A Budding Herbalist's Guide to Purchasing the Best Essential Oils for Your Family
"Aromatherapy is shamanism for everyone." " Kurt Schinaubelt Medical Aromatherapy, Healing with Essential Oils.
I have been using, studying, and teaching about aromatherapy for at least 14 years in my position as a holistic esthetician and esthetics instructor. I grew up smelling like tea tree and lavender all the time, as my mother is a Naturopathic Dr. and essential oils were one of the many plant medicines used in our house regularly. In my herbalism education, I've learned that essential oils are the big guns as far as herbal medicine goes. The big guns work efficiently and quickly but aren't as gentle as a water infusion or decoction (teas) or an alcohol extraction such as a tincture. Essential oils are best in acute healing rather than chronic conditions, and their use should be with intention. It is best every once in a while to switch up the oil you regularly use. For example, if you use rose day after day- year after year in your skincare, your body gets somewhat overwhelmed by it, and you may consider switching seasonally. Because essential oils are highly concentrated, one should be very careful, especially when consuming them internally. Our liver is responsible for breaking these components down, and because of the high concentration, it can be pretty harsh on the liver. Do consider this when your well-meaning but un-trained friend who is selling essential oils recommends drinking grapefruit juice essential oil every day in your water to lose weight. (This was a true story when I went against my own better judgment and got sick)! I am personally wary of companies that push toward daily internal consumption, such as adding to your daily water, because I feel this is marketing toward consumption culture, not toward the betterment of the health of all. I will leave that point right there for you and not say anything further regarding internal use here. My point here is that just because essential oils come from the earth, it does not mean they are harmless.
Essential oils are highly concentrated liquid plant compounds. Plants produce them to defend themselves, attract the correct pollinators, and send warnings to fellow plants. Clinical and medical use of essential oils began in the early 1900s. But, of course, the use of aromatic plants has been around for centuries. Essential oils provide clinically proven physiological and psychological benefits. The chemical intelligence of plants speaks directly to our systems, almost like we live on this earth synergistically!
Chances are you have tried an essential oil or two, or maybe you have an entire collection! But what should one look for when choosing an essential oil to purchase? Will any oil be okay? The truth is, not all oils are equal, and there are different qualities of oils. It does not just boil down to "Therapeutic Grade." Today, essential oils are having a real moment, and there are lots of options. I wanted to put together an easy-to-follow guide on purchasing suitable essential oils for therapeutic use (meaning to treat or prevent a condition). These considerations are for inhalation, topically, and those rare instances when you may consider internal use. If you purchase cleaning products, which essential oils are fantastic for, the following is not as important.
These items should always be available either on the bottle, on the website, or easily by contacting the vendor.
Because essential oils are a highly concentrated extract from the plant, you must purchase only organic essential oils for therapeutic use. Otherwise, along with concentrated plant material, you will also be receiving concentrated herbicides and pesticides, AKA poison.
2. Extraction method
There are multiple ways to extract the essential oil from the plant. Each plant has its own best extraction method, and this is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor. Distillation is a very clean method using both temperature and pressure for extraction. Cold pressing is also a clean method using two marble slabs to press the oil from the plant. CO2 extraction uses CO2 gas, which turns to liquid in a pressurized chamber, as this pressure also breaks down the plant's cell walls, the liquid CO2 extracts, then turns back into a gas, and the sticky resin is left over. Solvent extraction is also known as "absolute" " (such as Rose Absolute). This extraction method is done by using a liquid chemical to extract essential oils, alcohol, hexane, ethanol, ether, methanol, or even petroleum. Solvent extraction should never be used therapeutically (including topically) as there will always be some trace of the solvent left over.
3. Country of Origin
The country of origin is important because the climate and soil conditions can alter the plant. For example, French lavender is different than English lavender and even has a different scent. While English lavender is considered safe during pregnancy, Spanish lavender is known to be contraindicated.
4. Botanical Name
The two-part Latin name of a plant is an accurate description of with which plant you are dealing. Every single plant on earth has a Latin botanical name. Listing the botanical name helps avoid any confusion as the common name for a plant can vary.
5. Part of the Plant Extracted
Which plant part has been extracted is vital because different plant parts have various chemical constituents and other benefits. For example, the cinnamon leaf has a more pungent, more intense cinnamon aroma, while cinnamon bark is spicier and can irritate the skin. In addition, they have different energetics to them and can be used differently for emotional purposes.
If these five factors are present, chances are, the vendor you are dealing with is better than most. Finding a vendor you trust is essential. Other factors to consider are the environment the plants were grown in, you will most likely not see this listed on the bottle, of course, but you may find some education on this from your vendor. Storage of the oil, you want to purchase oils that are in dark glass bottles. Avoid oils sold in plastic bottles or clear bottles. Essential oils will degrade plastic, and light shining through a clear glass will oxidize the oil. Always avoid fragrance or perfume, these compounds can be endocrine-disrupting, cancer-causing, and aside from that, they have hijacked our olfactory system changing our sense of smell! Avoid an "essential oil" labeled as an unnatural scent, like a sugar cookie- there is no sugar cookie essential oil, unfortunately. I mention this because I have seen a "sugar cookie essential oil" on the store shelf! EEEK! Avoid oils that have been adulterated by adding synthetics or blending with additional low-quality oils, mixing with a carrier oil, and not disclosing this information.
Therapeutic Grade and Pure
The terms "pure" and "Therapeutic Grade" can be confusing… of course, if an essential oil is not pure, it is not of good quality and has been adulterated somehow. The confusion comes in because there is no standardization for labeling essential oil as pure. Just because it is labeled pure does not mean it is high quality. You have to trust the vendor by researching and checking for the five items in the above list. The same goes for the term "therapeutic grade." Generally, therapeutic grade is an agreed-upon term in the industry that all of the above factors are followed, but not always. Some clinical aromatherapists feel skeptical of companies that use this term. I will leave that up to you to decide but again, do your research rather than blindly trusting the term. Once you start to use high-quality essential oils regularly, your nose will be your biggest asset. You can begin to tell what is good and not by sniffing a sample or a tester.
Like with skincare, be careful of Amazon because you can't be sure if care has been taken or if they are adulterated. Amazon does not vet its vendors or the products they sell. Therefore, there is no guarantee that what is in the bottle is what is listed on the label. I carry a small but growing selection of essential oils that I have vetted in both my brick and mortar and my online shop. You can view them here.