The Science and Spirit of Aromatherapy
ESSENTIAL OIL PURITY
By Larry Jones
Essential oil purity, a little discussed topic, is vital to essential oil therapy and to the future of Aromatherapy. In a NAHA (National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy) survey, 100% of Aromatherapists agreed it is extremely important to have pure and natural essential oils. However, most essential oils produced worldwide are sold as flavor and fragrance materials, and the industry has a long tradition of altering essential oils in order to “standardize” and/or “extend” them.
Lack of purity is not only a problem with big producers and distributors, small essential oil producers have a checkered history of quality issues, wrong chemotypes, or post production alteration. The practitioner, student, and researcher should demand to know if their essential oils are real, or at least match to the chemical distribution indicated by the botanical name on the label.
Scientific analysis, preferably GC/MS (Gas Chromatography/ Mass Spectrometry), of the essential oil directly before its final use is the ideal way to insure purity and integrity. At Elizabeth Van Buren, we analyze every batch of our essential oil, and use analysis to constantly upgrade our oil sources. This assures that no matter which Elizabeth Van Buren essential oil you purchase, it is going to be pure and of the highest quality.
Organoleptic Evaluation of Essential Oils
Smelling an essential oil is valuable for detecting some adulterants, but mainly off odor constituents such as “still” notes, which do make subjective, psychological impressions, but have little impact on the objective therapeutic value of the oil. At Elizabeth Van Buren we not only sort the essential oils by analysis but also by smell.
Analysis evaluation of essential oils
Most labs use GC analysis solely which gives only a two dimensional analysis. GC/MS yields a three dimensional analysis which precisely identifies essential oil constituents and percentages, and more correctly identifies adulterated oils than an experienced nose. The instrumentation of GC/MS is specifically optimized for analysis of essential oils which is critical for determining purity and quality. Essential oil therapy is complex in its healing, and only a thorough analysis can substantiate the purity of the oil.
Purity and quality defined
A pure essential oil is one that is distilled or extracted from a single botanical variety, nothing is added or taken away. Elizabeth Van Buren analyzes for the following adulterants:
Non fragrant solvents
Co-distilling with other plant material
Fractions of other essential oils
Synthetic ‘nature identical’ essential oil components
Synthetic fragrance materials and their isomers
The quality of an essential oil is determined by a number of factors including plant quality, harvest, production technique, and environmental conditions which directly affect the percentages of each component of the essential oil. Botanical variety and chemotype identification also play a part in determining quality. Additionally, an essential oil does not have to be adulterated to be inferior. Some oils labeled ‘certified organic’ or ‘100% pure’ are not always pure and may actually be of lower quality than non-organic, and can still be adulterated. Such labels will become trivialized like ‘natural’ without the analytical data to back them up. It’s also important to remember that pesticides have large chemical structures which prevent them from being distilled.
All of us using essential oils as integrative medicine are creating a niche market for a new generation of essential oils. Analysis, preferably GC/MS, will continue to have a positive influence on essential oil purity and quality. Science may appear to pop the mysterious bubble around the metaphysical aspect of aromatherapy, but spirit never shies from science and the earnest pursuit of truth, for it is the source of material reality while the mind is the organizer. Science is the foundation from where we can build essential oil therapy into the lofty healing and beautifying art it is designed to be.