Have you noticed that essential oils and “aromatherapy” products are available almost anywhere now? I have tried different brands for a few of my favorite essential oils but I am often disappointed with their quality. How do I know I am getting a high quality therapeutic-grade essential oil?
You are so right. Finding essential oils, essential oil blends, essential oil ‘infused’ or ‘fragranced’ products and aroma oils has never been easier. They are found in grocery stores, pharmacies, home and bath shops, beauty shops, gift stores, craft stores, health food and dietary supplement stores, the internet, book stores and the list goes on! Finding high quality essential oils to use in aromatherapy for their pharmacological, psychotherapeutic and metaphysical properties is unfortunately, not as easy.
Only essential oils of the highest quality should be used for aromatherapy. And whether you are just beginning to use essential oils or have been using them for years, it is important to continually educate yourself about the properties of the oils, which ones are most compatible with one another and how to use them effectively and safely.
Did you know that in 2003 it was estimated that only 5% of essential oils produced in the world were actually used for traditional holistic aromatherapy? [Salvatore Battaglia, The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy, Second Edition] The largest users of essential oils are, in fact, the perfume, food flavouring, pharmaceutical and chemical manufacturing industries.
There are a number of institutes and essential oil experts around the world that are working to establish essential oil quality, quality assurance, terminology and labeling standards for high quality essential oils used in aromatherapy. To the best of my knowledge it remains that there is no universally agreed upon set of quality standards for the authentication of essential oils in aromatherapy. This topic is of such critical importance that most aromatherapy text books and professional aromatherapy training programs dedicate hours of research, education, instruction and study on essential oil quality.
What follows is an abridged version of information and suggested guidelines for selecting high quality essential oils for traditional holistic aromatherapy. I encourage readers to seek information from other qualified resources to further assist with the quest to finding the essential oils best suited to your needs. So here it goes …
In a ‘perfect world’ one would test different samples of the same essential oil produced for aromatherapy from different suppliers to compare the oils’ odour quality and intensity, changes in odour upon evaporation and diffusiveness of odour. One would also compare the physical measures and chemical analyses of each of the essential oils, and their psychotherapeutic and metaphysical effectiveness would be measured. For the majority this is not practical so we look to reputable suppliers who have gone through these processes for us. It is our responsibility to know what to look for!
Educators, producers, distributors and marketers of what is often referred to as therapeutic-grade essential oils have created terminology, qualifiers or designations that refer to the quality of essential oils. There is also terminology used to identify essential oil adulteration of which aromatherapists need to be aware. Some of the terms, qualifiers and designations for essential oils and essential oil production you will come across may include:
Aromatherapy or Practitioner Grade – essential oils considered to be of excellent to superior quality, suitable for therapeutic application;
Bulking – distilling the same plants from different harvests in the same still or a post-distillation process combining of oils from one or more plant species;
Certificate of Analysis – documentation with full identification and detailed profile of a particular essential oil;
CO2 extracted – essential oil process that avoids the thermal degradation sometimes associated with steam and atmospheric pressure methods;
Co-distillation – two different plants or plant parts in the still at the same time or adding an essential oil to a plant material and then distilling them together;
Complete – plants distilled at low heat and pressure and an essential oil is not rectified (stripped);
Ethically harvested – sustainable cultivation of plants used to produce essential oil;
Extended – carrier oils or synthetic fillers are added to essential oil or absolute;
Folded – process best known in the flavouring industry which employs the re-distillation of essential oils, usually citrus, to remove ‘offending’ constituents such as terpenes;
Gas Chromatography and Mass Spectrometry (GC/MS) – methods to test essential oil to make sure it meets high-quality standards, is 100 percent pure and proper chemical components are present;
Genuine and Authentic – hold the designation of pure, natural and complete, and have been distilled under conditions assuring maximum authenticity – botanical name, part of plant used, country of origin and extraction process are identified;
Grade A – includes Gas Chromatography (GC) reading with an embossed seal from the testing laboratory;
Natural – has not been altered in any way;
Nature identical or Reconstituted – made from essential oil constituents or synthetics to create an ‘essential oil’ which is similar to that found in nature;
Organic – essential oils derived from plants grown using natural, ecosystem management methods without the use of ‘manmade’ fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides;
Organic (Certified) -essential oils derived from plants grown using natural, ecosystem managements methods without the use of ‘manmade’ fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides and have received verification that this is true from an independent certification body;
Pure – declared absence of other essential, vegetable or nut oils (carriers);
Rectified – natural components removed from essential oils often by way of re-distillation;
Re-distillation – pure essential oil is put through additional distillation(s) to separate out specific aromatic fractions;
Synergies or Blends – combinations of essential oils sometimes in a carrier or mixture of carrier oils (vegetable or nut);
Synthetic fragrance – duplication of the scent of the flower or plant, not that of the essential oil;
Therapeutic or clinical grade – essential oil from the first distillations of the raw plant material, nothing is added after distillation, and no chemical solvents are added to the water during the distillation process;
Wild crafted – essential oils derived from plants harvested from their natural, wild habitat.
Many aromatherapy and essential oil experts suggest that it is essential oils with the combined designations or grades of ‘pure, natural and complete’ and ‘genuine and authentic’ that are best suited for aromatherapy use.
Other quality indicators to look for when purchasing an essential oil include the essential oil profile details found on the label or accompanying printed descriptions in the case of small bottles or the distributor’s website. At a minimum this information should include the common name, botanical or Latin name, status (e.g. organic, genuine and authentic), country of origin, part of the plant used, cultivation method, method of extraction, batch or lot number, safety precautions, date and price. Additional desirable information might include GC/MS readout, specific chemical constituents, description of its aroma and ‘best before’ date.
If you are able to sample the oil, carefully evaluate the aroma for its full note range. You might test the essential oil to determine its evaporation results. Essential oils evaporate completely, occasionally leaving a stain but they do not leave an oily residue. Find out how the essential oils are stored and how they are the shipped. If you have any questions at all, ask! My experience tells me that reputable suppliers are happy to answer your queries.
I appreciate that this is a lot of information for what seems to be a fairly simple, straight forward question. Not all of this may be applicable for your needs; however, poor quality essential oils or adulterated essential oils decidedly lack the desired therapeutic effect and are at greater risk of causing adverse or harmful side effects. The more information you are able to glean about an oil, the greater the probability you will find a high quality essential oil suitable for aromatherapy use.
When you have found your ultimate high quality essential oil source(s) I would love to hear from you!
Best wishes in your search!
Barbara Power, Certified Aromatherapist