Choosing Botanically-based Fragrance vs. Synthetic Fragrance

Have you ever wondered how your favorite deodorant, body wash, or lotion got its alluring fragrance? How much you love the smell is important, but how the scent is made and what ingredients are used are also valuable considerations.

Process and ingredients vary greatly across the cosmetic and personal care industries. If you are on a mission to avoid artificial or synthetic ingredients, here’s what to look for and what to avoid.

Glass shelves lined with perfumes

What are synthetic fragrances?

Synthetic fragrances are made in a lab, typically using alcohols, aldehydes, ketones, esters, and/or lactones. A cocktail of synthetically-derived ingredients can be combined to smell like scents found in nature—think flowers, fruit, vanilla1. Synthetic fragrances can also be made to smell artificial, unlike anything found in nature—think blue raspberry, bubblegum, ocean breeze (what is that anyway?).

Why should I be concerned about synthetic fragrances?

If you’re committed to minimizing the number of synthetic ingredients in your life, then you may already know why synthetic fragrances can be problematic. To round out your knowledge, here are common concerns around synthetic fragrance ingredients:

Phthalates: Phthalates are man made chemical compounds that serve a range of functions. In some forms, they’re used to make plastics more durable. Diethyl phthalate (DEP) is used as a fixative in fragrances, which means it helps the smell last. There is some concern around DEP and its effects on the reproductive system, as well as other bodily processes2Learn more about current studies and concerns around phthalates.

Petroleum: Manufacturers can create fragrance inexpensively with petrochemicals. Some people experience skin irritation when they come in contact with these ingredients, and there are potentially more serious health effects that are being researched3. What’s more, if you, like us, are concerned about the environmental impact of using petroleum-based ingredients, you may reconsider buying products made with synthetic fragrance.

Allergic reaction: Synthetic fragrances have been known to cause allergic contact dermatitis, an itchy red rash in some people4. Moreover, synthetic fragrance ingredients in deodorant, which is applied to a particularly sensitive area of skin, are a common cause of discomfort5.

What to look for:

There are thousands of synthetic chemicals that can be used to create a fragrance6. Some of the most common synthetic fragrance ingredients flagged as concerning by consumers and watchdog groups like the Environmental Working Group (EWG) are listed below:
  • Alpha-isomethyl ionone
  • Amyl cinnamal
  • Benzyl benzoate
  • Benzyl cinnamate
  • Benzyl salicylate
  • BHT
  • Butylphenyl methylpropional or lilial
  • Cinnamyl alcohol
  • Diethylhexyl phthalate
  • Ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate
  • Ethylhexyl salicylate
  • Farnesol
  • Hexyl cinnamal
  • Hydroxycitronellal
  • Isoeugenol
  • Octocrylene
You can use the EWG’s Skin Deep database to learn more about each ingredient, concerns around them, and common synonyms they may be listed under.

Pro tip:

It’s not unusual to find the scent ingredients listed as “fragrance” on a product label7. This practice is used when there are more ingredients than will fit on a label, or to protect a company’s trade secrets. We recommend visiting the company's website to see if they provide a full ingredient list or verify the fragrance is plant-based or naturally derived. If you can’t find one and specific ingredients are a concern for you, you can always reach out to the company for more information.

Woman smelling Star Anise and Palmarosa soap

What are botanically-based fragrances?

Botanically-based scents contain no synthetic chemicals or animal-derived substances. They are crafted wholly from plants by pressing, extraction, or distillation. Botanically-based fragrances can be made from essential oils, isolates from natural sources, extracts, and resins. These ingredients are naturally derived and vegan. Plant-based scents, like essential oils, have been revered for millennia for their aromatherapeutic properties. While synthetic fragrances may conjure the same scent as their botanical counterparts, they provide no aromatherapy benefits.

What to look for:

  • Scent ingredients noted on packaging as naturally-derived or natural fragrance or similar
  • Companies that work with sustainably and ethically sourced ingredients
  • Non-GMO ingredients
Note: A small percentage of people have sensitivities to certain essential oils. Just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s allergen-free unless noted as such. If you want to avoid an ingredient and don’t see a full list on packaging, don’t hesitate to reach out to a company before using the product.

Regulation of fragrances

Fragrance ingredients are not required to be FDA approved before going on the market, nor are they regulated by the EPA. Companies are only required to meet safety standards for cosmetic ingredients. The responsibility is on the consumer to do research, ask questions, and talk to their dermatologist or doctor to make informed decisions. Many companies adhere to a code of practices created by the International Fragrance Research Association (IFRA), which manages the safe use of fragrances. Though voluntary, companies like Humble Brands, who follow the IFRA’s guidelines are able to offer consumers additional confidence in their purchase.

Woman holding Lavender and Holy Basil Deodorant

Humble Brands’ commitment to botanically-based scents

All Humble Brands’ products are scented with botanically-based essential oils and extracts. These ingredients aren’t always the easiest or cheapest to work with, but they’re the best and part of our commitment to creating simple and effective products for all bodies.

Our product development team expertly crafts each of our scents to be perfectly balanced and evoke a sense of something special. When you apply our products, we want you to feel your best, smell your best, and know the best ingredients were selected for you.


  • Andrea

    Request: Please come out with a fragrance spray. I particularly love the patchouli & copal scent.

  • Natalie

    Thank you. I use EWG for many things but this info is where I started with them. I love your products and really appreciate you taking the time to list out all of this wonderful information.

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