no substantial difference between products that claim to be all natural and products that don’t.
Note: We do sell a variety of products with phrasing such as “all natural.” These include things such as pure beeswax, shea butter, botanicals, and other similar products. We are comfortable calling these products All Natural because they come straight from their natural source without being altered by other ingredients. We use these terms not just because they are applicable, but because customers frequently ask whether they are natural. Specifying this in the product title/description is something we do to help answer those questions.
How can I tell if a fragrance oil is safe?
We try our best to represent our products accurately and with as much transparency as possible. However, complete transparency isn’t always possible when it comes to fragrances. That’s because formulas are often proprietary trade secrets and cannot be disclosed by the manufacturer. While this prevents us from sharing specific ingredients and formula percentages, we do our best to give you all the information we possibly can. IFRA certificates and SDS sheets are provided on all of our fragrance product pages so that you can choose fragrances that you are comfortable using.
When evaluating whether a fragrance oil is safe, it’s important to look at the toxicological information for potentially harmful chemicals in the fragrance. SDS sheets outline any potential health hazards for the chemicals and other ingredients found in fragrances. Tests often gauge whether certain chemicals pose a health hazard in a pure and concentrated form. Tests may cover individual ingredients or the formula as a whole.
On an SDS document, the Toxicological Information section will outline whether the formula poses health hazards such as Oral Toxicity, Dermal Toxicity, Inhalation Toxicity, Eye Damage, Skin Irritation, Skin Sensitization, Respiratory Sensitization, Germ Cell Mutagenicity, Reproductive Toxicity, or Aspiration Hazards, among others.
Essentially, this section outlines whether the fragrance causes damage when it is eaten, inhaled, or gets on your skin, for example. It also explains whether a chemical is suspected of causing birth defects. Keep in mind that this information usually refers to health hazards that may only happen when you use a fragrance inappropriately. For example, you would never want to drink a fragrance oil, splash it into your eyes, or rub it onto your skin in an undiluted state.
In addition, this information is usually gathered in laboratory tests with extremely high doses or concentrations, often over a long period of exposure. However, information can also be gathered from a “single exposure” event, which essentially refers to a test where the chemical would cause damage after being administered once rather than over a period of time.
SDS sheets also have a section on Ecological Information, which contains information on whether the fragrance is harmful to the environment. Typically, this section covers aquatic life (plants and fish), as well as soil mobility (how easily a substance moves through soil). Many fragrance oil chemicals are toxic to aquatic plants, algae, fish, and other species, or are able to travel through soil to reach waterways. Having this information is important so that fragrances can be handled responsibly to avoid environmental harm.
Prop 65 in Fragrances
Proposition 65, also known as the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, requires businesses of a certain size to provide warnings for residents of California about chemicals that cause cancer, birth defects, or reproductive harm. The Prop 65 list currently contains 900+ chemicals. Fragrance oils with a Prop 65 warning contain at least one chemical found on the Prop 65 list.
Most of the fragrance oils we carry are Prop 65 compliant, meaning they do not have any Prop 65 ingredients in them. When the option for a Prop 65-free fragrance formula is available, we always opt for this over a version that may have Prop 65 ingredients.
Prop 65 ingredients – or the lack thereof – can be found on the SDS for any fragrance oil we carry. Prop 65 is covered under Section 15: Regulatory Information.
It is worth pointing out that some chemicals on the Prop 65 list come from essential oils or other natural sources. For example, Myrcene is widely found in essential oils, but this ingredient carries a Prop 65 warning. As a result, fragrances with myrcene will technically have a Prop 65 warning. This can be confusing for many customers, because essential oils are 100% nature-derived and are rarely harmful for people when used as directed.
We encourage you to read through the SDS for regulatory info on Prop 65. Wherever possible, we do not add fragrances with Prop 65 warnings. If you find that a fragrance does have a Prop 65 warning, we encourage you to research the ingredient(s) on the CA Prop 65 chemical database so that you can make an informed decision about the products you use. Prop 65 ingredients tend to be listed with the proper chemical name, so you may also wish to do a quick Google search which can teach you more about the ingredient and give you its common name.
The Bottom Line
It would be great if all natural fragrance oils free from chemicals actually existed. However, even the cleanest and least harmful fragrance oils are still made from chemicals, and it’s not possible to get around this fact.
It’s true that some fragrance ingredients are better than others. But one of the benefits of making your own scented products is that you actually can check the SDS for the components you use. The same cannot be said of buying candles, soaps, air fresheners, or other scented products from the store. Fragrance oil ingredients are likely to remain trade secrets forever, but the information disclosed on SDS sheets can still provide you with very helpful information and help you feel more confident about what’s in your products.
When looking for healthy fragrance oils, it’s important to keep in mind that prolonged exposure to anything can be dangerous to your health. Even the most natural ingredients can become toxic when used to excess without proper safety considerations.
It’s always best to be cautious of products that make unsubstantiated claims about being clean, natural, or toxin-free. Yes, some products and ingredients are better than others, but reading the SDS and following the safety procedures outlined therein is ultimately the best way to be safe about using fragrance oils.