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Smelly: Pt 1 – The Real Deal with Botanical Scents and Cosmetics

Today’s post is kicking off our first mini series on fragrances and cosmetics. This is a subject near and dear to Mack’s heart, and as a result, she gets very…. passionate about it. She included a 25 paragraph rant about essential oils, which I have deleted and summarized here: “Please stop eating essential oils.”

-Guy, Team Raw Spa

So let’s talk about scents. They are an evocative thing- they can trigger an emotion, or bring forward a memory of a place, time or thing. But what is a scent, at is most basic?

Scents (or odors) are found everywhere, from the sweet scent of a blooming lilac to the deathly reek of cadaverine (it’s horrible. It smells like death), from the toasty warmth of fresh baked sugar cookies, to the slick scent of gasoline. Scents are comprised of “odorous molecules”, which trigger the olfactory nerves in the nasal cavity of the nose. The olfactory sends the data up to the brain to be interpreted (much the same way that the optic nerve is the data conduit for sight), and the brain compares the data to other smells that have previously been experienced, to pin point what it is. By doing so, the brain access the central nervous system, which controls emotions and basic behaviors. So when some one says that freshly baked apple pie reminds them of their grandmother… well, it probably LITERALLY triggers a memory! Pretty cool, right?

There are tons of different odorous molecules, but being as this is about cosmetics and skin care, I don’t really think we need to go into the science of why raw sewage smells so terrible. I’ll stay on target! For our purposes, in cosmetics, there are two  kinds of odorous molecules that are utilized: botanical compounds and synthetic compounds.

A “perfumer’s organ” is indispensable when it comes to crafting scents and perfumes… and is something Mack aspires to have for the workshop!

A botanical compound can be anything from an essential oil, to a delicate enflourage (or maceration of dried plant material in a wax or oil), to an prized absolute or concrete. The most common type of botanical compound is an essential oil. These are either steam distilled the traditional way, or in the case of some citrus essential oils, they are cold pressed (yep- just like olive oil!!)! Common essential oils include rosemary, spearmint, lemon and lime. Essential oils come in all sorts of colors, from clear, to gold, to vivid green, and even shocking lapis lazuli blue! The colors are based upon the phytochemicals and constituents that make up the essential oil. It’s pretty awesome!

A rainbow of essential oils!



Essential oils are sometimes considered to be the “most natural”, since it uses an age old method for distillation and extraction. More natural doesn’t always mean better- citrus essential oils such as bergamot and lemon can be photosensitizing, which means that they can cause the skin to develop rashes when exposed to too much sunlight. Basically they turn you into a vampire. These essential oils can be processed in a manner that removes the photo sensitizing compounds, but they are also arguably “more synthesized” and therefore “less natural”… but also safer. Whenever possible, we try to use the less sensitizing type of essential oil. Most essential oils are also not recommend for use by any one who is pregnant or nursing, or on infants and children. Don’t worry, we will be covering this later in the series!



Absolutes are how the volatile oils are removed from more delicate plants like rose and jasmine. The scent is solvent extracted, often with a chemical like hexane, and then the chemical solvent is removed from the extracted “plant juice stuff” (that is not the technical term, but it’s the best I’ve got) leaving behind a trace amount of the solvent, the plant absolute (usually a liquid oil), concrete (a strongly scented wax), and a small amount of the plant material. Absolutes can carry a really hefty price tag, due to the amount of plant material needed to extract the absolute (rose for example, requires as much as 187 lb. of rose petals to make a single OUNCE of rose oil. It smells heavenly, but it carries the price tag you would expect from something that involved. We use it sparingly.). The concrete is considered to be a waste by product, and is often just as beautifully scented, but roughly the texture of beeswax. It’s less expensive, and can be a little more finicky to work with, with fewer applications (for example, it does not often play well in soap making).

Absolutes that are processed with hexane contain so little hexane that they are considered to be completely non-toxic. It is possible to argue both sides, and go back and forth… but I have never heard of anyone dying from hexane toxicity due to use of an absolute. There are a few companies that do “hexane free” absolutes. They ones that I managed to hunt down were not willing to tell me what they DID use for the extraction. So it’s anyone’s guess. As with essential oils, absolutes are generally not recommended to be used by anyone who is pregnant, nursing, or to infants or small children.

Coffee CO2 extracts boast the decadent aroma of freshly ground espresso, without losing any creamy notes!


Some times, in place of an alcohol or hexane, the volatile oils are extracted by using a pressurized CO2. The CO2 is pressurized to the point that it is a liquid, and is used to wash the volatile oils out of the plant material, after which the CO2 is evaporated out. While these can often be referred to as essential oils, there will still be residual plant material in the final products. CO2 extraction is used for familiar things such as vanilla bean, coffee bean, but also for some exotic components such as agar wood and ambrette seed. There’s even a lilac flower CO2 extract, but it’s got a price tag that would stop your heart. Some consider CO2 extractions to be safer to use compared to a hexane extracted absolute. It’s a topic that is way to complicated to delve into here, but that is what the Almighty Google is for, am I right!?

There are some volatile oils that are just too delicate to stand up to conventional distillations or extractions, and can only be partially extracted in an enfleurage. This is essentially a maceration of botanical matter such as delicate lilacs or hyacinth and a solid fat such as shea butter. The fat is heated and the plant matter steeped in to it to impart it’s fragrance, and then strained out. This is can be repeated until the desired fragrance level is reached. Enfleurages tend to have very delicate scents, and have limited applications. It’s important to note that enfleurages are NOT absolutes, CO2’s or essential oils- they are primarily composed of what the fat used in the maceration is. Most plants (usually flowers) that are used to make enfleurages are currently completely incapable of being extracted any other way (although I heard a rumor about some one doing a dry run with hyacinth, with a fancy new patented distillation set up. I am waiting with bated breath to find out how it goes!!!). If you see a “hyacinth essential oil”, or (my personal favorite) “cherry blossom essential oil”, these are either complete lies, or are essential oil blends formulated to smell like what they claim to be.

By and large, with the exception of enfleurages and concrete waxes, any of the resulting oils can be referred to as an essential oil, or even as “fragrance”. It really comes down to the preference of the company to decide whether on not they ant to include the manner in which the oil or extract was obtained.

Some botanical components just can’t be extracted or isolated. At all. At least, not yet. And that is where fragrance oils step in. Fragrance oils are almost as diverse and complex as botanical compounds, and are absolutely fascinating! Check back next time for “Smelly: Pt 2- The Real Deal with Synthetic Fragrances and Cosmetics”!

Here at The Raw Spa, we use primarily botanical components to create our fragrances. Because many of our blends contain lengthy lists of components (for example, our “HexBreaker” fragrance boast over 20 essential oils, extracts and absolutes…) we simply list them as “Fragrance”, and include the percentage of the blend that is botanical. Our ultimate goal is to have nothing that is less than 80% botanical, which means there is a fair amount of alchemic testing that is constantly going on in the kitchen during our down time! If you would like to know the ingredients of any given fragrance, feel free to email us! We provide the list of ingredients in alphabetic order, so you can check for potential allergens. Just be aware that sometimes, the lists can be pretty long!!

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