When you don't know anything about essential oils, buying them seems like a no-brainer: they're everywhere! The health food store, the drug store, online stores and probably your neighbour is distributing for one of the new multi-level-marketing companies. When you learn a little bit more, suddenly it seems overwhelming: adulteration, crop variation, species variation, synthetic contaminants, organic vs. conventional... how to make sense of it all?!
Quality of essential oils is a huge topic, encompassing health concerns, international trade agreements, honest differences of opinion and multi-million dollar lawsuits. This little blog post is not intended to be exhaustive, but to share some of my own navigation through these waters with fellow acupuncturists who seek to use essential oils in their own lives or practices.
Recognizing a quality supplier
1. They know what they're talking about and share information responsibly
- if the supplier is making unfounded claims such as disease treatment powers, or recommending uses of essential oils that are not generally regarded as safe or suitable for laypeople, I steer clear.
2. Their material and labels are clear and contain necessary information
- I want the label and sales material to clearly state the species of plant the oil was extracted from, the country of origin, if it is certified organic or other external certification, the method of extraction, and any additional ingredients. Here's a comprehensive example from Mountain Rose for bergamot oil. Extraction method of bergamot oil determines whether the oil contains bergaptenes, which cause the photosensitivity reactions that are a serious caution in using bergamot oil. This is vital information to have available when purchasing this oil.
3. Their prices make sense
- essential oils are incredibly precious. It takes thousands of pounds of raw plant material to make an ounce of essential oil. If a price is 'too good to be true,' it is. Check out the results of laboratory testing on a $20 'essential oil' starter kit recently offered at a big box store. Cheap prices for oils are created by adulteration - either with a carrier oil (this isn't necessarily a bad thing, as long as it's clearly labelled and you know what you're getting), with cheaper species such as lavandin for lavender, or rose geranium for rose, or synthetic additives such as menthol in peppermint. Caveat emptor!
4. They offer test results or other quality control evidence
- Your supplier is purchasing from growers and distillers, many all over the world, and must rely on their initial quality control. Good companies have documented methods of verifying that the oils they are buying and reselling are the real thing. Here's an example from Osadhi, talking about the testing they do on oils. I recently joined the Blue Tansy Analysis facebook group, which pools donated funds to pay for third party testing of essential oil companies. This can be a real rabbit hole of science + politics, but both the test results and how a company deals with adverse results (which can happen even to excellent companies) is very educational.
5. They are recommended by practitioners you trust
- This is the 'fuzziest' of my recommendations. But in addition to fancy laboratory testing, 'organoleptic' testing is also important - this is the sensory analysis made by an experienced practitioner based on their years of experience. It's very important in the identification and quality control of raw herbs, and can be equally so for essential oils. Taking in person classes with respected teachers gives you the opportunity to smell high quality essential oils and experience the subtle differences from quality, country of origin, freshness etc. Here's an example of organoleptic analysis by Robert Tisserand on a peppermint essential oil that turned out to have synthetic adulterants:
Our Essential Oil Expert comment after an organoleptic assessment (sniff test!): This essential oil smells very pleasant, but it lacks the “clean” odor of a quality peppermint oil. It is over-sweet and reminiscent of a peppermint and dark chocolate candy. This would be consistent with a low concentration of added ethyl vanillin, a powerful odorant that smells of vanilla/chocolate. (Source)
I hope this has been a helpful overview of some of the factors to consider when purchasing essential oils! They are powerful medicine, and our globalized world means we have access to oils we might never otherwise smell, let alone use in our daily lives - but it also means we're not distilling our own essential oils from flowers we grew! It's up to us to make responsible choices and support the companies that are striving to ethically and sustainably bring these oils to us.