Aromatherapy: A New Journey
Part Seven

How to evaluate Essential Oils

by Hank Friedman

I have purchased essential oils from many companies, and tested many other oils by visiting a variety of stores and by examining my friends and colleagues collections.

And with my advanced education in chemistry as well as a very keen sense of smell, I a well-suited to the task of comparing essential oils.

In fact, for the oils that I really love -- e.g. lavender, rose, vetiver, conifers, sandalwood, jasmine, lotus, citrus, and, of course, agarwood -- I go out of my way to get bottles from many different companies in order to find the best ones. And the quality really varies a lot from one source to another.

So here are my "do's and don'ts" for finding the right for the best oils.

(But always trust your own nose first, as what speaks to one person might not for another.)

What to look for in great oils

The finest oils:

Smell very pure and completely like the fresh plant or flower. (With no artificial odors.)

Leave no chemical odor at all once they've evaporated.

Are very appealing to spend time with, and have a positive influence upon your consciousness.

Have a breadth of scent components, as opposed to a single scent note.

Have very "high notes", i.e. the initial components that you smell are very floral and uplifting.

Are ephemeral. With the exception of oils with fixative qualities (like agarwood, vetiver, and other root-derived oils), most essential oils evaporate quickly and after a short time their scent is gone.

Are very concentrated. Essential oils should be quite potent, and able to be diluted greatly and still have a lot of scent.

Warning Signs of Companies to Avoid

In evaluating companies, watch out for ones that:

1. Price oils too low. If someone has a Rose Absolute or Helichrysum or Melissa or Sandalwood priced at $25 for 5 ml, (or $50 for 5 ml of Agarwood oil) then you know that it's either fake, adulterated, or diluted.

Prices that are "too good to be true" are, in fact, clear indicators of very poor quality oils or counterfeits.

One company, for example, sells 10 ml bottles of many oils for about $10 each. That's a clear sign of very low quality or adulterated oils.

(I like Kurt Schnaubelt's view that there's a place in the world for wine by the box, and some cheap oils are like that, but many cheap oils aren't actually authentic.)

Note: One exception to the issue of low pricing occurs when a farm both grows and distills their own oils. E.g. , Rivendell Helichrysum, because it is so carefully grown and sensitively distilled, is one of the best Helichrysum oil's available, and it's remarkably inexpensive.

2. Oils that don't exist. One thing that inspired this article was a company offering steam-distilled Lilac essential oil. There were many things wrong with this offering, including the ridiculously low pricing, but in point of fact, there is no such thing as steam-distilled Lilac essential oil. It can't be done. (There is no Lily of the Valley oil either.)

I once bought "essential oils" from a purveyor via LocalHarvest, who charged under $30 each for 5 ml of allegedly steam-distilled Lilac, Magnolia, Gardenia, and Jasmine essential oils. Even though I knew that such items cannot be made (flowers such as these can only be extracted using solvents or CO2), I wanted to see what was being offered, and as I expected none of the oils were real, and they smelled like very cheap cleaning products!

3. No indication of the source.

Where the specific oil comes from is very important. E.g. Vetiver from Sri Lanka is generally much superior to Vetiver from Haiti.

Any company that doesn't show the country of origin for each oil is to be avoided.

I also frown on companies that make it hard to find the country of origin for each oil. Since it's a very important attribute of an oil, it should be made easy to find.

Note: the same oil from different countries often varies in both quality and price. Italian Helichrysum from France should be priced about half of what Italian Helichrysum is, for example, because the Italian oil has much higher potency.

4. The Hyssop test.

The essential oil of Hyssop comes from two different varieties of Hyssop:

Hyssop Officialis


Hyssop Decumbens

Hyssop Officialis is a dangerous oil that can cause seizures because it has ketones (e.g. pinocamphone) and should not be sold to the general public without clear warnings.

Hyssop Decumbens, on the other hand, is much less toxic and safe to work with.

Companies that sell the Officialis and not the Decumbens should be avoided, and those that sell both should include warning statements on the Officialis.

4a. Necessary Warnings.

To continue in this vein, another test of the integrity of essential oil purveyors is to see if other oils that need to be accompanied by warnings have such cautions in their listings.

Salicylates: About 3% of people have a hypersensitivity to aspirin and other salicylates (And a larger percentage of children and asthmatics and others with specific medical conditions).

Therefore, listings for Birch and Wintergreen oils should always come with a warning that they contain salicylates and need to be used with caution.

Similarly, most citrus oils are photosensitizing and should not be applied before going out in the Sun. This also needs to be noted for listings of such oils.

5. MLMs and common store brands. As I mentioned previously, I went to a very respectable herb and crystal store in San Francisco and explored every oil they offered from at least seven different popular companies.

Given that I was actually eager to acquire more oils, I was both shocked and surprised at the universally low quality of virtually all of the oils, and only found one oil worth purchasing from out of over a hundred oils.

Similarly, I've looked into oils from marketing and referral-driven companies, and with the exception of oils from Young Living, which are both pure and very high quality (albeit sometimes high priced), the other sources had very sub-par offerings.

6. The absence of CO2 extracts.

There are, as those reading my columns know, three main ways to create oils: steam (and hydro) distillation, solvent extraction (aka absolutes), and extraction using supercritical CO2.

CO2 extracts contain both the water-soluble and oil-soluble aromatics while the other methods only contain the oil-soluble fractions.

As a result, in many cases CO2 extracts are significantly more potent and therapeutic than their counterparts.

For example, German Chamomile obtained via CO2 extraction is 10 times as anti-inflammatory than the steam-distilled version.

(There are two uncommon possible downsides to CO2 extracts: some extracts, like Ginger, are much sharper than their steam-distilled brethren, and can be too harsh for some uses; and on rare occasions, if a plant is sprayed with pesticides, CO2 could concentrate them, so if you're cooking with CO2 extracts, make sure they're organic.)

If companies offer no CO2 extracts, therefore, they may still have fine oils, but they're "behind the curve" and need to catch up.

7. Speaking of Organic.

If a company doesn't mention whether their oils are organic, wild-crafted, or commercially grown, then avoid them.

If they only sell commercially grown oils, again move on.

Organic oils are very worthwhile, but oils harvested from plants in the wild are the best.

8. Overpricing.

One of the most popular blogs that evaluates essential oil companies recommends one that charges too much for their oils.

While suspiciously low-priced Rose or Jasmine or Helichrysum is a loud warning sign, so are huge prices for common oils. E.g. one company charges over $76 for 5ml of Blue Tansy oil, twice what is fair price.

In addition, some very rare oils, like Oudh/Agarwood oil and most Chinese oils, require a great deal of knowledge and care to extract correctly. I've found that unless a company specializes in distilling Agarwood oil, for example, the Oudh offered is both quite over-priced and low grade.

I have listed essential oil companies that I respect and trust here, and I encourage you to compare quality and pricing yourself.

9. Too Few Oils.

It is understandable that companies that are just starting out might only offer a few oils, but when I visit a very elaborate essential oil website only to discover that the offerings are skimpy, and that some very important oils are not even available, I am dismayed.


End of Part Seven

(Note: Unlike many websites that "review" essential oils but are actually making a profit by selling oils via affiliations, I have no financial relationship with any aromatherapy company.)

Part One:
Aromatherapy: A New Journey

Part Two:
Finding the best essential oils

Part Three:
Early Insights

Part Four:
The different methods of extraction

Part Five:
Exquisite Scents

Part Six:
The Essential Oil Company
I didn't want to love

Part Eight:
A Phenomenally Great Essential Oil Company

Part Nine:
Essential Oil Shootouts

Part Ten:
Using GC/MS
to determine the quality of essential oils

and also, my blog on:

The Magical oil called Oud

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