To say that I’m addicted to essential oils might be an understatement.
I have a diffuser in nearly every room of the house, continually pumping earthy scents like clove, cedarwood, and sage into the air. I use rosemary and tea tree oil to disinfect my kitchen and bathroom. I dilute floral scents into a carrier oil to dab onto my wrists and spritz over my body. And I drop peppermint oil under my tongue and into my water bottle a few times a day.
Seriously, I can’t get enough.
What’s the big deal with essential oils?
Not only do essential oils smell amazing, but their beneficial properties have been scientifically proven. Research has shown essential oils to kill bacteria, fight off infection, calm our nervous system, reduce inflammation, and so much more. It’s almost unending.
All that said, they need to be used wisely, as essential oils (EOs) can be just as dangerous as they can be healing. These natural chemicals are incredibly potent and, if we use them improperly, our bodies can have an adverse reaction to the very oils that could have helped us.
For example, if we don’t dilute a strong essential oil enough, we can become sensitized to that compound, as well as to other EOs that share a similar chemical makeup. And once we’re sensitized to a particular essential oil, going forward, our body will react badly to it, even if it’s been fully diluted. The huge bummer is that it is difficult (if not impossible) to reverse, so it is unlikely we will ever be able to tolerate that family of essential oils again.
We also have to be incredibly careful to choose quality oils that were both sourced and manufactured cleanly. If we don’t? Best case scenario, a low-quality EO may not possess the beneficial properties we bought it for. Worst case, it can contain synthetic chemicals and/or contaminants that our bodies react badly to.
There’s a lot to think about with regards to EOs, but don’t worry – it’s not complicated. Let’s break down the key factors so you how to safely buy and enjoy essential oils.
What exactly is an essential oil?
Plants are composed of proteins, enzymes, and a zillion other components that help them to grow, thrive and multiply. Essential oils are specifically the aromatic compounds that are extracted from the plant’s leaves, flowers, roots, stems, seeds, bark, or its fruit.
These natural chemicals help the plant to protect itself against pests, disease, and other environmental dangers. Amazingly, these aromatic compounds can do the same for us.
Buying quality essential oils
Essential oils are so trendy right now that new brands are popping up all the time. You can barely walk into a store without finding a slew of wonderful smelling blends, claiming everything from curing colds to helping you meditate more deeply.
While the maker of the blends may be well-intentioned, they may or may not have done deep research into the quality of oils they use. Despite their potency, essential oils aren’t regulated, so it’s up to you to make sure that what you’re buying isn’t harmful.
Here’s the quick list of what you’ll want to look for when buying EOs. We’ll go into each one below.
1. Quality of the plant
As with food, it’s best to use non-GMO essential oils that have been grown without the use of synthetic biocides (i.e. pesticides, herbicides, fungicides) or chemical fertilizers. Ideally, the plants from which the EO was extracted would be labeled as either wildcrafted (gathered from nature, instead of farmed) or certified organic.
It’s worth noting that the organic certification is expensive and there are plenty of ethical farmers who cultivate their plants according to organic standards, but do not apply for the certification. As a result, sometimes you’ll just see “ethically farmed” on the label.
While the term ‘ethical’ is typically a good indication of thoughtfulness, the FCC does not regulate this term for advertising and you have to be careful of unscrupulous brands. As such, it’s always a good idea to check the brand’s website to see how they source their oils or cultivate their plants. You can then decide for yourself whether you agree with their use of the term ‘ethically farmed’.
Transparency is key. So if you can’t easily find this information, consider shopping for another brand.
Also read this comparison of essential oil diffusers.
Like ‘ethically farmed’, the term ‘100% pure’ is also not regulated. That means a brand could add fillers, fragrance enhancers, or other contaminants to their essential oils, yet still label it as ‘100% pure’. Depending on your particular sensitivities, these contaminants could trigger an adverse reaction in your body.
If you only read a brand’s marketing claims – and not the ingredients – you could end up buying a synthetic fragrance that masquerades as an essential oil. Look beyond the ‘100% pure’ claim on the front of the label to check the ingredients on the back. There should be only one ingredient listed: the oil itself.
In addition, the label or website may also say something like ‘no added fillers, additives, or synthetic ingredients’. This is important because even though the ‘100% pure’ claim can be thrown around loosely, such specific wording about a product’s ingredients would be subject to FCC scrutiny. I would, therefore, be more inclined to believe a brand that backs a purity claim by specifying that they don’t use additives.
In terms of buying shampoos, lotions, candles, or other products that contain essential oils as an ingredient, make sure you see the oil listed directly. In other words, the front of the label may say ‘lavender scented’ alongside an image that can make you think it’s a natural EO. But the ingredients label may say ‘fragrance’ or ‘perfume’, instead of listing an actual EO.
Don’t be fooled. Terms like “lavender-scented” or even “with lavender, chamomile & ylang ylang” are not a guarantee that a product contains actual essential oils of lavender — or in this case, chamomile and ylang ylang. (Check out Aveeno’s disappointing label below!)
If the label doesn’t explicitly say ‘essential oil of lavender’ (typically accompanied by its Latin name to call out the specific variety of lavender), then be wary. The term ‘fragrance’, when listed as an ingredient, is typically a concoction of hundreds, even thousands, of synthetic components, including a harmful family of chemicals called phthalates.
Hey, Aveeno! Where’s the lavender?!
By contrast, you can see the common name of each essential oil alongside the botanical name on this label for 100% Pure’s lavender body cream. That’s exactly what we want to see, folks!!
Dilution isn’t the same as adulteration
Keep in mind that some oils are intentionally diluted with a carrier oil and this is a good thing. Many essential oils, beneficial as they may be, can also be skin irritants when used directly and should always be diluted prior to use.
Sometimes the brand has diluted the EO for you, while other times they offer the pure essential oil and add the precaution: ‘dilute with a carrier oil’. Heed that warning and know that a carrier oil is NOT an unwanted additive.
Similarly, some essential oils are sold as blends and, therefore, not intended to be 100% pure. To clarify, each oil within the blend should be unadulterated (truly 100% pure), but you may not see the blend itself advertised as such.
Testing the purity of essential oils
Another way for brands to showcase the purity of their product is to have their oils tested by an independent 3rd party. Some will go as far as to post the detailed reports to their website, though it’s not common.Plant Therapy, for example, not only shares their test results; they also make them exceptionally easy to find by attaching the appropriate report to each product page on their website. I love that.
The test you’ll see most often is called Gas Chromatography and Mass Spectrometry. GC/MS lets the testers identify individual components within the oil, so they can gauge its purity. While not a perfect test (misidentification happens), it is generally considered an important measure for quality control. I always check for this test on a brand’s website before buying their EO.
3. Extraction method
Most essential oils are extracted from the plant using steam or steam + water distillation. However, some extremely delicate flowers (vanilla and jasmine, for example) cannot withstand the heat and so their oils need to be extracted using a solvent such as hexane, petroleum, ethanol, or methanol. (Vanilla may also be extracted using carbon dioxide.)
Technically speaking, oils extracted this way are called ‘absolutes’, not ‘essential oils’, as they contain both aromatic and non-aromatic components. (Remember, essential oils are exclusively the aromatic compounds.) While most of the solvent is removed during processing, up to 5% may remain in the final product. This is important to note for folks who are chemically sensitive, even if they are not sensitive to EOs.
If you need to avoid absolutes for this reason, know that it is common for brands to mislabel their absolutes as essential oils. It may not be intentional – they may not realize it. To me, that’s an indication that they haven’t done the needed research and don’t understand the power of what they are selling. If I see this kind of mistake, I won’t buy from that brand, no matter how much I love their packaging or the smell of their blends.
Salicylates are naturally occurring compounds within a plant that protect it from harmful bacteria and insects. While most people have no issue with salicylates, a small percentage with already compromised immune or digestive systems may develop a sensitivity to them.
For context, aspirin is a type of salicylate known as acetylsalicylic acid. If you cannot tolerate aspirin, you also may not be able to tolerate EOs that contain salicylates.
Many plants, including plant foods, contain salicylates, but there are only a few with exceptionally high amounts. Birch and wintergreen contain the highest amounts of methyl salicylates (greater than 95%). While the essential oils from these plants can be highly beneficial for those suffering from muscle aches or skin blemishes (very well-diluted, please!!), those sensitive to salicylates should avoid them.
A few other essential oils contain significantly lower concentrations (less than 1 or 2%) of methyl salicylate and should be used with caution or avoided entirely, depending on your sensitivity. These include ylang-ylang (specifically from Madagascar) and clove that has been extracted from the stem or bud.
Like my now-squinting eyes and crackling knees, essential oils eventually break down with age. This aging leads to a loss of quality and beneficial properties. In fact, the aging of some EOs can cause an adverse reaction that looks a lot like allergic contact dermatitis. This reaction can also lead to hypersensitivity, meaning it doesn’t take much to trigger an adverse reaction in your body.
The aging process for EOs can be accelerated by heat, light, and moisture. Here are a few best practices that will help to prolong their shelf life:
- Keep your oils away from direct sunlight and heat sources. You can even refrigerate them to slow the process.
- Put the cap back on as soon as you’re done using them in order to minimize oxidation.
- Avoid opening the bottle in a steamy bathroom to minimize moisture contamination.
Essential oils are highly concentrated and powerful extracts. It can take thousands of plants to produce a single bottle of essential oil. That is NOT something to mess around with.
The label or brand’s website will usually tell you the ratio for dilution. Using the oil without diluting it (against recommendation) can trigger a reaction and potentially increase your body’s sensitivity to other essential oils going forward.
Any essential oil can become a sensitizer, even those that are known to be safe when applied undiluted. Carrier oils will lessen the intensity of potentially irritating essential oils and diluting them with a carrier is always appropriate.
Always read the bottle or the brand’s website to make sure you’re diluting the EO and using it as directed. If it says you can add 3 to 5 drops to your body lotion or carrier oil, don’t add six.
Test your sensitivity to an essential oil
To test your skin’s sensitivity to EOs, you can dilute 1 drop in at least 2 ounces of carrier oil. Apply it to a very small area of skin, let it soak in, and see how it responds both immediately and over the course of a few hours. If you don’t experience a reaction, try less dilution, perhaps 1 drop in 1 ounce of carrier oil. You can then adjust based on how your body reacts. It is important to note that you may be able to tolerate an essential oil at first, yet experience a strong skin reaction with repeated use over time.
NOTE: If you are chemically sensitive, please check with your doctor first, before trying this test.
Essential oils have been used for aromatic and therapeutic benefit since ancient times. But not all EOs are created equal – quality matters, as does proper usage.
Always buy essential oils from a reputable brand that is transparent about where and how they source their oils and/or cultivate their plants for extraction. The plants should ideally be wild harvested, certified organic, or otherwise ethically grown.
Check the ingredients label and/or website to ensure the oils are free from synthetic ingredients. The manufacturing should, likewise, be free from harmful chemicals. And to ensure quality, check that the oils have been independently tested, usually by GS/ MS.
Finally, keep in mind that quality EOs are not cheap. If you find a brand whose price looks too good to be true, it probably is. Compare the product and its claims against like products from other brands to make sure it passes your ‘sniff test’, so to speak.
If you’d like to learn about how to use a particular oil or to find some great food and skin care recipes containing essential oils, I recommend these books. Enjoy!