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 plantsto make ointments and herbal concoctions—medicines, perfumes, and resins—as far back as 4500BC, while in China, the first use of aromatic plantswas 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 ofIntegrative 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. Usuallythey 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 posethe 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(Video) BEST ESSENTIAL OILS OF 2022: Honest Review of the Top 5 Brands
Chemical burns of the mucous membranes
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 isbecause of the flavorand fragrance marketthat 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 profileevery 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 andthat’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 ormiddle 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. Brokerchemists' 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, sellingthis 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]boughtthe 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 asit 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'sa 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 be99.9%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 tryingto 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.
While these can be hard to measure, the Global Reporting Initiative provide metrics to measure its practice.
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 atprofit 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 materialmust 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 ShouldThink 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 fewsafety 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.