How to Know You Have a Quality Essential Oil
From drugstores to day spas, you don’t have to look hard to find products infused with essential oils. You can easily buy extracts of essential oils, such as lavender, peppermint, and eucalyptus, from organic grocery stores, pharmacies or even people you know who sell essential oils for marketing companies.
While many of these oils are nicely packaged and sold through reputable stores and distributors, not all of them are created equally. Finding the purest, highest quality essential oils can be tricky for many reasons. Like dietary supplements, essential oils are not regulated by the FDA, so there is no oversight for the manufacturing, distribution, or use of the oils or guarantee they have been tested for safety or effectiveness.
Some manufacturers dilute essential oils with cheaper substances like nut and seed oils to save money, while others attempt to pass off lower-cost oils as essential oils that are more difficult and expensive to obtain. The desire for fragrance consistency in oils leads some manufacturers to use synthetic ingredients that mimic the plant’s scent. Even if the bottle you buy contains pure oil distilled from the flower, root, leaf, or rind of an aromatic plant, it can still be hard to know what additives or fillers may be lurking inside.
The growing conditions of the plant from which the essential oil is harvested can also affect its quality. Its composition may vary based on the climate, season, and weather in which the plant was grown as well as the part of the plant used and when and how it was harvested. Clary sage, for example, is best harvested during the late flowering period and best distilled fresh, while rosemary is more potent when its leaves are stripped from the stem before distillation.
The way oils are processed and stored also impact their purity. Though most oils are extracted through steam distillation, some are best processed through cold-pressing or through extraction with carbon dioxide, or a chemical solvent. Essential oils are also volatile substances, so limiting exposure to oxygen, heat, and light is necessary to retain their chemical makeup.
The quality of the oils you buy matters because it affects their therapeutic value, according to the American College of Healthcare Sciences. This is especially true if you’re using the oils for aromatherapy. If you mix a few drops of lavender into your bathwater to help you feel calmer or add eucalyptus to your diffuser to help you breathe easier, you want to make sure these oils are working to their fullest potential. If you massage your skin with oils that are absorbed directly into your bloodstream, you want to know they are free of adulterants that can harm your body.
When shopping for essential oils in a store or online, how do you sift through all of the choices to ensure you’re buying the highest quality brand? It can be hard to tell by just reading the label alone.
Dark Glass Bottles
Always buy oils in glass containers rather than plastic bottles because their chemical compounds can break down and dissolve the plastic, causing the oil to become contaminated. Essential oils are also sensitive to light, so they should be stored in dark blue, green, violet, or amber containers to keep unfiltered light from seeping in and degrading the oil. Check the temperature of the bottle, too. Heat can also alter the composition of essential oils, so make sure the oil is stored in a cool place.
Unscrew the cap to make sure the oil is sealed with an orifice reducer - a plug that limits how many drops come out at once. Not only does this help with measuring out doses, but it also prolongs the shelf life of essential oils and keeps them pure. Oils with droppers allow air to flow into the bottle, and if droppers are made with rubber or plastic, they can break down and release synthetic chemicals into the oil.
Be cautious about labels containing phrases such as “eco-friendly,” “pure,” “therapeutic grade” or “aromatherapy grade.” There is no official grading system for essential oils or governing organization that monitors their purity or quality. Though companies may create their own set of standards or seals of approval, these terms vary from one company to the next and are often marketing ploys. Unless you’re intentionally purchasing a diluted blend of essential oils, be wary of products that list “perfume oil,” “fragrance oil” or “nature identical oil” in the ingredients. This usually means the oil isn’t 100 percent pure and has carrier oils or synthetic components of the natural oil added to the mix.
Make sure the label of any essential oil you buy includes both the common name and the Latin name of its plant source. There are multiple essential oils called lavender or chamomile, for example, but their potential benefits may differ depending on their species. This also helps ensure you’re getting the real thing and not a cheaper hybrid. The Federal Trade Commission requires companies to put the exact contents of a product on the label, so generic names are a red flag. If the label just says “lavender oil” or “chamomile,” you could be buying perfumed oil that may or may not contain material from the actual plant.
Choose essential oils with the USDA organic seal. This gives you added assurance that the plants the oils were derived from were grown without herbicides and pesticides. Organic regulations also require the oil extracted from the plant to be pure with no synthetic substances added to the mix. Organic oils are more expensive than oils from conventionally grown plants, but they are higher quality and safer to use, especially oils in the citrus family, which tend to contain pesticides.
Watch out for essential oils priced exactly alike or with super low price tags. There’s a reason these oils are usually pricey. They are so highly concentrated that it can take a roomful of plants just to fill up one bottle of essential oil. If a plant source is scarce, that can drive up the cost of an essential oil even more. Essential oils like lavender, rosemary and sweet orange, for example, are abundant so they tend to be more affordable, but rose, lemon balm, jasmine and chamomile varieties are rare and more expensive. Production costs vary for different types of oils, so prices should reflect that. If all of the essential oils produced by a particular company are priced similarly, consider them suspect and look for a different manufacturer.
Know Your Supplier
You can buy essential oils from many different companies, but how do you know which one is the best? It pays to do some research on the manufacturer or supplier you’re considering buying from to learn more about their agricultural practices, production and distribution methods, quality assurance processes and reputation in the industry. Are they known for quality products? Do they own their own farms? How do they cultivate and distill their oils?
It’s best to steer clear of companies with long supply chains. The more levels of producers, wholesalers, distributors and sellers involved, the greater your risk of receiving adulterated or reconstituted oils that are less than pure. Reputable companies typically conduct gas chromatography (GC) and mass spectrometry (MS) testing to analyze the chemical constituents of their oils and determine whether they meet the standards of the plant species. These tests can also help identify additives or impurities in the oils.
Can’t find the GC-MS label on a bottle? Search the company’s website or call its customer service line to learn more about its testing practices before you purchase its products.
Testing Your Oils
A bottle of essential oil may be labeled as 100 percent natural, but how do you know that’s actually the case? Do this easy test to find out. Place a single drop of essential oil on white printer paper and let it dry. Rub the oil with your thumb. If it feels greasy or leaves an oily ring behind, it’s likely been diluted with a vegetable, nut or seed oil and is not completely pure. The exceptions are essential oils such as rose, jasmine, vanilla, sandalwood, vetiver, German chamomile and patchouli, which are heavier in consistency and have deeper hues.
When choosing the right essential oils for you, let your nose be your guide. Oils that work for someone else might not be the best ones for you. If you’re allergic to a certain type of plant, for example, you’ll likely be allergic to its essential oil. When testing oils, remember that the undiluted oil is strong and can give you a headache. Hold the tester at least five inches from your nose and gently sniff. It’s a smart idea to take a break between scents, since inhaling oils too closely together can overwhelm your senses and skew your ability to discern between fragrances.
Always do a skin patch test before putting essential oil on your skin. Mix a drop of essential oil with a half teaspoon of a carrier oil (such as coconut or almond oil), then dab the mixture on your upper arm. Wait a few hours to make sure no itching or redness develops before using it further.
Most essential oils have a shelf life of two to three years, though you may be able to extend that slightly by keeping oils in a cool, dark place. Oils break down over time, so remember to check expiration dates. And it’s usually better to buy less instead of more. A 10-milliliter bottle should last for a few months, even if you use it frequently, and buying too much is a waste of money and product.