To say that there is a lot of confusion out there about essential oils is sort of like saying that Niagara Falls is kinda big. In other words, it’s a gross understatement. No matter your query or how it’s worded, any internet search about essential oils is bound to bring up conflicting information, making it extremely difficult for a novice to sort through it all and find the kernels of truth hidden in all the hyperbole.
One of the most difficult questions to settle is the most basic: how do I know if the essential oils I’m using are quality oils? One fact that is uncontested in the aromatherapy world is that essential oils are notorious for being adulterated, and even experts admit it can be difficult for them to determine for certain if oils have indeed been adulterated. If even the experts have trouble, where does that leave the rest of us?!
I have been researching this question (and many others regarding aromatherapy) for the past couple years; and although I haven’t come up with any “foolproof” way to determine the quality of an essential oil, my research has taught me what I should look for in an essential oil company, and what kinds of questions I should ask when considering a purchase. My growing knowledge of essential oils and essential oil quality has only confirmed for me that I made the right choice in my source of essential oils, and I hope to help others achieve the same confidence! So many people are curious about the oils and interested in using them, but overwhelmed by the options and the questions that abound.
Companies throw around terms like “therapeutic grade”, “natural”, and “organic” to the extent that those terms have become almost meaningless, so it’s difficult to sort through the marketing hype and find out what’s really going into the bottles they sell. Any company trying to sell you some of their oils is going to insist that theirs is the real deal, and unadulterated, but clearly they’re not all telling the truth. If you’re searching for a reliable source of pure essential oils, I have a list of 5 questions you need to ask any company that you are researching to determine if they really are selling the real deal or not.
Plants are living things, and the essential oils that come from them prove that by their widely varying makeup. A lavender plant grown in France will produce a very different oil from a plant grown in, say, Canada. The reason is because the compounds in the essential oil are developed specifically for the protection, nourishment, and propagation of the plant they come from; and the needs of the plant will vary depending on a lot of factors including soil, climate, and pests. Aromatherapy has developed around the concept that certain plants have certain therapeutic properties… but those properties aren’t guaranteed to exist in a plant that has been grown outside its natural habitat. One oft-recommended essential oil company sources many of its oils from India, which is fine if you’re in the market for jasmine oil (actually an absolute), but not so fine if you’re looking for eucalyptus, which is native to Australia.
2. Do you own any of the farms or distilleries?
The majority of essential companies out there are merely distributors and not producers. This is an important distinction, because the further removed the distributor is from the process, the more opportunity there is for the oil to be adulterated. And the less a company has control over the essential oil production, the less they even know about the possibility of the oil being adulterated. Their sources may swear to the integrity of their oils, but how can a distributor know that for sure unless they are involved in the daily production process? I am much more comfortable purchasing from a company that has their hands in the process from beginning to end; and I’m extremely confident in a company that controls the process from beginning to end.
3. What kind of tests do you run on the oils?
Most companies will boast that they run a GC/MS (Gas Chromotography Mass Spectrometry) test on the oils, and that’s a good start. Much has been made of the GC/MS test in online circles in recent years, but honestly, that particular test doesn’t really tell you a whole lot about the oil. It can tell you if there are any chemical solvents added to the essential oil, and it can tell you if the oil has the generally expected number of various chemical compounds that it should… but it can’t tell you if each of those compounds are natural or manufactured, and it can’t tell you if they all came from the same plant or were pulled from a variety of different plants.
An essential oil can pass the GC/MS test and be declared 100% natural when that might not, in fact, be the case. It’s entirely possible (and actually happens all the time according to chemists and aromatherapists in the know) for an essential oil to be labeled as “lavender”, for example, when it’s really compounded from several different other (cheaper) plants. The problem is that when the oil is pieced together like this, it doesn’t work as it should for therapeutic purposes, because – as I mentioned at the beginning – plants are living things. Genuine plant oils cannot simply be manufactured from this and that; an effective essential oil is the oil in its entirety.
4. What quality control measures do you have in place?
This question ties in directly to the last 2 questions. Because most companies are merely distributing an end product, and not actually producing said product, the only quality control measure they can take is on the back end. Their control over the seeds, cultivation, harvest, and distillation is minimal at best because they have no actual say over the production process. Their only option is to accept or refuse the final product based on their own observations and/or tests. And typically, the only test they run is the GC/MS test, which as I have shown is limited in its scope.
Having said that, there are a few companies that either own the farms and distilleries producing the oils, or they have an ownership investment of some kind (almost like share-cropping) in the farms and/or distilleries. Those companies are the ones that can actually control the production process to one extent or another, and those companies should have some quality control measures in place. Such quality control measures should include things like the choice of seeds used for planting (Heirloom? GMO?), quality of soil, pest prevention measures, harvesting procedures, distillation standards, etc. The more a company can tell you about the measures they take, the more confident you can be in their final product.
5. Are the plants grown organically?
This is a no-brainer, really. You don’t want chemical pesticides ending up in your bottle of therapeutic essential oil! Organic labeling gets complicated, though, with the vast majority of oils being sourced internationally with different countries regulating “organic” in very different ways. So it’s better to ask some pointed questions about how exactly the plants are protected from insects and disease. The best oil companies use organic and natural planting methods that do not leave any kind of chemical residue on the plants that could make its way into the essential oil.
As I mentioned in the beginning, the more I learn, the more confident I am in my own personal choice of essential oil brand. I’m sure there are other reputable and reliable brands out there, but to date I have not found any that answer these questions more satisfactorily.
Edited to Add: A fellow “oiler” actually did her homework and called a bunch of different popular essential oil companies, and asked them these and other questions. Here is a chart she made showing their answers:
If you’re interested in learning more about essential oils, how they are made, how they are adulterated, and how you can use them medicinally, I highly recommend the book “The Healing Intelligence of Essential Oils” by Kurt Schnaubelt. (That’s an affiliate link there; you’ve been warned!)