Therapeutic Grade Essential Oils
The Key to Effective Aromatherapy
Effective aromatherapy begins with using ‘Therapeutic Grade’ essential oils (EO). When applying EOs to the body medicinally, they need to be of the highest quality to achieve the desired healing effects.
Ninety-eight percent of essential oils produced today are used in the food and flavoring and the perfume/cosmetics industries – generally known as ‘food grade’ and ‘perfume grade’ oils respectively.
Those essential oils used in the food and flavoring industry are heavily adulterated and have been manipulated to make a consistent product revealing the same flavor that’s expected time and again in the industry.
The quality of essential oils used by perfumers may smell great but don’t necessarily have the constituents for therapeutic aromatherapy. These EOs are generally adulterated and diluted – often with synthetic ingredients. The intention for both the food and perfume industries is to achieve a 'certain' taste or smell the manufacturer needs or wants.
Only about two percent of the essential oils produced today are of the highest quality and can be considered ‘Therapeutic Grade.’ These pure oils retain their true plant essences and are derived from singular plant species. They are not adulterated in any way.
A therapeutic-grade essential oil is one that is both complete in its chemical constituents and retains the innate coherent vibrational frequency of the original plant materials. This is important, because the oil's fragrance, frequency and chemistry all contribute to its unique therapeutic effects. If any of these properties is compromised, as a result of poor production practices, an essential oil will have little to no therapeutic value.
How do you know if an Essential Oil is Therapeutic Grade?
There’s no short answer to that question. However, there are several indicators that point toward a high-quality product. If you’ve already purchased some oils, begin by getting to know them. Quality oils have several distinguishing features and with time and experience, you’ll become familiar with their subtleties. Do this:
Open a bottle of oil and inhale the scent…
Smell the fragrance – is it subtle, rich, organic, delicate? Do you detect any ‘chemical’ odor? Pure oil fragrances will vary somewhat from batch to batch, indicating they were produced in small quantity batches. If your oils smell exactly the same every time, this may indicate they were industrially processed on a large scale, or adulterated for consistency.
I once purchased a bottle of lavender oil that smelled similar to ‘feet’ when I opened the bottle! Gas Chromatography testing and other analyses proved it was indeed therapeutic grade lavender oil (lavandula angustifolia) and so would provide the medicinal results I sought. However, I must confess to having returned the oil and requesting a replacement from a different batch – something about wanting my lavender to smell a bit more like flowers and less like feet.
Now, place a few drops of oil into the palm of your hand…
How does the oil feel to the touch? Does it feel ‘oily’? Pure essential oils are not the ‘vegetable’ oil of the plant as in olive or grapeseed oil. If it leaves an ‘oily’ film to the touch, this will be from an additive. Does it irritate the skin or cause a rash? Again, consider the possibility of adulteration. (This is not conclusive however. There are additional qualifiers to consider)
Does the oil have an effect? Is there a body/mind/emotional response to the oil in any way - and if so how? For example, my body responds to frankincense noticeably and immediately with a feeling akin to (but not quite) a slight head rush. Is there any noticeable change in the condition for which you are applying the essential oil therapeutically? (which may or may not be immediate depending on the condition) Pure essential oils are powerful! Much experiential conclusion and scientific research has gone into the purported therapeutic qualities of the various oils. If your oil has no effect whatsoever, you probably have a chemically inert oil with a low to nil frequency factor. Or worse, you may have an unwanted and unpleasant reaction like a rash, headache etc.
You also want to check out the integrity of the supplier from which you’re purchasing the oils. Consider these questions:
Does the supplier…
- Have a reputation for quality and integrity?
- Maintain standards and practices that assure the quality of its oils from production, harvesting, distillation – through packaging and distribution?
- Provide specs and test results for its oils upon request?
- Provide educational resources for well-informed customers?
Also, are the oils considered ‘Therapeutic Grade according to International Standards’?
Standards for Therapeutic Grade
At present there are no American designated standards for therapeutic grade essential oils. In Europe however, standards are established that outline the chemical profile and principal constituents of a high-quality essential oil. These standards help us differentiate between a therapeutic grade EO and one of inferior quality. To date, there are three international organizations that have developed standards which can be applied to essential oils:
AFNOR - Association French Normalization Organization Regulation. AFNOR is a French-based private company (not government agency) that acts as a standards-setting body for a variety of products and services – including EOs. The AFNOR standards state the percentages of certain chemical constituents that must be present for an essential oil to be considered therapeutic grade.
ISO - International Standards Organization. ISO has set standards adopted from AFNOR. However, these standards use more stringent guidelines.
EC - European Community. The European testing standards widely regarded as the ‘gold standard.’
Check to see that your essential oils are graded according to one of these standards.
The significance of these standards is illustrated by the following excerpt from the Essential Oils Desk Reference, fourth edition, pg 9:
Dr. Casabianca recognized that the primary constituents within an essential oil had to occur in certain percentages in order for the oil to have predictable therapeutic effects. He combined his studies with research conducted by other scientists and doctors to create the AFNOR [standards].
Using these standards, many oils such as frankincense or lavender, can be checked to see if they do indeed have the proper balance of chemical constituents. If some constituents are too high or too low, the oils cannot be certified…As a general rule, if two or more marker compounds in an essential oil fall outside the prescribed percentages, the oil does not meet the AFNOR standard.
There is some discussion on the significance of these standardizations as well as their limitations in determining quality. As a general rule however, it’s a good indicator of the integrity of the company that insists on their oils being ‘at least’ up to these standards. Many quality oils will exceed them.
In the industry it’s generally recognized that Gas Chromatography and Mass Spectrometry (GC/MS) test results provide the best indication of EO integrity, chemical composition and purity.
How an Essential Oil is Produced Helps Determine its Therapeutic Effects
Much time, expense and attention go into the production of therapeutic grade oils. Great care is given to how they are grown, harvested, extracted, packaged and stored – all to retain the essential chemical constituents of the plant, as well as its bio-energy, i.e. its frequency and the original intent of the living plant.
Some factors that determine essential oil quality include:
- Plant Variety - Species selection is very important. Different varieties of plants produce essential oils with different chemical constituents. See
The Chemistry of Essential Oils
for more detailed information.
- Cultivation methods – Quality EOs are derived from plants grown in soil rich in nutrients that comprise their main chemical constituents and is uncontaminated by chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides or herbicides. Those plants that are cultivated are preferably certified organic. With some crops and those plants that are wild-harvested - this is not easily feasible. In this case they’re tested free of petro-chemicals and other industrial pollutants.
- Proper Harvesting - Harvest timing is an important factor. If the plant is harvested at the wrong time of the season, or the wrong time of day, a less than optimal oil will result. For example, German chamomile harvested in the morning will produce oil with far more azulene than chamomile harvested in the late afternoon. Other harvesting considerations include:
- the amount of dew on the leaves
- the percentage of plant in bloom
- the weather conditions during the two weeks prior to the harvest
- the proximity of the distillers to the harvest site – freshness of harvest
- Method of oil extraction - Essential oils can be extracted from the plant by a variety of methods, including solvent extraction, carbon dioxide extraction and steam distillation. Steam distillation is one of the most common, and has several advantages over the other methods.
However, distillation is as much a science as it is an art, and subtle differences in distillation equipment and processing conditions can translate into differences in essential oil quality.
- Storage and Shelf-life – Oils must be stored in containers made from non-reactive materials – glass or ceramic enamel – in a cool temperature. There is currently some discussion as to the effects light may have on EOs. It’s still usually recommended that they be stored away from direct lighting. Oxygen however does degrade the oils. Airtight containers are a must.
The shelf-life of the citrus oils is generally 12-18 months…keep them as cool as possible. I recommend refrigeration if you expect to have them for more than a couple of months. Rose Otto because of its extreme volatility should always be kept refrigerated. Most of the other oils will remain therapeutically viable for about 2-5 years if stored properly. And several oils will actually improve with age - sandalwood, myrrh, frankincense, rose, vetiver, spikenard and patchouli.
Once you’ve determined that your EOs are of the highest quality, there’re several different ways you can use them. The best methods to use vary depending on the oil and the intended result. For an overview and some general guidelines, read
Methods of Application
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