What you need to know about essential oils
Essential oils are all the rage right now, and consumers are jumping on the bandwagon with rampant enthusiasm. Years ago, I was not a believer in their therapeutic use — I truly considered it hippie voodoo. But, I was wrong beyond measure.
Research is conclusively showing more and more benefits may be obtained from their topical and aromatic usage. Major medical centers, including Johns Hopkins University, Cleveland Clinic and Mayo Clinic, have nursing staff trained in the use of therapeutic essential oils. I have personally witnessed some astounding benefits with proper and directed usage.
What many people forget, however, is that an essential oil is the true “essence" or "extract” of a plant. While wholly natural, this extract is one of nature’s chemicals and needs to be respected as such. Some oils have major contraindications, such as wintergreen. Did you know that wintergreen is actually salicylic acid or aspirin? As such, it is the oil that should never be used by someone on any type of blood-thinning medication.
However, with increased consciousness around healthful living, fraudulent products claiming to prevent, treat or cure a disease almost always appear. Remember the term "snake oil salesman"?
So, how do you know what to purchase? And how do you know you are purchasing premium oils? How do you trust what you are told about them?
First, we recommend purchasing oils from certified aromatherapists, preferably associated with the National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy. An aromatherapist is someone who has been trained in the art and science of essential oils and maintains an eye toward purity and safety. Experienced and knowledgeable aromatherapists have ideally completed at least 200 hours of training, which include the study of anatomy and physiology. The knowledge of oil components and their effect on specific regions of the body cannot be underestimated.
Second, there has been some upheaval in the essential oil world with two well-known distributors receiving warning letters from the FDA in regards to making both purity and pharmaceutical claims about their oils. The addition of non-aromatic compounds or blending with cheaper oils from different parts of the plant or species to help reduce price is common.
Here are a few examples of how purity may be measured:
- Gas chromatography. Identifies individual organic components of the oils, which validate purity.
- Specific gravity. Measures the weight at 25 degrees C and compares to known pure gravities.
- Refractive index. Measures the speed at which light passing through the oil is refracted.
These tests and others can determine the authenticity and purity of an essential oil — however, they are very expensive to run. The average consumer cannot pick up a $20,000 mass spectrometer at the corner drugstore to test what they have brought home. A savvy, concerned consumer should, instead, inquire what steps the distributor takes to ensure purity before oils are brought to the market. You have the right to ask!
Are there any other ways of doing a quick check on the oils you may have already purchased? You will often see Internet recommendations to freeze the oils so see separation of components — however, this is nonsense that is unfortunately propagated by those without a chemistry education or firm understanding of essential oils. There are oils that will freeze solid or at the very least crystallize at low temperatures and become cloudy. This is not an indication of inferiority.
Here are two tests you can do at home to help you weed out any obvious pretenders:
- Texture and feel. Place a drop of oil between your fingertips. It should feel oily, not water based. There should be no evaporation. However, this test alone is not a guarantee.
- White paper test. Place a few drops of your essential oil on a white piece of paper and let sit overnight. The next morning, check for any residue. Pure essential oils will not leave a residue, where as petroleum-based extenders and solvents will.
- Contrast and compare. Educate yourself by contrasting and comparing essential oils from various brands. Check the species of plant used on the label as there are differences in which plant is used — for example clove leaf versus clove bud.
So, as you can see, let the buyer beware. Premium, pure essential oils are very expensive for a reason. If you are dedicated to the use of essential oils in your life, pursuing aromatherapy education is a very wise move. The National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy offers a list of approved schools and educators. Visit NAHA to learn more.