Essential oils vs fragrance oils is often the great debate amongst those in the bath body industry. Let's talk a little about both, look at the pros and cons and why we use what we do. This is by no means a comprehensive look at both but a summary of each (and opinions are my own:).
These oils come from nature ie. plant material and the oil is extracted out of each type of plant. There are steam distilled, chemically distilled either using hexane or another material to coax out the oils from the plant. Steam distilled generally costs more because this is the purest way to extract the oils from the plant. Essential oils come from all over the world. There are also absolute oils which are expensive and for good reason. They are highly concentrated and more potent then essential oils. In beauty products you only need a small amount of absolutes to have a fragrant product and most businesses reserve these for their leave-on products such as lotions, salves, oils, salts etc.
Pros: They come from nature and are completely natural. They smell amazing. They have aromatherapy benefits especially in leave on products.
Cons: They cost more then fragrance oils. You can't get a lot of scents like Blackberry, Pineapple, Apple Blossom etc. Various oils have caution warning ie. not safe for pregnancy, phototoxic meaning they are light sensitive. Citrus oils come to mind.
These oils are synthetically made and are skin safe (not all are skin safe but most beauty companies use skin safe versions). These oils are more cost effective and often don't require as much scent (particularly in soap) to have a highly fragrant product in the end. Virtually any scent is possible with fragrance oils which is why they are so popular.
Pros: You can get any scent that isn't available in nature like Black Raspberry Vanilla, Pink Sugar, Pecan etc. As they are synthetically made some say they are even safer then essential oils because you don't have to worry about their photo toxic properties or not using certain oils if you are pregnant. They are also more cost effective then essential oils.
Cons: They are not completely natural. Some contain things like Phthalates (a family of chemicals that come from plastics), Nitro Musk (several synthetic compounds that mimic a musk smell). These contain toluene with isobutyl bromide in the presence of aluminum chloride. There are many phthalate free and nitro musk fragrance oils on the market so ask the person you buy from if they are using this type of fragrance. Another con is a lot of people can't tolerate the smell of fragrance oils as the scent makes them ill or gives them headaches.
We've been making beauty products and soy candles for 13 years and always carried both fragrance and essential oil products. A few years ago my sister and I started importing our own essential oils and selling them to soapers since we were obsessed with beautiful aroma and aromatherapy benefits of essential oils. We then started phasing out our fragrance oils products and for the past 2 years have only used essential oils. This post isn't about what is right or wrong because it's all personal preference. There are many customers who love fragrance oils and essential oils.
The question is how do you as a customer know the difference between fragrance oils and essential oils? Well you can always ask the person you are purchasing from or look at the list of ingredients on each product. Fragrance oils are usually labelled fragrance or perfume. Essential oils are listed as essential oils and in Canada are usually embedded in latin as per the requirements of Health Canada and similar standards for the USA. An example of an essential oil listing for Lavender would be Lavandula officinalis or Lavandula (Lavender) officinalis. There are various types of Lavender so this may vary greatly.
Do you have a personal preference for essential oils versus fragrance oils and out of curiosity what scents do you like?