“Natural skin care products have no smell” I was somewhat startled when I heard this comment during a discussion on natural skin care, and clearly, this person was not alone in her views.
The long and the short is that this statement could not be further from the truth! On the contrary, skin care made from natural ingredients is indeed scented, as each ingredient reflects some of the aromatic character of its plant source. However, what many people don’t realise is that “unscented” products have been modified through the deliberate addition of synthetic fragrances to mask the scent of the natural ingredients (1,2).
So what scents are being masked?
Mainly those of plant oils!
Ingredients such as the plants oils tend to have “oily” scents that range from weak to strong, with mild nutty, fruity, leafy, or sometimes woody notes. These notes are due to the small but diverse amounts of bioactive or unsaponifiable components characteristic of the oils. It is the specific mix of the bioactives and the fatty acids in the oils that results in the strong scents, such as olive or avocado oils, in contrast to the light and fruity one of apricot oil (3).
As nourishing and beneficial as these oils may be, their scents don’t appeal to everyone. The response from the cosmetic industry was to produce synthetic oils with a minimal or non-existent bioactive fraction, and to add synthetic fragrances to mask any scent. These fragrances acted in as a kind of “white scent”, i.e. they did not remove the scents, but simply negated or disguised them. Thus, the “unscented” products were born!
Unscented products became hugely popular in the 1980’s especially as they gave the impression of being more natural than the scented equivalents, and were accompanied by clever marketing that supported such misconceptions (2).
But, as the market demand for synthetic-free products increased, so did the awareness of the benefits of natural ingredients such as essential oils and flower waters. These could also be used as a natural way to offset the oily scents.
Chemically, essential oils are not oils, but are a mixture of aromatic organic substances such as growth factors, alcohols, terpenes, ketones, esters and aldehydes, that give flowers and leaves their characteristic odour (4). In the Medieval times, they were designated aromatic oils because these scented extracts floated on water. Chemists prefer to refer to them as volatile oils. This acknowledges their original designation while distinguishing them from plant oils known as fixed oils. These differences between oils and essential oils can be easily demonstrated by putting a drop of each on a piece of paper: essential oils evaporate rapidly, while plant oils do not, in fact they remain bound to the paper (3).
Flower waters or distillates are made from the hydrophilic (water loving) components that remain after the extraction of essential oils by water or steam distillation. These aromatic substances provide an alternative medium of delivering the benefits of the essential oils.
For centuries essential oils have been primarily used for their scents in the perfume industry, however they have also been used in aromatherapy for their healing properties. In fact, 4 000 years ago the Sumerians used extracts made from pine, myrrh and thyme that are not too dissimilar from the modern day essential oils (2).
In the 1980-90s with the increasing public awareness of the properties and benefits of essential oils in aromatherapy, it became evident that they could be of great use in skin care products also (3). Thus, a new generation of skin care products was created to protect the skin and relax the body as well as the mind.
The take home message
As natural skin care emanates the scents of its ingredients, it may be appropriate to diminish the proportion of the scented ingredients to attract the market that dislikes these scents. This may encourage the mainstream market sectors to try more of the naturally scented skin care products and less of the unscented.
But, regardless of the appreciation for natural scents, there is no escaping the fact that in natural skin care there is synergy of all the components, scented or not. This effect is greater than the sum of all components and is a reflection of the essence of the plants. This synergy has yet to be explained through individual scientific analysis of each component and the precise combination of all their parts.
- Winters, R. 1994. A Consumer’s Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients. Three Rivers Press. NY.
- Worwood, V.A. 1996. The Fragrant Mind, Aromatherapy for Personality, Mind, Mood, and Emotion. New World Library.Ca.
- Kusmirek, Jan. 2002. Liquid Sunshine – Vegetable Oils for Aromatherapy. Floramicus. Somerset. England.
- Sellar, Wanda. 2001. The Directory of Essential Oils. Vermillion. London.