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Quality vs Purity of essential oils: Where lies the difference?

Essential oils ought to be pure to be therapeutic and beneficial for medicinal or healing purposes. But most of the oils that are projected to be pure are not actually pure. Holistic aromatherapy measures an oil by its purity, the ratio of natural constituents present in it. Some oils can be pure and yet be of poor quality. How can this happen? This can happen if pure essential oils are tampered with other natural or synthetic constituents to make them serve a particular purpose, therapeutic or otherwise. This article will help you analyze in depth about the purity and quality of essential oils and how they can influence the therapeutic quality of their usage.

Purity of essential oils: Do not imagine that all the essential oils you come in contact with are pristine. Most of the oils are adulterated during various kinds of processes – extraction, distillation and packaging.  Essential oils’ purity is measured by the optimum ratio of natural constituents present in them. Since oils are distilled for various other purposes like home fragrancing, cosmetics, personal healing and other things, most of them are tampered with many other constituents. This is because manufacturers want what are called standardized oils. Any oil, extracted directly from plant substances, carries natural constituents in different ratios. No two extracted oils of the same plant species, from the same region, are the same. Each plant yields oil that is different in some way or the other from its neighbor. Since uniformity is required in the manufacture of food or perfume products, companies use only essential oils that are standardized and do not vary from shipment to shipment.

Standardization of essential oils: Standardized oils are not pure oils. Sellers standardize oils only to suit the needs of buyers and hence, have several constituents removed/added to pure oils. Peppermint oil is used in the manufacture of chewing gums, ice creams and candies. The oil is used as a flavoring by food and candy manufacturers. Since companies should produce Peppermint-flavored products that have a consistent aroma, intensity or taste, manufacturers buy only standardized Peppermint oils.

Standardization process is not suitable for use in therapeutic aromatherapy. Addition or removal of constituents may make oils impure, adulterated and un-therapeutic. Some manufacturers may adulterate oils to cheat buyers and find profits. Japanese Yuzu essential oil seems to be a combination of Grapefruit and Mandarin. Sellers may use this trait of Yuzu and blend Grapefruit and Mandarin essential oils, and sell it as the costly Yuzu oil. Similarly, Patchouli oil can be extended with the addition of Cedarwood and Lavender oil can be tampered with linalyl acetate.

Quality of essential oils: The aroma and exact percentage of essential oils of each natural constituent contribute to the quality of the oil. Several other factors which contribute to an oil’s quality are – quality of soil in which the plant is grown, temperature of the region, weather/climatic changes/annual amount of rainfall  in which plant is grown, altitude of plant life, distilled part of plant, distillation process, time gap between harvest of plant and its distillation, storage of oil after extraction, type of distillation equipment used etc.
Some of the ways in which essential oils can be adulterated and which can in turn, affect their quality: blending pure oils with less expensive oils; adding synthetics to increase or maintain a particular aroma; extending oils by mixing bad carrier oils; blending an oil of higher quality with one of lower quality and so on. To ensure that you use only oils of good quality, check with your buyer on the soil, region and distillation process of the plants from which the oils are extracted and on the optimum ratio of the natural constituents of the oil.

Touchstone techniques: 4 ways to test the quality of essential oils

Determining the quality of essential oils is not easy even if you have been an aromatherapist for years. This is because essential oils come from various parts of the world and companies/manufacturers acquire oils from farmers, small-scale essential oil distillers, wholesale aromatic oil suppliers etc. Since essential oils are complex structures with many constituents, it is tough to determine the quality or quantity of chemical substances present in them. There are also several possible adulterants along the way. Essential oils can become impure on account of conditions in every other stage of its development – harvesting, distillation, handling, storage and packaging. Some manufacturers sell oils as “pure” even after diluting or cutting or extending their aromas and chemical properties.

Essential oils quality – what should you know? You should understand certain basic things about essential oils before you opt to buy and use them. Some oils change as they age. While a few oils like Rose, Patchouli, Spikenard, Myrrh and others improve as they age, a few like Citrus oils oxidize and grow toxic as they age. Apart from this, you need to understand why is it important to know if your oils are of high quality or not. If you use synthetic aromas instead of pure essential oils, you may end up experiencing toxic reactions. Impure essential oils also do have any therapeutic effect on you and maybe a waste of money when used. All these factors prove that it is important to know the quality of your “pure” essential oils before applying them in home or domestic use or for healing or aromatic purposes.

Below are a few tips to know the quality of essential oils:

1. Regulation of Essential oils: The FDA regulates essential oils through the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act and Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act. This Act regulates all food, food additives, cosmetics and dietary supplements. According to this act, the FDA sees essential oils based on their use – for healing or cosmetic purposes. For instance, if a perfume manufacturer, sought a quality essential oil, the FDA would grade the oil based on its specific use in perfumery. In the same way, the FDA would regulate an oil as drug if it is used an aid to quit smoking or for curing or preventing any disease.

Other than the FDA, there are foreign bodies which regulate essential oils. These include, AFNOR or Association of Francaise de Normalisation  and ISO or International Organization for Standardization.

2. Know the Latin names: If you plan to buy an essential oil, you need to inquire the manufacturer a few things: the Latin name of the plant (used to prepare the oil); the farming methods and practices used; check for the name of the country or region in which the plant has been grown etc. Spend time familiarizing yourself with essential oils and learn to identify between pure essential oils and synthetic fragrance oils.

3. Test the scent of oils: You can test the aroma essential oils if you learn to identify the top, middle and end notes of an oil. Put one drop of an oil on a perfume test strip, a cotton swab or a scrap of paper towel. Smell the aroma periodically. An essential oil’s aroma is pretty complex and changes with every stage of evaporation. This is not the case with ordinary fragrances. Also, a pure, undiluted oil will never leave an oily or greasy spot on the strip.

4. Gas Chromatography/Mass Spectroscopy (GC/MS): These are two lab tests which can help you determine an essential oil’s constituents and quality. Each oil is passed through the chromatograph, after which, the ionized constituents are amplified and detected by Mass Spectroscopy.  Though a GC/MS is an effective method, it cannot determine the synthetic and natural diluents of the oil. High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) is another method used to analyze the constituents of essential oils.