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What’s the difference between natural and synthetic home fragrances?

In the current climate, we are spending more time at home than usual and likely experiencing additional stress – so it is only natural that many of us are using home fragrance in a bid to inject more relaxation, creativity or energy into our daily routine.

Fragrance is proven to be powerful. When used correctly, scents can enhance psychological and physical wellbeing, offering benefits from stress reduction and boosted cognition to better circulation and improved digestion.

But using candles, sprays or diffusers made using synthetic or toxic materials can have the opposite effect, leaving us feeling lethargic and suffering from headaches, allergy symptoms and even hormone imbalances.

How to differentiate natural and synthetic scented candles

Candles have three main components which can be either natural or synthetic: the wax, the scent and the wick.

Paraffin is commonly used for wax, given that it is low-cost and can be dyed to take on an array of bright colours. This makes for eye-catching and affordable candles, but paraffin is made from the sludge that is left after crude oil is refined into gasoline. All fossil-fuel-based materials give off toxic fumes when heated.

Natural alternatives to paraffin include rapeseed, soy, coconut and other vegetable oils, as well as beeswax. It is worth noting here that beeswax is not vegan. You can tell the difference between paraffin and natural wax candles by either checking the colour, ingredients on the label, or how fast the candle burns. Natural, plant-based wax candles generally burn longer than paraffin candles. They also have a richer and creamier colour compared to paraffin wax, which has a whiter and slightly translucent appearance. Don’t let the price of the candle confuse you; most well-known luxury candle brands use paraffin wax to maximise profit.

As for scent, there are two main kinds: essential oils and fragrance oils. The former are plant-based and typically made by cold-pressing or distilling natural ingredients like flowers, leaves, citrus fruits, barks or seeds. Smelling essential oils has been proven to have numerous aromatherapy benefits for both mind and body. Essential oils are precious and can be expensive due to the large quantities of raw natural ingredients needed to produce them, as well as their complex and time-consuming extraction processes.

Fragrance oils, on the other hand, are synthetically made in a lab and it is unlikely you will ever be able to trace the full production process. They can contain up to 200 ingredients and can result in numerous unpleasant side effects. On product labels, fragrance oils can sometimes be called perfume, parfum or fragrance. Synthetic fragrances are much cheaper than essential oils and can be artificially manufactured to mimic almost any scent. This is why they are widely used and preferred by many home fragrances brands. But, unlike essential oils, fragrance oils have no inherent therapeutic benefits.

To find out if a candle is scented with essential oils or synthetic fragrance, read the scent descriptions and notes. A common misconception is that essential oils can be extracted from all fruits, which isn’t the case. Most fruits, except for citrus fruits, cannot effectively be distilled to produce essential oils. So, if a candle smells like berries, fig, coconut or other exotic fruits or ingredients, then it contains synthetic fragrances. Given that fragrances soften wax, metal cores or zinc and tin are typically added to the wicks of candles. These cores – not to be confused with the aluminium base that holds wicks upright - release trace amounts of heavy metals when burned. As such, it is best to look for candles with cotton or wood wicks, like those used by ELM RD.

Is toxic the same as synthetic, and non-toxic the same as natural?

This is a very complex subject and the simplest answer is NO. Most synthetic materials can be toxic to some degree, but not all. And at the same time, certain essential oils extracted from nature can be toxic too.

So, just because a candle contains synthetic fragrances doesn’t necessarily mean it is bad for you. However, synthetic fragrances cannot be expected to have any sort of influence on your mood or wellbeing.

If you are reading this, you most likely hold the same values as we do: Wellbeing, sustainability, slow and mindful living and kindness to people, planet and ourselves. So, given that extra time at home provides a chance to pause and explore what’s in the products you and your family use every day, now is the opportune moment to check whether you’re living those values in your home life.

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