What to Look for when Buying Essential Oils & Carrier Oils
Posted by : Ashley Southard /
How do I pick quality oils?
Cost doesn’t always equate to quality, but if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
Oils can be full of fillers that can lead to irritation and often completely counteract the benefit that the essential oil is providing. You’re likely to see minimal benefit – or worse, excess irritation!
So how can you make an educated decision when purchasing oils? A few ways…
What to look for when buying oils:
First, let’s explore things that you don’t want to see on your labels:
- A really cheap price tag: if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
3 pounds of lavender flowers are required to make 5 mL of lavender essential oil
105 pounds of – or 242,000 rose petals – are required to make 5 mL of rose oil
50 lemons are used to make 5 mL of lemon essential oil
Now, if the company is using quality products to make their essential oils, you can’t expect these high quantities necessary to be that cheap, right?! Think of it this way…
How much do lemons cost when you buy them? Multiply that by 50!
The average rose contains anywhere from 20-40 petals, so to make 5 mL of rose oil, you’d need anywhere from 6,000 to 12,000 roses!
It takes 30 square feet to produce 3 pounds of lavender flowers.
Keep in mind: carrier oils will be less expensive than essential oils – you can get much more oil from 242,000 almonds than you can from 242,000 rose petals!
- “Certified therapeutic” or “certified clinical grade”
There is ZERO industry standard or certification for essential oils – there are only trade organizations that aim to establish standards. Any company can determine their own in-house definition of “clinical” or “therapeutic” grade and place it on their labels.
- “Cold-pressed” on an essential oil – this is a big head’s up that the oil is not pure (unless it’s a citrus oil, as citrus oils are obtained from pressing the citrus peel), as pure essential oils are steam distilled (not pressed, or chemically distilled for that matter!)
Now, we’ll explore what you do want to see on your essential oil labels (or on the brand's website):
First Press & Cold Press (Carrier Oils): carrier oils are obtained by pressing nuts or seeds. First press means it’s the oil from – you guessed it – the first press of the nut or seed, and cold press means that no heat was used in the process, which ensures minimal (or no) chemical compound change.
Steam Distilled or Hydrodistilled (Essential Oils): unless it’s a citrus oil that’s extracted from the citrus peel, you want to make sure that the essential oil you’re buying is steam distilled or hydrostilled (also referred to as water distilled):
During the steam distillation process, steam passes through the plant, causing the essential oil to rise to the top and separate from the hydrosol (floral water);
For plants (mostly florals) that are extra delicate and excessively sensitive to heat, hydrodistillation is used instead of steam: the plant comes into direct contact with the water; the essential oil components form an azeotropic mixture with water, are then separated by decantation.
Note: these tests may not show on every bottle’s label (after all, they’re pretty small bottles with limited label real estate), but the oil company will, if applicable, provide this information online – through their website or social media.
GC/MS Testing: short for Gas Chromatography/Mass Spectrometry, it’s considered the “gold standard” in essential oil testing. It will determine whether there are any additives and/or fillers, specifically what’s in the oil, and the percentages of each beneficial compound within the oil, and more.
Note: GC/MS Testing is extremely expensive, so start-up and small-batch oil producers generally will not be able to afford it – this doesn’t mean it’s bad oil. But, if you’re looking at oils distributed through big box retailers such as Amazon, Walmart, Target, and so on (as opposed to farmer’s markets, smaller outfits, and natural stores), be cautious when there are more commercialized brands that would seem to have the financial backing for GC/MS testing, but don’t.
If you’re doing your research into a company that does feature GC/MS testing, you’ll want to look for the chemist signature in their reporting: it guarantees the authenticity of the test plus and gives a contact name that you can use should you have concerns about the test results – no chemist would jeopardize his/her name in the name of fraudulent essential oil results!
Refractive Index Testing: a more affordable alternative to GC/MS testing, the RI test measures the speed at which light passes through an essential oil – how the speed changes as it’s passed through the oil. The oil in question is tested, and then compared to the standardized RI of the corresponding reliable oil; if the RI differs, it means the essential oil has been adulterated.
3rd Party Testing: if a company does its own testing in house, there’s no system of checks and balances – who’s to say that one day they won’t fudge a number or claim? If the company does not boast GC/MS testing, find out if another organization is testing their product in other ways, and determine that it’s truly a third party – not just a shell company!
Latin botanical/scientific name: that hard to pronounce name usually found in italics under the plain English name. Some (not all) oils will also have a chemotype, which is when an oil from the same type of plant exhibits different chemical properties when grown in different locations
Indigenous or wild-crafted: means that the oil has come from a plant grown in its indigenous location – where it naturally grows. It’s a signal that it’s less likely to be genetically modified, since it’s already in its optimal-growth environment.
If the label doesn’t specifically say “indigenous” or “wild-crafted,” look for a country of origin.
*Note: if the country of origin is USA, but it’s a plant that doesn’t naturally grow in the US, consider looking for an oil that shows the corresponding country of origin.
Distillation date and/or expiration date: yes, oils do expire – especially when used often, as every time the bottle is opened, oxygen enters and reacts with the oil inside. Since the essential oil companies don’t generally want to be responsible for the large difference in expiration date that can result from using an oil sporadically to using it daily, most will only put the distillation date. As a general rule, if you use the oil daily, get ride of it after a year; if you rarely use it, it’s good for about 3 years (as long as stored in a dark, dry place).
Organic: means that the plant from which the oil has come from was grown in accordance with the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) standards of organic farming, meaning no toxic and persistent pesticides, GMOs, or nitrogen fertilizers were used during the plant’s lifespan.
“Keep out of reach of children” and/or “not for internal use” there’s a common misconception that oils displaying these phrases on the label are impure/of bad quality, when they actually have no relation to the oil’s purity – it just means the company is well-versed in corporate/legal verbiage! Since essential oils are extremely potent, they should always be kept away from children. On that same token, since essential oils are so potent, companies must protect themselves from legal liability should someone choose to over-ingest peppermint oil in their peppermint mochas!
CO-OP, ASSOCIATION, & TRADE
Cooperative, Initiative, Sustainability, and/or other verified Association Memberships: anyone can make up an association and slap it on a label to make it seem legit (akin to “therapeutic” and “clinical” grade), but there are certain ones that really do signal authenticity:
This organization is focused more on the ethical guidelines behind use, education, and sustainability of essential oil use and less about organic production, but membership to this Association generally gives you a clue as to how importance ethics are to the company, as members must adhere to the NAHA Code of Ethics.ATC: Aromatherapy Trade Counsel
Similar to NAHA, ATC members must adhere to a Code of Practice. The ATC is focused on consumer safety through the safe usage of essential oils, which is achieved by establishing coordinated policies within the trade, and by publishing guidelines for safety, labelling and packaging.
AIRASE: Association for the International Researched of Aromatic Science & Education
A community passionate about unadulterated, genuine essential oils, that strives to educate consumers and companies regarding scientific validity of essential oil benefits, while ensuring sustainable growth so that generations to come are able to experience the benefits as well.
Countless more can be cross-referenced here.
When in doubt, look it up.
On the label:
- Latin/botanical name
- “wildcrafted,” “indigenous,” or a country of origin
- Distillation date – will not always have expiration date
- Indication of GC/MS or 3rd party testing
- Any trade/association symbols à look them up online/on their website
On the website
- Verification of type of GC/MS or 3rd party testing – some companies simply don’t have room to fit the testing on their label, so it may just be listed on their website.
- Verify any of the trade/association symbols you see on the label
- Sourcing of oils and plants (for example: are they only from the US? Or do they come from countless countries?)
- Extraction method – for carrier oils, you want cold/first press; for essential oils, you want to see steam or hydro distilled, and/or a guarantee that no chemicals or solvents are used during the process.