One of the most frequently asked questions in aromatherapy and about essential oils concerns their quality.  All users, domestic or professional, like to think that they use “good quality” essential oils for aromatherapy.  As human beings our natural inclination is to reinforce the value of our purchasing decisions.  Few people would admit to buying poor quality yet, undoubtedly, by our desire to have good quality essential oils for aromatherapy and by using the term ‘good’, we admit that there must be the opposite, bad or poor quality essential oils, which are used for what we may call aromatherapy.  Some examples can be found at the end of this article.

Around the world since the late 1980’s I have been discussing this subject with a variety of professional people from perfumers to research scientists, from aromatherapists to producers and distillers.  I have also had the privilege of lecturing on this subject world wide at a variety of seminars and events, and conducted courses on the subject at numerous schools.  Indeed, Fragrant Studies International Ltd still offers the basic course “The Quality of Essential Oils” quite regularly and this eye-opening series of lectures is always well received by aromatherapists.  One of the strengths of this course is that it is not biased toward Fragrant Earth.  My reputation has been built upon neutrality and, once the listener has comprehended the meaning of the question “what is a good quality essential oil”, then its easy to see why neutrality between suppliers is easy to understand.  This short article is therefore only a précis of a full day’s lecture.

  1. Quality is a notion, it is not an absolute.   We must firstly define what we want to use the essential oil for.  So at Fragrant Earth we define quality as ‘fit for a stated purpose’ and no more than that.  Calling a chocolate ‘Quality Street’ does not make it the worlds best chocolate compared, say, to a handmade Belgian chocolate from a specialist.  Each has a role; each chocolate has a place in the market but the two are not comparable.  This holds true for essential oils.
  1. If we accept that the word ‘quality’ has to have applied to it a designated purpose, only then can we say what is best for that specific purpose.  We have to clearly define what we want the material for.  Let’s say ‘aromatherapy’.  What is that?  There are many aromatherapies these days.  Some aromatherapy is no more than smelly fun.  Some aromatherapy is serious medicine.  Some aromatherapy is mass market beauty therapy.  Other aromatherapy is serious individual treatment.  What aromatherapy do you practice?  We have to be very honest about what we do – about the level of our training and what we expect to get from our material.
  1. Essential oils are very different from each other.  The same plant grown in one part of the world, or in another soil, will yield something quite different from that grown in its native territory.  In addition, the way it is processed from harvest to storage, from storage to distillation, will affect the end result.  There is no doubt about this, and we cannot simply hide behind illusions.  Some essential oils are produced from bad material in the first place.  Some essential oils have many chemicals added to them to ‘improve’ them, or change them.  There is no point in arguing what is fraudulent, right or wrong.  At this point we simply have to accept that there are differences in essential oils.  Some brought about by man’s intervention, some coming about by nature itself.  We should realise then that essential oils are classified by manufacturers as industrial raw materials, aimed at a specific market, for example flavourings or perfume, etc.  These industries require the same taste, the same smell, from year to year.  So it’s pretty obvious to anyone with an ounce of logic that these industries will produce standardised materials.
  1. Essential oils are standardised by their chemical componence. As hinted at above, essential oils in their primary production, coming from all over the world and sometimes from different varieties, have different chemical components.  We may see on a list for example – Geranium/ Pelargonium roseum.  That sounds fine and dandy.  But if it comes from China it will be different from that coming from Morocco.  China is cheaper than Morocco and so a blend can be made of the two, or some components taken out of one or added back to another, to simply arrive at the smell of geranium from that particular company or for a particular perfume.  These industrial products are sold on as “natural”.  Are they, or are they not?  That is a question for you to answer.  They mostly certainly come from nature but the standardised version, the reconstructed version, the rectified version, is not as near to nature as is possible.  In fact it’s probably quite a long way away from what the plant released in the sunshine from its leaves as an aroma from its essential oil.  So what do you want?
  1. The British in particular have a penchant for believing that everything should be cheaper.  The supermarket mentality.  So what people want is low price and good quality.  The two very rarely go together.  At the end of this article there is a quote from John Ruskin which I would like you to consider very seriously.  (John Ruskin was a Victorian, English philosopher).  Essentially, you only get what you pay for.  Of course there is room for savings on scale of production and so on, but here we’re talking about plants, things that grow in the ground where there is a finite resource.  To understand essential oils for certain styles of aromatherapy perhaps medicine, fine fragrance or truly holistic treatment, we may have to look elsewhere than the standard industrial product.  Those industrial products are touted by those who delight in telling us that such and such an oil matched a standard GLC.  Such a notion simply tells you that the oil has been adjusted to conform to a standard.
  1. There is a straight analogy with wine and essential oils.  We all know that you can buy cheap, mass produced plonk.  It’s good for getting drunk with and for social drinking.  Most however accept that there is a pleasure to be derived from experiencing the taste of wine.  We must now remember that the majority of so-called taste is in fact aroma or smell.  So the difference between a good wine and a fine wine is in its smell, its aromatic substances – just like essential oils.  A fine lavender grown at 1400 metres is entirely different from a lavender grown at sea level.  There is just something that the mind or taste captures that is not in the standard product.  However the finest wines, being in short supply due to the nature of the ground, the side of the mountain, the weather , the season etc., are always more expensive than their standard blended cousins.  It doesn’t matter whether the wine comes from Hungary, Chile, South Africa or France, there is always a difference of price.  This irritates some people because they can’t afford the best, so their irritation turns into knocking the best.  This emotional response has nothing to do with quality.  It’s the same sort of response as when a neighbour who sees a nearby new car they can’t afford, goes out at night and scratches the new one.  We cannot simply bury our heads and say that we can buy good quality essential oils cheaper and cheaper.  Obviously there is a difference between one company and another but the nearer you are to nature the more expensive its going to be.
  1. Materials that are nearest to nature have to have, like wine, a ‘provenance’.  That means you know where something has come from, its origins, its sources, how it was produced and so on.  Few essential oil suppliers really know this about the products they sell.  Most essential oils are purchased from very big companies like Charabot, Adrian and so on.  These companies specialise in blending, or manufacturing for a purpose.  Aromatherapy does not feature very much in their interests.  Often oils are distributed via wholesalers, from wholesalers to small packers, small packers to different brands who sell them on to anyone from market traders to department stores.  So, in this sense, price isn’t always a guide.  After all an industrial lavender can just as readily be sold with a computer–produced label in a market or be found in a high class department store with a highly creative bottle and label etc.  This is partly a fault of the ignorance of the consumer who may not have the opportunity, or the knowledge, to tell the difference.  Again the analogy with wine is pretty exact.  Very few people in the UK, even 30 years ago, knew much about wine.  It’s only with the rise of the television wine pundits that people have begun to really notice the difference.  At Fragrant Earth occasionally we run smell and taste sessions where perhaps 40 lavenders (essential oils) are compared with each other.  Therapists love these events, soon become quite knowledgeable and realise that if you want to put something in a burner for a pretty smell at a dinner party there is no necessity to use ‘the best’.  Whereas if someone has a real problem with insomnia, then the best is to be preferred.  It’s a question of ethics not just a question of price.
  1. A few suppliers (and Fragrant Earth is included in this group) offer speciality oils produced normally by small growers and specialist distillers.  They trade particularly in the market of those who want oils that are near to nature and have a very dynamic fragrance.  I believe that fragrance is all important in true aromatherapy.  There is a certain life to it, a certain characteristic or dynamism that is lost in the blending of the industrial process.  I personally favour wild grown material from species.  Of course this raises issues of ecology which I’m very particular about.  My second choice is from materials grown organically.  But not everything can be grown organically and I do not believe that ‘organically grown’ is a statement of quality in itself.  It is a statement about soil quality. We forget that the soil needs feeding appropriately.  So ‘organic’ is always good for the soil.  But if you put the wrong species in the wrong place and you use a new clone or a new hybrid that is tasteless in the first place, growing it organically is not going to do much for the produce!  This is now happening with essential oils.  Organic growing is a sound investment in ecology but the produce is not always the best if the farmer doesn’t think through what crops best on his particular land.
  1. Essential oil quality is a very complex subject.  You have to decide what you are and look into your heart to see what your real ethics are.  At the end of the day it’s quite right that you need to make a profit but you also need to ask a question as to the nature of that profit.  Is it earned honestly?  People that attend holistic aromatherapists surely expect something different.  Do they really expect standardised product, industrial product, with a pretty label, that was purchased by the therapist because it was cheaper than a specialist brand?  There is room for harsh judgement here.  This is quite a different scenario from the consumer who has heard a little about aromatherapy, buys a fluffy ‘aromatherapy’ shampoo from a supermarket.  That’s called ‘point of entry’.  A professional therapist may have different brands for different circumstances.  It is a challenge too for those with a spiritual dimension to be forced to face the reality of essential oils.  Do you believe that a spirit of a plant really (if that is your inclination) lives in a diluted essential oil laced with mineral oil or turpentine?  It’s no good simply hiding behind a Gas Liquid Chromatograph.  These can be manipulated just as the essential oils can be manipulated.  We must face the fact, with new European legislation relating to ‘allergens’, essential oils are going to be increasingly manipulated.  We must face the fact that, for example, Bergamot is easily synthesised without too much difficulty and that some of the best synthetic reproductions of Bergamot essential oil are difficult even for the expert to distinguish from the genuine oil.  My words? – no.  Rather David Williams written way back in 1989. (book title?)

So, in conclusion, we must acknowledge that there are differences in essential oils.  We cannot logically expect to see any site, any shop, anywhere in the world saying ‘hey, buy me, I’m poor quality’.  Every essential oil I’ve ever seen for sale in a retail shop has said something about being pure and natural.  These are just words.  Unfortunately, at the end of the day you have to trust a supplier.  I suggest that Aromatherapists with heart, Perfumers that want something different, Therapists that practice medicine, should visit only suppliers with short lines of supply, who know what they’re buying and are working near to nature.  Such firms are not common and could not supply a vast retail market.  They could not supply a huge retail market like the United States or Japan in massive volumes.  Why?  Think about it.  There’s not much growing land up mountains.  There are not that many plants that are available from the wild.  There are not that many farms that can even go organic.  So I suggest that we get some reality into the quality market.  And for those who really love essential oils, to understand the real issues.  Want to know more?  Then why not come on one of our lecture days?  Write in to Fragrant Studies for the next available time.

“It is unwise to pay too much, but worse to pay too little; when you pay too much, you lose a little money, that is all.

When you pay too little, you sometimes lose everything, because the thing you bought was incapable of doing the things it was bought to do.

The common law of business balance prohibits paying a little and getting a lot.  It can’t be done.  If you deal with the lowest bidder, it is as well to add something for the risk you run.

And if you do that, you will have enough to pay for something better.

There is hardly anything in the world that someone can’t make a little worse and sell a little cheaper – and people who consider price alone are this man’s lawful prey”

John Ruskin 1819 – 1900

Adulteration does occur and is not always easy to detect.  A GLC is not a guarantee of purity.  Here is a list of adulterations recently found in a number of essential oils.  Unusual?  No, just a number of oils picked out from the Beauty industry and off UK supermarket shelves.

LEMONGRASS cut with 75% diethylphthalate

LEMONGRASS cut with Di-iso-Octylphthalate

LAVENDER – a blend of natural and synthetic ingredients

TEA TREE with a strangely low terpinen 4-ol content

ROSEMARY cut with Eucalyptus plus synthetics

SWEET MARJORAM that was actually Thymus mastichina

FRANKINCENSE adulterated with Turpentine

ROSEWOOD cut with synthetic linalol and Ho Leaf

BERGAMOT made with synthetic oil

NEROLI cut with synthetic linalol and with linalyl acetate added.

MANDARIN cut with Sweet Orange

LEMON of a BP grade, not from a generic species and with high levels of neral

ROMAN CHAMOMILE cut with Lemon and Orange oils.

PEPPERMINT which was in fact Cornmint

YLANG YLANG 3 compounded from natural Ylang Ylang plus synthetics.

Cheap is cheap – and often false.  You get what you pay for!

© Jan Kusmirek : April 2004

About Jan Kuśmirek

Having brushed with the Security Services in my late teens and early twenties, I went on to become one of the world's leading exponents of aromatic medicine and skin care. I am an accepted authority on the subject and a sought-after lecturer. In the last few years I have turned my hand to literature and am the author of three spy novels that retell the European confilcts of the 20th century from a Polish perspective. The central character in the series - Teddy Labden - has resonated with the Polish media, who have claimed him as their own "James Bond".
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