How to Buy Essential Oils
Essential oils are highly concentrated, volatile oils that can be extracted from aromatic plants. Their use dates back to ancient times, and their wide variety of therapeutic, medicinal and culinary uses has ensured their continued popularity. About 700 different kinds of plants contain useful essential oils, and you can find many of these online or in your local health food store, farmers market or co-op. In fact, the variety can be a bit bewildering, and because many pounds of plant material are required to extract an ounce of essential oil, the prices can be overwhelming, too. This brief buyer’s guide can help you find out “How to Buy Essential Oils”.
1 Think about why you want an essential oil. Different essential oils have different uses, so your first step should always be to determine which one will best suit your needs. You can research essential oils online, or you can ask your herbalist, natural foods grocer or a knowledgeable friend. Depending on your needs, you may find that more than one kind of oil is suitable. If you don’t have a clear reason for choosing one over the other, look at their prices–essential oils vary widely in price, so why pay more than you have to?
2 Consider alternatives to pure essential oil. Hydrosols? Absolutes? Fragrance oils? There are often cheaper alternatives to essential oils that may perform the service you need. A hydrosol, hydrolat or water essence (as in rose water, lavender water, etc.) is the by-product of distillation. When plants are distilled, the vapor condenses into essential oils and hydrosols; these are then separated. A hydrosol is basically essential oil diluted in water, and it will usually contain some other incidental organic compounds. They can frequently be used in place of essential oils when dilution is not an issue, as in some aromatherapy methods. Absolutes are generally highly concentrated essential oils which are extracted with solvents, usually from flowers for which steam distillation is impractical. These can be more expensive than essential oils, but you may be able to dilute them more for the same uses. Fragrance oils, also sometimes called floral waters, are usually synthetic compounds which have an aroma similar to essential oils. They are cheaper than essential oils, but are typically not suitable for therapeutic or culinary uses. You can also purchase essential oils diluted in a carrier oil, such as almond or grapeseed oil. These may in some cases be a better choice, particularly if you plan to apply the oil to your skin. You will probably find a wide range of dilutions for sale.
3 Get an idea of the going price. Once you know what product you want, try to find the best price for it. Check locally and online, but make sure you’re comparing comparable quantities of comparable dilutions of comparable products. Make a list of the best prices you find and where you find them. Chances are you will find the general price hovering in a certain range. If a given choice falls far below that range, look into it, but beware: something smells fishy.
4 Learn about the oil you want to purchase. Knowledge is power, and the more you can learn about the product, the better value you will be able to get. Essential oils vary in quality depending on which parts of the plants are included–lavender oil, for example can be made with lavender flowers and stalks or just with the flowers, the latter being of higher quality–the method of extraction (steam distilled is usually better than water distilled), country or region of origin, and time of harvest.
5 Find out as much as you can about your choices. Being an informed buyer, you can now ask the potential sellers the important questions. First, look at the bottles or, if shopping on the internet, carefully read the product descriptions. You should be able to get a clear idea of what you’re getting. If possible, smell several oils to compare their aromas. Find out how the plants are harvested, where they’re grown, etc. Next research the companies that manufacture the oils you’re considering. You can look on the internet or ask friends or retailers. It’s important to find out as much information as you can about the oil, but it’s also important to find out if the information you’re getting is coming from a reputable source.
6 Consider how the oils are stored. Essential oils should always be kept in a dark glass bottle or stainless steel container. Oils not contained in these are suspect. In addition, essential oils should be protected from excessive heat or direct sunlight. You have an advantage shopping locally because you can see how the oils are stored–are the bottles on a windowsill?–but reputable companies can usually be trusted to use proper storage techniques.
- Among the essential oil brands that you will find in a natural food store, Aura Cacia is one of the only ones that tests every batch for purity, which is a significant problem with essential oils. There is widespread adulteration in the essential oil industry.
- If you are considering the purchase of an essential oil that costs more than you are comfortable spending blindly, consider first purchasing only a sample. If no sample quantities are listed at your supplier, ask them; they may be happy to prepare a sample for you.
- This may be obvious, or maybe not, but look for the words “pure essential oil”. If the bottle says “fragrance oil”, “fragrant oil”, “perfume oil”, or even “aromatherapy oil” the chances are this is a synthetic product.
- Purchase essential oils in bottles with a dripolator plug in the top. These are vastly superior to bottles with eyedroppers. A dripolator will regulate the flow of essential oil and prevent spillage of the whole bottle even if the cap is off. However once an eyedropper cap is removed the top of the bottle is open and can easily spill. It is also more dangerous around children, should they ever get their hands on them.
- Are the fragrances of your pure therapeutic grade essential oils subtle, rich, organic, and delicate? Do they feel natural? Do they smell stronger, more real and less chemical than your current brand? An essential oil that smells weak and somewhat like canola oil (ie, bland, empty) probably was not well-extracted.
- Look for a botanical name on the bottle. This is the Latin name given to each species. For example, true lavender is lavandula angustifolia, mandarin is citrus reticulata and grapefruit is citrus paradisi. While common names can sometimes be unclear, but the botanical name will always be more precise. Several species may be given the same common name and there can be safety issues with some oils which are only clear when the correct botanical name is used. There are numerous examples of oils where the common name used does not at all relate to the oil’s actual botanical classification.
- Some oils are organically grown or certified organic; you will pay a premium for these. The best form of extraction, steam distillation, concentrates pesticides, chemicals, solvents, etc.. All other forms of extraction are chemically based, usually petrochemicals: however CO2 extraction leaves no solvent in the remaining essential oil, as it evaporates when the pressure is released.
- Look for “100% essential oil”. Many more precious oils are diluted at 3-5% in a base oil such as jojoba, to make the price more attractive. But such oils are useless in a vaporizer as they are simply not strong enough. These dilutions do have their uses, but the fact they are diluted should be clearly stated. Some producers list these with other pure essential oils, so you can only know the difference if you look very closely at the label. If you are unsure then an easy way to test for yourself is to place a drop of the oil on absorbent paper. A pure essential oil will evaporate leaving little or no mark on the paper. A diluted oil will leave a greasy oil mark and will not evaporate.
- Beware of a line of essential oils that are all sold for the same price. Because the cost of extracting different oils varies dramatically, it is simply impossible that the oils are pure and of good quality.
- Beware of oils that are sold in clear glass or plastic. Essential oils may need to be protected from sunlight, which can quickly damage them. Essential oils degrade most plastics quickly.
- Do not use essential oils “straight”, or undiluted. They should be diluted to prevent sensitization and possible skin irritation.
- Be wary of shipping costs. Industrial suppliers may charge upwards of $50 shipping regardless of purchase even for small quantities. Others may offer free shipping, low cost shipping, and discounts in appreciation of your patronage?
- Be wary of suppliers that do not offer professional assays (GCMS reports, MSDS, etc) or direct quantitative assertions of purity. In any case be sure they detail the means of extraction and parts of the plant that were used.
- Does your essential oil supplier use low pressure and low temperature to distill essential oils and preserve the essential oils fragile chemical constituents? Are the distillation cookers fabricated from costly stainless steel alloys, or glass, to reduce the likelihood of the essential oils chemically reacting with metal?
- Do you prefer organic essences, or will pesticide free suffice? Is an oil you are considering either of those? Are they certified organic or simply claimed? Do they scrutinize the facilities to check to see that no synthetic chemicals are being used in any of these processes?
- Are the tests performed by well known standard independent labs?
- Does your essential oil supplier sell all essential oils in appropriate sizes?
- Does your essential oil supplier provide knowledgeable staff to answer your questions about use, and supply as much information as possible free of charge?
- Does your essential oil supplier care about the farms they use and make sure they are fair trade? Meaning the local farmers get fair pay and not 3rd world change.
- Does your essential oil supplier grow and distill its own organically grown herbs? Are the distillation facilities part of the farm where the herbs are grown so they are freshly distilled, maintaining their potency?
- • Does your essential oil supplier have representatives traveling worldwide to personally inspect the fields and distilleries where the herbs are grown and distilled?