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The Essential Facts About Essential Oils

Bryce Edmonds

April 24, 2008

10 Min Read
The Essential Facts About Essential Oils

Aromatherapy, like much in the world of natural healing, is predicated on a long history of anecdotal evidence, but scant or conflicting science. Achieving therapeutic results from essential oils requires effort, energy and commitment, which are often unfamiliar concepts to consumers used to the quick fixes of conventional medicine. Add to that the volatile mix of me-too product development and marketing, and disseminating useful information becomes difficult.

Marketing aromatherapy, therefore, requires effort, energy and commitment—just like the therapy. With the following information, you'll be able to demystify the world of essential oils for your customers and introduce them to another healing method.

Start With Quality
According to the National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy in Seattle, an essential oil is a highly concentrated extract distilled from aromatic plant material. There are two main processes used to create essential oils. Most are made from steam distillation. Other oils—primarily citrus—are made by expression, also known as cold pressing.

Essential oils come in three different grades, but the classifications are a bit murky. Kolinka Zinovieff, founder and owner of NHR Organic Oils Ltd. in Brighton, England, uses the terms food, perfume or aromatherapy, and clinical grades to designate them. Robin Block, co-owner of Minneapolis-based Wyndmere Naturals Inc., uses the terms commercial or food, therapeutic, and pharmaceutical for the three levels. Although the terminology varies, the definitions are quite similar.

The lowest quality oils may include synthetics and are produced using a high-pressure, high-temperature, fast-distillation process. Block says producers making this level of oil are not concerned about getting all the natural chemical compounds from the plant. She says this distillation process is much less expensive and the oils have a stronger aroma and a narrower, or thin, bouquet.

The second level of oil is the industry standard, according to Zinovieff, yet quality often varies. The therapeutic effects are not guaranteed and the oils may not always be pure or unadulterated, he says. They are generally processed at lower pressures and temperatures for longer periods.

The highest quality of oil is processed using very low pressures and temperatures and long distillation periods. Block says producers using this technique are interested in an oil's chemical components for healing use. And Zinovieff and Block agree these oils are always produced organically and are primarily used by professional aromatherapists.

Quality Counts
When an essential oil is distilled, a number of chemical constituents can be removed from the plant material and collected in the oil. The slower and lower heat distillation process leaves the most chemicals in the oil. "Low-quality essential oils do not have the full range of natural ingredients and therefore have little or no therapeutic value," Zinovieff says. Industry consultant Joni Keim Loughran, who is also technical adviser to the Petaluma, Calif.-based Oshadhi USA, agrees. "It won't work therapeutically if it's not a quality oil."

Tom Havran, a consultant for Norway, Iowa-based Aura Cacia's product development, says an oil's chemical makeup affects its efficacy. "For aromatherapy to work, all the constituents must be there," he says. "Take tea tree, for example. The constituent cineol is irritating to the skin, but not in concert with all the other constituents."

However, as evidenced by the various grades, manufacturers have different motivations and goals for their essential oil production. Someone doesn't necessarily need a high-quality oil with all its chemical constituents to make home cleaning supplies.

To further confuse things, quality depends on more than just proper distillation. How the plant was grown is a big factor. "It is a bit like winemaking," Zinovieff says. "You get good and bad years." Differences in how and where the plant was grown, harvested and distilled change the constituents in the final product. Loughran uses rosemary verbenone (Rosmarinus officinalis) to illustrate. "Rosemary verbenone comes from Corsica, but if you transplant it, it will no longer produce the verbenone constituent." In fact, Loughran—who prefers to use the term "quality" instead of "grade" for essential oils—looks at the whole environment when speaking of oils. "You have to have vital healthy plants, growing where they are grown best and properly distilled at the site," she says.

But How Can You Tell?
Gas-liquid chromatography is the most scientific way to test oils for quality. This technique measures an oil's constituent types and levels. Zinovieff recommends retailers ask to see the manufacturer's gas-liquid chromatography analysis for each oil. Block warns, however, that relying too heavily on GLC is a mistake.

"GLC cannot pick up some types of adulterations," she says. "For instance, rose oil is quite often adulterated with a chemical that can be taken from geranium. Most people can't tell, and the GLC can be fooled. It's not the end-all and be-all."

Havran says GLC is a powerful tool, but it's only as good as the person reading the results. Aura Cacia's chief scientist, Denys Charles, Ph.D., tests each batch of oil for optical rotation, refractive index, specific gravity and GLC, and the company claims even the region of the country where the plants were grown can be detected. "There is an ongoing argument about whether to go directly to the source—who knows it's good—or to do scientific testing," Charles says. "We do both."

Buying organic is another way to know you're getting a quality product. In fact, both Zinovieff and Loughran believe organic oil is the only way to go. "Organic matters enormously," Zinovieff says, "because the purer the essential oil, the stronger the therapeutic effect."

Loughran agrees: "Is organic better to be breathing and putting on your skin? Absolutely. How could it not be?" But she also says some oils are not available organically, making conventional versions the only options.

Ultimately, it comes down to trust in your supplier. Loughran uses her company as an example: "Oshadhi plants are grown specifically for aromatherapy, and each batch of oil is coded back to the farmer. They are grown, distilled and shipped directly to Oshadhi," she says.

Education Sells
Although aromatherapy is a popular buzzword, consumers still need education—they need to know how the healing system works. The long-term effect will be a satisfied—and returning—customer. "No. 1 and very succinctly," Loughran urges, "aromatherapy requires education and guidance. Any time a customer comes in, you should think, 'What is the aromatherapy solution?'"

Taking time to work with a customer is also important. "Often the emotional response to an oil is extremely subjective," Block says. "If you have a bad memory associated with a smell, it will come back up." Sometimes it takes trial and error to find the right oil for the individual's needs. Test a few oils recommended for the customer's specific situation to find the best match.

Zinovieff also recommends posting information near the oils. "Display organic certification for your customers," he says. "Display customer feedback from the supplier of your oils."

Havran suggests retailers communicate how different elements come together, such as displaying the massage carrier oils with the essential oils. "I think a lot of people are perplexed by these small bottles of oils," he says.

Both Block and Loughran agree demonstrations are a challenge because there is no immediate reward as with a food demo. Block recommends turning a demo into an opportunity to show consumers one easy way they can incorporate essential oils and aromatherapy into their lives. "If you can show them how easy it is to use [oils] and then give them a small bit of educational materials, then you've done something," she says.

The Full Spectrum
Block believes organic, quality oils are best, but if simply smelling a pleasant fragrance triggers a mood-lightening response, then it's fine to use cheaper oils. "Essential oils are like wines; everyone can tell the difference between a $5 and a $100 bottle of wine." If a customer simply wants to use oils to scent cleaning products or candles and isn't so concerned about therapeutic effects, Block recommends steering them toward the lower-end oils. "If they care how the oils will affect their bodily functions rather than just mood, then go for the higher-end oil," she says. Others, like Loughran, believe true aromatherapy means always using the highest-quality oils. "People say 'I didn't think aromatherapy worked,' but those people probably haven't used a quality product."

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 9/p. 90, 92

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