So what exactly constitutes the ‘best essential oils’? Are all oils the same? Does it matter which company you buy the oil from? Today you will get the answers to all these questions. Finding good sources of the best essential oils can be overwhelming but I am certain this article will significantly simplify the process
Aromatherapy and essential oils may have become household terms but few people realize how powerful they are. To give you an insight: a single ounce of rose essential oil contains 40,000 rose blooms and just a single drop of it could contain nearly 70 roses!
Every constituent of an essential oil is vital to its healing potential. Just like we use only a tiny bit of salt in our cooking; just a trace amount is needed, but that tiny amount makes all the difference. And so it is with therapeutic grade essential oils and the trace minerals in them-we only need a tiny bit of boron, selenium, copper etc but they all make a great deal of difference to our health.
Let’s dive into what you need to know to make informed choices when buying your own high quality essential oils.
Terms You Should Know Before Purchasing Top Quality Essential Oils
Before we discuss what makes first-class essential oils, you need to know certain terms used by manufacturers, aroma-therapists and experienced consumers alike.
The term purity has no meaning when it comes to Aromatherapy essential oils. However, almost all companies label their oils as the ‘purest essential oils’. Needless to say you will do well by not relying solely on this term. Always research the company before you purchase their oils.
There are many, many factors that can affect the oil’s quality. You certainly don’t want to buy essential oils from companies that grow their plants near busy highways for example. In general, keep the following in mind as to what constitutes the ‘purest essential oils’
- The plants are from proper genus, species and cultivar.
- The company does not add chemicals or fertilizers to the soil. All crop cultivation is truly organic and free of herbicides and pesticides.
- The extraction process is also free from use of chemicals. (I will talk in detail about extraction process later in this guide).
These are unnatural or non-existential fragrances which are usually a combination of absolutes, essential oils and synthetic perfumes. You can immediately tell which oil is synthetic and which is pure.
Many so-called top rated essential oils and high grade essential oils are all sold at the same price for every product. This should be a warning flag for you. The best essential oils should vary in price due to variations in the cost of production, labor and plant matter needed.
Many essential oils come highly adulterated. In fact; the pricier the oil, the greater is the risk of adulteration. Several oils like sandalwood, rose, lavender, lemon balm etc are all at a high risk of being adulterated with other oils because these essential oils have high costs of procuring their authentic raw materials.
Likewise, many oils are even substituted with other similar selling oils. For example, wintergreen essential oil is often sold as birch oil at a higher price since pure birch oil is invariably more expensive to produce and sell than wintergreen oil.
Today, the Aromatherapy essential oil industry consists of many buyers and suppliers chains. The more middle men involved, the greater the price and also higher the possibility of adulteration of the oils.
If you are looking for the best essential oils to buy, never purchase them in large volume containers even though they may be labeled as ‘genuine’ or ‘pure’. They are not genuine or pure and unfortunately the industry is full of rampant false advertising as well.
If you are looking for top rated essential oils, only purchase from retail sellers that work directly with the suppliers and source their raw materials under sustainable practices. A good company will have a long term relationship with a reliable distiller as this is vital for maintaining high quality standards in the industry. (If all this information is overwhelming for you, don’t worry. I discuss what to look for in an essential oil company later in this guide.)
Many low grade essential oils are blatantly labeled as high grade and sold at higher prices.
For example, ylang ylang oil often undergoes 4 different levels of distillation and each level yields a different grade of oil.
Unfortunately, not all companies bother to label these stage-wise grades. Many even sell 4th stage distilled oils as superior 1st stage in order to make greater profits.
Many so-called good essential oils are ‘extended’ with synthetic or natural solvents and oils. The more expensive an oil is for manufacturing, the higher the use of extenders.
Jojoba oil is one of the commonest extenders used to increase the quantity of an essential oil. This is because; Jojoba oil is very light and hardly has its own fragrance or special characteristics. It blends well with any essential oil it has been mixed with and also makes the resulting blend ‘pourable’.
Unfortunately, many essential oil manufacturers use this trick but conveniently fail to label jojoba as a part of their ingredient list. Naturally, companies also stand to benefit with this practice as their cost of manufacturing goes down by offering a less concentrated product.
GS/MS Spec Report
Many essential oil companies appeal to our desire for the ‘high grade essential oils’ by offering a GC/MS (gas chromatography/mass spectrometry) report on all their oils. This is nothing but a gas chromatograph report which is obtained with the help of a chemical analysis instrument.
This device passes the chemical constituents of each batch of oil through the gas chromatograph. Mass spectrometry devices are also used to identify exact constituents of the oils.
For example, you can see reports like 25% camphor, 5% linalool for a given essential oil. Naturally, laymen cannot really understand what this GC/MS report is all about. However, trained analysts do use these reports as an analytical tool to ensure an oil’s therapeutic properties.
But definitely don't use the GC/MS report standalone to guarantee the purity of the oil. Instead, use other salient features such as an olfactory appraisal, confidence in the essential oil company as well as intentions of the suppliers when buying the best essential oils.
Quality Control of Essential Oils
Although it is very difficult to distinguish good sources of essential oils, especially at the retail level, they must at least ensure that the company they buy from guarantees quality checks and also takes care of the environment.
Ethical and sustainable sourcing of materials is an important criterion I recommend looking for. You can do this by seeking the agricultural origins of the oils. There are many factors that can determine the quality and purity of oils.
Let’s take a look at each one:
Wild Harvested Plants
The best essential oil of frankincense is only obtained from the remote desert areas of Africa which have trees with the resins from which frankincense is distilled.
Similarly, high grade essential oils like helichrysum can only come from the dead wood that has laid for several years on the forest floors in high altitude areas of Mediterranean region or the remote Ecuador forest areas.
This makes wild harvested oils some of the best grade essential oils to buy. The reason behind this is that wild harvested plants tend to have greater genetic diversity than plants that are cultivated.
Consequently, wild harvested lavender oil has different properties compared to oil distilled from cultivated lavender plantations. We can safely say that wild harvested plants, thanks to their genetic diversity and ecosystem, tend to have greater therapeutic compounds and therefore the subsequent oils also have greater therapeutic values. This can also be attributed to the fact that wild harvested oils tend to have greater immunity to the harsh conditions under which they survive. It is no wonder that traditional herbalists consider wild harvested plants to be more potent.
Certified Organic Oils
Certified indicates that a third party, other than the seller, distiller or manufacturer, inspects and certifies the essential oil’s source as well as the distillery.they come from.
Many manufacturers of high grade essential oils also have their facilities where they bottle and seal the oil certified by third parties. If this is the case, they continue using the term ‘certified’ when selling their essential oils. However, if that is not the case, the companies drop the term ‘certified’ but continue using the term organic for their top rated essential oils.
Almost all wild harvested oils can be considered organic. However, in the case of essential oils that come from remote areas, it is just not possible to get third party certification. This is because; farmers and distillers in remote areas cannot afford to have these certifications and tests done due to the high costs involved.
In no way does this mean that these essential oils are impure or not of great quality. In such a case, manufacturers might label their oils as ‘non-certified’ organic. Rest assured that trends and customer demand is certainly going to change this as more and more non certified oils are bound to become certified at a later stage.
Non Organic Oils
The fourth quality category of essential oils is non-organic which means oil farmers and distillers have used agrochemicals and pesticides for the production of certain vulnerable species of flowers and plants.
As you can see, the different quality-related terms are purely made-up marketing concepts created by companies selling the oils. There are no certification values simply because there is no governing body to certify the production and quality of essential oils. A good company selling the higher grade essential oils will avoid using deceitful language that would imply there is an official standard that governs the quality of essential oils.
That said; you need to be aware of two organizations that essential oil companies use for describing their oils. These institutions define certain standards used by companies selling reputable quality essential oils. One is the ISO (International Organization for Standardization) which generates guidelines for packaging, conditioning, storage, labeling, sampling, testing, etc. and (for a fee) quality standards for individual essential oils. The other is AFNOR (Association Française de Normalisation) that provides essential oil guidelines and information on topics such as determining water content, chromatographic profiles, assessing acid value, content of phenols, etc..
These two organizations set many of the standards for purity of essential oils. In the absence of input or testing by them, a good essential oil company uses their historical testing data to ensure the quality and purity of oils.
How Do I Know If I'm Buying The Best Essential Oils?
This is a question most retailers and even manufacturers ask themselves: "How do we guarantee essential oils we are purchasing are good quality or not?” There are some important factors to consider in order to answer this question:
Certification- Find out if the certification for the oil is coming from both-the producer and distributor or just the former? I have talked about the certification of essential oils above.
Testing- The testing of oils is an expensive process. So the company you buy from should ideally have a dedicated lab, technician team and right equipment. Unfortunately, many companies do not have these facilities. I have spoken about GC/MS testing details above and they are the most common tests used today.
Source- Prime quality essential oils should come directly from artisans that distill top grade oils from the highest quality organic raw materials.
This brings us to the point of organic oils again. Whether you are a therapist or a consumer who wants to use the oils on a day to day basis; you must ensure your oils are organic. After all you, are being exposed to the oils everyday, so you need to ensure they are completely free, at their source, from agrochemicals and pesticides.
Methods of Extracting Essential Oils
Here are some standard methods used for extracting essential oils:
Essential oils are complex substances and are almost always a product of steam distillation. The temperatures used for steam extraction process are 140–212 degrees Fahrenheit. This temperature range causes subtle chemical changes in the oils.
In fact; heat can also lead to formation of compounds that are not present in the original plant. These compounds are called artifacts. An example of an artifact is the blue color in yarrow, helichrysum and German chamomile oils. However, in most oils, this is a good artifact with documented therapeutic properties. Although, at too high pressure and temperatures, some subtle healing components of the oils can be destroyed.
Many distillers also use chemical solvents for extracting commercial grade essential oils. However, these are not therapeutic and they certainly can’t be labelled as the purest essential oils or best grade essential oils. This method of extracting essential oils is used for delicate flowers of jasmine, tuberose etc which are not able to withstand pressure or heat.
Distillers cover the petals and flowers with ether, petroleum, hexane or acetone with some heat applied The resultant oil needs to be filtered leaving a paste called ‘concrete’. The concrete is further distilled at low temperatures by mixing with alcohol first. The alcohol absorbs the fragrance of the oil and after distillation evaporates to yield the intended essential oil.
Solvent extraction is used for roses and jasmines that literally needs tons of flowers to extract a small quantity of oil. This makes the process expensive and also time consuming. Many expert aromatherapists also believe that this is not the best method as minute amounts of solvents remain behind in the oils.
Expression or Cold Pressing
Certain essential oils are expressed by squeezing the rind, seeds, or petals. This method is commonly used for essential oils of citrusy fruits like lime, lemon, mandarin, orange, bergamot, etc. Naturally, the best essential oils in this category also need to be expressed from organically grown fruits which have not been sprayed with pesticides.
Carbon Dioxide Extraction
This method of extraction is based on the principle that when you subject carbon dioxide to high pressure, it turns into a liquid. This liquid then becomes a safe and inert solvent that helps extract the aromatic molecules from the plants, flowers, etc.
The process used later is similar to that used to extract absolutes. The advantage and only difference between the two methods is that CO2 extraction does not leave any solvent residue as at normal pressure and temperature, it reverts to gas and evaporates.
Enfleurage and Maceration
Enfleurage is one of the oldest methods of extracting essential oils. It involves placement of a pure, cold, odorless fat on a thin glass frame. The plants or flowers are placed on the fat in layers.
After several hours, the fat becomes saturated with the delicate essential oils. The older flowers are replaced with new ones and the process is repeated. Once the fat is saturated with the oils, it is washed with alcohol. The alcohol is then evaporated leaving behind the fragrant oils. Today, this method of extracting essential oils is no longer in use as it is very labor-intensive and costly.
Another similar method is maceration which involves rupturing the flowers and petals slightly and placing them in fat. The fat is then washed with alcohol which is later evaporated to leave the oil behind.
The point I am trying to make here is that a leading therapeutic grade essential oil should be as close to nature as is permitted but will not be totally so based on the method used for extracting it.
Next I will talk about what to look for in essential oils and the company you buy from.
What To Look For in A Company When Buying The Ultimate Essential Oils?
There is no doubt that the quality and purity of essential oils we use create the very foundation of Aromatherapy. Also, the quality of essential oils is a matter of contention. Talk to different aromatherapists about this topic and chances are you will end up stimulating feelings of protectiveness and challenging beliefs.
Until recently, there were only a handful of essential oil companies selling the purest of essential oils to consumers and therapists. Early aromatherapy essential oil companies were concentrated around Europe and Great Britain. These companies were mainly aiming to meet the requirements of Aromatherapists. This guaranteed that the British and European companies paid attention to the quality of the oils.
However, an upsurge in the American essential oil retail market and an interest in aromatherapy led to birth of many profit driven companies selling low quality oils in America. This fact also affected the British and European markets. With so many oil distributors and distillers on hand, it has become increasingly challenging to differentiate between companies that sell the very best essential oils and the poor quality ones.
I have already discussed some oil quality terms like therapeutic, organic etc that companies use when selling essential oils. Here are a few more qualities to look for in your oil suppliers.
Qualities to Look for in the Best Essential Oil Companies
Go for a supplier who has:
- Dedication to sell to the aromatherapists market and educated public
- Is small in size and not a huge corporation
- Has been founded by or is owned by an essential oil specialist or a person who has been trained and educated as an aromatherapist
- If possible, has direct relations with a distiller
- Is a company willing to provide the GC/MS specification report on every oil they sell
- Readily willing to provide a material safety data sheet report
- Has a strong, unquestionable reputation for many years in the market
- Who has been in the field for many years and is well known to practitioners/educators in the field of Aromatherapy.
When you find a supplier selling premium essential oils with the above criteria, then you can safely assume the essential oil is definitely of a higher quality than those you’d get at grocery/drug stores. It is a good idea to look at the GC/MS data sheet for the oil. This is usually for an entire batch of oils and you can get an idea about the essential oil’s chemical profile as well as therapeutic properties.
More Steps to Help You Buy Premium Essential Oils
Here is my outline of a few steps that you can use in order to identify premium essential oils. Develop these habits each time you buy essential oils from different companies.
Enhance your sense of smell. The sense of smell is like a muscle; the more you use it, the stronger it will get. So spend some time smelling the same essential oils from different companies. Become aware of the different aromas. Try diffusing the oils or use them in bath, for massage etc. Notice the subtle differences between the oils. Which oil makes you feel better?
I often recommend to my readers they try out the same oil from different companies; if required, purchase your oils from top European distillers as well as the ones in the United States or Canada. Really take some time out to study these oils.
Choose to work with one oil per week. Close your eyes and smell the oil. Be totally mindful and present when you do. Low quality oils will attack your senses and overwhelm your nose. Essential oils of inferior quality or having a bunch of synthetics or fillers added to them tend to hit you with a strong aroma before dying off quickly. On the other hand, the best essential oils will linger longer. They actually converse with you-you only need to listen!
As can be seen there are no standard factors that can guarantee what you are purchasing is indeed the best essential oil. You need to start appreciating your sense of smell in order to experience the subtle differences that tell you the quality of an essential oil.
Ensure the company you buy from is able to not only provide you with information about the oil you buy but also describes their philosophy and commitment to the environment.
Explore different essential oil companies and don’t get carried away with their marketing materials. With practice will you be able to appreciate the inherent differences between essential oils and expand your olfactory palate!