Why Essential Oil Quality Matters: You Get What You Pay For

Posted on February 8, 2012 | In Educational
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Written by, Becki Andrus

The most common questions that I receive are about the topic of essential oil quality, such as:

“Does the brand of essential oil really matter?”
“There are so many brands out there to choose from, and they all claim to have the best quality… how do I really know which essential oils I should be buying?”
“Aren’t the essential oils at the health food store good quality?”

The short answer to this question is: Yes, the quality and brand of essential oils REALLY does matter. I have personally used numerous brands of essential oils (including many of the big-name brands, as well as smaller brands from health foods stores and boutique shops), and I have also spent quite a bit of time researching and learning about the production methods and quality of essential oils. The goal of this blog post is to summarize some of the things that I have learned, and help you understand the elements that affect the quality of essential oils.

Why Essential Oil Quality Is So Misleading

The essential oil industry is not regulated by the FDA, which means that it can be very confusing to choose a good quality oil– simply because there are no rules about the labeling terms and what they mean. There are many different brands to choose from, and you will see that there is a huge range in both price and quality.

The problem lies in the fact that many companies label their products with terms that imply that the product is high quality, but those words don’t really mean much about how the essential oil was extracted and/or the overall quality of the oil. Some of the common labeling terms include:

  • Therapeutic Grade
  • Pure
  • Organic
  • Natural

These all sound like great characteristics of an essential oil, but the labeling terms can be very misleading. In fact, I HIGHLY suggest that you don’t rely on the labels without first researching the company that produces the oils.

For example, many people assume that “pure” means that the essential oil contains the highest quality ingredients and it is a completely natural oil… but a “pure” essential oil may actually have synthetic, man-made compounds within the product! Some essential oils labeled as “pure” might even have extenders or other cheap ingredients to dilute the oil.

Another example is that the term “organic” cannot be trusted completely, because it is only looking at the plant source and not the potential contaminants from the processing. Some essential oils manufacturers use organic plants (which is good!), but they don’t test for contaminants after the oil is produced. Also, keep in mind that there are different requirements for an organic label in different countries, and even different states in the U.S. have varying requirements for a plant to be considered organic. So, simply because it says “organic” on the label does not necessarily mean that the oil is free of contaminants.

The truth is that many of the products out there don’t actually use 100% pure essential oils… instead they add in synthetic chemicals man-made to imitate the compounds found in the natural plant. I was shocked to discover that even some of the most popular, big-name essential oils companies are shady about what is actually in the oil. They claim to only use the highest quality, purest oils… but some of the production methods and testing procedures indicate otherwise.

Synthetic ingredients and fillers are often added to even some of the “high quality” brands because they are attempting to cushion their profit margins. These synthetic ingredients are used to dilute the product or even replace the natural compounds in some of the expensive extracts. If you want to be using the highest quality of essential oils, it is very important that the essential oil ONLY contains plant extracts… without anything else added, or anything removed.

To help you understand how common non-plant compounds are in lavender essential oil, consider the fact that it is estimated that France exports over 100 times more lavender oil than the amount that is grown there… that doesn’t sound like “pure lavender oil” to me! Of course, there are still sources that provide essential oils with only pure plant compounds, but they are becoming harder to find as more companies dilute the oils in order to save money.

So the moral of the story is this: don’t trust the essential oil just because it has nice labeling. Doing some research about the company’s testing procedures and manufacturing processes will help you understand whether or not it is a good quality oil.

Also, try comparing essential oil brands side-by-side, and you will be able to notice a difference in quality. Pay attention to the purity of the oil… the scent should not be overbearing because if the smell is too strong it may indicate that it contains chemical synthetic substitutes. When you are smelling a pure essential oil, you will notice that it smells crystal clean and natural. You can also try testing the feel of different brands of essential oils, if the oil is pure it should easily absorb into your skin without feeling slick or oily.

Purchasing Essential Oils: Health Foods Store, Online, or Big-Box Stores?

You may not realize it, but essential oils can be found in many things that you use on a daily basis. For example, perfume and cologne contain essential oils, as well as certain cooking flavors and medicines. There are varying levels of essential oil pureness in the different types of products out there… essential oils in perfume may not be as pure as essential oils that will be ingested through cooking or medicinal uses.

It is estimated that 98% of the essential oils that are produced are actually made for the cosmetic and perfume industries– they are not produced for therapeutic benefits. In fact, essential oils can be bought in many different places such as at a local store or online. Even some of the super-centers have essential oils! But, just because they are easily available does not necessarily mean that they are good products to be using.

When essential oils are mass produced, the main concern for many of the manufacturers focuses on the fact that the oil smells good and it is cheap to produce (so that the profit margins are good).

Remember that you get what you pay for! I have heard of people buying lavender essential oil at the dollar store for $1 plus tax. If it is that cheap, I’m pretty sure that it is not a high quality lavender oil– and I personally would not use it!

Dangers of Low-Quality Essential Oils

Some of the lower quality oils specifically have warnings on the labels, stating that they are not safe to ingest, they cannot be used with children, or other cautionary messages. I have actually heard of essential oils products that have a strong warning on the label that states that the oils may cause cancer!

I always feel so bad to hear about people who buy essential oils to support their health, and end up having a bad reaction as a result of using a low quality oil. I have heard stories about skin reactions and severe headaches as a result of oils that they thought were “high quality.” If you are using a quality essential oil, then there should be NO side effects to using the oil– in rare cases an allergy to a specific plant may cause side effects, but other than that essential oils should not cause any other negative reactions to occur.

So, now the question is this: When the essential oils are coming from the same plant (i.e. there are many brands that sell lavender essential oil), why would there be warning labels on one brand but no warnings on another? Many people assume that lavender oil is always the same because it comes from a lavender plant. But, the harvesting location and production methods can actually affect the compounds and constituents in the oil. Sometimes different parts of the plants are used, which changes the chemical makeup of the essential oil. With some plants, even the time of day when the harvesting takes place can affect the chemical makeup of the oil! So, if a plant is harvested in the morning it can actually have different compound ratios within the oil compared to an oil produced from the same exact plant that was harvested in the evening.

Another reason that quality matters so much is the fact that essential oils are extremely concentrated, which means that any chemicals or elements that were present in the original plant have also been concentrated into the oil. For example, if a plant was sprayed with pesticides and then essential oil was extracted from that plant… it can result in concentrated chemicals from the pesticides being present in the essential oil.

Essential Oil Extraction Methods

There are various production methods that may be used to extract essential oils from a plant source, such as steam distillation, cold pressing, carbon dioxide extraction, or solvent extraction. Most essential oils companies will use steam distillation, which is usually the best method to extract essential oils (depending on the plant). But, not all steam distillation methods are the same… because small changes in the processing, time, and equipment can drastically affect the quality of the essential oil.

Essential oils are very complex on a chemical level, and most essential oils have anywhere from 80 – 200 constituents within the oil. The extraction methods can greatly affect the ratios of these constituents, and the majority of the “therapeutic grade” essential oils have NOT been tested for the constituent ratio after the oil is produced. High heat production methods can actually prevent some of the constituents from being present within the final product. Or, if distillation is used to extract the oil, varying distillation times can affect the constituent levels as well because of the shorter/longer distillation processes.

Just because an essential oil company proudly claims that they use distillation for the essential oil extraction, does not mean that the oil is the highest quality possible! Here are a few things to consider about essential oil distillation:

  1. High levels of heat during the distillation process can affect the pH balance of the oil, as well as the electronegative and electropositive balance of the oil. The aromatic molecules of essential oils are extremely fragile, and they can be quickly altered with even a small change in the distillation temperature. Another element that can affect the balance of the oil is the pressure that is used during distillation.
  2. Distillation time may affect the chemical constituents within the essential oil, and the distillation length actually varies depending on the plant that is being distilled. If the distillation time is cut short, it could potentially result in chemical constituents that are present in the plant source, but missing in the essential oil.
  3. Materials within the production equipment can affect the essential oils. For example, if the distillation system is using certain types of metal, they may chemically react with the essential oil and change the chemical make-up of the final product.

Testing Procedures of Essential Oils

Even if an essential oil company is using the correct methods of growing the plants, harvesting at the right time, and producing the essential oil, it is still necessary to test the oils once they have been produced.

Many of the big essential oils brands talk about the testing that is done, but they often have 1 – 3 tests that provide only a partial picture of the quality of the oil. Additionally, I found that it is common for some of the companies to cut corners by doing their testing in-house– in order to maintain un-biased results it is better to have a 3rd party completing the testing.

Another element of testing that needs to be considered is the fact that every single batch of essential oil needs to be tested. Some of the essential oils companies test 1 batch of oil, but then continue to produce more oil without testing each new batch of oil. Because there are so many variables that can affect the quality, it is extremely important that the oil is produced in smaller batches and EVERY batch is tested to verify the correct constituent levels and chemical make-up of the essential oil.

Summary: The Highest Quality Essential Oils

As I look back over everything that I have written for the blog post, I realize that it is a lot of information! But, it is important to me that you understand how much quality really does matter with essential oils… it’s not worth saving a few dollars in order to buy a cheaper brand.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post… I have used multiple brands of essential oils, and spent quite a bit of time researching and understanding the product in order to make sure I was using the best essential oils for myself and my family. I suggest that you also use caution when deciding on an essential oils brand to use. Be sure that they implement detailed testing procedures that are required for every single oil that is sold. These testing procedures look for any contaminants that may be present, and they also measure the chemical composition to ensure potency and purity for every batch that is processed.

Also, feel free to contact me anytime if you have any questions or if there is anything that I can help out with– I am here to help!

With love,

Becki :)

 

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