How to Determine the Quality of Essential Oils, Part 3: Honing Your Senses
Photo by Adobestock/andreypopov
It is a given that the vast majority of aromatherapy practitioners, and perhaps even lay practitioners (home users), are seeking genuine and authentic, plant-derived, preferably organic or wild crafted, unadulterated essential oils. This is how I personally would define “therapeutic grade,” although like Harris, I dislike the term (see Part 1 and Part 2 of this series for more information on terminology and certification).
Finding them and knowing what to look for is a challenge, particularly given the power of marketing. What do we mean by the terms genuine, authentic, plant-derived and unadulterated anyways?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the terms genuine and authentic as follows: Genuine (adj.) 1 truly what it is said to be; authentic. 2 sincere; honest; Authentic (adj.) of undisputed origin; genuine.
To my knowledge, Kurt Schnaubelt was the first to use the terms “genuine” and “authentic” in relation to essential oils. According to Schnaubelt (2004), a genuine essential oil means it is completely unaltered and an authentic essential oil means it is from a specified plant only.
Which brings us to plant-derived: Essential oils used in aromatherapy should all be extracted from a specified plant species, e.g. Lavandula angustifolia versus Lavandula x intermedia. And this naturally leads into unadulterated: no additives, no extenders, no price reducing ingredients, no nothing except what was there after distillation or expression.
The main concerns with adulterated essential oils include: 1. potential interference of adulterants with components of the natural oil; this may affect synergy and the expected physiological and psychophysiological activities of the oil; and 2. Toxicity implications of the adulterants. (Bensouilah and Buck, 2006) Hence, adulterated essential oils can reduce the therapeutic benefits of treatment, increase the likelihood of adverse reactions and potentially introduce toxic compounds into the body.
Qualities to Look For in a Supplier
Now that we know what we are looking for, how in the world do we find it? My goal in this section is to offer up some qualities to look for both in a supplier and in the essential oils you purchase. I personally would want a supplier:
• who is dedicated to supplying essential oils to the aromatherapy practitioner market and educated public.
• owned by an aromatherapy practitioner or essential oil specialist
• who has relations with his/her distillers, if possible
• who verify the authenticity of their essential oils prior to selling them.
• who has a strong ethical reputation in the field
• who has preferably been in the field for a number of years and is well known to other aromatherapy practitioners and/or educators
If you have found a supplier that fulfills the above criteria or at least the vast majority, then one can begin with the idea that the essential oil you have purchased is of a higher quality than those sold at grocery stores or in the mass market or by a large corporation.
If you have been provided with the GC/MS spec sheet that is batch-specific, you are aware of its chemical profile and potential therapeutic applications and safety precautions.
Qualities to Look For in an Essential Oil
Important items to obtain on each essential oil you purchase include: Common name, Latin name (exact genus and species), Country of origin, Part of plant processed, Type of Extraction (distillation or expression), how it was grown (organic, wild-crafted, traditional) and chemotype (when relevant).
Of equal importance to all the above criteria (including supplier qualities) is your own organoleptic assessment. “Organoleptic” means perceived by a sense organ. In relation to essential oils, I believe we need to utilize all six senses (taste, touch, smell, vision, auditory, and intuition) — even though the use of some of them is different than one would expect.
Naturally when it comes to essential oils, one would think first of your sense of smell and indeed this is the case. Utilizing your sense of smell may seem rather simple at first glance; however, the ability to smell (or sense) the “quality” or “wholeness: of an essential oil is actually more complex and involved.
I shall attempt to outline how to powerfully utilize your sense of smell for determining the quality of essential oil. Each of the steps takes time, patience, consciousness, and willingness.
Strengthen Your Sense of Smell
The sense of smell, in my opinion and experience, is like a muscle: The more you use it and become aware of it, the stronger it becomes. I would encourage you to first become more familiar and conscious of the aromas (odors, scents) that are present in your everyday life:
The smell of your home, your dogs, dinner cooking, your cleaning products, the way your clothes smell, your lover/husband/wife/partner, your children, the individuals you work with, your work environment, the smell of a woman or man with too much perfume or cologne on, the smell of the city, the country, the smell after a day’s rain, the smell of humidity, the smell of your favorite restaurant or grocery store, the aroma of freshly mowed grass, the smell of gas, the smell of wood burning in a fireplace or wood stove.
Spend two to four weeks simply observing, becoming aware of the different aromas which waft under your nose each day.
Strengthen Your Relationship with Aromatic Plants
Aromatherapists are in some ways at a disadvantage when it comes to relating to the aromatic plants from which essential oils are derived. Unlike herbalists who often spend much of their time touching, smelling, visually observing, and interacting with plants and plant material, aromatherapists simply purchase a bottle of essential oil without ever having come into direct contact with the plant.
I believe firmly that this relationship is critical to the full appreciation of each essential oil. Even though the vast majority of us will never go to Madagascar or Costa Rica to smell ylang ylang as it lingers on the tree, there are still many aromatic plants which one can have access to in a variety of settings.
The spring and summer months (particularly late spring and summer when the essential oil content is higher) are the best times to explore aromatic plants, either in your own garden or at an arboretum, a garden center, an herb farm, or even in nature. This relationship-building with aromatic plants is the key in being able to appropriately utilize your sense of smell when it comes to the quality and wholeness of essential oils.
If it is autumn or winter (as we are now moving into), then you may need to put this off until the spring, but nonetheless, it is a vital step towards strengthening and empowering your sense of smell.
Grow what you can. Wherever I have lived, I have grown as many aromatic plants as possible, sometimes to use for herbal teas but mostly just to be able to walk out into the garden and pick a leaf or flower and breath in its aroma. Even when I lived in a small apartment in Boston I was blessed with a fire escape and on it I grew as many aromatic and herbal plants as I could.
If you travel, visit gardens when possible. I will always remember visiting the Dupont gardens (Longwood gardens) just outside of Philadelphia. It was there in the conservatory that I had the great fortune of meeting black pepper, a plant I would otherwise never have seen. And although I could not spend time smelling the black pepper (which is dried from the green pepper once it has matured), I at least was able to observe its growth, its leaf structure and the berries.
Strengthening our relationship with aromatic plants strengthens our relationship with the essential oils they give forth. It provides us with a much wider olfactory palate and empowers our sense of smell in better perceiving a quality essential oil from one of inferior quality.
Compare and Contrast Essential Oils
Now let’s talk about using your sense of smell with actual essential oils. I remember years ago while studying esthetics, my instructor said something to the affect of: In order for you to truly understand the various degrees of oily or dry or dehydrated skin, you must come into contact with as many individuals as possible.
Once you have seen slightly oily skin and then very oily skin and also very dry skin and degrees thereof, then and only then will you have an appreciation and understanding of each of the skin types. And the same goes with massage — only after massaging numerous clients will you begin to be able to truly feel differences in muscle tone, range of motion, muscle tension, etc. This concept holds true for essential oils.
To be able to understand and interpret the differences between qualities of essential oils one must spend time with and be exposed to different qualities. Remember, too, that even within the category of high-quality, authentic and genuine essential oils, there will be subtle differences and nuances in the essential oils.
If you have never smelled an essential oil of superior quality (in every sense) or an inferior essential oil, how are you truly able to distinguish qualities? To know a superior quality, one must have access to companies which exemplify this quality.
I would highly recommend purchasing essential oils from companies in Europe (such as Florihana or Fragrant Earth or the U.S. company, Original Swiss Aromatics) and also from reputable suppliers here in the United States and Canada. Purchase at least 2-4 essential oils from a few different companies, perhaps even the same essential oils to compare.
Harris, B. (2001). Editorial. International Journal of Aromatherapy, 11 (4), p.181-182.
Harris, B. (2006). Editorial. International Journal of Aromatherapy, 16 (2), p.55.
Schnaubelt, K. (2004). Aromatherapy Lifestyle. San Rafael, CA: Terra Linda Scent and Image.
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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