Fragrance Oils versus Essential Oils

Sometimes you just have to laugh…as in, if you don’t, you’ll cry.

I was perusing the internet for something completely unrelated, when I wondered to myself: is there such a thing as an Almond essential oil, and why don’t I see more soap makers using it? My guess was cost would be at the heart of the issue. Like many pure, but costly essential oils (rose, sandalwood, vanilla), I assumed almond was likely too expensive to use in a quantity enough to scent a soap completely. Other costly oils, like rose or sandalwood, are usually used in smaller quantities in a soap (or other body care product) and/or, anchored in a blend. My assumption lead me in a direction I had not expected.

I found a soap maker who does exclusively use essential oils, and he does have some almond scents. The bars, he claims, are great for people with sensitive skin. There was also information (which I assumed to just be a marketing technique), referencing that the almond essential oil was certified to be free of prussic acid (the claim was that the essential oil used is FFPA grade). Since I had never heard of that to be a grading system for essential oils, I did some research.
I came across a site which sells Bitter Almond Essential oil and read their information. One statement caught my attention: Safety Considerations: NOT FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION; can cause severe skin irritation. Dilute before using. A patch test should be performed before use for those with sensitive skin. Please note that this product is FFPA (Free from Prussic Acid) for your safety. 

Knowing that there are many other essential oils that have similar warnings, as they can cause irritation to sensitive skin (cinnamon and peppermint come to mind), I didn’t think too much of the skin irritation part, as people with sensitive skin can have irritation to just about anything; however, the prussic acid did have me wondering.

It turns out that there are sweet and bitter almonds. The bitter almond (Prunus dulcis var. amara ) scent is the ubiquitous “marzipan” type that is so distinct. The fruit from this species are more bitter, slightly broader and shorter than the sweet almond (Prunus dulcis var. dulcis), which is what we typically eat (also many soap makers use sweet almond oil as a carrier oil in their soaps, as it lathers wonderfully and is emollient). Bitter almond (Prunus dulcis var. amara ) is the species used to produce the essential oils, the scents found in soaps or lotions. It also contains a naturally occuring chemical called hydrogen cyanide (glycoside amygdalin) aka prussic acid. “Hydrogen cyanide is extremely poisonous to mammals, and high concentrations can kill a human being within a few minutes. It forms a major component of Zyklon B, a brand-name gas used by the Nazis during World War II to kill prisoners in the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Majdanek.”
Not something I want on my skin, I’m thinking.

Additionally, Whole Foods issued a recall of some organic bitter almonds (2014) due to high levels of prussic acid….which doesn’t make me super duper confident that the FFPA (free from prussic acid) grade on the soaps are all that accurate. Incidentally, I never found the organization responsible for the “grading system” of FFPA. Which brings me back to the “sometimes you just have to laugh or cry” thing.

Many soap makers tout that they only use essential oils and “poo poo” fragrance oils, stating that fragrances are “not natural” or “man made”. I’ve often thought that this attitude was misrepresented, as essential oils can wreak havoc on sensitive skin and allergies as much as fragrance. One person can use one or the other with no issues, yet a friend or family member may use the same product and have a reaction. I see this in my own household. While I don’t think it’s necessary to panic over prussic acid in almond scented soaps with essential oils, it is prudent to exercise caution with any oil that has the potential for irritation. I’m thankful for being naturally inquisitive and asking the original question, as learning is something I enjoy. If you would like to learn more, I am posting links at the bottom of this page.

Skaneateles Soap Company will stick to using phthalates free Bitter Almond fragrance oil for our almond scented soaps.

I maintain the stance that both fragrances and essential oils can be used successfully, that knowledge and transparency are crucial, and that consumers have a thirst for knowing what’s in their products. As always, common sense should rule the day by discontinuing the use of any product that causes irritation. Those with extremely sensitive skin might better be served by using an unscented natural soap. (we have many to choose from)

Best in health,

M Anne


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