Marla Bosworth is the founder and owner of Back Porch Soap Company. She teaches classes, corporate events and experiences including candle making, soap making, organic skincare and perfumery.

March 11, 2014

Understanding Suggested Essential Oil & Fragrance Guidelines in Soap and Cosmetics

One question I get asked repeatedly is how to determine the safe amount of essential oil or fragrance to use when formulating soaps and cosmetics. I hope to shed some light on this subject. There are layers and layers of information on this subject, and I am merely peeling back the first layer in this blogpost.

There is not a simple answer such as 2% in leave-on skincare products and 5% in bar and liquid soaps. Why? Because there are essential oils that are known for skin sensitivity issues that need to be taken into account. So a  quick and easy answer is that we cannot assume that we can use up to 5% of one type of fragrance oil or essential oil as part of the scent component in our recipe or formula if it is known to cause sensitivity issues.

If we are using an essential oil such as cinnamon bark, for example, it is not recommended that we use it as the full amount of our fragrance component. There are voluntary guidelines for percentages in usage levels set in place by International Fragrance Association (IFRA), an industry organization which provides voluntary guidelines regarding the use of fragrance.  These are known in the industry as IFRA Application Guidelines.

A handful of industry essential oil and fragrance suppliers provide IFRA guidelines on their websites along with suggested usage rates in soap, cream, lotions, shampoos and any product that can be formulated using a fragrance. Call your supplier if they do not list recommendations to find out and tell them that you are asking because you want to make safe products for your customers.

There are three main reactions that can occur as a result from essential oils being applied to the skin:
  • irritation
  • sensitization
  • photosensitization
Cinnamon bark essential oil, for example, has been on IFRA’s Restricted Essential Oils list along with expressed citrus oils (“expressed” is a method of essential oil distillation) such as bergamot, bitter orange, grapefruit, lemon and lime.

“Fragrance is the second most common cause of skin allergy, after nickel. However ‘fragrance’ is not a single substance; it is a term that encompasses thousands of chemicals and hundreds of essential oils.” Robert Tisserand, Essential Oil Safety Second Edition. Book link:
Now, let’s back up and review the two types of fragrances we’re talking about so that any newcomers can follow this conversation. The first is essential oils, commonly referred to as EOs. Essential oils add fragrance to your product, as well as add therapeutic benefits to the body and mind. We can’t make therapeutic claims, but can make cosmetic or hygiene claims. So we can’t mention skin problems such as acne or psoriasis, but we can refer to essential oils being known to having properties such as antifungal, antimicrobial, as well as intended for oily skin, and so on.

Second, essential oils are different from man-made, synthetic fragrance oils, which are commonly referred to as FOs. If you choose to use fragrance oils, make sure they are skin safe. For example, you would not want to purchase a fragrance intended solely for candlemaking and use it in skincare products since it is not for use in leave-on or wash-off products.

Now that’s we’ve cleared the air (pun intended) about different types of fragrance, let’s get into guidelines about recommended usage rates. This is the percentage (not type of) essential oil or fragrance oil you’ll use in soaps and bath and body products.
Typically, fragrance usage rates in leave-on products such as creams and lotions are lower than wash-off products (bar soap, liquid soap, etc.). More of a leave-on product remains on the skin versus a wash-off product, so the amount of fragrance should be lower. The average recommended usage rate of fragrance is one to five percent for any product sold or marketed to ages one and up. Again, we cannot assume one fragrance or another can be used up to 5% - we need to research to confirm information from the manufacturer or supplier. (Off Topic Tip: I never recommend any fragrance for newborn through 12 months of age. Their little bodies are so sensitive and have a hard time processing fragrance unlike adults.)

Any recommended percentage relates to the total weight of your recipe. For example, for a 100 oz. weight batch of cream, 1% dilution rate would equal 1 oz. or for 2% a total of 2 oz. of essential oil would be used (100 oz. x .01 = 1 oz. or 100 oz. x .02 = 2 oz.).
If our research shows that the essential oil (or fragrance oil) we wish to use has a suggested usage rate of 3%, but we would like to fragrance at 5%, then a solution would be to blend it with another oil.

If you are selling products to a healthy adult market (i.e., one that is not going through chemo, radiation nor sensitive to fragrances) most likely you’ll want to use a two to five percent usage rate. This is a range suggested for healthy adults and children older than 12 years of age. Again, research, to determine the safety levels of the fragrance you are using by familiarizing yourself with IFRA and asking your supplier for information.

If you're interested in studying the effects of essential oils in skincare and cosmetic products in detail, join me in a "live" 2-day seminar with Robert Tisserand on "Essential Oils in Skincare" held April 5-6 , 2014 in Santa Barbara, California and on August 23-24, 2014 in New York City.

What questions do you have regarding essential oils or fragrance oils in soap or cosmetics?

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