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A Word about Essential Oil Prices

©Copyright 2012 Aroma Shield LLC

The pricing of essential oils is a complex issue. It is, for example, not unusual to find lavender oil at prices ranging from $2 to $25 for a 15 ml bottle. Other oils may have similar extreme price variations. Why such a dramatic range in pricing? And why is it common to find wide differences in price for almost all essential oils?

The answer is that there are at least 5 important stages in the processing of every essential oil and decisions can be made at any of these stages to cheapen the quality of the oil, reducing the price. In fact, only the most committed suppliers—probably less than 5%—produce an entirely natural product that is worthy of the name ‘therapeutic grade.’

The following are important checkpoints for any essential oil:

1. Correct species: Many essential oils are distilled from ‘related’ species of plants that are more common or easier to cultivate or provide greater yield. These oils are then deceptively labeled. Common examples include lavandin (Lavandula x intermedia) which is often ‘doctored’ and sold as lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) even though it has a much different chemical profile; Himalayan cedar (Cedrus deodora) is often substituted for Atlas cedar (Cedrus atlantica) and labeled Cedarwood; we have seen cornmint (Mentha haplocalyx) labeled as peppermint (Mentha piperita), cassia (Cinnamomum aromaticum) labeled as true cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylonicum), and Utah juniper (Juniperus osteosperma) sold as Juniper berry (Juniperus communis).

2. Correct cultivation: Ideal cultivation of plants for distillation into essential oils is an enormous challenge. It involves soil quality, proper watering, weeding and correct harvesting. All of these challenges become dramatically more difficult when the task is to cultivate certified organic plants—the ideal way to obtain the purest essential oil. An example is peppermint, which can be difficult to keep free of weeds. Some farmers simply harvest and distill the weeds along with the herbs, creating the potential for toxins to distill out of the weeds, altering the purity of the oil and its aroma. Others use heavy herbicides to kill the weeds, but those herbicides also go onto—and into—the plants that will be distilled. The ultimate is to hand-weed the herbs, so that no weeds and no toxins go into distillation. But, as you can imagine, hand-weeding is an extremely expensive proposition.

3. Correct distillation: The best oil is distilled under no pressure and at temperatures no higher than 100 degrees C. It is a well-known fact that oil yield can be increased and distillation time reduced by raising temperature and pressure in the still. This, however, destroys or ‘fractures’ the more delicate biocompounds in the oil, rendering them more or less non-therapeutic. A distiller that is only concerned with aroma and not with therapeutic efficacy will typically adjust pressure and temperature upward to increase his yield.

4. Purity after Distillation: Some producers make it a practice to ‘doctor’ their essential oils after distillation with synthetic compounds to give them the proper balance of ingredients. For example, if the cineole content of a batch of eucalyptus oil is too low, some producers will add synthetic cineole so the oil will demonstrate a proper gas chromatograph when analyzed. These alterations obviously affect the efficacy of the oil for therapy. Also, to increase revenue, some suppliers add extenders to the oil. These are odorless, colorless additives that dilute the oil, or worse, make it toxic, without changing its aroma. This is more commonly seen in expensive oils such as frankincense and myrrh.

5. Correct warehousing and handling: Essential oils are sensitive to heat and light. If stored in clear containers in a hot, sunlit environment, essential oils will begin to oxidize. More careful producers utilize refrigerated storage and amber glass or aluminum containers to insure oil quality during storage and packaging.

When all five of these issues are considered together, it is easy to group oils into at least 5 different quality groups.

The first group would consist of oils distilled to get maximum revenue from minimum investment every step of the way. This could involve incorrect species, poor cultivation, heavy use of herbicides, distillation under pressure, the use of additives and extenders and careless handling and warehousing. Such oils have a high potential for creating toxic reactions on the skin and have little or no therapeutic value.

The second group would start with the right species, but still include some or all of the other remaining methods of contaminating or cheapening the end product, substantially reducing its potential for therapy. As much as 80% of the essential oils found in the US fall into these first two groups.

A third group would involve correct species, correct cultivation and distillation, but would still be carefully ‘tweeked’ in a laboratory setting to yield a 'correct' GC ‘footprint’ of a pure oil in spite of it being adulterated with synthetic compounds.

The fourth group includes essential oils for which every quality precaution has been taken but one: they are cultivated with the use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides to insure plants are weed-free, disease-free and insect-free. These are pure, but not certified organic.

The fifth and highest quality group is just like the fourth group except that no chemical fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides are used in cultivation. This is the group that is correct species, correct cultivation, correct distillation, correct warehousing and handling. . . . and CERTIFIED ORGANIC.

At Aroma Shield our goal is to find and offer certified organic oils wherever possible to help us maintain the highest levels of purity and quality. We do not invent our own arbitrary quality standard, but rather look for independent organic certification to provide the ultimate standard. Our organic oils are certified by a variety of well-known certification companies, including Oregon Tilth, EcoCert, and Quality Assurance International, etc. All these certifying companies insure the oils come from plants that meet the specifications of the FDA National Organic Program (NOP).

Most authorities agree that organic plants yield the finest essential oil. Consider this from the Essential Oils Desk Reference: “The plant material [used to distill essential oil] should . . . be free of herbicides and other agrichemicals. These can react with the essential oil during distillation to produce toxic compounds. Because many pesticides are oil soluble, they can also mix into the essential oil.” (Essential Oils Desk Reference, Fourth Edition, 2008, Essential Science Publishing. p. 7)

Organic essential oil production requires significant extra investment, and even today many essential oils are not yet available as certified organic. The ones that are available are often 3 to 5 times higher in cost than conventional, non-organic essential oils. Using organic certification and GC/Mass spec analysis, we can confidently say that Aroma Shield oils are as good or better then any other brand of essential oils.

Generally, when it comes to essential oils, you get what you pay for. However, the unfortunate reality is that a compromise at ANY stage of the production process— whether in planting, cultivating, harvesting, distilling, handling or warehousing—can partially or completely remove the therapeutic qualities of the oil. Dr. Daniel Penoel, a French MD and one of the pioneers in modern essential oil therapy, often expressed his feelings on the subject of quality with the statement that he could do more good with one drop of quality essential oil than with a 55 gallon drum full of cheap oil.