Pine oil can be derived from quite a few species of pine trees. The Scotch Pine (Pinus sylvestris), native to Europe and Asia, is known for its strong, woody, and slightly sweet scent. The Dwarf Pine (Pinus mugo) is found in the high mountains of Central and Southern Europe, and its twigs and cones are distilled to produce a potent pine oil. The Longleaf Pine (Pinus palustris), native to the southeastern United States, produces resin that can be converted into pine oil, and its resin was once a primary source of products like tar, pitch, and turpentine. The Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus), found in North America, has also been used to produce pine oil, but it’s less commonly used.
Pine oils are similar and are used pretty indiscriminately as solvents and are often blended to make turpentine.
Cosmetic scientists are more interested in the smell than most users and so often specify one particular pine species. The smell isn’t that different between pine oils of different origin, but you usually want your product to smell the same every time. Its chemistry is well known and comprises largely of terpenes. It’s known to contain compounds such as alpha-pinene, beta-pinene, and limonene which impart its characteristic pine scent.
The interesting thing is that the pine smell comes from the pinene which overwhelms the lemon smell from the limonene. But if you smell really intensely the pine note seems to fade and it starts to smell lemony. This is easier with older pine oil – so this is one of those oils that you need to take great care with stock control. You don’t want to have it hanging around in the warehouse.
Pine oil doesn’t really match modern prejudices. It is definitely natural and sustainable – which is good – but it is also a skin sensitiser and suspected carcinogen – which is bad. It is generally recognised as safe when used at appropriately, low concentrations and is permitted under the cosmetic regulations as long as it is stored carefully. It has stayed under the radar so far, but it is easy to imagine it being the source of a scare story. I’d think twice before using it. Which is a shame, because it has a unique and distinctive smell.