I have believed in the power of essential oils since I was a child and my school (The International School of Geneva) went on a field trip to Grasse, France, the epicenter of the perfume industry. I will never forget standing in the fields of jasmine, rose and lavender and breathing in the scent of those flowers. I later learnt about the incredible antiseptic, anti-viral and anti-inflammatory properties of essential oils.
When I started formulating my products in 1986, I immediately looked to pure, botanical ingredients and created OSEA Essential Hydrating Oil: a blend of lavender, chamomile, calendula and geranium oils. I have used it religiously everyday since.
Back then everyone thought I was crazy for putting oils on my skin, but today these oils are the mass beauty sector’s favorite new ingredient. From the beauty aisle, to the household cleaning aisle, to the baby care aisle, you will find body lotions, counter-top sprays, plug-in air fresheners and baby shampoo all claiming to contain ‘essential oils’. Yet, there is no governing body to oversee or certify essential oil production and sales. Often, the labeling is deeply misleading.
Ten Important Terms to Consider When Purchasing Essential Oils
1) Grades: There are no approved grades of essential oils and therefore labels such as ‘Certified Pure Therapeutic Grade’ have no real meaning.
2) Purity: Currently there is no official or standardized definition of what is pure when it comes to essential oils.
3) Quality: Cheaper oils are almost always poor quality oils that have been handled improperly or have been adulterated with chemicals or other oils.
4) GC/MS: This test combines gas chromatography and mass spectrometry to provide a chemical analysis of the essential oils. Gas chromatography separates the mixtures into individual components while mass spectrometry identifies the components and the percentages of each.
5) Extenders: Many oils are extended or added to with either carrier oils such as jojoba or solvents like benzoin. Essential oils should NEVER be oily, so that can be a sign that an extender has been added.
6) Bulking: This may be done several ways including distilling plants from different farms and harvests together, or mixing several oils post-distillation. Bulking reduces the quality of the finished product and is often done to make the product cheaper.
7) Packaging: Pure essential oils must be packaged in pharmaceutical amber glass, violet glass or aluminum containers to filter out ultra-violet light and prevent oxidization or degradation.
8) Rectification: When an essential oil contains impurities or has been contaminated it can be purified by re-distillation. This process is also used to remove phototoxic furocoumarins from bergamot and lemon verbena essential oils.
9) Folding: A “folded” essential oil has been further distilled and concentrated either five fold (times) or ten fold (times). Citrus oils like orange, lemon and bergamot are most commonly folded to remove naturally occurring terpenes that make the oil prone to oxidation.
10) Reconstituted Oils: These oils have had natural or synthetic chemical components added to them after the distillation process.
Essential oils are concentrated, volatile, chemical compounds that are found in the roots, stems, leaves, flowers and fruits. Only the pure essences, extracted either through distillation or cold-pressing, have the ability to stimulate the limbic center of our brain and heal. Synthetic fragrance oils aim to duplicate the scent of essential oils, but they contain none of these chemical compounds or any of the aromatherapeutic benefits.
In a perfect world we could all know our supplier and stand in the center of that field filled with flowers. Realistically, with the many different essential oils and brands to choose from, sourcing a high quality essential oil can be a very daunting task.
Over the years at OSEA, we have developed a protocol to help us find the best vendors with the best products. Here are the questions we always ask:
1) Do you grow yourself or buy direct from farms? They should be able to give you plenty of information about location, the crops and the practices and allow you to visit the farm if desired.
2) How are the plants grown? Is the farm Certified Organic or Biodynamic? Do they use any chemical fertilizers or pesticides? Do they employ fair labor practices? Many farms use organic practices but are not certified for financial reasons, so ask about their methods.
3) Do you sell essential oils of endangered plants? You can refer to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora to see what is currently on their list and what to avoid.
4) What is the country of origin? Many species of aromatic plants grow in very specific areas. Frankincense, for example, grows only in Somalia and the Arabian Peninsula so if it’s from India that’s a red flag.
5) How are the oils distilled?
There are only two ways to extract essential oils and preserve the therapeutic benefits: distillation and expression. Synthetic fragrance oils are produced by blending aromatic chemicals primarily derived from coal tar.
6) Are material safety data sheets (MSDS) available for each of the oils?
A reputable supplier should be able to provide these for all of their products.
7) Are the oils pure and can you provide GC/MS tests results to show this?
This test can be used to analyze and identify any adulteration of the essential oils.
8) Do you have a list of clients you work with?
Look for suppliers who work with people, practitioners and treatment centers you respect. Do they have testimonials they can show you? Are they a member of any organizations such as the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy or the USA Soil Association that oversee sustainable and good practices?
9) Can I have some samples?
You should be able to test the product before buying it. Some vendors charge a small fee for samples and this is completely legitimate.
10) Do you have a website or blog with ongoing education and training?
Look to work with a company that has a lot of transparency, great customer service and online tools that provide support beyond sales.
I hope you can use these tips to sniff out the best growers, distillers, and most effective essential oils for your practice, products and treatments. And one day, I hope you have a chance to stand in a field filled with lavender.