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Talk to anyone who uses essential oils for health and within 2 minutes, the term ‘therapeutic grade’ will be mentioned.  The only problem with that term is that there is NO independent standard for what constitutes a therapeutic grade essential oil.  Many companies (especially network marketing brands) are adamant that their essential oils are the highest quality because of their particular, proprietary and confidential testing process.  Again, the problem is that none of these so-called standards is truly independent. 

Some contend that AFNOR standards developed in France/Europe may provide an independent standard for therapeutic grade, but there are two major problems with AFNOR:  (1) the standards were never intended to identify essential oils for therapy and (2) the standards as stated only specify relative amounts of basic constituents that should be found in essential oils.  Unfortunately, if an oil does not meet the AFNOR specifications, it can be ‘doctored’ or adulterated with the addition of synthetic chemicals to bring it within AFNOR parameters.  Ultimately, there is no independent agency providing AFNOR certification.

So is there any truly reliable, independent certification option for those of us seeking the highest possible quality and purity in essential oils for therapeutic use?

There IS an independent certification that does apply to essential oils, which goes a long way toward eliminating inferior oil.  This certification is well-accepted worldwide and there are several independent certifying agencies.  That certification is the ORGANIC certification.

Although some of the less common oils are still hard to find with organic certification, there are more and more growers and distillers that are moving to meet organic requirements. Main-stream essential oils are readily available with organic certification. 

Here are several reasons why you can expect to get better essential oil if it is distilled from plants that are certified organic: 

1.  The first and most obvious advantage is that certified organic plants and herbs do NOT have the pesticide, herbicide and chemical fertilizer residues found in plants that are conventionally grown.  Some have argued that the molecules of these toxins are too large to distill out in the essential oil, but published research—and many essential oil experts—agree that pesticide/herbicide toxins DO in fact distill into the essential oil.[1] Additionally, these toxic substances have the potential to interact with essential oil compounds during the distillation process, resulting in strange and unusual toxic compounds.  Most herbicides and pesticides, like essential oils, are lipophilic, so they would have an affinity for each other.[2]   Finally, in the case of citrus oils mechanically pressed from rinds, it is a known fact that herbicide/pesticide residues readily accumulate in citrus rinds, so there is a particular need to seek out certified organic citrus oils.[3]

2.  It is not practical to wash or in any other way remove toxic residues from plant material before distillation. Toxic sprays used on the plants while growing remain on the plant for distillation.

3.  While regulatory agencies test individual pesticides for safety, they do not test or regulate the impact of multiple different pesticide residues on a single crop.  Most conventional farming uses multiple poisons throughout the season, creating a residue ‘cocktail’ that could compound into toxicity that is 10 or even 100 times the level of a single pesticide.[4]

4.  In almost all cases, essential oils are formed in tiny glands on the surface of plant leaves and flowers where the exposure to pesticides and herbicides is greatest and the likelihood of toxic residues highest. 

5.  Several studies have confirmed that the antioxidant and phytonutrient content of organic plants is higher than that of conventional plants, because organic crops rely more on their own defenses in the absence of regular applications of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.[5],[6],[7]  Clearly, this higher nutrient factor would translate into the distilled oil.

6.  The effects of repeated exposure to pesticide/herbicide exposure are cumulative, and in fact they can accumulate through generations, culminating in tragic negative impact on human health and behavior.[8]

7.  From a philosophical perspective, using organic essential oils is consistent with a global perspective of therapy and healing, not only for individuals, but for the earth and its many populations as well.  Research continues to show that organic farming uses less energy[9], improves the soil[10], creates higher yields[11], preserves and protects water supplies[12], and reduces pollution[13] when compared to conventional farming.

In sum, certified organic essential oils will have a far better likelihood of delivering efficacy, because they will have been distilled from organic plants, which will have been cultivated more carefully, kept free from unnecessary toxins, and harvested with an eye toward preserving natural, active ingredients.


1 Prof. H. Schilcher and Dr. Malte Habenicht, "A new method for the determination of organochlorine pesticides in essential oils with results of analysis of 110 essential oil samples and of 10 medicinal products.”  Essential Oils: Basic and Applied Research, Proceedings of the 27th Intern. Symposium on Essential Oils, Allured 1997.

3 Saitta, M, et al, Organochlorine Pesticide Residues in Italian Citrus Essential Oils, 1991−1996,  J. Agric. Food Chem., 2000, 48 (3), pp 797–801

4 Groth E, Benbrook C, Lutz K, “Do You Know What You’re Eating? An Analysis of Pesticide Residues in Food,” Consumers Union of the United State, February, 1999. (http://www.consumersunion.org/pdf/Do_You_Know.pdf)

5 Heaton, Shane, “Spreading the Organic Word,” Organic Food News Quarterly, Dec, 2005, (www.grinningplanet.com/2005/12-27/health-benefits-of-organic-food-article.htm

6 Benbrook C, Zhao X, Yanez J, Davies N, Andrews P, “Nutritional Superiority of Organic Food.” The Organic Center, March, 2008. (http://www.organic-center.org/reportfiles/5367_Nutrient_Content_SSR_FINAL_V2.pdf)

7 Wang SY, Chen CT, Sciarappa W, Wang CY, Camp MJ., “Fruit quality, antioxidant capacity, and flavonoid content of organically and conventionally grown blueberries“ J Agric Food Chem. 2008 Jul 23;56(14):5788-94. Epub 2008 Jul 1.

8 “Pesticides: Their Multigenerational Cumulative Destructive Impact on Health, Especially on the Physical, Emotional and Mental Development of Children and of Future Generations—Canadian Government Responsibilities and Opportunities,” February 2000, Environmental Illness Society of Canada,

9 FiBL Dossier (Research Institute of Organic Agriculture in Switzerland), “Organic farming enhances soil fertility and biodiversity,” August 2000.

10 “Food Safety and Quality as Affected by Organic Farming,” 22nd FAO Regional Conference for Europe, Porto, Portugal, July 24-28, 2000, Agenda Item 10.1

11 “Organic agriculture and the global food supply,” Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems (2007) 22:86-108.

12 Sampta P, “Deep Grouble: The Hidden Threat of Groundwater Pollution.” Worldwatch Paper 154, December 2000

13 Science, April 13, 2001, cited in WorldWatch, September/October 2001, page 8.