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Massage Today
November, 2010, Vol. 10, Issue 11

Essential Oil Quality and Education

By Shellie Enteen, RA, BA, LMBT

It is important to understand that since there is no regulation on essential oil production and sale in the U.S. and in many other countries, the buyer must find ways to assure to the best of their ability that the essences purchased are of good quality.

And because this is important, there are also many claims made by certain companies that suggest exclusivity on quality which include misleading information about regulation. We'll examine some of those claims and discuss the best way to resource quality essential oils.

Claims and Misleading Information

The first "red flag" claim currently in use is the phrase "Therapeutic Grade". This idea is going to appeal very strongly to those in healing professions like massage. And, of course, it is best to work with essences that are of a high quality to get the effects desired. However, there is no grade system in the aromatherapy industry. An essential oil is either a pure product extracted from a plant in a traditional way ... or not. As leading aromatherapy experts point out, why would anyone want to purchase something that wasn't of high quality? Would there be a market for essential oils labeled grade B, C or D if that product actually existed?

image - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark It is true that essences grown in certain countries are considered more desirable. For example, lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) can be grown in many places but the oils from France, Bulgaria and England are preferred and lavender grown in high altitudes gives its enhanced chemistry created by growing conditions and lower temperatures used in distillation a "preferred" nod. Also, unlike most essential oils, ylang-ylang (Cananga odorata) can be purchased in four different qualities due to the distillation process itself, which pulls the oil at different stages. The first pull is called "extra" and has the most potent and pleasurable fragrance. Next is ylang-ylang I, which is slightly less expensive than the first pull but is still desirable for fragrance and properties. The two other distillation pulls, II and III, have had more heat exposure, are much less expensive, have a less impressive aroma and are used mainly to fragrance laundry powder and other cosmetic and cleaning products.

However, these two examples do not suggest there is a Therapeutic Grade in the aromatherapy industry. All of the lavenders and ylang-ylangs are either pure essential oil or they are not. The term "Therapeutic Grade" is a marketing term and nothing more. One company has advertising that includes the phrase "Certified Therapeutic Grade" but investigation reveals that is a trademarked logo. The Federal Trademark agency is not interested in the truth of the statement. One possibility that exists if the price of an essential oil is a lot higher than the average for the same product and there are exclusive and "Therapeutic Grade" claims for the essences, is that the claims are an attempt to justify the higher cost.

Another group of claims to watch out for is that the oils meet standards set by ISO (International Organization for Standardization) or AFNOR (Association francaise de normalisation) or the idea that the essence contains the sanction of being designated GRAS ("Generally Recognized As Safe") by the FDA. The details to clarify this would require more space than the Aromatic Message column can contain, but I will be happy to send that information to anyone who wishes to contact me.

The use of the gas chromatography mass spectrographic analysis (GC/MS) and the component profile it provides is employed by many companies to test for purity. It is reassuring to know that a supplier is taking the time and spending the money to have this testing done. However, it is helpful when the provider has the test done by an outside company and is willing to provide the result sheets for each essential oil. Still, because this is a test that depends on the skill, experience and knowledge of the individual who does the analysis, we should not rely on this to exclusion of the personal olfactory experience and knowledge of the intent and reputation of the company.

Guidelines for Good Quality

So then, how can one pick a company to resource essential oils? The following are some suggested guidelines to find a company providing good quality: 

  • is dedicated to supplying essential oils to the aromatherapy practitioner market and educated public
  • is on the small size and not a large corporation
  • is owned by an aromatherapy practitioner or essential oil specialist
  • has relations with his/her distillers, if possible
  • can readily supply a batch-specific MS/GC spec report on each essential oil it sells
  • is readily able to provide material safety data sheets (MSDS) as needed
  • has a strong unquestioned noncontroversial reputation in the field
  • has preferably been in the field for a number of years and is well known to other aromatherapy practitioners and/or educators

Despite the issues around finding good quality essential oils, I am happy to say that the industry contains many good companies sourcing their product from reputable growers and distillers. Some are even concerned with sustainability, some with sourcing organic oils. It may take some time, certainly helped along by having a quality education with a registered aromatherapist who is not motivated by selling their own oils, to find the company that will work best for personal and practice needs. It is time well spent.

Along with taking a course with a qualified and objective professional aromatherapist, becoming a member of an organization such as NAHA (www.naha.org) gives access to e-journals, e-newsletters, tele-seminars with a large number of reputable authorities in the field. Advertisers, authors and speakers are in alignment with quality standards. This access broadens both perspectives and resources and helps create the confidence needed to use this wonderful art and science in a safe and effective way.

Reference

  1. Shutes J. The Quality of Essential Oils, 2010, in the forthcoming NAHA e-series on essential oil quality.

Editor's note: Shellie is currently creating a Professional Aromatherapy online training that will qualify the student for Professional Membership in NAHA and to meet the requirements of the Aromatherapy Registration Council and their exam leading to the title, Registered Aromatherapist. Please contact Shellie for details.


Click here for more information about Shellie Enteen, RA, BA, LMBT.

 

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