What to Look For In an Essential Oil Company
With so many options on the market it can be hard to find the best essential oil company to use. I would know. It took me nearly 12 years to find a brand I could feel confident with and trust (both over their oils and their ethics). Below I'd like to share my experiences, what I came to learn, and what I recommend everyone look for in their favorite company.
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First a little background: I began learning about essential oils and aromatherapy in 2000 in massage therapy school. I understood quickly about the benefits and uses of a plant's oil, because I've always been drawn to using Nature's solutions first. It just makes sense to lean on Nature first. However, although I was convinced of the benefits, and truly believed that Nature provides everything we need to thrive in health and wellness, I rarely saw the results promised from essential oils. I mean, they all smelled nice. But that was about it.
And several times I experienced some pretty negative reactions. In fact I spent about 10 years thinking I was allergic to melaleuca (tea tree oil), because anytime I tried to use it I would break out in the worst contact dermatitis - I'm talking red, scaling, oozing, burning skin that would take weeks to heal. Because of these negative experiences and lack of results, I leaned on herbal remedies, homeopathy, and other complimentary support for myself and my family. I primarily used 2-3 essential oils in cleaning and that was it for my faith in their benefits.
Essential oils and herbs comes from the same source: a plant. (In fact, everything in the pharmacy once came from a plant before it was adulterated, but that's a topic for another day.) But I never stopped to ask why I was seeing more benefits from a dried herb (whose natural oils had been evaporated) than I was from the pure oil from the very same plant. Although there are still times I feel the whole plant should be used (as an herb, and obviously food), I now understand why I wasn't seeing the results science and research has shown in essential oils: Purity and quality.
All of the remarkable things about essential oils are provided by Nature, but can only be maximized when the oil is produced properly.
However, there are no government regulations regarding the production and manufacturing of essential oils, no certification board whatsoever, and only minimal standards set within the essential oil industry itself. Using the terms "essential oil" or even "pure" are not regulated in any way, meaning anyone can use those terms on anything - even something synthetic (synthetic wintergreen oil is a perfect example of this). In fact the FDA states, "There is no regulatory definition for 'essential oils,' although people commonly use the term to refer to certain oils extracted from plants."1 There is NO company that has been FDA-approved. Even the terms "therapeutic grade" or "clinical grade", while generally used to differentiate between quality oils and cheap oils, have no definition or real meaning. However, these in-house terms CAN be helpful in understanding the quality assurance a particular brand might undertake. It's up to you to still investigate what it means to THAT essential oil company. This generally isn't an issue when you're talking to aromatherapists, who each have their own set of standards and favorite essential oil company and prefer to not invite over-regulation into the industry anyway. But it does create discrepancies in quality when you're searching for oils from a company you can trust.
Of course, there will always be some variances in essential oils, even oils from the same essential oil company. This is just the nature of working with Nature. The final product varies based on a lot of things; some under our control when we're striving for high quality essential oils (like chemical additives or contaminants), and some (like weather patterns that may affect chemical composition or aroma of an oil) that are not. This is why testing of essential oil constituents generally falls within a "range", and aroma can vary slightly from bottle to bottle (sometimes aroma varies based on our own perceptions, and seemingly, needs too). But still there are some important factors to look for, and to avoid in your essential oils.
As a general rule of thumb, avoid:
- Essential oils from the drugstore (it's sometimes okay for some uses, but often weak or impure)
- Cheap prices (quality oils should feel at least like a moderate investment)
- Oils alluding to being a "fragrance oil" (good indication of adulteration or low quality)
- Oils without an expiration/oxidation date (ignore the myths; Nature DOES expire!)
- Oils from Amazon (lots of issues with bottles being tampered with or stored improperly, resulting in contaminated or oxidized oils)
Cheap oils are problematic for multiple reasons: Essential oils have the ability to work at the cellular level, aiding us in our wellness, but the integrity of the oil must be verified and legitimate for the most impact and safety. Missing or inappropriate components not only lead to a lack of results, but those components may actually cause harm themselves, such as in my experiences with poor quality melaleuca.
There are many bad practices that may affect the quality of an essential oil, including2:
- Where the plant was grown: Plant's grown in their own indigenous or biologically appropriate regions are naturally healthier than those grown outside their region due to variations in the soil type, weather patterns, etc. Plants grown by a company in one state or country will naturally be less potent than the alternative.
- When it's harvested: both the time of year and the age of the plant at harvest affect what chemical constituents show up in the oil and to what extent they appear.
- Pesticides, herbicides, or other chemical applications to the plant or soil: Most of these will carry over to the oil during steam distillation
- Contaminants obtained during harvesting or transporting: This usually just comes down to poor practices by the farmers and handlers.
- Adulterants used for dilution or fabrication: This is simply done to make an oil cheaper to produce, therefore increasing profits. It may be something like a synthetic compound that is similar to the natural one, or just a filler oil (like jojoba) to cut the original essential oil down.
- Improper extraction methods: Either the wrong temp and pressure used in steam distillation, or the use of chemical solvents, which can be neurotoxic or causes skin reactions, will impact your oils.
- Age, storage, and proper handling of the oil: Improper or excessive exposure to heat, oxygen, light, or water all degrade an essential oil.
You might be tempted to believe this is easy to find, but it's not. A world-renowned essential oil chemist, Dr. Robert Pappas, spoke as a third-party expert at an essential oil convention in 2014, and pointed out the various and subtle ways essential oils are adulterated from one essential oil company to the next (quite professionally, I might add, as I can't stand when a professional intentionally bad-mouths another...although I'll admit I'm terribly curious which brands he tested!). He himself does this testing for many companies, and has lost business because of his refusal to lie about the purity and quality of sub-par oils, even from high-profile companies. He's even been quoted in court depositions about the poor quality he found in some really popular brands. (These aren't things I can ethically or even legally link to, but some Googling will show you the details.)
Some other things to look for in your essential oil company3, 4:
- Do they share the botanical name of the plant? This is a bare minimum, and I wouldn't trust a bottle of oil without the botanical name.
- Is your company fair trade? I've yet to see one with a "Certified Fair Trade" label, but my favorite brand does work to provide fair wages and support to farming regions with some pretty impressive results with their own initiatives.
- Do they grow all or just some of their oils indigenously? Every oil should be grown in its indigenous region from around the world.
- Do they follow organic practices? Being "certified organic" can be helpful, but since I've had bad reactions with even certified organic oils, and because of misleading organic labeling regulations, it's not at all a guarantee of quality and may be a challenge to obtain for companies not growing all their plants in one region. However, they should be meeting and exceeding organic and sustainable farming practices.
- Do they partner with farmers who own their own land? Partnering with farmers who know and have grown their plants for generations, means bringing in decades of experience to a company. It also means a more positive social footprint and economic opportunities around the world. It also creates more accountability (a company is not forced to sell a subpar oil if they have a bad crop) and less of a monopoly on land rights. I like to diversify and support many people and industries, not just one company, and I like seeing local land owners owning their land, and empowering themselves through their own businesses.
- How many tests do they offer and are they in-house or third-party? At the minimum, this should include third-party Gas Chromatography and Mass Spectrometry (GC/MS), which is pretty standard. Other tests might include an FTIR, HPLC, Organoleptic, and more. Depending on the size of your essential oil company it's unlikely they'll be able to keep the tests for every single batch number up-to-date online, but should be able to present them to you upon request.
- Do they stand behind the safe internal use of their essential oils? Internal use is NOT for all oils, but can be used in moderation with some oils and with the proper care and guidance. It's important you have a company that will stand behind their oils being safe and suitable for such uses. If a company can't promise their lemon is safe for internal use, they might have very specific reasons why (like knowing the quality isn't there for that).
- What else are they doing for the industry? Although this isn't a marker of a quality essential oil, it may be something you wish to consider when investing your dollars. I prefer to support companies who invest profits in essential oil research, advancement of testing methods, and even charitable services. This shows me they are a company likely to be more trustworthy, as well as that they work with integrity; something we need more of these days.
- Most importantly, how do you experience their oils? We can't begin to understand the human body and why one particular food, supplement, or essential oil or be strongly preferred by one person and not another. But we know it's true. Therefore the best indicator is, and will always be, your own firsthand experience. Ask for samples, sniff through your friend's oil, buy a couple bottles (straight from the company, not Amazon, Ebay, etc) to compare aromas, color, texture, etc, and see which oils you're personally drawn to. Trust your nose and your own research to make the best choice.
There is a lot of talk online about which is and isn't a good or bad essential oil company. It's crazy what I've heard people claim, both positive or negative, about a brand, even my own favorite brand. Do me a favor and research both sides of every story to find YOUR opinion. Just because someone wrote it, even me, doesn't make it the sole opinion or only truth. I encourage you to do your own research on any essential oil company, and most importantly test out and compare your favorite oils side-by-side from different brands to find your own favorite. If you see bloggers claiming they've done testing on oils, beware. There are some rather popular blogs right now doing some really poor testing and coming back with all kinds of fallacies about many of the oils they "tested". If it's not done by a reputable source, question it thoroughly. Again, research both sides, approach the company for their rebuttals, and make your decision based on all the facts, not just some.
"What's Your Take on Network Marketing Oil Companies?"
My take (after a long history of being very much against them) is that it all depends on the company. Network marketing is just another form of business, so it matters less than the company conducting said business. Are you comfortable giving your money to the corporations that make your car or your computer? Even though they outsource everything, pay peanuts to their employees, and only the "person at the top" makes all the dough? Do you believe in supporting your local industry? If you had the choice to give your money to Amazon, or your neighbor, or a business you didn't know, and get the same products, which would you chose?
The fact that a company pays their customers versus an advertising agent shouldn't matter if they are offering a good product and conducting business in an ethical way that aligns with your values and nurtures their customers and distributors. It's very little difference from an affiliate program or a franchise opportunity. The proof should remain in the pudding. Have you tried the oils? Do you like them? Start there.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah, but what's YOUR favorite brand?"
First things first, I will NOT bad-mouth another essential oil company, so if you ask me to share which brands I've had negative experiences with, I just don't go there. There are many good brands that others have loved, and I am glad they exist, even if they are what I recommend.
After 12 years of trying nearly every brand and not being satisfied, I was introduced to my favorite brand by a friend and client in 2012 and after much convincing (because I really thought I'd be wasting my time or creating another bad reaction for myself), the quality of their oils spoke for themselves. Their sustainable practices, fair trade practices, and even things like their investment in S.T.E.M programs or building wells for nearby villages to the farms they source their oils from all speak volumes to me, as well. Although I've enjoyed the aroma of a few blends from other companies, when it comes to therapeutic use of essential oils, I personally love, trust, and use this company exclusively. (Yes, I can even use their melaleuca without issue! A first!)