Essential oil purity and quality is vital to essential oil therapy and should be the highest priority in using essential oils in treatment. Adulterated and low quality essential oils are an ever-increasing problem as demand outpaces supply. Using bad oils on a client, at best, results in a lower than expected curative effect, but worse, they may actually have a negative or toxic reaction in both the practitioner and client. Using pure and high quality oils are good for your client, business, and reduces your exposure to liability.
Currently organic essential oils are perceived as the answer to these purity and quality problems, but choosing an “organic” essential oil does not mean it is pure or even good quality. Organic herbs and food is an ideal that is worth striving for and it positively impacts our health. Unfortunately, regulating and verifying the organic status of essential oils is not so clear because there are no developed guidelines and routine analytical procedures.
This paper asserts that analysis of essential oils, ideally by GC-MS (Gas Chromatograph/Mass Spectrometry), if done properly, can reveal their purity and quality and hence the value, safety and effectiveness. This transcends any organic claim. Otherwise, you are on your own with a label that says pure and a nose that is not sure.
Initially and up to this day, the necessity of testing is that most worldwide production of essential oils is for flavor and fragrance materials. The essential oil/fragrance industry has a long tradition of altering essential oils in the form of “standardization” and/or “extending” them. Purity is a problem with many big producers and distributors. Even the smaller essential oil producers and distributors are found to have quality problems too. Very few aromatherapy companies know what is in their oils because no one in the supply chain is analyzing their oils or in some cases outright doctoring their results. There are practical considerations; analysis is expensive, complex and takes years of experience.
There are no Aromatherapy/Essential Oil Therapy standards for essential oils to be used as therapeutic agents. There are standards for essential oils like FCC and ISO, but they are a double-edged sword. These standards do represent, in most cases, reasonable profiles of purity but the other edge is, they can be used by the essential oil industry to “standardize” oils. An essential oil therapy standard may be different and may reflect an overall balance of constituents including those occurring in small amounts. Whereas, standards published by ISO set the percentages of the main constituents only. This leaves the door wide open for concocted oils.
Many essential oil producers and supplier now circumvent this checkered history of quality issues, wrong chemotypes and even adulteration by obtaining “organic certification”. This certification process runs up the cost of essential oils and as a result of the popular hype about the term “organic”, you are now paying 2-4 times over the price of conventionally produced oils.
The current and most deceptive problems are with “organic” oils. Aside from organic certification not regulating quality and not preventing adulteration, is that “organic” clouds the issue of essential oil safety. The naturally occurring toxic constituents of an essential oil are the same in “organic” oils as non-organic oils. Knowledge of what is in the oil is more important for the safe use of essential oils.
Developing essential oil standards for essential oil therapy/aromatherapy has been discussed in several circles over the years, but because of cost of administration, setting up labs, certifying them and the analysis cost all by itself, it has turned out to be an overwhelming task and cost that only a well-organized and well funded organization could handle. But, an organizational attempt to deal with the analytical and administrative challenge for self-regulation would be desirable before essential oil therapy/aromatherapy looses its “therapy” from an overdose of bad oils.
The value of essential oil analysis is far reaching in that it impacts three factors of concern to producers, suppliers, manufacturers, retailers, and users, i.e., practitioners.
1. Safety (Purity and chemotype)
2. Effectiveness (Purity and quality)
3. Economics (knowing what is in the oil you are selling or buying)
GC-MS analysis elucidates all three by chemotype verification, quality determination and purity evaluation. Analysis, preferably by GC-MS, of the finished product that is used in therapy is the way to insure the integrity of the oil purchased.
As essential oil therapy is complex in its healing effects and is much more than smell, it takes much more than a nose to tell if an essential oil is pure. The only way to really substantiate the purity is to analyze the oil. This process has two phases: purity and quality.
Analysis for Purity:
Fillers or artificial substances may be added such as:
1. Non fragrant solvents like estrogen mimicking phthalates, fixed oils, and other diluents
2. Fractions of, or other essential oils
3. Synthetic ‘nature identical’ essential oil components
4. Synthetic fragrance materials and their isomers which are mostly allergenic, sensitizing, endocrine disrupting and some carcinogenic.
Among these, other undesirables found in trace amounts are preservatives, dissolved plastic and oxidation products. Purity is also affected by post distillation processing like fractional distillation and other chemical treatment.
Analysis for Quality:
An essential oil does not have to be adulterated to be inferior. Plant quality, climate, location, growing conditions, harvest, and production technique have a lot to do with quality. Of course, environmental conditions directly affect the percentages of each component of the essential oil. Botanical variety and Chemotype identification also play a part in quality determination. Like organic, ‘wild crafted’ is another overused term. Many imported essential oils come from non-plantation sources.
In choosing essential oils the priorities are:
1. The essential oil is high quality due to growing and distilling conditions.
3. Correct chemotype
4. GC-MS reports to back-up 1,2, and 3
5. Lastly, labeled natural, pure, tested, organic, wild crafted, etc. with the lot number or batch number that is traceable back to the GC-MS report
There is a big difference between “Certified Organic” and “organic”. To be certified there are regulations, inspections, GMP, ISO 9000 and more. Once the seal is broken on a drum by anyone not certified in the chain of custody, the oil then becomes “organic” and no longer can the term “certified” be used. In another words, if the grower releases the material as “Certified Organic” the distiller, the bottler, the manufacturer, etc who takes possession of the material after that all must be “certified” as well or the chain of custody is broken. Most essential oil companies at this time are not certified by the USDA and therefore are falsely claiming they are selling “Certified Organic” materials when in fact they are breaking the chain of custody requirements. Therapists are now paying a premium for organic oils with the implied assurance the oil they are buying is pure and high quality. Without analytical data to back up the “pure” claim on the label, “organic” may become trivialized like “natural” has become.
In my opinion, a greater scientific chemical understanding of essential oils is gained through the exploration of purity and quality. GC-MS analysis is vital for that.
For the last 15-20 years, essential oil therapy’s demand for clean, high quality oils has been stimulated by scientific analysis and research. The community has made some impact on the production and distribution practices of the worldwide essential oil industry. Everyone using essential oils in therapies as integrative medicine are creating a niche market for a new generation of essential oils. Analysis by and for therapists will continue to have positive influence on essential oil purity, quality, discovery and treatment.