Whether you see them on your friend’s Facebook feed, a talk show episode about using natural remedies, a display of diffusers at your local grocery store, or all of the above – essential oils are everywhere these days.  

There are claims about the benefits, warnings about safety, and hundreds of brands that all say things like “100% Pure Therapeutic Grade” or “All Natural” on the label. 

If you feel skeptical about the benefits and wonder if there’s really a difference between what you see in the store and what your friends have been telling you about, you’re not alone.

With so many types of oils and claims out there, it’s overwhelming to sort out. 

Fortunately, there’s a way to cut through all the hype. 

5 Things You Need To Know That Will Help You Pick Out Quality Oils Like A Pro

1) What makes an oil essential

In the world of aromatherapy, there are several different types of oils you’ll hear about –  essential oils and carrier oils. The difference relates to how they’re created, what part of the plant is used, and what the plant uses it for.  

Essential Oils

Essential Oils occur naturally in plants in the stems, leaves, roots, seeds, flowers, branches, or fruits. 

The term essence was coined because it was thought of as the “life blood,” spirit, or essence of the plant.  They are necessary to the life processes of the plant as well as helping to fight infections, heal wounds, and repel or attract insects and birds. 

They can also circulate the human body as they contain smaller molecules that can pass through tissues, cell walls, cell membranes, and the blood-brain barrier.  

They are called “aromatic” because they come from the parts of the plant that contain odoriferous compounds.

Essential Oils are obtained in the following ways:

  • Steam distillation – this is a process where special equipment is used to separate the oil from the other parts of the plant by passing steam through the plant material.  This is the most common method of obtaining essential oils.  
  • Expressed – these oils are created by mechanically pressing the peels (cold pressing).  They can contain small amounts of residue from the rind such as waxes and can also cause photo-sensitivity – which means they act as solar amplifiers.  To be on the safe side, stay out of direct sunlight or UV rays after using these oils. Common expressed oils are orange, tangerine, lemon, lime, bergamot, and grapefruit.
  • Absolutes – in cases where plant materials are too fragile for distillation, the oils are extracted by using solvents.  These are called absolutes. In most cases, the residual amounts of solvents is very minimal. Although absolutes seem like they may be unsafe due to the use of solvents to extract them, as long as they are sourced from a reliable company, they are just as safe as oils that are distilled or expressed.  A common absolute is jasmine oil. 

When looking at the different ways oils are extracted, what’s most important is that the best method is used for that particular plant.  

Carrier Oils

Carrier oils are vegetable oils that come from the fatty part of a plant, such as nuts, seeds, and kernels.  They are also called fatty oils. They are necessary for the growth cycle of the plant as they contain the source of nutrition necessary for the plant to grow.  However, they are NOT essential to the life of the plant once it has matured.  

They have larger molecules and will not pass through tissues, cell walls, cell membranes, or the blood-brain barrier.  They are also mostly non-aromatic and greasy to the touch.  

They are used with essential oils to help dilute the essential oil when it’s considered a “hot” oil such as oregano and cinnamon that may otherwise irritate the skin.  The carrier oil also helps slow down the absorption rate, allowing more of the essential oil to be absorbed prior to evaporation and also provides a source of other health benefits such as added moisture and soothing the skin.  

Common carrier oils are coconut, almond, olive, jojoba, and sweet almond.     

2) The laws are based on intended use

Many essential oil products are referred to as food, fragrance, or therapeutic grade.  The truth is that there is no regulatory definition for essential oils. 

Under current law in the United States, essential oil products are regulated based on the intended use.  If it’s a

  • Dietary supplement, it’s considered safe for human consumption and IS regulated by the FDA.  Companies who manufacture dietary supplements are prohibited from marketing products that are adulterated or misbranded.  If an essential oil is labeled as a dietary supplement, then it is safe to add to food recipes, gel capsules, or water.   
  • Cosmetic, it’s only intended to cleanse the body or make a person more attractive.  If a fragrance is intended to be applied to the body, it is considered a cosmetic by law.  The law doesn’t require cosmetics to have FDA approval before they go to market . The FDA will only take action if they receive reliable information that the product might be unsafe.
  • Drug, it’s intended for therapeutic use, such as treating or preventing a disease, or to affect the structure or function of the body.  Under law, drugs must meet requirements such as FDA approval for safety and effectiveness before they go to market.  

Since most companies in North America who manufacture essential oils don’t have the resources or don’t want to market one of their products as a “drug” due to the regulations involved, what this means is that with the exception of oils that are labeled as a dietary supplement, most essential oils on the market today are considered a cosmetic.

As a result, essential oils that are intended for cosmetic use are mistaken for therapeutic ones and used to support overall wellness.  Not only is the intended result unlikely, but in the end, they can actually be detrimental. 

3)  What the label’s really telling you

Furthermore, the FDA doesn’t have regulations defining “natural” or “organic” for cosmetics, and the only information that is required to be on the label is defined as what must appear on the 

  • Principal display panel
    • An identity statement, indicating the nature and use of the product
    • An accurate statement of the net quantity of the contents 
  • Information panel
    • Name and place of business
    • Distributor statement (if distributed by a different company)
    • Material facts
    • Warning and caution statements
    • Ingredients 

which means that if the label says…

  • 100% Pure
  • All Natural
  • Certified Organic
  • Certified Pure Therapeutic Grade
  • This product is genuine

… then it’s an advertising claim.

Scary, right?  

4) The true definition of therapeutic grade

At this point, you might be asking, “Is it all just hype?”  

Humans have been using plants as medicine since the beginning of our existence.  Ancient writings indicate the use of barks, resins, spices, and aromatic oils in rituals, temples, embalming, and medicine.  

Today, plants are used as a base for or as an ingredient in many of the dietary supplements, over-the-counter medicines, and prescription drugs used today.  

Unfortunately, in order for manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies to make their formulations patent-able, they change the composition of the compound (plant, mineral, etc.) at a molecular level to make it unique.  Something that occurs naturally, like lavender – can’t be patented.  

To make matters worse, some companies use chemicals during the manufacturing process (such as solvents to extract oils that should be distilled), add fillers in order to increase volume (such as carrier oils), and use potentially harmful pesticides and herbicides on their crops in order to increase production (instead of using essential oils AS their pesticides).  

The result is a toxic slurry that can do more harm than good.  

On the other hand, products that are 100% GENUINE ingredients such as essential oils made from plants that are

  • cultivated in truly organic soil (no pesticides or herbicides used for at least 50 years)
  • grown using the correct seeds
  • free from pesticides and herbicides
  • harvested at the right time

can have a beneficial effect on the body or mind.  This is one of the true definitions of therapeutic (Merriam-Webster, 2019).  

The constituents that occur naturally in plants, including the parts of the plants that we eat for food are something the body understands.  Constituents that are manufactured aren’t something the body understands, that’s why they’re toxic.   

The solution to avoiding a chemical disaster is to be selective about the products you use. 

5) Know your source

When it comes to selecting essential oils, especially those that will applied directly onto the skin or inhaled deeply into the brain, it’s important that they’re genuine.  

With so much fluff out there, how can you tell the difference between what’s real and what isn’t?  

While there are NO agencies in North America that define or regulate the standards for essential oils in the market today because most are categorized as cosmetics, there ARE agencies in other countries that set the standards for the quality of essential oils.  Such as

  • AFNOR (Association Francaise de Normalization), who regulates the quality of French products, including essential oils, and 
  • ISO (International Standardization Organization), an independent, non-governmental organization provides common international standards covering everything from manufactured products and technology to food safety, agriculture, and healthcare.  The ISO has adopted the AFNOR standards for oils as the international standard.

There are companies who manufacture their essential oils according to these international standards, even though they aren’t required to do so.  It’s up to you to know if your supplier is one of them. 

The key is to find a source you can trust.  

Before buying your next bottle of essential oil, consider finding out the following:  

  1. Does the company own their own farms that you can visit or do they buy them from a 3rd party?  Most companies selling essential oils in the market today buy their oils from a 3rd party. Finding a company that owns their own farms is a good indication that they have control over the manufacturing process.
  2. Do the farms use organic seeds, cultivate their crops in truly organic soil (herbicide and pesticide free for at least 50 years), and follow organic practices and standards?  If the answer to any or all of these questions is NO, then their oils aren’t genuine.
  3. Do they use solvents to distill their oils, and if so, which ones?  While there are some oils such as jasmine that must be extracted using solvents, most do not.  If they routinely use solvents when distilling their oils, they aren’t genuine
  4. Do they routinely perform in-house testing AND send samples of their oils to 3rd party independent labs for testing to ensure they meet AFNOR standards?  Many companies create a separate company to perform their in-house testing and call it 3rd party testing, when it really isn’t. Independent testing comes from a facility that the manufacturer doesn’t control.
  5. Do they ever have to recall their oils and/or if they have a batch of oil that doesn’t meet their quality standards, do they sell it to another company or dispose of it responsibly (potentially using it as a pesticide)?  Business is business, but from an ethical standpoint, if it doesn’t meet their standards, then it shouldn’t be sold to anyone else either.  

Hint:  If you want to know who I chose after researching these questions, click here.

If you’re using essential oils in your home or as part of your wellness routine, you want to make sure they’re genuine.

Whether you’re breathing them in, adding them to your food or water, or putting them on your skin, the products you use go IN your body.  

When it comes to essential oils, making sure you trust the source is the best way to ensure you’ve got something that’s going to deliver more benefits than just making you smell great AND keep you safe.  

Remember, it’s more about what’s behind the label, than what’s on it. 

References:

  1. U.S. Food and Drug Administration (2017, December 5).  Aromatherapy.  Retrieved 2019, June 28, from https://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/cosmetic-products/aromatherapy#regulates
  2. U.S. Food and Drug Administration (2018, September 5).  Dietary Supplements.  Retrieved 2019, June 28, from https://www.fda.gov/food/dietary-supplements
  3. U.S. Food and Drug Administration (2018, August 8).  Fragrances in Cosmetics.  Retrieved 2019, June 28, from https://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/cosmetic-ingredients/fragrances-cosmetics
  4. U.S. Food and Drug Administration (2018, April 6).  Cosmetics Labeling Regulations.  Retrieved 2019, June 28, from https://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/cosmetics-labeling/cosmetics-labeling-regulations
  5. Merriam-Webster (2019, June 25).  Unadulterated.  Retrieved 2019, June 29, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/unadulterated