This blog is dedicated to weeding out the myths and mysteries surrounding Essential Oils, and getting to the root of how they can best be used, with the greatest overall benefit. (Pardon the plant puns…). Realistically, this should be a series of blogs, because the information is so vast- I will see what evolves. Here it goes…
Essential Oils have been used by humans for thousands of years for their medicinal, spiritual, and healing properties. Essential Oils contain the fragrance molecules of plants, and are located within the stems, leaves, flowers, and fruits. These oils are made up of many chemicals, some of them volatile in nature, resulting in a wide range of fragrances. Essential Oils are what make Rose petals smell delicately sweet, and give Mint leaves their minty menthol smell. The purpose of these oils is to defend the plant by repelling pests, or helping the plant to create seeds by attracting pollinators. Various methods are used by people to extract these oils from fresh and dried plant matter. The most frequent method used is steam distillation.
The great number of Essential Oils that can be produced, are as wide ranging as the variety of plants on the planet. The applications for all of these oils is even greater in number! The Food, Pharmaceutical, Cosmetic, and Chemical Industries have been using Essential Oils for many decades. All of these industries utilize many oils, extracts from Essential Oils, and by products created from processing Essential Oils, in a wide assortment of consumer and industrial products. The majority of Essential Oils produced are used to create flavors, and fragrances. The FDA maintains a list of Essential Oils it regards as safe for use as food additives, and what is referred to as the GRAS (Generally Regarded as Safe) list. It does not maintain a system for grading the quality of the types of Essential Oils in products used by consumers, or pure Essential Oils available in the free market.
That being said, there are many terms now used to describe the quality of an Essential Oil, all of which were created by those dealing in Essential Oils, including the producers, and professionals using them. With the rapidly increasing popularity of Essential Oils in the general public, some confusion has been created around the meaning and validity of these terms. Some of the popular terms used today are “therapeutic grade” , “food grade”, “pharmaceutical grade”, and “cosmetic grade”.
“Therapeutic grade” implies the Essential Oil is from the first extraction, or distillation of a plant. If done correctly, it is the purest and most concentrated form of a plant oil/Essential Oil. This is the desired form for medicinal purposes. Essential Oils used by the Food Industry can be referred to as “food grade”. For many types of plants, this is the oil or byproducts collected from a second, or third distillation of an Essential Oil. (It is at this part in the process that specific chemicals in the Essential Oils can also be extracted and isolated.) These oils, and Essential Oil byproducts are used for flavoring and aroma for foods and food products, and for scenting commercial soaps, toiletries, and household cleaners- most often in combination with synthetic compounds. The Pharmaceutical and Cosmetic industries use Essential Oils derived from both processes. Therefore, the terms “pharmaceutical grade” and “cosmetic grade” don’t mean much (but really, neither do the terms “therapeutic” or “food” grade).
The only way to know for sure if an Essential Oil is pure, and of the desired chemical makeup, is to have it lab tested. Essential Oil producers, and suppliers will have their oils lab tested. This determines the pricing, and use. Every true Essential Oil has its own chemical “fingerprint”. Chemists, and lab technicians can view these Essential Oil “fingerprints” by a process known as Gas Chromatography. This is the standard to which all Essential Oils are measured. It is an expensive service, and not very many labs are open to public business for this purpose. Many large corporations have their own labs that not only test the oils, but design product uses for them.
True Essential Oils are expensive. This is due to several factors, but mainly because it takes a lot of plant material to create a small amount of oil. For instance, it takes 50 bushels (approximately 1,200 pounds) of fresh Rose petals to produce one ounce of pure Rose Oil. Pure Rose Oil (called Rose Absolute) currently retails for over $200 for one fluid ounce. It’s not something you will find on the shelf in your local health food store. If you come across “Rose Absolute” retailing at $14 for a one ounce bottle, it is not the real deal! It has been adulterated by adding other liquids to it, sometimes plant oils, but often petroleum. Furthermore, it is just not possible for there to be as much pure Rose Oil on the market, as is claimed by retailers, because there just is not that much pure Rose Oil available annually.
The region of the world plants were grown for an Essential Oil can also be an indicator of quality. Bulgaria produces the majority of the worlds’ Rose Oil. The climate there lends itself to growing roses ideal for making high quality Essential Oil. The United States produces most of the worlds’ Peppermint Oil. It is one of the products counted as part of America’s Gross Domestic Product- GDP. Essential Oils are globally traded commodities. The production of oils employs many people around the globe, mostly farmers, and farm workers.
The study and use of Essential Oils for health is called Aromatherapy. When it comes to applying Essential Oils for health and healing, there are three schools of thought; British, French, and German. The British method teaches about using oils applied topically, as well as fragrance applications. The French method focuses on using oils via oral ingestion, and fragrance. The German methods focus primarily on fragrance value of Essential Oils. The British method is taught here in the US, and is the accepted standard. It is generally against the ingestion of Essential Oils. Reputable Aromatherapists, and those well educated on Essential Oils from ideals of the British, French, or German, will never recommend the regular or prolonged oral ingestion of Essential Oils.
To buy from a reputable source, use the information you have just read about. Know your Essential Oil retailer. Find out about where the oil comes from. Know the market value. Ask if a certificate of authenticity can be provided by the producer for the oil you want to purchase. Buy from someone who really knows how to use Essential Oils for the greatest health benefit. Do your own research.
In closing, the likelihood of someone being caused serious, or permanent damage from the use of Essential is very low. However, it is important to use Essential Oils so they have the greatest benefit, and create no risk for adverse health effects. When used properly, they are some of the greatest healing tools on the planet.