Today, there are hundreds of brands of essential oils, and you want to purchase the ones that are of the highest quality for therapeutic use. You’re looking for oils made from real plant material, and not poor-quality oils with imposter ingredients.
Choosing based on descriptive labels like “therapeutic grade essential oil” could mislead you into believing that you have bought the very best. The phrase “therapeutic grade” is nothing more than a few deceptive marketing words that could fool you into buying because you think it’s better.
Essential oils impressively represent the aromatic delights of botanicals from all around the world. It is amazing that you can conveniently buy a bottle of oil that comes from a flower in Italy, a tree in Australia, or an herb grown high atop a mountain in Asia. And when you inhale the aroma, your mind travels to that very special place.
But these tiny bottles, can have a costly price tag. Thus, you want to make sure you are getting your money’s worth. There are ways to determine the quality of an essential oil without getting deceived by marketing terminology.
What is a therapeutic grade essential oil?
While the quality of an essential oil is of the utmost importance, the words “therapeutic grade,” when used to describe an essential oil, do not hold any value. This is because there is no governing body that has set standards for this term to mean anything.
In other words, no group is inspecting an essential oil, and then determining that it is good enough to earn the “therapeutic grade” label. This phrase is only marketing lingo to increase your likelihood of purchase.
Don’t be fooled by meaningless marketing phrases!
Here is a list of meaningless essential oil marketing lingo not backed by any governing body.
- Therapeutic grade
- Certified pure
- Food grade
- Pharmaceutical grade / medical grade
- From farm to you / from seed to label
There are a few things you should know before buying essential oil.
You are probably wondering, “If I can’t trust these marketing words, then how do I know which essential oil to buy?” You want to be ensured that the essential oils you choose are safe, effective, and come from real plant material.
First, it is important to understand what an essential oil is, before you can know if you are buying a quality product. Then, you should know a few things about how to read an essential oil bottle’s label. Additionally, you should trust the company from whom you are purchasing the botanical product. Once you have acquired quality essential oils, it is important to know how to utilize them safely and effectively.
What is an Essential Oil?
It starts with a plant that produces aromatic volatile components. Of all the plants in the world, only about 5% can make essential oils (Tisserand & Young, 2014). Plants produce these pheromone-like substances for various important reasons. Possibilities include: to attract pollinating insects, to deter pests, or to keep other plants from growing in the area (Lis-Balchin, 2004). Essential oils are stored in various parts of a plant, like its flowers, seeds, leaves, bark, branches, or roots.
Aromatic plant material is harvested and then processed to make an essential oil usually via distillation methods. Steam distillation involves heating the plant material to release and separate the volatile oils from the solid plant material. Essential oils typically represent only about 1-2% of the plant’s total matter. Just the volatile (light weight) molecules are separated and saved to make an essential oil.
These lighter weight molecules are the most chemically reactive. As a result, they often represent the part of the plant material with the most therapeutic potential, and the smallest therapeutic margin.
Side note: What is therapeutic margin?
Therapeutic margin is a term used to describe the dose needed to be therapeutically active without being too much. Excessive amounts could be toxic or dangerous. In other words, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. This holds true with essential oils, which should be respected and used sparingly.
Tisserand and Young described confusing hazard with risk in their Essential Oil Safety text (2014): It is true that essential oils contain toxic substances that could be hazardous. However, risk occurs when the oils are used excessively or improperly. Thus, it is important to follow safety guidelines when using essential oils.
Essential Oil Variations
Essential oil composition varies based on environmental factors and processing techniques. Chemistry can change with weather, soil, time of day, or time of year. Processing and extraction techniques can also affect the final product. Thus, for example, each time you buy a bottle of peppermint essential oil, it will not always smell the exact same way.
Further, a bottle of essential oil does not necessarily have identical chemistry to the plant from which it came (Tisserand & Young, 2014). Molecules can change during the distillation process, and certain chemicals can intentionally be removed or added from the distillation to make a safer or improved final product.
In addition, it is important to know that not all bottles labeled “essential oil” are steam distilled. Citrus oils are often cold pressed and can contain chemical constituents with a higher molecular weight. Very expensive flowers like ylang ylang or rose maybe solvent extracts.
Avoid Contaminated Essential Oils
Non-natural substance in an essential oil could include pesticides, herbicides, traces of solvents, or adulterations to extend or alter an oil. These contaminations reduce the quality of the essential oil and could be harmful to your health.
How can you avoid buying contaminated essential oils?
- To avoid harmful pesticides and herbicides, choose organic essential oils whenever possible. Look for an official organic logo on the packaging, backed by a 3rd party certifying organization.
- Choose reputable companies that can provide a third-party GC-MS Report. A gas chromatography / mass spectrometry report reveals the chemical constituents found in the product. To a trained eye, it could show if an essential oil has been adultered with synthetic chemicals, lesser expensive plants, or extenders. Further, it lets you know the chemical constituents found in that unique batch of essential oil.
- Test the oils for yourself! Assess the smell, color, and texture of the oil.
Essential Oil Standardization
The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) sets the standard for the chemical composition requirements of essential oils by plant species. Key molecules must be present in certain percentage ranges. If a harvest does not meet these guidelines, some companies will blend harvests to achieve requirements. Less ethical companies will add synthetic components or isolated constituents from other plant oils (Lis-Balchin, 2004).
Another method of standardization is driven by essential oil companies wanting to offer a standardized product that meets consumer expectations. These larger companies create a product that will always smell the same. Thus, they standardize their essential oils products by setting a protocol of the percentage of each key chemical constituent in a specific bottle of essential oil. For example, if they want their lavender to always smell the same, they might set it to be 44% linalool, 42% linalyl acetate, 3% lavandulyl acetate, 2% beta-caryophyllene, etc.
How is this done? A distilled oil is modifying by adding or subtracting isolated constituents until it fits the standard.
Most expert aromatherapists agree, this modification creates a lower quality product. It is best to keep as close to what nature originally created. Just as batches of strawberries, spinach, or fine wines will have differing flavors, so to should essential oils extracted from natural botanicals have varying aromas.
Understanding what an essential oil is and how it can be modified is important when choosing which essential oil to buy. With this knowledge, you can better read an essential oil label.
What to Look for on an Essential Oil Bottle’s Label
There are a few items that should be included on a quality bottle of essential oil. The following questions should be answered:
- What is the Latin name and the common name of the plant species in the bottle of essential oil? For example, German chamomile’s Latin name is either Chamomilla recutita or Matricaria recutita. This should not be confused with Roman chamomile; whose Latin name is Anthemis nobilis. Sometimes, more than one plant species could be included in a bottle of essential oil.
- Is the essential oil diluted in a carrier oil? Dilution is more common with expensive essential oils such as rose, jasmine, ylang ylang, and chamomile. Common dilution oils include jojoba, fractionated coconut, or sweet almond oil. Dilution in a carrier oil will make an expensive oil less costly.
- Which part(s) of the plant were extracted? This could include the flowers, seeds, cones, leaves, twigs, bark, wood, and roots. Different parts of a plant could have very different aromas and chemistry. For example, consider the aroma profile of the leaves, versus the fruit or blossoms of an orange tree (Citrus sinensis).
- What was the extraction method? Was the essential oil steam distilled, cold pressed, or a solvent extracted?
- Where did the plant come from? The country of origin should be listed.
- Company information should include the company name, website address, and country / city of origin?
- What are the appropriate safety and usage instructions?
- What is the date and batch number?
- Is the product organic? It should have an official organic logo.
Trust the Company where you Purchase Essential Oils
When purchasing essential oils, choose companies with which you want to do business. These companies should be focused on accurately representing their products and knowing the safe and effective ways to use each essential oil they sell.
Products should be properly labeled, MS/GC reports should be available, and staff should be knowledgeable. These companies should support educational efforts and safe usage guidelines presented by industry organizations, such as NAHA, AIA, or IAAMA. Finally, seek companies with an environmental ethic, who avoid the sale of endangered species, and are committed to the sustainable collection of plants.
Buying a tiny bottle of essential oil can be easier said than done. There are several marketing buzz words that really don’t mean anything. It’s best to have a little knowledge about how essential oils are made before purchasing.
Extraction methods and growing conditions can create chemical variations. Natural variations create an amazingly unique bottle of essential oil, and standardization can take away from representing the special essence of a plant. Further, contamination and adulterations can affect essential oil quality.
Purchase from a trusted company, that provides accurate information about their products and promotes the safe and effective use of essential oils. And, just as an essential oil can give you happiness and health, what comes around goes around. Care about the plants you buy. Do your part by purchasing oils that have been sustainably harvested and avoid endangered species.
- Lis-Balchin, M. (2006). Aromatherapy Science: A Guide for Healthcare Professionals. Pharmaceutical Press. London.
- Tisserand, R. & Young, R. (2014). Essential Oil Safety, Second Edition. Churchill Livingstone Elsevier.