Essential Oil Quality

There are a growing number of products claiming to be or to contain essential oils. They range in price and quality and are found in skin care, cosmetics, aromatherapy, and other products.

However, many of these products do not use 100% pure essential oils and often use fragrant synthetic chemical substitutes to dilute or replace more expensive essential oil extracts. Worse, some companies use solvents to extract oils; a process which makes the oil toxic except for limited use. Furthermore, there are no current regulatory standards for the descriptive use of the “therapeutic grade” for products labeled as essential oils.

In a nutshell, to me I will only use essential oils that are safe for my family. My rule of thumb is, if I can’t put it on my skin I don’t want it in my lungs. I like the idea of it being safe enough to use internally, even if I chose not to:

  • Plants are grown and harvested in their natural environment
  • Each bottle of oil goes through multiple 3rd party testing
  • Tests ensure oils are pure, genuine, authentic and potent
  • Beyond organic standards, verified pure, free of fillers, pesticides and foreign contaminants

Different types of essential oil qualities:

  1. The majority of essential oils on the market are Synthetic. Those oils are intended for fragrance. These oils are the most likely to have an allergic response to.
  2. Next comes Food Grade which is also sometimes called GRAS or Generally Regarded As Safe, which are used as flavorings in food.
  3. Therapeutic Grade which is most often used in Aromatherapy, but often not safe to be applied to the skin and never to be used internally.
  4. Only a fraction of essential oils on the market are safe enough to be used aromatically, topically and internally (if the plant is safe to ingest). Those oils are the rarest of the rare in terms of quality. 

In addition, a huge factor for me is testing. Most important is that they test every single batch and keep a sample on hand for re-testing should the need arise. One of the industry’s dirty little secrets is that they test one batch a year and then state that they do appropriate testing. As someone who is very reactive to synthetics and pesticides I can’t risk getting a bottle from a batch that wasn’t tested. (Why? My tongue goes numb and my throat swells up. Its not pretty.}

If you are like me, you want to know more. Here are the specific tests that must be done on any oil I will use. These tests ensure that the essential oils tested are both pure (extracts contain only the volatile aromatic compounds of a plant), and potent (extracts have consistent chemical composition from batch to batch. Reputable companies have quality protocol requires the use of multiple independent laboratories for standardization and testing .  

Test 1: Gas Chromatography After the aromatic compounds (also called essential oils) are carefully distilled from plant material, samples are tested for chemical composition using gas chromatography. In gas chromatography, volatile essential oil compounds are vaporized and passed through a long column called a gas chromatograph. Each individual compound travels or “elutes” through the column at a different rate and is measured as it exits the column during the testing period. Using gas chromatography, quality control engineers can determine which compounds are present in a test sample and, as importantly, at what levels.

Test 2: Mass Spectrometry In addition to gas chromatography, essential oil samples also are tested for composition using mass spectrometry. In mass spectrometry, samples are vaporized and then ionized and each individual compound in a sample is measured by weight. Mass spectrometry provides additional insight to the purity of an essential oil by revealing the presence of non-aromatic compounds, such as heavy metals or other pollutants, which are too heavy to elute along a gas chromatograph. The combination of gas chromatography and mass spectrometry is sometimes referred to as a GC/MS test.

Test 3: FTIR Scan (Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy) Essential oil samples are transported to a manufacturing facility for filling. Before being released into the facility, the essential oil “batch” is held in quarantine while additional quality tests are performed. Those tests include an FTIR Scan which, similar to GC/MS testing, is also an analysis of material composition. In an FTIR Scan, a light is shown at the material sample and the amount of light absorbed by the chemical constituents of the sample is measured. Results are then compared against a historical database to ensure adherence to composition standards.

Test 4: Microbial Testing Before a batch of essential oils can be released from quarantine to manufacturing, it must be tested for the presence of bio-hazards such as bacteria, fungus, and mold. In microbial testing, samples are drawn from each batch of essential oils and applied to growing mediums in dishes or “plates.” After an incubation period, each plate is analyzed for growth of microbes. This test is performed on all incoming material to the manufacturing facility, and also performed on finished product to ensure no harmful organisms have been introduced to the product during the filling and labeling process, and to ensure shelf-life stability.

Test 5: Organoleptic Testing Organoleptic testing brings a human touch to each step of the quality control process. Organoleptics include those attributes of an essential oil that can be tested with taste, sight, touch, and smell. The extraction of essential oils is very much an art form that can be enhanced by, but not replaced with, mechanical analytics. 

Try this at home: Compare the smell of differentlavender plant lavender oils or products in your home. If your product’s fragrance is overbearing in any one note it may contain synthetic chemical substitutes. A 100% pure therapeutic-grade essential oil should have a balanced, broad fragrance profile and should smell crystal clean. 

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