Updated: May 26, 2021
CEDARWOOD FOR SOAPMAKERS
[Photo by Adam Kring]
If the smell of woodlands, old wooden boxes, smoky tea and pencil shavings is your thing, then the world of cedarwoods is going to delight you!
Discovering the varieties of Cedarwood
Following discussion of the endangered status of Atlas Cedarwood essential oil (Cedrus Atlantica) on the Facebook soap groups, I became interested in possible alternative cedarwood substitutes, and was pleased to find that there is a variety of wonderful cedarwood available at generally similar price-points. I didn't need much excuse to track down as many varieties as I could that were available for purchase in the UK and US. I was also kindly donated some Himalayan cedarwood by fellow West Country soaper, artist and essential oil fan, Georgie Painter.
Armed with my woody essential oils, I did some investigating... and created an aroma profile for each one, as well as gathering data that I hope will help fellow soapmakers create satisfying cedar blends.
What is cedarwood essential oil?
Cedarwood is an essential oil extracted by either steam distillation, carbon dioxide distillation or cold pressing from various types of evergreen conifers: junipers, cypresses and true cedars, including:
the Juniperus, such as Texas cedarwood and Virginian cedarwood
the Cupressus, such as Chinese cedarwood
and the true cedars of the pinaceae family, the Cedrus, such as Atlas cedarwood and Himalayan cedarwood
Cedarwoods are high in sesquiterpenes and/or sesquiterpenols and as such, are oils with some of the longest shelf life, with recommendation for use being 4- 8 years. Their key components include: alpha cedrene; beta cedrene; thujopsenes, cedrol; cedrine.
In daily use they can be found in: insecticide products, deodorants, soaps, air fresheners, floor polishes, and sanitation supplies, with Virginian cedarwood being the oil most commonly used for commercial purposes.
Cedarwood and blending fragrances
Each of these groups of essential oils will have noticeable similarities, but enough distinctiveness to make their variety a valuable addition in blending fragrances.
For the purposes of blending or finding substitutes for use in soap making, the following are closest matches:
Atlas cedarwood oil and Himalayan cedarwood oil
Virginia cedarwood oil and Texas cedarwood oil
Chinese cedarwood stands alone but compare with Cypress essential oil (not covered in this article).
Cedars are generally used as base notes in perfumery and excellent as an enduring anchor for more volatile top note essential oils in soap, and as a soap fragrance in its own right. However, the variation between each of the cedars listed below allows for some experimentation with their note. If reformulating a cedar fragrance blend, be aware that whilst a swap for another cedar from the same family (see above) will probably give you a reasonable match, it should be trialled first.
We use cedarwoods in our Lapsang Rose Geranium soap, blending smoky Chinese cedarwood with soft rose geranium essential oil, and fresh 'wood shavings' Virginia Cedarwood in our Siberian Fir, Cedar, Pine and Eucalyptus blend soap.
Cedarwood was beloved of the ancient Egyptians and Sumerians, derived from the majestic Cedar of Lebanon, a true cedar. This mighty tree was brought to the point of extinction, and is no longer used for essential oil extraction.
Atlas cedarwood is on the IUCN Red List as ‘Endangered’ as a decreasing, fragmented species with a 75% loss from 1940 – 1982, and still decreasing. Chinese cedarwood, its nearest and most similar alternative, is undocumented at present, and is potentially a concern. I recommend further reading at the blog 'In Defense of Plants' where he succinctly describes the current parlous state of Atlas cedar and Cedar of Lebanon, which I hope will encourage fellow soap makers to seek alternatives:
"Centuries of over-harvesting, over-grazing, and unsustainable fire regimes have taken their toll on wild populations. Much of what remains is not considered old growth. Gone is the heyday of giant cedar forests. Luckily, many populations are now located in protected areas and reforestation efforts are being put into place throughout their range. Still, the ever present threat of climate change is causing massive pest outbreaks in these forests. The future for these trees hangs in the balance."
[Photo by Sergey Pesterev]
Atlas Cedarwood Details (Cedrus atlantica)
Odour strength – medium: 192 hours at 100%
From Morocco. Endangered species of the Pinaceae family – a true cedar. Steam distilled from the wood. Base note. The least enduring of the cedars in terms of odour strength. Woody, sweet, balsamic. Much less of a ‘pencil sharpenings’ odour than other cedars and sweeter. No cosmetic allergens for soap but check your own supplier’s information and safety guidance at time of use. See additional IFRA notes for safe use. In soap blends well with bergamot, clary sage, cypress, frankincense, jasmine, juniper, neroli, oakmoss, patchouli, petitgrain, rose, sandalwood, and vetiver. Also used as an anchor for citrus notes.
MY AROMA TEST: Balsamic, creamy notes, but a brighter top note…bananas and plastic! Fruitier, sweeter, and more balsamic than the other cedars.
[Photo by Clay Banks]
Virginia Cedarwood Details (Juniperus virginiana)
Odour strength – medium: 388 hours at 100%
From the USA. Cupressaceae family. Steam distilled from the wood. Base note. Sweet, woody, sandalwood notes. Woody, pine, bright, fresh, incense, ambery. Blend for wood compositions, rich amber bases, and vetiver compositions. A good fixative. No cosmetic allergens for soap but check your own supplier’s information and safety guidance at time of use. See additional IFRA notes for safe use. An interesting anchor for citrus blends in soap and also harmonizes them. Good blend for pinus sylvestris – pine needle - for a rounded pine/wood mix. In soap blends well with bergamot, juniper berry, clary sage, rosemary, and ylang ylang.
MY AROMA TEST: Fresh cut wood, with resinous pine note and a bright citrus element as in the Earl Grey tea blend. On the skin it opens up to a deeper more complex and sensual sandalwood with a distinct musk dry down. Would by my first choice for soap. Great for anchoring citrus blends without overwhelming them, and also harmonizes them.
[Photo by Sigmund]
Chinese Cedarwood Details (Cupressus funebris)
Odour strength – medium: 400 hours at 100%
From China. Cupressaceae family. Potentially endangered, though there is not enough data to assess their status. Steam distilled from the wood. Base note. Sharp, woody, smoky, fresh, camphoraceous. For blending to build wood notes, spicy accords, woody-oriental accords, pairs well with sandalwood and compliments patchouli. No cosmetic allergens for soap but check your own supplier’s information and safety guidance at time of use. See additional IFRA notes for safe use. Recommended with rose bases. Soap blend recommendations hard to find as it has such a distinctive burnt wood fragrance, but it needs to partner with oils that will work with its smoky incense and tea notes, so try rose, sandalwood, patchouli.
MY AROMA TEST: Incense and tea. A smoky lapsang souchong. Complex, evocative, with a smoke element that is not tarry. The closest to my sense of cedarwood in furniture, though this smells ‘aged’…old timber. Possibly not easy to use for soaping as it is complex and subtle. A perfumer’s cedar. But could be beautiful as a single scent soap if you wanted a smoky tea scent or try with clary and rose geranium for a ‘potpourri’.
[Photo by Balaji Srinivasan]
Himalayan Cedarwood Details (Cedrus deodara)
Odour strength – medium: 400 hours at 100%
From India. Pinaceae family – a true cedar and closest in fragrance to Atlas cedarwood. Steam distilled from the wood. Base note. Smoky, balsamic. Very subtle with a hint of spice. Can have a ‘blue cheese’ note! Blend to complement florals. No cosmetic allergens for soap but check your own supplier’s information and safety guidance at time of use. See additional IFRA notes for safe use. In soap blends include bergamot, clary sage, cypress, fir, frankincense, geranium, grapefruit, jasmine, juniper, lavender, lemon, lemongrass, neroli, patchouli, pine, rose, rosemary, thyme, verbena, vetiver, ylang ylang. Useful as a woody/floral anchor.
MY AROMA TEST: Despite being initially identifiable as a close cousin to its fellow 'cedrus' Atlas cedarwood, this one is an outlier for me. It has the balsamic, fruity, woody note of Atlas but with an added sharpness. There is no sense whatsoever of the 'pencil shavings' odour that is most often associated with cedar, and, initially at least, barely any 'wood' note. The first impact is overripe fruit and bananas...a sweetness, with fermented undertones. Complex, with interesting dry-down to a softer and muskier sweetness where, ultimately, we get some delicate balsamic woody notes. Suitable for anchoring citrus, or as a base note, but work carefully with its complexity. With green mandarin, for example, the sweetness brings an adult twist on bubble gum fragrance. This is one to experiment with for its potentially novel synergies.
Texas Cedarwood (Juniperus mexicana/ashei)
Odour strength – medium: 392 hours at 100%
From USA. Cupressaceae family. Steam distilled from wood. Base note. Pencil woody, sweet and balsamic with hay and chocolate notes. Blend for forest, patchouli base and woody orientals in particular. No cosmetic allergens for soap but check your own supplier’s information and safety guidance at time of use. See additional IFRA notes for safe use. Soap blends include clary sage, fir needle, frankincense lavender, neroli, patchouli, rosemary, and vetiver.
MY AROMA TEST: Fresh cut wood. Pencil shavings, with a back note of smoke. This is bright, fresh and the pencil shavings are right there on top. But it transforms as it dries, and on the skin develops a sexy leathery wood fragrance. As it mellows it gets muskier and more complex with a distinct leaf-mould earthiness. An interesting contradiction, and in soap I would choose the Virginia rather than this one for a 'wood' note. I would use this for more sensual and complex blends - it particularly seems to invite combination with patchouli, vetiver or spices.
Please join as a member of this blog community or comment below to share your experience of essential oils in soap.
For notification of new blog posts, subscribe to the Bath & Still Newsletter at the bottom of this page.
Mystic Moments - UK-based essential oil supplier with good odour description, and documentation.
Hermitage Oils – interesting ‘perfumer’s’ notes on the fragrance qualities of essential oils and their historic and aromatherapeutic uses.
Good Scents Company - detailed odour description/strength, chemical analysis and much more.
IUCN Red List. Search plant materials to establish sustainability status.
This research was stimulated by a conversation with Caerthan Wrack (Triskelion Yarn) who is the true cedar aficionado! Also discussion on the Facebook group ‘UK / EU Soapers United (Any Cosmetic Creations)’