Best Essential Oil Brands Based on In-Depth Reviews
Best Essential Oil Brands Based on In-Depth Reviews
Posted by consumersadvocate.org
We had an independent lab test the purity of 33 oil samples from well-known names in the essential oil industry to see what was really inside each bottle.
LAST UPDATED: JANUARY 29, 2020
- HOURS OF RESEARCH
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- COMPANIES VETTED
- FEATURES REVIEWED OPTIONS
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What you need to know
- Sustainable sourcing is indicative of ethical business practices
- Read quality reports and safety precautions before using EOs
- Watch out for misleading marketing terms that can downplay risks
- Health care practitioners don’t recommend ingesting essential oils
HOW WE ANALYZED THE BEST ESSENTIAL OIL BRANDS
QUALITY & TESTING
We learned that quality and testing go hand in hand, and that adulterations are a common practice in the essential oil industry. So we decided to test three oils from each of our 11 brands by sending unlabeled samples to the Aromatic Plant Research Center in Utah to test them for any adulteration.
A company that educates consumers, protects consumers. We looked at the company’s webpage through the consumer’s lens searching for blogs, articles, safety guides, or any other valuable information regarding the correct use and safety of essential oils.
We assessed each company’s commitment towards ensuring the safety of consumers by looking through the information provided on their websites. Are the safety precautions easy to find? Does the company have a safety guide or video explaining the benefits and the health risks of essential oils? Is the information clear, factual, and recent?
Sustainable sourcing reflects a company’s responsibility to the environmental and ethical ramifications from the production of essential oils. We examined the company’s sourcing and ethical practices, as well as any eco-friendly initiatives.
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ESSENTIAL OIL COMPANIES REVIEWED
DISCLAIMER: We decided to research the topic of essential oils out of our curiosity about this growing industry and concerns about the use of these oils in children and expectant mothers. We have NOT received any form of compensation to review any of the companies on our list. Our list of essential oil companies was originally organized at random, with no correlation between the position of a company on our list and the laboratory results for their essential oil samples. We have since organized the companies alphabetically, to counter any assumptions about positioning being related to a ranking order. For those interested, here are the GC-MS test results from our collaboration with the Aromatic Plant Research Center (APRC).
With so many essential oil brands out there, it can be hard to find the right one for you. Instead of a top ten list of the best essential oil companies, we took an in-depth look into the industry by reviewing 11 well-known brands.
Our team spent over 600 hours of research; ordered, tested, and analyzed 33 essential oils; and collaborated with a group of experts who have dedicated their careers to researching and writing about essential oils.
After taking a deep dive into the industry, we understand that it can be nearly impossible to find the right brand of essential oil, especially with all the misconceptions and misinformation out there. That’s why our mission with this section is to arm you with the knowledge and know-how to navigate the industry and help you make the right decisions.
Améo Essential Oils is a product line of Zija International, a multilevel-marketing company based in Utah. Zija specializes in weight management and nutritional supplements as well as essential oil products for topical and internal use.
Peppermint, lavender, and tea tree essential oils from Zija. Claudia Rodríguez/Consumers Advocate
While the company sets high standards to ensure the quality of their products and seems genuinely committed to offering their farmers living wages and decent working conditions, we’re not too thrilled about the company’s business model.
Zija offers their members a loyalty rewards program that gives them discounts for recurrently purchasing products from the company. They also have a “distributor” program about which they offer little information.
Screen shot zijainternational.com June 12, 2019
The marketing materials they use to advertise their rewards and distributor programs employ ambiguous language that can be misleading for those who have little knowledge about how these types of companies operate.
To read more about our thoughts on multilevel-marketing companies, visit our Helpful Information section.
In our opinion, Zija could do more to warn consumers about the potential dangers of essential oil usage in children, pregnant women, and people with serious medical conditions. You can find some of this information on their FAQs page, but this section isn’t easy to access and offers few details when compared to the rest of their website.
The company does use a map key to let customers know which oils need to be used in conjunction with a carrier oil and offers suggested uses for each of their products, but these don’t come with additional safety warnings. For example, there’s nothing on their site warning consumers not to use citrus oils topically before sun exposure, which could result in serious burns.
Those interested in knowing the chemical constituents of their essential oils can look up the batch number on the bottom of their essential oil bottle and enter it in the search bar at the top right corner of the page titled “The Zija Difference.”
There, they’ll be able to see details like where the plant was harvested (with pictures), read about the tests performed on the product, and see a video explaining the effects of that particular essential oil on human cells, according to tests performed by the company.
Zija offers a good deal of information on their moringa plantations, stating they use a careful sourcing process that’s environmentally responsible. They also take the time to explain that the nutritional content of their moringa oleifera varies significantly depending on the area where it’s grown and how it’s harvested.
On the company’s website, you can hear short audio clips from company representatives discussing different aspects of “the Zija Difference.” One such clip by Dr. Joshua Plant states that the company recognizes the importance of sourcing from the right farms, but also goes to great lengths to support the farmers who grow the ingredients that go into their products.
Zija states they offer their farmers fair labor conditions and safe working environments and, because of their eco-friendly practices, they are also able to ensure their farms are ecologically sustainable.
For their moringa products, the company has invested in finding a genetically-pure species and growing the trees in nutritiously-dense soils without chemicals. The leaves, seeds, and fruit of each plant are then harvested by hand and shade-dried to ensure a high nutrient concentration.
Consumers can read all about the company’s shade-drying practices and learn how this process affects the chemical composition of the supplements they go into in the company’s “The Zija Difference” page.
QUALITY & TESTING
As for their essential oils, Zija states they use two methods of extraction: steam distillation and cold pressing. They also take care to explain that in order to produce quality essential oils they have to pay meticulous attention to every part of the extraction process, from the preparation of the plant materials to the time, temperature, and pressure the plants will be subject to inside the extraction chambers.
An informational video on the company’s website shows how their essential oils are harvested, dried, extracted, tested, and packaged to maintain high-quality standards throughout the entire process. Zija’s manufacturing facilities are FDA-certified for Good Manufacturing Practices as well as by the National Sanitation Foundation.
Screen shot zijainternational.com June 12, 2019
The company works with California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) and is in partnership with Pharmatech Labs, a state-of-the-art facility that employs Harvard-trained scientists. According to Zija, Pharmatec tests each batch of Améo Essential Oils to ensure they match the quality of those used in clinical and peer-reviewed scientific studies.
To confirm Zija’s claims about the purity of their oils and the thoroughness of their quality standards, we decided to test their peppermint, lavender, and tea tree oils through an independent lab. Améo Essential Oils tested negative for adulteration.
Zija’s website is not the most intuitive to navigate, as it’s designed to tell the company story as an interactive narrative. However, it is packed with detailed information about the company’s practices and processes, including videos on everything from their plant harvesting to the final product packaging.
We found Zija’s FAQ section to be quite comprehensive, but not so easy to access. The page addresses some of the most common consumer questions like the difference between their organic and non-organic oils, their recommended use, and other safety disclosures.
In our book, information regarding the use of essential oils on children, pets, pregnant women, and people with serious health conditions should be prominent on the page and explained in full. This is essential for consumer education and the best way to combat misinformation and keep customers from being taken advantage of by companies promising their products can cure illnesses and chronic conditions.
Zija also has a blog with articles on health and wellness. At first glance, it’s obvious that a lot more resources have gone into making that section of the web page both visually appealing and easy to navigate. We wish we could say the same about their FAQs page.
While the visual aspect of the blog can enhance the customer experience, we have to note that some of the articles published on that page endorse company products and aren’t really educational resources for consumers interested in learning more about essential oils.
AROMATICS INTERNATIONAL REVIEW
Aromatics International began in 2005 as an aromatherapy barn in upstate New York. Today, the company imports and exports essential oils directly from distillers and co-op distributors in over 60 countries. Once bought, the oils are thoroughly tested and kept in a dark, cold room at 60-65 degrees Fahrenheit.
The first thing we noticed upon entering the company’s website was that they use rather flowery language to market their products, calling their oils vibrant and alive, pure, beautifully perfect, clean, and magical. They also use terms like “100% therapeutic quality,” stating it’s a catch-all term for their essential oil philosophy.
The order received from Aromatics International. Claudia Rodríguez/Consumers Advocate
They classify their products as “certified organic,” which means the distiller is Certified Organic, “wildcrafted,” which means the distiller harvested plants that were growing wild and distilled them, and “unsprayed,” which means the distiller isn’t certified organic but is growing the plants without chemicals, herbicides or pesticides.
Aromatics International states they have “crafted” blends that are effective and safe to use as directed. We read through their product descriptions and found their blends are diluted in carrier oils, making them safe for topical use. They also advise consumers to further dilute their stock blends at a 1%, 2%, or 3% dilution.
A section of their website is dedicated to the safety and shelf life of their essential oil products. They state that, when used at a 1% dilution, their oils can be used on pregnant women and children over the age of 10. The company also recommends that customers do a patch test before applying the oils directly on a large area of skin.
Screenshot www.aromatics.com June 12, 2019
We were impressed by Aromatic International’s diligence in explaining how essential oils can affect young children and lactating mothers. Besides giving detailed instructions on how to dilute each oil, they also have a blog post in their “Aromatics Learning Corner” that provides additional information for parents, including tips on which oils to avoid and other potential health concerns for children.
When you browse the company’s essential oil products, you can switch between several tabs and read details such as the properties of the oil, suggested recipes, additional resources, specific safety information, the oil’s batch history, consumer reviews, and consumer questions with answers from the company.
Aromatics International imports essential oil products from small-scale distillers and producers across 60 different countries. They also harvest their own certified organic lavender and work with local farmers to produce hops, calendula flowers, arnica blossoms, St. John’s Wort blossoms, ponderosa pine needles, and yarrow.
The company declares its commitment to sustainable sourcing and teaching about this subject on their “Our Story” page. They further explain their partner producers are committed to replanting, selective harvesting, “permit-granted” harvesting, and other unstated measures to ensure the sustainability of the plants they use for their essential oils.
Of course, as a retailer, the company’s only way of ensuring sustainability is to be selective and, as they state, work with partners long enough to know they can be trusted. Aromatics also claims they go above and beyond to support their distillers’ efforts and projects but doesn’t provide further details.
QUALITY & TESTING
Aromatics International is very vocal about the expected shelf life and batch distillation dates of their essential oils and provides detailed information about the chemical constituents of each of their products through GC/MS results displayed on their product descriptions.
They also take the time to explain how the tests work and state they are of utmost importance as the precise chemical breakdown of each oil directly affects their therapeutic benefits and safety concerns.
Screenshot www.aromatics.com June 12, 2019
They further explain that adulterated oils or perfume oils won’t have the same therapeutic effects and could cause allergies, headaches, and other chemical sensitivities.
We tested three of the companies oils in-office as well as in an independent laboratory. The results came back from the lab without indicators of adulteration.
Aromatics International states they are committed to their local communities and involved in educational initiatives to inform the general public about the uses and benefits of aromatherapy and essential oils. Their website also provides sample recipes for their products, a blog with truly informative articles, and a “Learn” section with detailed information about their products and essential oils in general.
Additionally, the company endorses the Aromahead Institute, which offers online aromatherapy courses. The institute also provides a free introductory course that addresses the different uses of essential oils and their safety concerns and offers informative articles about the use of essential oils in children.
While the introductory course is free, their Aromatherapy Certification Program requires tuition. Still, they are certified by different regulatory organizations like the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy and the Alliance of International Aromatherapists, just to name a few.
ARTISAN AROMATICS REVIEW
Artisan Aromatics is a small boutique company that imports oils from mid-sized and small-scale distillers and suppliers from around the world. Although small in scale, the company states they are committed to producing oils in an environmentally and socially responsible manner.
Peppermint, lavender, and tea tree essential oils from Artisan Aromatics. Claudia Rodríguez/Consumers Advocate
Besides selling essential oils, hydrosols, natural perfumes, and related accessories, the company also offers a unique product called enfleurage oils. These oils are truly artisanal and handcrafted in small batches using traditional methods developed in the 18th and 19 centuries.
We were very impressed with Artisan Aromatic’s blog. Unlike other companies who only feature covert endorsements of their own products, Artisan publishes other informative articles that are actually enlightening, well-researched, and well-written.
Screenshot www.artisanaromatics.com June 17, 2019
On such article published in March deals with the “Safe and Effective Use of Essential Oils.” Written by the founder and former Assistant Professor of Neurosurgery, Joie Power, Ph.D., the post exposes predatory practices within the essential oil industry and warns consumers about the dangers of ingesting essential oils.
Besides the educational materials published on their blog, the company dedicated a section dedicated to explaining the different tests they perform on essential oils
Artisan doesn’t have a separate section that solely addresses their sustainable sourcing practices, yet throughout their website you can find details that prove the company’s commitment to sustainability.
For example, on their product description for sandalwood essential oil, the company states they’ve chosen to source this oil from Australia as opposed to India due to the devastation of sandalwood forest for essential oil production in that country.
Screenshot www.artisanaromatics.com June 17, 2019
Their blog also features an article on the three essential oils consumers should think twice about purchasing: Frankincense, Rosewood, and Sandalwood. The article explains there are certain species of these trees that are vulnerable, threatened or endangered and, as such, should not be harvested for essential oil production.
Unlike other companies we’ve looked into, Artisan Aromatics doesn’t sell essential oils as a lifestyle choice or trend to keep up with, but as an ancient practice with medicinal properties when used in the right context and for the right reasons.
QUALITY & TESTING
Artisan Aromatics states they have all of their essential oils GC/MS tested by independent labs to ensure their suppliers continue to meet their standards. However, because they order small batches of one pound of oil or less each week, it makes it hard to carry out GCMS testing on every batch.
Besides ordering in small batches to ensure freshness, the company also bottles their oils by hand after an order is placed. Despite their policy of bottling only after receiving orders, the company is still able to ship most orders within 2 days.
When we had the company’s oils tested by an independent lab, the results came back with adulteration markers for their lavender oil. For more information on our tests and what they mean, visit our Helpful Information section.
Despite their lavender oil coming back with indicators of adulteration, we admire the company’s transparency in admitting their current means doesn’t allow them to test each batch of oil they purchase on a weekly basis. This was among the few companies on our list that convinced us of their commitment to quality and customer service.
Artisan Aromatics is one of the few companies that take the time to inform consumers about the importance of understanding essential oils before purchase. In fact, as soon as you enter their website you’re greeted with a banner that explains that satisfaction with essential oils depends on choosing the right oil and using it properly.
Screenshot www.artisanaromatics.com June 17, 2019
They also acknowledge that, in order for consumers to make informed decisions, they need to be provided with complete information on the botanical sources of the oils they’re looking to purchase, suggestions for their best methods of use, precautions for safe use, and guidance from professional aromatherapists.
And these aren’t just empty words on the part of the company; we found that, out of all the companies we reviewed, Artisan Aromatics has the best selection of quality educational materials and resources to help their customers know exactly what they’re purchasing, where it comes from, and how to safely use it.
AURA CACIA REVIEW
Aura Cacia essential oils are sold through Frontier Co-op, a member-owned business supplying herbs and spices as well as natural and fair trade products in the United States. The co-op business model promotes equality and ensures fair wages for all members, it also allows members to have a voice when it comes to company decisions.
Tea tree, lavender, and peppermint essential oils from Aura Cacia. Claudia Rodríguez/Consumers Advocate
It’s quite refreshing to find businesses who are adopting business models that benefit all employees, not just owners and top-tier sales representatives. Aura Cacia appears to be one such company, setting high standards for sustainability and selling fair trade products that benefit the communities that produce them first and foremost.
Aura Cacia’s website has a detailed section on essential oil safety, including a dilution guide and other recommendations. Like other companies on our list, Frontier states essential oils are not safe for internal consumption, should be kept away from children, pets, pregnant women and lactating mothers, and that people with serious health conditions should consult a doctor before using them.
Screen shot auracacia.com June 12, 2019
Their “Explore Essential Oils” section has several articles on essential oil blending and the company’s featured products. They also have a section dedicated to child safety and kid-friendly activities involving essential oils.
Frontier Co-op has established Frontier Foundation and the Simply Organic Giving Fund, programs that are funding continuing scholarships for tuition assistance at the University of California Santa Cruz Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS).
CASFS aims to transform the way people grow and distribute food in a way that is sustainable and promotes social and environmental justice. Those interested in reading more about Frontier Co-op’s scholarship and its past recipients can do so one the company’s webpage.
Besides their efforts to change agriculture in the United States, the company is also part of the Well Earth Program, which seeks to find and develop ethical sources for high-quality botanical products. Member companies help improve the infrastructure and product quality of their suppliers while investing in community projects such as organic crop trials.
Screen shot auracacia.com June 12, 2019
As for essential oil sourcing, the company uses a global strategy to find botanicals where they grow naturally and buy products from growers who are committed to replanting. They work in partnership with other co-ops and women-owned enterprises that hand-pick their plant materials and have been in business for generations.
Frontier Co-op provides very specific examples of the measures they take to ensure their products are sustainably sourced. They state they have personally traveled to Bulgaria, Morocco, Madagascar, and Australia to meet their growers and help their communities directly.
They also state they were among the first companies to convert their supply of sandalwood from an endangered species in India to an Australian variant that is sustainably produced, regulated, and renewable.
A few more details we were impressed with were that the company monitors the carbon emissions directly related to its business, use mostly solar energy or natural gas and diesel, has implemented a number of green policies at its headquarters, and has a recycling and waste management program in all four of their facilities.
Screen shot auracacia.com June 12, 2019
QUALITY & TESTING
As we’ve mentioned before, we had three essential oils samples from each of the companies on our list tested for adulteration through an independent lab.
As it turns out, essential oil sourcing is hard to track, and there are distillers out there that have found ways to engineer chemical compounds that are so similar to the biological ones naturally found in plants that it’s almost impossible to detect adulteration.
The GC-MS test conducted by APRC detected synthetic markers in Aura Cacia’s lavender oil. If you’re interested in learning more about our test results, visit our Helpful Information section.
Although their website lacks the in-depth consumer education resources we’ve seen offered by other companies, we were impressed by Frontier Co-op’s business model and community initiatives. Among the companies we’ve reviewed, they have been one of the most vocal about the social and environmental impacts of the essential oil production.
Based in Pleasant Grove, Utah, doTERRA is one of the biggest players in the essential oils industry. Founded by a group of executives formerly employed by one of doTERRA’s top competitors, the group followed its former company’s lead and established themselves as a multi-level marketing operation.
Multi-level marketing relies on a non-salaried workforce (i.e. “Wellness Advocates” which currently number 2 million in doTERRA’s case) selling a company’s products or services.
Anyone can sign up to be a Wellness Advocate for a $35 fee, renewable at $25 after the first year—this includes a website, sales and promotional materials, and access to products at wholesale prices, or 25% less than retail.
Additionally, Wellness Advocates can earn bonuses and commissions for recruiting other members, paid up to seven levels down. Commissions depend on personal volume (PV), as well as the combined organizational volume (OV) for the Advocate’s team. However, Wellness Advocates may need to pay up to $100 a month to stay active in doTERRA and receive their commissions and bonuses.
QUALITY & TESTING
doTERRA makes the bold claim that its essential oils are the best on the market, tested according to “the strict CPTG Certified Pure Therapeutic Grade®” quality protocol—which the company itself invented, trademarked, and designed.
The truth is, there is no independent body that regulates or accredits the essential oils industry, though the International Organization for Standardization does specify what constitutes an essential oil.
Peppermint, lavender, and tea tree essential oils from doTerra. Claudia Rodríguez/Consumers Advocate
This isn’t to say that doTERRA essential oils are bad products—on the contrary, after we tested their oils ourselves through an independent lab, we found their oils were among the few on our list that came back without markers for adulteration.
doTERRA states that essential oils can be used aromatically, topically, and internally with no dilution (though they do mention that carrier oils should be used for initial topical applications, and that internal dosing should be carried out according to professional guidelines and/or label recommendations). The company also provides information on each oil’s mains constituents, which part of the plant the product is made from, and the collection method.
We do like that doTERRA includes a disclaimer informing consumers that their internal and topical use recommendations have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and that the product is not meant to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
However, wellness advocates and other non-company websites still make claims such as “Supports cardiovascular and nervous system health when consumed internally*.” These sorts of assertions landed doTerra in hot water as recently as 2014, when the FDA issued the company a warning letter for affiliates promoting their oils “for conditions that cause them to be drugs.”
doTERRA is currently venturing into healthcare too, establishing its Prime Meridian Clinics in Nashville, Phoenix, St. George, and Pleasant Grove. Prime Meridian’s goals are to provide “allopathic and holistic care, lower costs, ease of accessibility, and improved health outcomes.” The idea is to offer integrative healthcare, combining traditional medicine with holistic practices, including essential oils, nutritionists, acupuncturists, and chiropractors.
Screen shot doterra.com June 12, 2019.
doTERRA clearly states on its website that it sources its 100+ oils from more than 40 countries, more than half of which are in developmental stages.
Screen shot doterra.com June 12, 2019.
For this reason, the company has developed an initiative called Co-Impact Sourcing. The program aims to create sustainable jobs with reliable incomes, based on timely payments at fair prices. The company also encourages growers and harvester groups to form co-ops, for increased bargaining power. Through the Healing Hands Foundation®, doTERRA also supports developmental projects, including schools, infrastructure, and potable water systems.
One of the things we liked about doTERRA was the abundance of educational resources on its website for both consumers and sellers. They include a robust section on the company’s story, the possible uses of essential oils, and a Resources tab with several subsections such as blog, training, tools, events, and leadership.
Prospective customers can also obtain additional reading material in Spanish and Chinese beyond brochures or flyers, including magazines and ebooks. For their part, the company’s Wellness Advocates can gain access to doTERRA University, which focuses on tips for hosting product “trainings,” for potential customers, and on building a network of other members.
It is important to note, however, that we did notice that some of the information on their website is ambiguous, or frankly misleading, as in the case of the health claims that are prominently featured on each essential oil’s individual page. We also did not evaluate the quality or impartiality of the training materials provided by the company.
EDENS GARDEN REVIEW
Edens Gardens is not a multilevel-marketing company, meaning they sell directly to consumers. According to their website, the business was founded on the premise of giving people access to high-quality essential oils at affordable prices.
Edens also sells a number of other essential oil products, including blends, soap bars, perfumes, and salt soaks. They state all their products are non-toxic, cruelty-free, and tested for quality and purity. On a less positive note, they also claim their oils are “therapeutic grade,” a term we’ve found to be problematic in the course of our research.
Peppermint, lavender, and tea tree essential oils and packaging from Edens Garden. Claudia Rodríguez/Consumers Advocate
As we’ll discuss later on, the term therapeutic grade is one made up by essential oil companies and means their products meet their own standards of quality and purity. There is no unbiased source or regulatory entity that oversees the essential oil industry, which means companies can make up their own labels and market their products in ways that can be misleading to consumers who don’t know the difference.
Browsing through the free resources on the company’s website, we read a comment by a customer asking whether their essential oils could be ingested. Edens Garden replied that they only recommend the internal consumption of essential oils under the guidance of a licensed aromatherapist or medical practitioner.
Besides this tidbit, we found Edens Garden’s website devoid of a lot of safety information we think is important to share with customers. For example, the company sells essential oils that are purportedly safe for children 2+, yet they don’t make any safety disclaimers on the page or state how these products are different from other oils.
Their product descriptions do have a general disclaimer warning women who are pregnant, nursing or under a doctor’s care to consult a physician before using essential oils. They also state their oils should not be ingested, used undiluted on the skin, or applied over abrasions or broken skin.
There is little to no information about sustainable sourcing on Edens Garden’s website. Their “Intro to Essential Oils” talks about how an entire rose bush might only produce a single drop of essential oil during distillation, but doesn’t explain what they do to help replenish the plants their distillers harvest.
QUALITY & TESTING
For the most part, there is little information about Edens’ processes on their website. They do state, however, that the essential oils they source are “carefully distilled” and extracted from leaves, plants, seeds, roots, and resins. Their FAQs page further explains their oils are either steam distilled, cold pressed, or solvent extracted, taking care to explain what each one entails.
We purchased three of the companies oils and tested them in-house as well as through an independent lab. The results weren’t at all surprising to us given the lack of clear information about where Edens Gardens purchases their essential oils and how they ensure quality.
Screen shot edensgarden.com June 12, 2019
As it turns out, the lavender oil we purchased from the company came back from the lab with indicators of adulteration. To read more about these lab results, visit our Helpful Information section.
Edens Garden has a blog section on their website with informative articles and videos. Most of the articles we saw there addressed the different uses and benefits of essential oils and provided tips regarding skin care and how to choose between products.
We quickly noticed these articles were general in nature and not at all extensive. One, in particular, struck us as rather misleading due to its title: “How Essential Oils Help Tighten Your Skin and Fight Wrinkles.” The article itself talked about inflammation and even urged customers to use sunscreen, very general advice for an article with such a title.
MOUNTAIN ROSE HERBS REVIEW
Founded by herbalists, this small company started as a mail-order business in 1987 and opened their first brick-and-mortar store in Eugene, Oregon in 2016.
Today, Mountain Rose Herbs specializes in herbs & spices, teas, aromatherapy products, home goods, health, and bath & body products. They also produce their own extracts, elixirs, and syrups.
The company’s commitment to sustainability is unmistakable, boasting an impressive list of sustainable business practices. From fair trade and zero waste to packaging and energy efficient facilities, Mountain Rose Herbs is one of the two most sustainable companies on our list.
The packaging received from Mountain Rose Herbs is 100% recyclable. Claudia Rodríguez/Consumers Advocate
Regarding their essential oils, the company offers a large selection of certified organic and high-quality essential oils.
Besides labeling all of their essential oils “for external use only”, Mountain Rose Herbs doesn’t provide much information regarding the safety precautions of these concentrated chemical compounds.
We found a few articles about “How to Use Essential Oils Safely” on their blog and a short video explaining the basics of essential oils, but the company falls short on providing in-depth safety information about their oil products.
Consumers wanting to read more about the individual safety precautions of the oils they’re looking to purchase will have to make due with the two or three sentences regarding safety precautions (oil specific and general) on each of their product descriptions.
Mountain Rose Herbs commitment to working green is both admirable and impressive. The company has a Zero Waste Program, helps restore local ecosystems, installed 100 photovoltaic solar panels and an electric vehicle charging station, and became the first company in Oregon to achieve a Zero Waste Facility Information from the U.S. Zero Waste Business Council.
Also, since 2012, Mountain Rose Herbs has maintained a trade certification in accordance with the Fair for Life standard, a program to ensure human rights and fair working conditions are maintained at each stage of their supply chain.
But what about their essential oils? In a section called “Sourcing of Botanicals”, Mountain Rose Herbs discusses their criteria for purchasing botanicals, which includes looking for certified organic or pesticide-free plant products that are sustainably harvested.
However, the company fails to disclose information regarding the farms or countries where they source their essential oils. “From farm to bottle”, but where are these farms? This lack of transparency creates a problem, as it leaves consumers in the dark regarding important details about the company’s essential oil supply chain.
What’s more, Mountain Rose Herbs is one of the few companies on our list that don’t provide online access to GC/MS reports. Concerned customers must contact the company directly to receive that information.
QUALITY & TESTING
Mountain Rose Herbs has their own laboratory and quality control team that work closely with the American Herbal Products Association. They also have a section called “Quality from the Farm to You” where the company states that “before any herbal products are allowed in our facilities, we request a “pre-ship” sample for analysis. This sample is analyzed using organoleptic (sensory) and laboratory methods, and if approved, it is authorized for order.”
This statement is ambiguous at best, as it doesn’t provide any details beyond stating they analyze the samples using an organoleptic test, which means either visually analyzing, smelling, or applying the oil directly on the skin.
We’re not saying an organoleptic test isn’t valid, but it’s no substitute for the complex testing that should be carried out in a laboratory to truly ensure the purity of an essential oil—especially in an industry plagued with adulteration.
Mountain Rose Herbs sells 100% pure essential oils for aromatherapy purposes. To confirm it, we sent their peppermint, lavender, and tea tree oils to an independent lab to test for adulterations.
Both lavender and tea tree oils came back negative for any adulteration but addition of menthol, menthyl acetate, and Himalayan Cedarwood were detected in their peppermint oil.
Screen shot mountainroseherbs.com June 12, 2019
Mountain Rose’s blog features content on everything related to the company and its products. There, consumers can find information on a variety of topics, from recipes and herbalism to body care and beverages.
The company dedicates an entire segment of their web page to herbal education where they display a handpicked list of recommended teachers and schools. The company also organizes The Free Herbalism project, a community-based initiative that includes botanically inspired lectures and live music.
However, as with the safety precautions, the company lacks educational resources for consumers wanting to learn more about essential oils and their uses.
NOW has been in the natural products industry since 1968. Although they are better known for their nutritional products, the company has a comprehensive line of essential oils and aromatherapy kits.
Peppermint, lavender, and tea tree essential oils from NOW. Claudia Rodríguez/Consumers Advocate
NOW hasn’t invested a lot of resources on their essential oils page, perhaps due to their broad line of products. Their website is easy to navigate, however, and it does feature a few short articles on essential oils and general wellness.
The company doesn’t have a lot of information on essential oil safety on their website. We found one article on their resources page that supposedly addressed FAQs regarding this topic, but were dismayed to find they only answered three questions regarding essential oil use very superficially.
The company does have a page dedicated to material safety data sheets for all their essential oils, something we were pleased to find.
Screen shot nowfoods.com June 12, 2019
We couldn’t find any information on Now’s website about their efforts to ensure sustainable sourcing. Neither do they state exactly where their oils are produced or make many any attempts to inform customers about the importance of sustainability.
We did find an infographic about the company’s “Green Commitments.” It shows NOW has invested in energy-efficient lighting, recycled shipping boxes, a recycling program for both their solid waste as well as their e-waste, a water conservation program, and a solar energy system.
The company also received a LEED Silver Certification from the U.S. Green Building Council for one of their facilities in Sparks, Nevada.
QUALITY & TESTING
NOW has an article on their resources page that talks about why consumers should care about essential oil quality. Their post details how they purchased several different types of essential oils from a well-known online retailer and had them tested in their internal labs.
According to them, 12 out of the 18 oils they tested came out with markers of adulteration. While they don’t offer more details about the results of those tests, they take the opportunity to link back to their essential oils page and encourage consumers to purchase oils from a reputable brand with dedicated quality control methods.
Screen shot nowfoods.com June 12, 2019
While we agree that consumers should purchase oils from companies that are committed to quality assurance and essential oil safety, we have to point out some of the Now’s comments are rather one-dimensional.
You see, adulteration markers are hard to detect, and some suppliers have developed sophisticated ways of synthetically producing chemical compounds naturally found in essential oils. Moreover, it takes a lot of resources to have essential oils properly tested, and we know about that because we tried it ourselves.
We picked three NOW brand essential oils ordered directly from the company’s website and had them tested by an independent lab. As it turns out, their peppermint oil came back with addition of menthol and menthyl acetate, while their lavender oil came back with synthetic markers of linalyl acetate.
To read more about our tests and what they mean for you as a consumer, make sure to check out our Helpful Information section.
Although NOW does have a “NOWledge Center” we didn’t find any articles that were extensive or well-researched on the topic of essential oils.
PLANT THERAPY REVIEW
Plant Therapy brands itself as “a people first company,” devoted to its customers, employees, and the community. It also strives to bring quality essential oils from ethical, sustainable sources.
Plant Therapy’s colorful packaging. Claudia Rodríguez/Consumers Advocate.org
Their featured products include a KidSafe line, a Pup & Pony brand for dogs and horses, as well as large variety of blends and natural scents for the home.
Besides the company’s vast variety of products, another aspect that stood out to us was their affordable prices. However, as we’ve mentioned before, price doesn’t necessarily assure quality when it comes to essential oils.
One thing we liked about Plant Therapy is their collaboration with Robert Tisserand, one of the world’s leading experts in aromatherapy and founder of the Tisserand Institute.
Plant Therapy has an entire line of essential oils that have been developed especially for children aged 2-10. The KidSafe line is designed to help with a variety of issues or ailments that commonly occur during these years, such as congestion, ear infections, and common colds. The line was designed and is overseen by expert aromatherapist Robert Tisserand, which shows the company’s commitment to the safety of their consumers.
However, we spoke to several experts that don’t recommend the use of essential oils in children because there haven’t been enough studies to conclude oils are safe for this demographic. The scientific community agrees that further research is necessary.
The same thing applies to the company’s products for dogs and horses, Pup & Pony. This line includes essential oil blends to help dogs and horses deal with anxiety disorders, motion sickness, maintaining good health, and even dealing with being alone.
Screen shot planttherapy.com June 12, 2019
Preliminary research suggests that essential oils may have some benefits for dogs and many holistic veterinarians incorporate essential oils into their practice. However, more evidence is needed to safely conclude that essential oils are safe for dogs and horses.
Plant Therapy doesn’t recommend their oils for ingestion, except under the supervision of a medical doctor or aromatherapy expert, and they discuss this subject on their blog.
Additionally, each oil comes with a description, directions, test reports and the following disclaimer: “The International Federation of Aromatherapists does not recommend that Essential Oils be taken internally unless under the supervision of a Medical Doctor who is also qualified in clinical Aromatherapy. All cautions listed for individual oils do not include those cautions from ingestion.”
Although Plant Therapy claims their oils are sourced from ethical, sustainable sources, we were not able to find evidence to confirm these statements.
Each essential oil comes with a detailed product sheet. For example, their lavender oil description provides information about the botanical name, country of origin, extraction method, plant part, strength of aroma, safety precautions, and whether the oil is safe for children.
However, it’s worth noting that the specific details about the plant’s country of origin are not provided. In this example, their lavender essential oil could come from either Bulgaria, Spain, France, or Greece.
This lack of transparency creates a problem, as consumers don’t know exactly where their oils come from, how they are harvested, and the working conditions of the people who harvest them.
Screen shot planttherapy.com June 12, 2019
QUALITY & TESTING
Plant Therapy states that “purity and quality” are equally important and that they “test every single batch of oils for in-depth information on each chemical constituent with GC-MS testing, as well as evaluating each oil’s color, consistency, and general appearance to give you the most accurate information possible.”
Screen shot planttherapy.com June 12, 2019
Every bottle from Plant Therapy has a specific batch code, indicating the exact batch of oil that’s in the bottle. This batch information is directly linked to the testing reports for each oil. These test reports are public and consumers can see them by going to the essential oil’s product page and clicking on Test Reports.
Plant Therapy not only offers these third party GCMS reports, but all of the GCMS reports are signed by the chemist to ensure that no editing was done on these reports.
To confirm Plant Therapy’s claims about the purity and strict quality assurance of their oils, we picked three of their essential oils and sent them to an independent lab for a GC-MS test. As it turns out, two of their oils tested positive for adulteration. The lab results detected synthetic markers of linalyl acetate on their lavender oil and addition of menthol and menthyl acetate on their peppermint oil.
We have to give it to them, Plant Therapy really goes out of their way to provide their customers with valuable information. From videos and blog posts to essential oil guides, Plant Therapy’s website is filled with educational resources. The company values are present in all the content they publish, whether it’s their clean water project (Planting Kindness), their partnerships with universities or their charity events.
However, we must note that besides their collaboration with Robert Tisserand, they don’t do much to provide consumers with safety information about their oils. We feel Plant Therapy could do more to educate their customers about the safety risks of using essential oils as well as provide more details about their sourcing and testing procedures.
ROCKY MOUNTAIN OILS REVIEW
Another non-MLM company on our list is Rocky Mountain Oils, which sells fair trade-compliant and USDA organic essential oils and other nutritional products. It’s worth noting that not all their products meet these standards, yet the company does offer a good selection of organic and fair trade items.
Peppermint, lavender, and tea tree essential oils from Rocky Mountain Oils. Claudia Rodríguez/Consumers Advocate
While they’re not a multilevel-marketing company, Rocky Mountain does have an affiliate program that rewards influencers, writers, and bloggers for posting about the company’s products on social media.
Something we really liked about Rocky Mountain is that they have a whole section dedicated to the safe use of essential oils on children. They even have a chart that breaks down which oils are safe for kids of specific ages.
The company also states that when using essential oils on children, parents should do so sparingly and with extreme caution.
Screen shot rockymountainoils.com June 17, 2019
Rocky Mountain is one of the few companies on our list that explains in detail how to dilute oils for safe use. They even include instructions on how to safely dilute oils for use on children and provide this information on their individual product descriptions.
There is little to no information about sustainable sourcing on the company’s website. They do, however, use sustainable packaging and are among the first companies in the industry to start a bottle recycling program.
If you have empty essential oil bottles at home, from any company, you can send them to Rocky Mountain directly or look up a local glass recycling center on their website.
Recycled packaging from our order of Rocky Mountain Oils. Claudia Rodríguez/Consumers Advocate
When we ordered three essential oils from Rocky Mountain we did indeed receive our oils safely enclosed in sustainable packaging. This was the only essential oils company we ordered from that delivered their products to us in recycled paper and cardboard.
QUALITY & TESTING
Rocky Mountain states they purchase essential oil products from suppliers that meet their “stringent product quality guidelines.” They test hundreds of samples from their suppliers before purchase, ensuring none of their oils have adulterants, contaminants, diluents or synthetics. They then test the oils once more after purchase to ensure quality and purity.
Unlike other companies, Rocky Mountain offers detailed information about their process, from how the plant materials are sourced to how the essential oils are bottled. Like other companies, they also make the results of their GC/MS testing available online for prospective customers to view while browsing through their product descriptions.
As we’ve mentioned in other reviews, we ordered three bottles of essential oils from Rocky Mountain and had them tested in-house as well as by an independent lab. Addition of menthol and menthyl acetates were detected in Rocky Mountain’s peppermint oil.
To read more about our tests and their results, visit our Helpful Information section.
Rocky Mountain has a “Learn” section on their website with different resources for those interested in learning about essential oils. The page is easy to navigate and features four sections on the basics of essential oils, health and wellness tips, natural cleaning solutions, and advice on holistic beauty, all of which endorse the company’s products.
Their blog, however, is a much more informative and offers articles on essential oil safety in children. There are also a number of other articles dealing with the benefits of particular essential oils and their uses as household cleaners, health remedies, and even aphrodisiacs.
WHAT HAPPENED TO OUR YOUNG LIVING ESSENTIAL OILS REVIEW?
ConsumersAdvocate.org was threatened with a lawsuit in connection with certain content that appeared on this website between June 12th and July 2nd, 2019. ConsumersAdvocate.org believes that the threat contained allegations that merit a thorough investigation. While we conduct said investigation, the relevant content has been removed from the website. We will update this page as soon as it is practical.
ConsumersAdvocate.org remains confident in its testing methodology and has no plans to remove additional content from the website at this time. If you have further questions or concerns, please contact us at email@example.com.
Last Updated: July 10, 2019
FURTHER INSIGHT INTO OUR METHODOLOGY
When we first decided to write about essential oils, we didn’t really know what we were getting into. As complex chemical substances, essential oils aren’t your average product, but they are present in almost everything we purchase. From bath and body products to cosmetics and even sodas, essential oils are part of our daily lives.
As we dug deeper into the subject of essential oils, researching their health benefits and risks, learning about aromatherapy practices, and talking to experts in the field, we discovered that the essential oil industry itself is plagued with misinformation and dangerous practices.
That’s when our focus shifted from comparing the best essential oils to finding the best way to educate consumers on two of the most important issues regarding the essential oils industry: safety and sourcing.
“Are essential oils safe?” and “where do my essential oils come from?” became the two most important questions we needed to answer to help consumers understand the reality of this industry.
What’s more, we learned that quality reports and testing are key factors in determining a company’s commitment to transparency and the well-being of the communities they serve.
To that end, we decided to purchase three commonly used oils—lavender, peppermint, and tea tree—from 11 different providers to test them in-office as well as the independent labs of the Aromatic Plant Research Center (APRC) in Utah.
Consumer education was the last factor we deemed of the utmost importance when comparing essential oil companies. We checked whether each company provided resources to educate the general public about how and when to use the oils and if they had blogs or herbal education catalogs. We also combed through consumer reviews available on each company’s website as well as independent consumer review sites.
If you are wondering why we didn’t consider pricing as a factor, the fact of the matter is that we didn’t find a correlation between the price tag and quality of the oils during our testing process.
In our experience, just because an essential oil is pricier doesn’t mean it’s of better quality. On the other hand, we urge consumers to watch out for oils that have an unusually low price, as this could mean they’re diluted or adulterated.
Results from our strategy session. Claudia Rodríguez/ConsumersAdvocate
QUALITY & TESTING
Every bottle of essential oil is different, even if they’re the same kind of oil from the same company. That’s because no two plants are exactly the same, even those that share a name or belong to the same species.
There are many factors that affect the quality of essential oils. And quality, in turn, affects the therapeutic value of the oil and, thus, your overall satisfaction with it. That’s why you want an essential oil that contains only the extract of the plant it advertises.
“Everything in the environment—soil quality, altitude, rainfall, harvesting methods, etc.—affects the characteristics and quality of an essential oil.”
– Linda Halcón
According to the American College of Healthcare Sciences, the quality of an essential oil may be compromised depending on the season, year, climate, location, as well as its extraction process and storage.
Essential oils are sourced from all over the world, and as a consumer, you won’t have access to the inner workings of the farmer-supplier relationship, which makes finding high-quality oils a bit tricky.
As you’ve probably seen or heard, many companies talk about the “purity” of their essential oils. But what exactly does that mean? Similar to quality standards, there is no official entity or authority that oversees or regulates essential oil purity. That means that even oils that are labeled as 100% pure might be adulterated and can be harmful to our health.
Furthermore, there are no quality control standards for essential oils in the United States, so it’s vital that companies provide online quality reports and perform at least two tests on their oils: gas chromatography and mass spectrometry, also known as GC-MS. We’ll explain these two tests in greater detail later on.
All the companies in our list provide online access to their GC-MS tests. However, these results aren’t easy to understand without a background in chemical science. To test our oil samples for purity, we decided to hire an independent lab to perform a GC-MS test on them and help us interpret the results.
Using a list of the most commonly used essential oils by the National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA), we chose lavender, peppermint, and tea tree as our oils of choice.
We ordered each one from our list of 11 companies, as well as 33 unmarked amber bottles and pipettes, and once they were in the office, reached out to the Aromatic Plant Research Center (APRC) in Utah to test them. The lab’s incredible team of scientists conducted a GC-MS test to spot any adulterations.
APRC sample submission sheets. Claudia Rodríguez/Consumers Advocate
Five business days later, the results were in and our jaws dropped as we learned that 6 out of the 11 lavender oils and 4 out of the 11 peppermint oils tested positive for adulterations. Tea tree did not result in any adulterations, as the chemical composition of the oil makes it more challenging to detect them, said APRC.
Now that we had the results, our new challenge was finding the simplest way to explain them to consumers like you. And if you remember your high school years, there is nothing simple about chemistry.
Our next step was to talk to the lab and interview the team of scientists that conducted the tests to help us interpret them. It wasn’t easy, and it took several meetings, but the results are readily available in our Helpful Information section under Testing.
Besides sending the oils to a third-party lab, we also performed organoleptic testing in the office, which means we used our senses to evaluate the oils. In this case, we conducted a blind smell test and a patch test on volunteers from our content team. The results varied, but we gained first-hand experience and gathered data for further analysis.
Our team conducts the blind smell test. Claudia Rodríguez/Consumers Advocate
After going through the entire process of ordering and testing the oils, and analyzing the results, it’s safe to say that assessing the quality of an essential oil is not an easy task and requires effort as well as resources. Hiring an independent lab to test your essential oils before using them isn’t something the average consumer could easily do or afford.
We believe consumers shouldn’t have to go through this ordeal to ensure their oils are what their provider’s say that they are. The good thing is that now we know that’s how the cookie crumbles in the essential oil industry. Our advice is not to trust everything you hear or read (especially the label) but instead talk directly with the suppliers and ask as many questions as you need.
Find out more about the Quality and Testing of essential oils in our Helpful Information section.
When it comes to essential oils, it’s important to make educated decisions, that’s why consumer education is our last factor, but it’s definitely not the least important. In our experience, consumer education is synonymous with consumer protection.
Apart from readily available quality reports and test results, consumer education should entail a company’s commitment to transparency and safety. However, as we’ve seen with other factors, the essential oil industry is not as transparent as you would imagine.
Consumers should be aware of what they are inhaling, putting on their skin, or ingesting—although specialists recommend only using essential oils internally under the guidance of a knowledgeable health professional.
From blog posts and articles to charts and videos, most of the companies on our list go out of their way to feature a wide variety of educational content. Some companies offer wellness tips, while others have entire series on the safety of essential oils as well as recipes and platforms where consumers can interact with guest aromatherapists or essential oil practitioners.
Besides the information provided by the companies, we urge consumers to make use of the wonders of the internet and seek out free aromatherapy courses or essential oil classes.
The Tisserand Institute is an excellent resource for learning the basics of essential oils and essential oil safety. Its founder, Robert Tisserand, has been a leading expert in the field of essential oils and aromatherapy for over 40 years. The institute’s online courses include the “Therapeutic Foundations of Essential Oils” and “The Complete Skin Series.” They also have a free mini course on How Essential Oils Work on the Body.
The Alliance of International Aromatherapists is also a valuable resource dedicated to the education of aromatherapists, health care, and the public in all aspects of aromatherapy.
“What is the future of essential oils? In health care, I think the field is going to explode as more and more providers get factual information and the research expands.”
An essential oil is first and foremost a chemical compound. Even though people associate oils with natural ingredients and think they might be safe for external use in all scenarios, the truth is that essential oils are derived from plant matter, and many plants contain organic compounds that can be toxic, irritating or cause allergic reactions when applied to the skin.
Like supplements, essential oils are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, which means the companies that sell them don’t need the approval from FDA before marketing and selling them to consumers in the United States. Instead, the FDA considers essential oils as either cosmetics or drugs, depending on their intended use.
The problem with this is that it creates a gray area where companies can use misleading terminology or different names for the same thing. Some companies, for example, can advertise their oils as being safe to ingest, while others advise against it, creating a safety risk for consumers with little knowledge on the subject.
Our list of companies includes both groups. Why? Because our goal is to help you navigate the industry by sharing our knowledge and experience, whether positive or negative.
We want you to see the whole picture, including the potential risks of improper essential oil usage, the false claims and deceptive business practices adopted by some industry leaders, and any reliable scientific evidence that points towards the health benefits of using essential oils.
You might be inclined to purchase oils from some of the biggest names in the industry, or maybe you prefer a local, organic farm that sources and produces the oils themselves. In either case, it’s crucial that you consider the safety precautions of each oil before purchasing it.
Some companies dedicate entire webpages to the safe and effective use of essential oils or publish safety guidelines that include dilution rates and child, pet or diffusion safety tips, while others limit themselves to giving general warnings like: “Possible skin sensitivity. Keep out of the reach of children. If you are pregnant, nursing, or under a doctor’s care, consult your physician. Avoid contact with eyes, inner ears, and sensitive areas.”
Either way, we recommend that you go with a company that’s transparent and clear about the safety of their oils, as your wellbeing and that of your pets and family could depend on it.
Read more about the Safety of essential oils in the Helpful Information section
As the use of essential oils becomes more widespread, the environmental impact of essential oils is another crucial factor worth taking into account. A large number of plants used to produce essential oils are considered endangered, while others are increasingly overharvested.
“Some of the plants used to source essential oils are in danger and probably not sustainable. I worry most about hardwood trees like sandalwood, frankincense, myrrh, and rosewood. Pressure from the essential oil industry greatly affects present and future sustainability.”
-Linda Halcón, Ph.D., MPH, RN, and Associate Professor Emerita at the University of Minnesota
According to Earth Island Journal, in order to produce a single pound of essential oils, enormous quantities of plants are required: 10,000 pounds of rose petals, 250 pounds of lavender, and 1,500 lemons, to give just a few examples.
In light of this, it’s important to understand how these plants are farmed. While many manufacturers make it a priority to use sustainable farming practices to harvest their plants, other companies may source their plant material in a way that seriously threatens the biodiversity of our ecosystem.
What’s more, some of the biggest names in the industry have been found guilty of illegally trafficking essential oil ingredients.
We looked at both environmentally responsible companies as well as those that have adopted harmful ecological practices and investigated their sourcing methods and sustainability policies. We also examined other eco-friendly business practices such as sustainable packaging and recycle and reuse programs.
Lastly, we were also concerned about each company’s ethical commitments, so we considered fair trade certifications or other initiatives that ensure living wages and community benefits for small-scale farmers and their families.
We encourage our readers to consider the sustainability and ethical practices of the companies from which they’re buying. Just because a company is large and well-known doesn’t mean they implement ethical or sustainable business practices or treat farmers with the respect they deserve.
Read more about the Sustainable Sourcing of essential oils in our Helpful Information section.
HELPFUL INFORMATION ABOUT ESSENTIAL OILS
It seems like essential oils are everywhere these days, but this isn’t just a fad. As it turns out, aromatic oils have been used since the beginning of recorded history. Aromatic plants in the forms of oils and incense were elements of religious and therapeutic practices in early cultures worldwide.
The Egyptians were using aromatic plants to make ointments and herbal concoctions—medicines, perfumes, and resins—as far back as 4500BC, while in China, the first use of aromatic plants was recorded around 2697BC.
By 1653, the English herbalist, physician, and astrologist Nicholas Culpeper had written The Complete Herbal, considered to be one of the most comprehensive resources on pharmaceutical and herbal knowledge. It is also worth mentioning that Culpeper had a significant role in making medicine more accessible by translating medical books from Latin into English.
Centuries later, essential oils continue to captivate a huge global audience. In the last few years, essential oils have become synonymous with healthy living, making it one of the fastest growing industries. According to Market Watch, due to the increasing customer demand, it is anticipated that essential oil consumption will hit 350-kilo tons by 2024.
But what does that mean? Do essential oils really do what they claim to? What are their health benefits? Are they safe? And most importantly, is harvesting such a large number of plants sustainable in a changing planet?
To help answer these and many other questions, our team spent over 600 hours of research; ordered, tested, and analyzed 33 essential oils; and collaborated with a group of experts who have dedicated their careers to researching and writing about essential oils.
After taking a deep dive into the industry, we understand that it can be nearly impossible to find the right brand of essential oil, especially with all the misconceptions and misinformation out there. That’s why our mission with this section is to arm you with the knowledge and know-how to navigate the industry and help you make the right decisions.
THE SCIENCE BEHIND ESSENTIAL OILS
“Essential oils are concentrated chemical substances obtained through distillation or expression of plants or parts of plants,” says Linda Halcón, Ph.D., MPH, RN, and Associate Professor Emerita at the University of Minnesota. These substances may be found in the roots, flowers, stems, leaves, or fruits of the plants that produce them—which not all of them do.
Called “essential” because they are the essence or extract of the plant’s aroma, essential oils (EOs) are produced as part of the plant’s immune system in response to stress, disease or to protect them against environmental threats.
In nature, essential oils are responsible for attracting pollinators and facilitating the reproduction of the vegetal species. However, at first glance, essential oils take on a simpler role in the human body: making us feel good.
But there’s more!
REPORTED BENEFITS OF ESSENTIAL OILS
“The health benefits of essential oils are manifold,” says Gerhard Buchbauer, Ph.D., a Professor of pharmaceutical chemistry at the University of Vienna and author of The Handbook of Essential Oils: Science, Technology & Applications. “A lot of medicinal properties are corroborated by cell-culture studies, in animal experiments, and in human studies as well,” he added.
The therapeutic use of essential oils is known as aromatherapy, defined as the art and science of using essential oils to relax, balance, and stimulate the body, mind, and spirit. Every oil has its distinct aroma, and whether massaged into the skin (always diluted) or inhaled, the oils natural constituents can affect everything from the skin to the muscles and organs.
Applied topically, some essential oils may help with arthritis, inflammation, eczema, or in the case of tea tree oil, it can be used as an antibacterial for small cuts or scrapes, as well as an antifungal. Massaging the area before application or using heat to improve circulation increases absorption through the skin.
Also, by penetrating the skin, the compounds interact with blood and lymph vessels, connective tissue, sebaceous glands, and hair follicles. A study about the absorbency of Lavender oil found that its two main constituents remained in a single male test subject for 90 minutes following a lavender massage. The study also mentions that absorption patterns on humans have not been widely studied and that further research is needed.
When inhaled, essential oils have been proven to activate the different parts of the brain that modulate mood, emotions, cognition, and behavior.
“Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) is famous for its calming, stress-relieving, easily sedating, anxious relieving properties,” said Dr. Buchbauer, while Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus, E. radiata, or E. smithii) has been known to relieve coughs when inhaled and peppermint (Mentha x piperita) reduces fatigue or nausea.
In cancer patients, aromatherapy is used as supportive care for general well-being, and Several clinical trials involving patients with cancer have been published.
What’s more, besides the physical, mental, and emotional benefits, diffusing essential oils can protect us from airborne bacteria. This approach has been so effective that many hospitals are now diffusing essential oils to protect patients and workers.
That’s the case in Minnesota, where essential oils have found the way into healthcare with the growing acceptance and popularity of Integrative Nursing. We spoke to Linda Halcón PhD, MPH, RN, and Associate Professor Emerita at the School of Nursing in the University of Minnesota who said, “Here in Minnesota, I think all the hospitals and most of the nursing homes in the Twin Cities area have an aromatherapy program. Usually they are a part of nursing practice and are used for symptom management when a patient has pain, nausea, sleep disturbances, anxiety, symptoms of depression, and to promote relaxation and feelings of wellbeing.”
“Those are the major ways that essential oils are used in hospitals here. They are also used to an extent in the practice of medicine, and I think there is tremendous potential for expanded medical applications,” she added.
A range of essential oils have been found to have antimicrobial activities as well as antiviral, antifungal, and antioxidant properties, that’s why essential oils make great non-toxic green cleaning ingredients for DIY cleaning sprays, hand sanitizers, and insect repellents.
Additionally, some essential oils are a great addition to the kitchen.
“In many kitchens, essential oils are used to flavor the dishes. For example, in the French kitchen, one often uses some drops of lavender essential oil, or the Scottish kitchen knows roast lamb in mint sauce,” said Dr. Buchbauer.
Remember to verify the cautions and contraindications for the oil and dilute thoroughly with a carrier oil such as olive, almond, or coconut oil. Check out the U.S. Food and Administration Generally Recognized as Safe list (GRAS) for oils that can be used in very minimal amounts in cooking.
Apart from the long list of studies on the virtues of essential oils, the lack of education and proper use can create serious health risks. After all, essential oils are highly concentrated plant substances.
“Essential oils are natural products; therefore they possess beneficial as well as disadvantageous properties, a fact that belongs to nature,” said Dr. Buchbauer. “However, in most cases, it is a dose-problem,” he added.
There remains the big question whether essential oils are safe to consume and some companies still recommend some of their oils for ingestion, but the bottom line is that the misuse of essential oils can cause serious poisoning.
Internal use or ingesting of essential oils pose the highest risk and should only be done under the supervision of someone specifically trained in the use of internal oils. Also, children under six years old and pregnant women should not ingest essential oils.
It’s important to ask yourself if oral administration is necessary before deciding to ingest an essential oil. Once you’ve come to a decision, you must consider three things: dose, concentration, and duration.
Toxicity or poisoning is often the result of using a dose much higher than the therapeutic dose or recommended daily dose.
According to Dr. Buchbauer, the most reported symptoms of toxicity are:
- Indisposition by smelling the fragrance
- Stomach-ache or other digestive problems
- Chemical burns of the mucous membranes
- Skin irritations
- Allergic reactions
But also, severe intoxications with babies and children are known. “The so-called Kretschmar reflex, when a strong smell causes the baby to stop breathing (sudden child death),” he added. (Read more about Children and Essential Oils below)
Common & Dangerous Essential Oil Mistakes
The main problem continues to be regulation. Few oils have been tested as medications have and each person can have varying reactions to essential oils, as they might have with other drugs or products. Then add to it the fact that no regulation means that it’s hard to know the exact ingredients in an essential oil bottle.
As we mentioned earlier, eucalyptus can be used for its soothing effects when inhaled, but if swallowed, can cause seizures. The same thing has happened with sage oil, which has caused seizures in children. Camphor is so dangerous when swallowed that seizures can begin within minutes. Not only that, camphor poisoning has occurred when applied topically to children.
According to the American College of Healthcare Sciences, there are three common and dangerous mistakes when using essential oils.
1. Using Photosensitive Oils in the Sun
Ana was a brand-new mom who after a few months of recovering from her c-section, decided to go to the beach for some fun in the sun. As an essential oil enthusiast, Ana took her lemon essential oil to the beach and decided to apply the oil directly on her scar (without any carrier oil) to help the healing process. After a few hours, she developed second-degree burns on her stomach. The injuries occurred because she applied a photosensitive oil on her skin and was exposed to sunlight.
Photosensitive oils usually contain furocoumarins, which cause severe burns and increase your risk of skin cancer when your skin is exposed to UV light or sunlight.
It’s worth noting that expressed citrus essential oils—not steam distilled citrus oils—cause photosensitivity. Make sure to read the bottle before application, as most essential bottles state whether they are oil expressed or steam distilled. If you are not sure, we recommend that you avoid sunlight or UV light after applying.
2. Incorrect Application
As we mentioned above in our Potential Risks section, certain essential oils can cause skin irritation when used in too high concentration. If you have highly sensitive skin, try a skin patch test before applying the oil, and always dilute the oil.
The irritation caused by an essential oil having direct contact with the skin is localized and does not affect the immune system. If your skin gets irritated, remove the oil using a base oil or full-fat milk (at least 2%). You can also use tepid water, but it’s not as effective as oil or milk.
There are three important factors when considering essential oil applications: dilution ratio, recommended daily dosages, and duration guidelines. If you have any questions, conduct a skin patch test.
Inhalation is the safest way of using essential oils and is also the fastest way to get essential oils into your bloodstream. Remember to use the oils with caution, even when diffusing.
When diffusing essential oils, always:
- Diffuse in a well-ventilated area
- Diffuse in 30-minute intervals and take regular breaks
- Make sure pets have the option to leave the room if they don’t like the aromas (Read more below for a detailed discussion of Pets and Essential Oils)
- Follow the dilution guidelines stated below
3. Ignoring Contraindications & General Safety Recommendations
We cannot stress this enough: ignoring or disregarding basic essential oil safety information can be one of the most dangerous mistakes to make with essential oils.
Essential oils can react with prescription drugs and supplements and they can cause adverse reactions when used in excess. They also behave differently with each person, so it’s imperative to educate yourself in the cautions and contraindications of essential oils.
Always keep your oils out of reach of children. We suggest purchasing childproof essential oils lids and a child lock for your essential oil cabinet.
IF SOMEONE SWALLOWS AN ESSENTIAL OIL, OR A PRODUCT CONTAINING ESSENTIAL OILS USE THE WEB POISON CONTROL ONLINE TOOL FOR GUIDANCE OR CALL POISON CONTROL AT 1-800-222-1222 RIGHT AWAY.
PREGNANCY AND ESSENTIAL OILS
Whether through midwives or lore passed down through generations, essential oils have played an important role in women’s healthcare for centuries.
Science, however, still has some catching up to do.
While there’s relatively little conclusive evidence, most experts recommend that pregnant women avoid using essential oils during the first trimester.
Once that crucial period has ended, many pregnant women can indeed benefit from aromatherapy or massage using diluted essential oils like lavender and ylang-ylang, which can help to alleviate nausea and anxiety.
It’s important to remember that these should never be ingested, especially by pregnant women or children.
However, not all essential oils are safe to use during pregnancy or even while breastfeeding. The National Associate of Holistic Aromatherapists recommend that pregnant women stay away from the following oils:
|Essential Oils to Avoid During Pregnancy|
|Basil ct. estragole|
|Parsley seed or leaf|
|*Note that this is not the same as Ho Wood/Ho Leaf chemotype Linalool (Cinnamomum camphora ct. Linalool), which has no known contraindications.|
Clary sage, in particular, has been rumored to cause contractions, and a pilot study was conducted showing some potential for clary sage to increase oxytocin, which in turn has the potential to induce contractions.
The study was inconclusive, however, and the National Association of Holistic Aromatherapists indicates that there have been no recorded cases of miscarriage or birth defect resulting from therapeutic uses of these oils.
Having said that, most aromatherapists still consider it safer to avoid the use of clary sage until it’s time for delivery.
There’s another reason for caution. The International Federation of Professional Aromatherapists’ guidelines for pregnancy, urge caution when using essential oils on pregnant women as “the quality of many essential oils provided to clients or therapists are doubtful.”
Many aromatherapists’ associations also advise against the use of oils containing phenols, a naturally occurring chemical compound that can serve to fight infections but can also be highly irritant to sensitive skin. These oils include: oregano, thyme, clove, cinnamon, cumin, aniseed, fennel, anise star, sweet birch, and wintergreen.
Other studies have shown that those essential oils that are considered safe can indeed benefit women during pregnancy, labor, and delivery. Many believe that, because stress can exacerbate pain, lowering stress levels during labor and delivery can help women cope with the pain much better.
Studies have shown that some essences – especially lavender – can help do exactly that. For example, in a study conducted in 2018 and involving 110 women, researchers found that smelling Rosa Damascena oil while in labor significantly lowered the intensity of pain and anxiety.
The study concluded that this particular oil could be considered a “convenient and effective method for pain and anxiety reduction during the first stage of labor.”
A single-blind trial found that smelling lavender oil reduced post-cesarean section pain, while a triple-blind randomized trial confirmed the results and indicated that the group that received lavender reported “a 90% satisfaction rate with their treatment, compared to 50% in the placebo group.”
Lavender’s benefits extend beyond the delivery room as well. It can also help with post-episiotomy redness and inflammation. It has also been found to help new mothers sleep better.
A study conducted by the National Institutes of Health showed that smelling orange essential oil could reduce anxiety during labor.
As with everything else, it’s important to check with your midwife and/or doctor before using any type of supplement, including essential oil. Because the quality of the oils cannot be guaranteed, it’s also important to use high-quality oils that have been tested and were found free from adulterations.
ESSENTIAL OILS & CHILDREN
Many parents swear by the benefits of essential oils for a variety of reasons. Whether using camphor and eucalyptus for their children’s chest cold, tea tree oil as an alternative to prescription antibiotics, or lavender as a way to help tame their anxiety, the list of possible uses grows every day.
However, as their use grows, the potential for misuse does as well. In 2016, the Tennessee Poison Center at Vanderbilt University reported that cases of poisoning involving essential oils doubled, and 80 percent of these cases involved children. Most cases involved accidental ingestion, although topical use can sometimes be dangerous as well.
Children, because of their thinner skin and their not yet fully developed livers, are more vulnerable to the toxic effects of oils than adults are. Several of the most commonly used oils – camphor, clove, lavender, eucalyptus, thyme, tea tree, and wintergreen – are extremely toxic if ingested. They can cause anything from agitation and hallucinations to liver failure, seizures, and even death.
This makes it supremely important that parents keep their essential oils far away from children (and pets) as possible and to never use them on babies without your health care providers’ knowledge and supervision.
There are plenty of studies showing that these oils are effective for some health concerns. For example, tea tree oil has indeed been found to be potently antimicrobial and antibacterial; however, it is also extremely harmful if ingested and highly irritating if used topically and undiluted.
Additionally, due to the lack of regulation and oversight into what goes into these products, and the potential for overdosing, especially when it comes to a child’s sensitive system, it’s best to tread carefully.
The fact is that the science about essential oils and children specifically, however, remains inconclusive.
One of the most alarming and often cited allegations about essential oil safety in children stems from a medical journal article that reported three cases of pre-pubescent boys who developed breasts (gynecomastia) while using skin and hair products that contained essential oils (lavender and, in one case, tea tree). The article goes on to say that the gynecomastia resolved itself a few months after they stopped using the products in question.
Although the article’s conclusions have been widely disseminated, the actual findings were extremely limited. Three case studies may suggest that research is called for, but they do not constitute evidence. No other ingredients of the products themselves or their containers were tested for endocrine effects. There were no details given as to the dose or purity of the essential oils contained in the products.
The article links the resolution of the gynecomastia to the boys having stopped the products; however, experts say that gynecomastia can resolve itself without treatment in a matter of months. While the same authors also laboratory tested lavender and tea tree oils and found them to be “weakly estrogenic”, that is, that they somewhat mimic estrogen’s effect on the body, an animal study published in the International Journal of Toxicology disagreed with that assessment.
So, while essential oils can certainly pose a risk to children and the above article suggests a need for more research in children, conclusive evidence as to their effects is still very much lacking.
A WORD ON WINTERGREEN
As shown in the tables below, most experts advise against the use of wintergreen on almost all children under 16. It should also be avoided by women in any stage of pregnancy, as it can easily cross the placental barrier.
Wintergreen oil (Gaultheria fragrantissima or Gaultheria procumbens) is 96-97% composed of methyl salicylate, a chemical compound very similar to aspirin. Like aspirin, it is used as an anti-inflammatory and pain reliever and is often a component in pain relief balms and massage oils.
In its very diluted form, it is also found in many popular types of mouthwash and, most worryingly, in teething gels for infants. Wintergreen is a more potent blood thinner than aspirin, and should also be avoided by people who use prescription blood thinners.
Unfortunately, wintergreen ingestion can be fatal even for adults, and even too large a dose applied topically to a child can prove to be extremely hazardous. It’s important to note that, if there are children younger than 16 or pregnant women in the household, you should choose creams, balms, teething gels, and/or mouthwashes that are completely free of wintergreen oil.
ESSENTIAL OILS & YOUR PETS
In the search for natural alternatives to store-bought flea repellents or prescription anxiety medication, an increasing number of pet owners have added essential oil products into their pet care routine.
This approach has been recommended by many holistic doctors and well-known animal rights organizations, for example, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). In fact, PETA advises pet owners add “rosemary, peppermint, eucalyptus, tea tree, and citronella to a cup of water” and spray it on a dog’s fur to combat fleas.
However, most experts agree, almost all these oils can be toxic to your pet, especially when applied topically or ingested (which a dog is likely to do if it’s sprayed on their fur).
While PETA recommends that owners dilute these with water, ultimately dosage depends on the weight of the animal and accidentally high doses of certain oils – especially tea tree – can prove to be life-threatening.
Many essential oils are metabolized through the liver, and while adult humans have the enzymes required to process small amounts, most domestic animals do not. Cats are especially vulnerable, as they lack the enzymes needed to metabolize most of these oils, especially when applied topically or ingested. But problems can arise from even indirect contact.
Diffusing essential oils, while recommended by some holistic vets as a good way to ease anxiety, can also be problematic, especially if using a nebulizer instead of a diffuser. Unlike diffusers, nebulizers actually emit microdroplets of pure oil into the air. These microdroplets can end up on your pet’s fur, where they can be absorbed into the body or licked and ingested.
While this doesn’t mean you should never use a diffuser, make sure to do so a well-ventilated area, where pets are free to come and go.
It’s also important to note that, due to their delicate respiratory tract, birds are especially vulnerable to airborne particles. If you do have pet birds, make sure to never use a diffuser or nebulizer around them.
TESTING: OUR COLLABORATION WITH APRC
During our research, we learned that assessing the quality of an essential oil is not an easy task for the average consumer. Besides simple organoleptic tests such as smell tests or patch tests, we didn’t have a way of truly proving the quality of our oil brands without sending them to a professional lab.
That’s when we found the Aromatic Plant Research Center (APRC), a scientific organization dedicated to assessing the quality of essential oils by looking for adulterations. Their expert staff has decades of combined experience in verifying essential oil purity and they have studied and developed a variety of methods to detect adulterations through use of new techniques and state-of-the-art equipment.
To test for adulteration, the team conducted a Gas Chromatography with Mass Spectrometry (GC-MS) test on lavender, peppermint, and tea tree oils from the 11 brands on our list—a total of 33 oils.
But before we get into the results of the GC-MS tests, it’s important to understand why there is so much adulteration in today’s essential oil industry. We sat down in a video conference with Aaron Sorensen, MS and CEO of the Aromatic Plant Research Center, to discuss the basics of adulteration and his experience working in the industry.
Screen shot aromaticplant.org June 17, 2019
“The reason essential oils exist as they currently do is because of the flavor and fragrance market that have been used for a very, very long time. So, in that industry, what they are really looking for is consistency. You want your perfume to smell the same every time, you want your food to taste and smell the same, every time. If you are going to use an essential oil for that, you want that oil and—its chemistry profile, its aroma profile—to be as similar as possible, identical in essence, every time. And nature doesn’t produce an identical chemical profile every time,” said Sorensen.
“Things like linalyl acetate, Linalool, and hundreds—if not thousands of chemicals—are commercially sold at very large volumes and because of that, they are very inexpensive and easily accesible. So, you can take an essential oil and make it whatever chemical profile you want it to be by adding a number of available chemicals and that’s what is usually sold to the essential oil industry,” he added.
This means that many essential oils are adulterated with added chemical components to make whatever the customer wants. The customer, in this case, includes a long supply chain, from farmers to brokers to companies, where an essential oil can change hands five or six times before arriving at your door.
A broker is someone who works with farmers and buys their oils in the country of origin. These middle-suppliers buy the oils from the farms, consolidate them, and then sell them to clients in the U.S. or Europe for instance.
Once these brokers or middle men get their hands on the farmer’s raw material, they take it to their labs where their “broker chemists’” have very advanced chemistry techniques to standardize the oils. There are several brokerage companies that run these operations.
“There is a lot of terminology used in the Essential Oils industry, whether it is building, standardizing, improving, etc. What we call it is: adulterating.”
– Aaron Sorensen
In most cases, the brokers sell the adulterated oils to aromatherapy companies as 100% pure essential oils and “90% of the time the end companies don’t know that they are buying and then selling something to their customers that has been played with,” added Sorensen.
And if you are wondering why don’t the end companies conduct their own tests before selling the oils to their customers, according to Sorensen, “it’s very difficult to detect adulteration if you are not looking for it or don’t have the expertise to know what to look for, so most companies that conduct GC-MS tests on their oils don’t detect any adulteration.”
“There are little details that only an experienced chemist would see. Broker chemists’ are experts at hiding adulteration to make an oil look pure. So, it’s extremely sophisticated the way that they can make it look like it’s not adulterated,” he added.
And why do brokers adulterate the oils? The reason, of course, is simple: money.
“Let’s say lavender is being sold for $100 dollars a kilo for example purposes. An experienced chemist can add the right chemicals and cut the amount of real lavender in half while the remaining 50% of the ‘lavender’ is aroma chemicals. This doubles the amount of ‘lavender’ available and makes the actual value of what is being sold $50 per kilo. By doing this very common practice, a broker can make a 100% profit very easily, selling this now adulterated lavender,” said Sorensen.
“So, that’s really what’s happening in the industry today. But I would we willing to bet that of those 11 companies that you [Consumers Advocate] bought the oils from, zero of them that have adulterated oils know it or are doing it intentionally. They are being duped by their suppliers,” he added.
Be that as it may, companies who are selling essential oils for therapeutic purposes have the responsibility to verify that the oils they buy from their suppliers are 100% pure. On the other hand, concerned consumers need to get to know the company they are buying from and learn how to ask the right questions.
THE BASICS OF ADULTERATION
The most adulterated essential oils fall into two categories: the high-value oils like sandalwood and rose and the bestselling oils such as lavender, peppermint, bergamot, frankincense, and cinnamon.
The most common method of adulterating essential oils (beyond just adding a vegetable or other carrier oil) is diluting/standardizing the oil with synthesized chemicals, which often contain synthetic markers.
Synthetic markers are by-products of a chemical process and are one of the key ways to tell if something has been added to an essential oil. The added chemicals are often components which do naturally occur in the oil but are produced in a factory and added to the oil to extend supply and reduce cost. When you add these chemicals to the oil, if done properly, the oil does looks like it’s a very high-quality oil. But, with the addition of these chemicals, the by-products of the chemical production process (the synthetic markers) are also added, which gives experienced adulteration detection chemists the ability to tell if an oil has been adulterated.
“For example, linalyl acetate is one of the major components of lavender. A broker can turn linalool (which is readily available) into linalyl acetate through a simple chemical reaction and even if they get that process to be 99.9% effective in producing the desired linalyl acetate, there is still the .01% of other chemicals known as by-products that don’t naturally occur in the plant, and are hence termed synthetic markers,” said Sorensen.
“When the plant produces these chemicals naturally, these synthetic markers don’t occur. They only occur through a synthesis process. And it’s very cut and dry; nature does not produce those chemicals, factories and men do in trying to make these chemicals that nature produces” he added.
The GC-MS test results conducted by APRC point out the synthetic markers.
As you can see, 6 out of the 11 lavender samples and 4 out of the 11 peppermint samples came back with adulterations.
We also sent APRC 11 samples of tea tree oil but all the samples came back negative, as proving adulteration in tea tree oil is more difficult than in lavender or peppermint.
“Unless we are certain, we are not going to say it’s adulterated. A lot of those tea trees we had a good reason to suspect something had been played with, but unless we were really certain, we didn’t want to say it was. Unless we had proof, we didn’t want to speculate,” said Sorensen.
What can companies do to prevent adulteration?
“Be involved with the farmer, have someone representing the company during distillation and during the collection and take the oils straight from them,” said Sorensen.
ESSENTIAL OILS TODAY: THE WELLNESS MOVEMENT
More and more consumers are looking for simpler, holistic ways to relate to their bodies and their health. And for the past two decades, a many-tentacled industry has sprung up to supply this need.
The concept of wellness is nothing new, with roots in ancient Ayurvedic traditions that seek to create harmony between body, mind, and spirit—and a modern tradition that dates back to the nineteenth-century reformers of the naturopathy movement—.
The wellness industry itself has now expanded to encompass virtually anything, from fitness regimens, diet programs, housing projects, and healthy living, to pseudo-science promoted by internet celebrities.
And essential oils are virtually a cornerstone to the movement, with the market expected to grow to $13 billion by 2024, according to the 2019 Global Wellness Summit’s Trends study.
But at what cost?
Most people who purchase essential oils look for buzzwords such as “ethical,” “sustainable,” and “wild harvested” or “fair trade.” These labels equate a clear conscience, certain knowledge that as consumers, we are buying products that don’t harm the environment, are completely unadulterated and pure, and free from dirty business practices.
However, there is currently no agency, either governmental or otherwise, that regulates and sets standards for essential oils. Essential oil manufacturers can, essentially, make any claim they wish… and nobody is checking.
So, how can consumers worried about being kind to the environment and the communities harvesting the material that goes into their essential oils know how to make the right choices?
The answer is simple: by educating themselves, by looking not just into the companies selling the oils themselves, but into the plants and just how they got to the market. And further, by fully understanding what sustainability and ethical harvesting or manufacturing mean.
Determining whether a product is or isn’t sustainable should include a number of different issues, including the number of available resources, the impact of their use, and the environmental consequences of their extraction.
“How to make essential oils a more sustainable industry? Besides eco-education at every stage of production, it is important to implement fair trade practices that allow people to make a living wage and reduce the pressures to overharvest.”
– Linda Halcón
Core to the definition is the idea that the product must not result in the decimation of habitats and populations, which must somehow be regenerated in parallel with its extraction and use.
HOW TO THINK ABOUT A COMPANY’S SUSTAINABILITY
A fairly simple way to consider this is known as the triple bottom line (TBL or 3BL), which takes into consideration people, planet, and profit.
The first P, people, considers not only a company’s employees, but also society at large. That means fair wages and humane working conditions free of exploitation, while also including a commitment to “giving back” to the community, through a reciprocal social structure based on the interdependence of corporate, labor, and stakeholder interests.
This can take the form of educational initiatives, sharing a portion of profits with the producer of raw materials, or health care.
Planet, the second P, refers to the natural capital bottom line. This entails reducing a company’s ecological footprint by investing in renewable energy and efficient resource management. Companies should also reduce waste, and make it less toxic before disposal.
The idea is that businesses should think of their products from the growth and harvesting of raw materials to their manufacture and distribution, and eventual disposal. Key here is avoiding destructive practices that deplete and endanger resources.
Finally, we come to profit. TBL companies look at profit a little differently than traditional corporate accounting practices, looking at more than just the flow of money to the economic impact the business has on its economic environment.
CAN SOURCING ESSENTIAL OILS REALLY BE SUSTAINABLE?
The fact of the matter is that the essential oil industry is resource-intensive. Hundreds, or even thousands, of pounds of plant material must be broken down to produce one gallon of essential oil.
Let’s consider the plants themselves, and how they’re grown or harvested. Plants for essential oils can either be cultivated on a large scale or harvested from wild (wildcrafting).
In theory, wildcrafting can be done in a sustainable manner that minimized its potential impact, by knowledgeable harvesters that limit their production, promote plant survival, and often even aid its propagation. This type of harvesting has been practiced since time immemorial by herbalists, independent workers, tribal communities, and small, family-owned businesses.
When you factor in the amount of land needed to grow plants (whether wild or cultivated), plus the resources needed to harvest, transport, and produce the oils, the numbers can get staggering, especially if you consider that most source materials aren’t grown near where they’re sold, but internationally.
And this isn’t even taking into account the human element (or the first P in TBL). Who’s growing and/or collecting the plant material—and are they being paid a fair price? What are their working conditions like? Is the industry having a negative effect on the culture or the community?
Many essential oils are made from critically vulnerable, threatened or even endangered plants—and when these are harvested in mass quantities from the wild, their population get even smaller.
As consumers, we have a responsibility to inform ourselves and make sure we’re not buying either rare essential oils themselves or from companies that sell them. Checking this is easy—just enter the genus and species of any plant in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, and it will tell you its ecological status.
Trees are often hit the hardest in terms of ecological depredation since they take the longest to grow–extraction of essential oils usually comes from the heartwood, necessitating the destruction of the plant.
Worst Offenders – Essential Oils You Should Think Twice about
- Sandalwood (Santalum album) – The Indian Sandalwood has been highly prized for centuries, used for furniture and ornamental carvings, and as an essential oil in perfumery and aromatherapy. The best oil comes from the tree’s heartwood, which can only be extracted from trees that are at least 25 years old.
Mature trees weigh approximately 200 pounds, of which 44 pounds are the fragrant heartwood, which can produce between 600-700ml of oil per tree. One liter of said oil can be sold for around $3,000, and waste chippings can be sold for as much as $1,000 per ton. Today, about 95% of global production comes from India, 90% of which comes from wild harvesting, often cut with other woods.
Overharvesting has led to Indian sandalwood’s virtual extinction in the wild, and to its cultivation in countries such as Australia, (which currently dominates the market), and even tiny Fiji. Sandalwood is big business, though, and India won’t let its grip on the market go so easily.
Recent years have seen a rise in criminal activity involving the wood, with smuggling gangs and poachers reaping millions of dollars in profits on the black market.
Interestingly enough, there has also been growing interest in using yeast, bacteria or algae with sandalwood-infused DNA to produce aromatic compounds in days in the lab. Considering that the wood’s slow maturation makes it particularly susceptible to disease and weather-related losses, perhaps this biotech solution may be able to offer a more sustainable alternative to the real thing for some purposes, but these substances likely would be limited in their effects.
- Rosewood (Aniba Rosaedora) – Rosewood has also been an extremely popular essential oil used in aromatherapy—but today it’s also listed as “endangered,” and protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
Purchases of wildcrafted rosewood oil, taken from the prized heartwood as in the case of sandalwood, only contribute to its decline and eventual disappearance. Illegal harvesting, logging, and distillations are cutting down trees of all ages and sizes indiscriminately, often completely destroying the roots and thereby eliminating the possibility of regeneration.
Most illegal rosewood trafficking isn’t for essential oils, necessarily, as the wood is in extremely high demand in China for classic-style hongmu furniture. The so-called “ivory of the forest” is big business—and it’s having an outsized impact, with some sources claiming there are less than 2,500 mature adult trees in the wild, with a 20% possibility of extinction within 20 years.
The UN Organization on Drugs and Crime’s recent World Wildlife Crime Report found that illegally harvested rosewood seizures between 2005 and 2014 constituted 35% of the value of all wildlife seized during that nine-year period. This amount was equal to the combined seizures of all the elephant ivory, rhino horn, pangolins, big cats, corals, and marine turtles.
Some essential oils companies purchase their rosewood exclusively from providers certified by the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which protects over 250 species of the wood.
Even if you purchase from a company that checked all the right boxes, this isn’t necessarily a guarantee of the oil’s purity. Adulterated blends of oil from species other than A. roseadora have turned up in perfumes, cosmetics, household products, and aromatherapy.
- Frankincense (Boswellia sacra, B. carterii, B. frereana, B. serrata) – While Frankincense is still classified as “near threatened,” it may be time to stop purchasing it as well. Most of the frankincense resin that is distilled for essential oils and marketed in the U.S. is B. sacra or B. carterii that grows mainly in Somalia and Yemen. Boswellia frereana grows primarily in Somaliland and Puntland (separate countries from Somalia), while Boswellia serrata grows in India. While the political and geographic environments of the different frankincense species varies, they are all considered ‘near threatened,’ and it may be time to purchase frankincense only from companies that can verify sustainable harvesting practices.
Frankincense grown in East Africa has had to contend with poor soil, caused in part by farmland expansion, overgrazing, bush encroachment, human-induced fires, poorly managed forests and excessive tapping. This means more cuts into the trees, and year-round tapping rather than just seasonally. The trees are weakened, take longer to recover if at all, and more often than not, end up dying.
“Some of the bigger companies tell farmers that they are going to rent their trees and the farmers will rent them without even knowing that instead of harvesting once a year, they might go back two or three times to harvest. And that is not sustainable, the trees are dying.”
The situation is complicated. Frankincense collectors depend on the resin to survive—and it’s a job with high casualty levels, no regulations, and few safety precautions.
- Palo Santo (Bursera Graveolons, and Bulnesia Sarmientoi) –The wellness and self-care industries have made palo santo a fairly recent sensation, capitalizing on sacred shamanic practices in indigenous communities. Palo Santo (holy stick in Spanish) is traditionally burned in bundles, or “smudged” to cleanse a space’s energies and ward off spirits.
To get the full benefit of Palo Santo is by allowing the tree to die naturally, with a four to ten year resting period on the forest floor. Like most of our previous examples, the purest oils come from the heartwood. Yet to supply global demand, people are cutting down trees for immediate material gain, and consumers keep buying.
Currently endangered, with less than 250 mature trees surviving in the wild, countries that grow Palo Santo are making efforts at conservation. However, enforcing the Peruvian and Ecuadorian bans against cutting down the trees is easier said than done.
Some companies are taking the correct steps, and partnering with local governments to ensure sustainability–incorporating planting, forest control and tree quality control into integrated management plans.
The biggest takeaway here is that if you can’t make absolutely sure that the plant material for your essential oil is being ethically sourced, don’t buy it. And don’t buy from companies that offer oils from endangered species, even if that’s not the product you yourself are purchasing.
WHAT TO WATCH OUT FOR WHEN BUYING ESSENTIAL OILS
MISLEADING MARKETING TERMS
Essential oil companies have been known to exaggerate claims regarding the health benefits of their oils.
In 2014, DoTerra International received a warning letter by the FDA for claiming that their oils were “therapeutic” and intended for use in the cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease.
The claims were made by a “paid consultant” otherwise known as a “wellness advocate”, who promoted several DoTerra oils as “for conditions including, but not limited to, viral infections (including ebola), bacterial infections, cancer, brain injury, autism, endometriosis, Grave’s Disease, Alzheimer’s Disease, tumor reduction, ADD/ADHD, and other conditions that are not amenable to self-diagnosis and treatment by individuals who are not medical practitioners.”
The company has since rectified their claims and include an approved claims list on their website.
Multi-level marketing companies rely on their “Wellness Advocates” to sell their products, and many of these people do not have any background in science or healthcare, so you must stay vigilant, and question every claim that you see or hear.
However, wellness advocates are not the only ones making these claims.
For instance, Dr. Axe is a naturopath who claims essential oils are useful from everything from healing broken bones to reducing tumors. And while there are studies that suggest that Frankincense can be linked to cancer treatments, more research is necessary to determine whether the oil or its extract can be consistently and effectively used to treat people who have these cancers.
In this regard, we want to stress the fact that essential oils are not the problem, as there is ample evidence of their health benefits. The problem arises when companies use confusing or misleading terminology to get consumers to buy their products.
Here are some common terms to be wary of when selecting an essential oil:
- Therapeutic grade: Although many companies use this term to market or describe their essential oils, no governmental agency “grades” or “certifies” essential oils as therapeutic grade or aromatherapy grade in the United States.
In other words, therapeutic grade is mostly a marketing term. If you come across a company that uses the term therapeutic grade or certified therapeutic grade, look for other indicators of the company’s essential oil quality such as sustainable sourcing, GC/MS reports, and ingredients that are free of synthetics, contaminants, or fillers.
Also, having a team of aromatherapists or expert scientists on staff is a good sign that the company is committed to offering not only the best oils but have your safety in mind.
- Certified organic: According to the USDA, “organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods. Overall, organic operations must demonstrate that they are protecting natural resources, conversing biodiversity, and using only approved substances.
So, what does this mean for essential oils? Mainly that the oils are free of herbicides and pesticides. However, during our look into the companies, we learned that many farms grow their plants without pesticides but are not certified organic because of the costs associated with the certification.
One company who we spoke too said: “All of our essential oils are 100% pure, natural, therapeutic and organically grown. We do not use fillers, synthetics or fragrance enhancers of any kind. Both our USDA Organic oils as well as the regular oils, are GMO free and pass the same pesticide testing. In the past we had a lot of customer requests to get our oils USDA Certified as organic. Because of that, we now offer the USDA label for some of our oils. I’ve provided a link to our certified organic line below. The certification process is very long and expensive which is why we do not currently offer it for all of our oils, however, we are looking to expand this line of oils and we will be offering the certification for more of our oils in the future.”
Although earning an organic certification is a company’s best approach to certifying the purity and quality of their oils, the term organic is not a synonym of natural, and in the essential oil industry, the only way to certify the purity of an essential oil is to conduct a test to detect adulteration.
- Chemical-free: There is no such thing as a chemical-free essential oil. If you are one of the millions of people who are turning to essential oils to minimize the number of chemicals in your life, you should know that essential oils are chemicals too.
“To think that an essential oil is not a chemical product because it is natural, is totally wrong. An essential oil consists of a lot of single chemical substances, so nature produces chemicals,” said Dr. Buchbauer. “They are mixtures, containing up to 300 substances,” he added.
Many people think that essential oils are harmless because they are natural and have been for a long time but many oils can cause irritation if used on the skin while many others can be poisonous if swallowed.
- No synthetics, contaminants or fillers: These terms go hand in hand with the statement of purity of an essential oil. However, as we’ve discussed earlier, the only way to guarantee the purity of an essential oil is to conduct a GC-MS test to detect adulterations.
If you are looking for a 100% pure essential oil, free of synthetics, contaminants, or fillers, it is best you assess the quality control of the company who is providing the oils. Where do they source their oils? What tests do they conduct to verify the purity of the oils? Do they look for adulterations?
MULTI-LEVEL MARKETING COMPANIES
In multi-level marketing (MLM) companies, individuals sell products to the public—often by word of mouth or direct sales. These individuals make money by selling the products and recruiting more sellers. Companies like Herbalife, Amway, Avon, and Mary Kay follow the multi-level marketing business model.
So, what is the problem with many multi-level marketing companies? We could argue that the rapid growth of the essential oil industry over the past two decades is due to the direct sales model and intensive marketing of MLM companies.
Although multi-level marketing is a legitimate business strategy, the problem arises when it becomes a pyramid scheme. Pyramid schemes use the money from new recruits to pay people at the top rather than those who perform the work, very few distributors ever see any money.
Nevertheless, what concerns us more about the MLM marketing business model is the fact that it enables misinformation to spread like wildfire.
As we discussed earlier, much of the information on essential oils comes from the distributors, but many of these people don’t understand the dangers of highly-concentrated chemicals and in many cases may claim medicinal benefits based on personal experience, and not on scientific data.
If someone tries to sell you a product that is allegedly supported by a scientific study there are some questions that you can ask.
- Was the clinical study done in humans, or just in animals or in cell cultures in a lab?
- Was there a control group?
- Did it show meaningful clinical benefits or did it just show changes in lab tests?
- Did the study show that the product works for humans when used?
- Would you use the product if you bought it?
FAQS ABOUT ESSENTIAL OILS
How should I store and care for my essential oils?
Amber or cobalt bottles are preferred over clear glass. Most essential oils will come in glass bottles when you purchase them. Never store them in plastic as the oils are corrosive and will eat away the plastic. To avoid oxidation store the oils in the refrigerator. Also, when your bottle is half full or less, we recommend transferring the oil into smaller bottles. The less empty space in the bottle, the better.
What is the difference between essential oils and fragrances?
Essential oils are naturally occurring substances found in different parts of plants—fruit, leaf, stem, bark, root, and flower. Fragrance or perfume oils, on the other hand, are manufactured scents specifically designed to mimic the scent of a natural product or created to invoke a feeling. For example, coffee fragrance oil or spring rain scent.
What is a “therapeutic grade” essential oil?
“Therapeutic grade” is simply a marketing term. Any company can say their oils are therapeutic grade. No governmental agency or organization “grades” or “certifies” essential oils in the US.
Do essential oils expire?
When stored correctly, essential oils can last a year, even more. Avoid heat, light, and air. We recommend keeping the oils in a cool, dark place. The refrigerator and kitchen or bathroom cupboards are good options, as well as bookshelves that don’t get any sunlight.
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