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How to Determine the Quality of Essential Oils, Part 1

By Jade Shutes, East-West School for Herbal and Aromatic Studies


Tags: essential oils, aromatherapy, home remedies, North Carolina, Jade Shutes,

Copper Cup Sage 

The quality of essential oils is often a contentious subject, bringing up feelings of protectiveness and challenging beliefs. I have written this post, not so much as a definitive answer to discerning quality, but rather to raise some valuable points of reference.

The Rise of Essential Oils for Aromatherapy

When I first began my aromatherapy education in England (1988) there were only a handful of companies selling essential oils specifically to the aromatherapy market. What is interesting to note about the British essential oil market is that the first few aromatherapy companies were designed to meet the needs of aromatherapy practitioners. This is in stark contrast to the later developing American market which was primarily retail-driven.

Because the British market was practitioner-driven, the essential oil quality was initially quite high.  It was only years later as interest in aromatherapy spread to the retail market that a plethora of essential oil companies arose both in Britain and even more so in the United States. 

Naturally (no pun intended), with this rise in the number of essential oil suppliers, extremes in quality variation also arose. With such an increase in companies offering essential oils, differentiating between companies selling high-quality and low-quality essential oils became incredibly challenging particularly for the newcomer.

As an aromatherapy practitioner I feel blessed to have grown up, so to speak, with the aromatherapy essential oil trade. I feel even more blessed to have first experienced the high quality of European essential oils and then to have come into the United States to experience essential oils from different companies here.

I must say, however, that even after 18 years in the industry as a practitioner, an educator, a student and a researcher in the field of aromatherapy, it continues to be a challenge in answering the question “How do I know where to buy high quality essential oils?” or “where do I find high quality therapeutic grade essential oils?”

This difficulty arises mostly from the clever marketing that happens in the essential oils market and the fact that not a company out there claims to sell low quality or adulterated essential oils, after all, how could they do so and still have sales?

This post is being written not in the hopes of bringing the question of quality to an end but rather to offer up information to better enable you to understand some of the fundamental issues you may encounter when searching for a high quality, unadulterated, genuine, and authentic essential oil in the market place.

Let’s Start with the Marketing Term: ‘Therapeutic Grade’

For those of you who believe you already know what this term means, I would ask that you keep an open and willing mind. I understand completely how contentious the issue of quality is. First, to my knowledge the term “therapeutic grade” arose during the 90s and did not exist prior to that time. It is only a marketing tool and should be understood as such.

After the concept of therapeutic grade entered the market, other companies quickly joined in, saying that they, too, offered “therapeutic grade.”  Today, just about every company selling essential oils states that their essential oils are of therapeutic grade.

With the concept of ‘therapeutic grade,’ also known as Grade A, came other grades such as grade B and so on. The point here is that some clever marketers were absolutely successful in their aspirations to get the word “therapeutic grade” into the vernacular of the aromatherapy industry.

Aromatherapy buyers have perhaps become overawed with the idea that there must be a therapeutic grade and that is what they are looking for. (Sometimes it must feel like they are looking for the Holy Grail.) They call aromatherapy companies and ask “do you sell therapeutic grade essential oils?”

What I would like to know is if there is actually a company out there that states it sells non-therapeutic grade or Grade C, or D essential oils. Actually, I just did a search and NOPE — not a company out there is claiming to sell Grade B, C or D essential oils and not a one selling non-therapeutic grade. Very suspicious!

A True Quality Control System for Essential Oils

The truth is that there is no such thing as ‘therapeutic grade’ (or grade b, c, or d) in the sense that some organization or higher power has bestowed on an essential oil line. A grading system, quite simply, does not exist for essential oils.

It is a product of marketing and marketing alone. And if one actually spends time thinking about this it makes perfect sense. From a marketing perspective, there had to be another way to market a line of essential oils other than saying “we sell the best essential oils on the market,” which is rather boring in comparison to “therapeutic grade.”

So, where does that leave us?

In my next post, we will explore what therapeutic grade means to individuals who utilize essential oils therapeutically. For now, you can explore other marketing terms which may arise in your search.

Click here to read Part 2: What Do the Certifications Mean? And here for Part 3: Honing Your Senses.

Jade Shutes is the Director of Education for The East-West School for Herbal and Aromatic Studies. She began her study of aromatherapy and herbs while living and working in England over 26 years ago and has been instrumental in setting educational standards and serving as President of the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy. You can also find Jade online at Aromatic Studies.


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