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30 November 2021 / Laura Garvin Gomez

Essential Oils vs Fragrance Oils: What's the difference?

Here's how to tell the difference between these two popular oil types.

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Person pouring fragrance oil into reed diffuser.

Not sure how to tell these two popular oil types apart? We've got you covered.

Untangling the difference between essential oils and fragrance oils can be confusing.

The two are very close cousins and share many of the same uses – both are key ingredients in soap, candles, perfume, bath bombs, and other scented luxuries and crafts.

It’s understandable that many people would have trouble telling the difference between essential oils and fragrance oils, but they do have very key differences that are important to be aware of. Let’s unpack the common misconceptions about these oils.

What are essential oils?

Essential oils are entirely natural products with natural scents. They are obtained from plant extracts or other natural sources via distillation, a process in which the natural oils are separated from all other matter via heating, or expression, which involves them being pressed out.

Essential oils are considered the ‘essence’ of a natural material; they often contain the strongest impression of a plant’s scent or benefits. These natural substances also contain chemical compounds that can be used to promote wellness benefits. 

They have been used to treat physical and mental ailments for thousands of years across many different cultures and are scattered throughout international medical history.


What are fragrance oils?

Fragrance oils are not natural products. They are artificially created scents designed to either to imitate something you might come across in the real world or to produce a scent experience that you wouldn’t find naturally.

Fragrance oils can be made in labs to have all kinds of scents, from classic scents such as  and  to totally unique combinations.

They may sometimes contain some natural products – a lavender fragrance oil may contain some lavender essential oil, for example, but they will always have synthetic elements. There are no such thing as purely natural fragrance oils. 

Dried plant matter ready for steam distillation.

Are essential oils the same as fragrance oils?

In short, no. While both can leave your home smelling wonderful and refreshed, essential oils and fragrance oils are not interchangeable and should not be considered as such. 

There are many factors that determine whether or not a person has a preference - such as allergies to botanicals or aversions to synthetics - but the key thing to keep in mind is purpose. 

For those simply wanting a pleasant scent, either could be considered suitable. If you're looking for a natural pain remedy or a mixed bag of mental health benefits, however, only essential oils would be of use. 

Can you use fragrance oils in diffusers?

Absolutely! Like essential oils, fragrance oils can be added to a diffuser or oil burner and used to help your make space smell delightful.

Many people like to diffuse both synthetic fragrances and natural fragrances (essential oils) as a replacement for scented candles. 

It's important to remember, however, that diffusing fragrance oils won’t give you any of the aromatherapeutic benefits that essential oils can provide, therefore the only real takeaway will be the pleasantness of the smell.

Fragrance oils and essential oils aren't the only things you can use in diffusers. You can also add carrier oils to reed diffusers.

How can you tell the difference between essential oil and fragrance oil?

Wondering how to tell the difference between one and the other when shopping for your next favourite scent? Not sure whether that lavender oil you’ve picked up is a natural product or a synthetic fragrance oil?

Most reputable companies – like Nikura – will make it clear on the label, so the first step is to look for the words ‘essential oil’ or ‘fragrance oil’ on your bottle.

You can also look out for a botanical name – only essential oils will have these. This is because essential oils are distilled from one natural source, like a plant or fruit, whereas fragrance oils have many ingredients, only some of which may be natural.

It may be helpful to look for synthetics or perfume oils in the list of ingredients to spot a fragrance oil. You can generally find these in the Safety Data Sheets linked to the oil.

Fragrance oils are also likely to have more distinctive names - like  for example - that won't necessarily be tied to a botanical. 

What is the main difference between fragrance oil and essential oil?

The key point to remember when distinguishing these two oils is that fragrance oils are not, and will never be, fully natural. 

Incorporating any natural use into your products or into your home will always need to be done with the help of an essential oil. 


Which oils should I use for aromatherapy?

Use in aromatherapy is considered the primary difference between essential oils and fragrance oils. 

If you are looking to use an oil for diffusion, decongestion, massage, skincare, haircare, pain management, or any other aromatherapeutic benefit, then you should always use an essential oil. 

Fragrance oils are ONLY designed to smell nice, and not to have any aromatherapeutic uses. Essential oils, on the other hand, can have a wide range of benefits for body and mind.

However, it is important to always research the essential oil you are planning on using to ensure that it is safe for the intended use.

You can find out more about what each of our essential oils can do for you by visiting the Essential Oils section of our blog.

Pouring candles with a metal jug

Which oils should I use for home crafting?

When it comes to using either essential oils or fragrance oils to make soaps, candles, and other scented items at home, this is really a matter of personal preference.

If you want your products to have specific benefits – such as the ability to deeply relax the mind or energise your body – then you’ll probably want to spend some time looking for the perfect essential oil combinations.

However, if what you’re looking for is a fun and creative scent, fragrance oils might be the way to go. The advantage of creating candles or crafting soaps with fragrance oils is that there’s really no limit to the scents you can use – you’d be surprised how many imaginative and wildly specific fragrances you’re able to find.

One thing that is important to note is that most fragrance oils will diffuse with a stronger scent than most essential oils. This is because essential oils are typically lighter and may not disperse as efficiently.


What's the difference of fragrance oils vs essential oils in candles?

Essential oils

  • Candle making can be a tricky process, with a lot of trial and error involved in the oil amounts, temperatures, and wax choices.
  • Though essential oils carry a lot of natural benefits, it is generally harder to find candles that will only contain essential oils in their scent profiles.
  • This is largely due to the slightly more difficult production process. Essential oils, unlike fragrance oils, do not always produce consistent, predictable outcomes due to their variation from batch to batch.
  • The smell of an essential oil can vary depending on the origin of the plant, the season and altitude of the picking, the soil, and the distillation method. This can make it very difficult for candle makers to constantly get their desired scent out of one particular oil.
  • Essential oils also have generally low flashpoints and may not always react well in the heat that is involved in candle making.

Fragrance oils

  • Fragrance oils, on the other hand, tend to be more reliable when creating candles, particularly if you are a small business or like to make candles as gifts.
  • This is due to their ability to create a more consistent, reliable scent that can carry well in indoor spaces. Fragrance oils are specifically formulated to create impactful aromas and therefore can do this with more ease than most essential oils.
  • Fragrance oils are also generally more long-lasting than essential oils, containing a better shelf life as well as a scent that won’t be altered over time.
  • Why not find out more about how to make candles using fragrance oils.

Which is better?

There really isn’t a definitive answer here, as it very much depends on your purpose. Essential oils and fragrance oils both have their own advantages – it’s up to you to make up your own mind about which you prefer.

Some sites will tell you that you should only ever use natural products because synthetic fragrance oils can be ‘dangerous’, but this isn’t necessarily true.

Both natural and synthetic products can be harmful if handled in an unsafe manner or used incorrectly. As long as you read any safety information that comes with your oil and refrain from ingesting anything that isn’t food grade, you’ll likely be okay.

Here at Nikura, we make our safety information available for every one of our oils (including CLP information for candle making), to make sure you are making an informed decision on which oil is best for you.

Illustration of Sea Buckthorn

In summary:

  • Essential oils are natural products with no synthetic ingredients.
  • Fragrance oils are not natural products and do contain synthetic ingredients.
  • Only essential oils can be used for aromatherapeutic purposes.
  • Both can be used in home crafting projects, and both are safe to use when handled correctly.


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