Today I’ll be teaching you how to safely and naturally scent your lotion formulations using essential oils and natural fragrance oils. The formulations I’m sharing today are extensions of the formulation shared in this post, but you can easily apply these fragrant strategies to any lotion formulation, and with a bit of extra thought, any type of formulation! This written post goes quite deep into safety concerns and usage limits, while the partner blog post is more about how to adjust your formulations to include fragrant ingredients + demonstrations of how to find and review essential documentation. Make sure you read and watch to learn as much as possible!
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Potent vs. Gentle Scents
In this post I’ll be discussing two potent ways to naturally add scent to your lotion formulations: essential oils and natural fragrance oils. I’m referring to these options as “potent” because you can get a noticeable scent pay-off with 1% or less of these ingredients. Their potency also means they also have a higher potential to be irritating to the skin.
I’ve already shared a post and video on how to gently scent your formulations using hydrosols and fragrant carrier oils, which are less potent than essential oils and natural fragrance oils. If you have sensitive skin and/or scent sensitivities, I’d start with those options.
Things to think about before you add scent
Make sure you read this section in the post on “gentle” ways to scent formulations; there are two super important points in that post that need to layer in with the IFRA category info 😄
What IFRA category is the product?
IFRA, the International Fragrance Association, has defined 12 major categories of products to assist in determining safe use of fragrance ingredients (essential oils, natural fragrance oils, and synthetic fragrance oils). I’ve bolded the categories that we’re most likely to encounter as DIYers. The base lotion formulation we’re working from today would either be a 5A (body lotion) or 5C (hand cream). You could also use it as a face cream (5B), but it would be a pretty boring face cream 🙂
- Products applied to the lips
- Products applied to the axillae (armpits)
- Products applied to the face/body using fingertips
- Products related to fine fragrance
- Products applied to the face and body using the hands (palms), primarily leave-on:
- Body lotion
- Face moisturizer
- Hand cream
- Baby creams, baby oils, and baby talc
- Products with oral and lip exposure
- Products applied to the hair with some hand contact
- Rinse-off products
- Leave-on products
- Products with significant anogenital exposure
- Products with body and hand exposure, primarily rinse-off
- Household care products with mostly hand contact
- Household care excluding aerosol/spray products
- Household aerosol/spray products
- Products with intended skin contact but minimal transfer of fragrance to skin from inert substrate
- Products with intended skin contact but minimal transfer of fragrance to skin from inert substrate without UV exposure
- Products with intended skin contact but minimal transfer of fragrance to skin from inert substrate with potential UV exposure
- Products not intended for direct skin contact; minimal or insignificant transfer to skin
Source: the chart on page 8 of this document: Notification of the 49th Amendment to the IFRA Code of Practice.
Once you know the IFRA category of your formulation you can cross-reference that with the usage rates provided by your suppliers, which should be divided by IFRA categories. This information is usually much more available for fragrance oils (natural or synthetic) than it is for essential oils.
Some suppliers will list IFRA limits right on the product detail page, but a downloadable PDF seems to be the more common approach.
Brambleberry’s Natural Geranium and Sandalwood Fragrance Oil
Click here for the product page for Brambleberry’s Natural Geranium and Sandalwood Fragrance Oil. Navigate to the “Documents” tab and open the “EU Allergen – IFRA 49 – Prop 65 Reports” document. On page 2 you’ll find the IFRA statement.
You can see that we could use this natural fragrance oil at up to a whopping 82.87% (😳) for a 5A product (body lotion), 57.41% for 5B (face moisturizer), and 82.87% for 5C (hand cream). That’s far more than we’d ever need or want to use, but you know you’ve got a pretty wide safe range to work with when using this product.
New Directions Aromatics Lemongrass Essential Oil
Click here for the product page for New Directions Aromatic’s lemongrass essential oil. Navigate to the “GCMS & Documents” tab and open the “Quality & Regulatory Info” document. On page 12 you’ll find the “IFRA Standards Conformity Certificate”.
You can see that we could use this essential oil at up to 0.2% for 5A (body lotion), 5B (face moisturizer), and 5C (hand cream) products. The usage rates you’ll find for essential oils are typically much lower for than they are for fragrance oils (natural or synthetic).
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How will the formulation be used + how strong of a scent is desired?
Once you know how much of an essential oil or natural fragrance oil a product can use, you need to think about how much you want to use (this amount needs to be within the allowable maximum usage rate, of course!).
How a formulation will be used (basically, where on your body it will go and who it is for) is a very important consideration when adding scent to a formulation. A foot cream will have very different scent needs than an eye cream!
If a product is designed for application around the eyes, I usually choose gentler options if I want the product to have a scent. I explain how to do that in this post.
Facial products can contain fragrance oils and essential oils, but I usually keep the usage levels low—often below 1%.
Body and foot products can contain higher concentrations of essential oils and fragrance oils, though I usually still stick to around 1%.
Rinse-off products can contain higher concentrations of potent scenting ingredients, though as always, keep in mind what you’re scenting! I wouldn’t add any sort of potent scenting ingredient to a cleansing oil designed to remove waterproof eye makeup, but I’ll happily scent a shampoo or hand wash with essential oils and fragrance oils. It’s also a good idea to think about how precious the scenting ingredient is; should you use expensive rose essential oil to scent a wash-off formulation? I wouldn’t.
Do not try to drown out the inherent scent of a formulation with tons of essential oils or fragrance oils; that can lead to using far more essential oil or fragrance oil than is safe (or pleasant).
What are they?
Essential oils are potent, fragrant oil-soluble substances extracted from plants through methods like steam distillation and expressing (squishing, basically). They’re complex chemicals that plants make to draw in pollinators, deter predators, and do other “help the plant live its best life” jobs. Some of them smell great, so we use those in our formulations so they smell great, too.
Essential oils are a very popular, effective, easy way to scent all kinds of formulations, but I do want to emphasize that the term “essential oil” encompasses hundreds of very different ingredients with different chemical compositions. Different essential oils have different maximum allowable usage rates, which is then further complicated by maximum allowable concentrations of individual chemical constituents that can be exceeded in an essential oil blend without exceeding the individual usage rate of any one essential oil.
It’s a bit like the idea of “spices”; there’s a lot of them, and some are stronger than others. You wouldn’t use sweet paprika and cayenne pepper in the same way because one is mild and one is spiiiiiicy 🥵 Similarly, it’s not a great idea to assume that 1–3% of all essential oils is fine, and just run with that—it’s perfectly fine for some essential oils, but far too much for others.
I’ve discussed essential oils more in this post: Ten DIY Ingredients for Beginner Formulators: Part 1. Please give that a read!
I learned the specifics of how to work with essential oils safely in my Formula Botanica Diploma in Organic Skincare Formulation coursework, and that section of the course is one of the biggest reasons I recommend that course. I realized I’d been using essential oils in ways that increased chances of irritation and sensitization—yikes!
Fall 2022: Formula Botanica is currently offering a free formulation masterclass where you can learn even more about natural formulation! You can sign up here 🙂 I highly recommend it, especially if you're wanting to see how Formula Botanica works.
Pros of scenting lotions with essential oils
- Essential oils are potent; a little goes a long way.
- Because they are potent, you don’t need to leave much room for them in your formulations.
- There’s a fairly wide array of scents to choose from.
Cons of scenting lotions with essential oils
- Compared to the less potent scenting options, essential oils have a higher irritation potential.
- Every essential oil is different, with different safe usage levels. You’ll need to research each individual essential oil you want to work with to ensure you’re working within safe guidelines.
- Not every scent is available from essential oils.
- Some essential oils are really expensive.
- Essential oils expire, and expired/old essential oils can lead to life-long sensitization.
- Due to the popularity of essential oils, adulterated and fake essential oils are quite common, especially on Amazon. I recommend sticking with reputable suppliers like New Directions Aromatics that post GCMS (Gas Chromatography Mass Spectrometry Analysis) documents for many of their essential oils.
- Some of my favourite essential oils have really low maximum usage levels 🥲
- There’s a lot of bad information out there about essential oils. As a general rule, do not trust any source that: recommends the undiluted application (or ingestion) of essential oils; promises anything that sounds like a miracle; claims that essential oils are completely safe because they’re natural; or is affiliated with an MLM.
How to incorporate essential oils into your lotion formulations
Research the specific essential oil you want to use to determine the maximum allowable usage rate of the essential oil you want to use in the type of product you’re making. I recommend the Tisserand Institute and the book Essential Oil Safety: A Guide for Health Care Professionals by Robert Tisserand & Rodney Young (this is my essential oil bible!).
Include essential oil(s) in the cool down phase of your formulations, reducing the total amount of distilled water to make room. I’d start with 1% (total, not per essential oil) or less.
These essential oils are generally safe to work with around 1%:
- Lavender essential oil
- Peppermint essential oil
- Spearmint essential oil
- Grapefruit essential oil
- Lemon essential oil
- Sweet orange essential oil
- Cedarwood essential oil
- Rosemary essential oil
- Patchouli essential oil
- Eucalyptus essential oil
This is not a complete list, but it’s a good place to start!
Be careful with these essential oils (again, not a complete list!):
- Cinnamon bark essential oil
- Rose absolute
- Lemongrass essential oil
- Non “FCF” Bergamot essential oil
- Petitgrain essential oil
- Clove bud essential oil
- Litsea cubeba essential oil
- Elemi essential oil
Formulation with an essential oil
Lovely Lavender Lotion
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Natural fragrance oils
What are they?
Natural fragrance oils are made from the same aromatic chemical compounds that make up essential oils: chemicals like Benzyl Salicylate, Linalool, Cinnamal, Eugenol, Geraniol, and Citral. Essential oils are broken down into their constituent chemical parts, and then those essential oil-derived chemicals are professionally blended to create scents that don’t exist as essential oils.
The key difference between a natural fragrance oil and a regular/synthetic fragrance oil is the source of the aromatic chemical compounds. Natural fragrance oils are made from naturally derived aromatic chemical compounds, while regular fragrance oils are made from synthesized aromatic chemical compounds. I find the synthetic fragrance oils are typically stronger and longer-lasting.
Pros of scenting lotions with natural fragrance oils
- They’re potent: a little goes a long way
- They are designed to be applied to the skin, so they’re easier to work with than essential oils and typically have higher maximum usage rates (sometimes utterly bonkers high!) so it’s much harder to use an unsafe amount.
- Note: some synthetic fragrance oils are designed for use in candles and other non-body applications, and those can have very low to non-existent allowable usage rates for on-body use. Check the IFRA information from your supplier. Here’s an example of a fragrance oil that can be used in candles at 100% (!), but just 0.07% in body lotions.
- Natural fragrance oils are available in a variety of scents you often can’t get from essential oils, opening up a variety of lovely scents. Examples include mango, blueberry, and multi-note/blended scents (Apple Orchard, Cedar and Oakmoss, Mineral Springs, etc.)
- Natural fragrance oils will be more consistent than essential oils as they’re not subject to variations from different crops, growing seasons, etc.
Cons of scenting lotions with natural fragrance oils
- Natural fragrance oils are the hardest to purchase option out of the four options discussed here
- The scent options are still relatively limited,
- Not for use in lip products, and Bramble Berry reports they don’t perform well in soap.
How to incorporate natural fragrance oils into your lotion formulations
Check the IFRA documentation from your supplier to identify the maximum allowable usage rate of the natural fragrance oil you want to use in the type of product you’re making.
Include fragrance oil in the cool down phase of your formulations, reducing the total amount of distilled water to make room. I’d start with 1% or less.
Formulation with a natural fragrance oil
Rosewood & Citrus Lotion