While research suggests there are health benefits, the FDA doesn’t monitor or regulate the purity or quality of essential oils. It’s important to talk with your healthcare provider before you begin using essential oils and be sure to research the quality of a brand’s products. Always do a patch test before trying a new essential oil.
Whether you’re new to the whole essential oil thing or have a few bottles stashed in your medicine cabinet, do you ever wonder what’s really in those bottles? How can you tell if what you’re buying is a knockoff or the real deal? And even if it is real (no synthetic fragrance oils), how do you know if it’s great quality?
If you’re like us, you’re using EOs to help relieve headaches, to find balance during a meditation practice, or to diffuse a room with an invigorating aroma to give your day the kick in the pants it needs.
Bad or fake EOs? Nobody has time for that! Here’s what you should know to make sure you’re buying the good stuff.
Not all essential oils are created with utmost purity and authenticity in mind, and unfortunately they’re not regulated by the FDA. This means you must be your own advocate when it comes to sourcing the good stuff (same with cosmetics, folks).
Essential oils have been used for thousands of years, but recently, with wellness turning into a booming industry, EOs have been made more readily available to consumers than ever before.
Sadly, that means some of those brown bottles you see on shelves are filled with cheap synthetic fillers, extenders, or even just “fragrance oils” in efforts to simply turn a profit.
Synthetic fragrance oils don’t contain the vital components of real plants. So, repeat after us: Friends don’t let friends buy fake essential oils.
And if it is a real essential oil in that bottle, the quality depends on several factors, including:
- Plants. Quality can be impacted by weather, changing growing conditions, or the use of pesticides or other chemicals.
- Processing. How clean the equipment was kept during the distillation process matters. Some EOs may also be intentionally diluted during processing, and it can be really hard to tell… even if you’ve been working with EOs for years.
- Packaging. How EOs are handled and stored can determine how long they’re good for. The quality of even the purest, highest quality oil can be compromised if the oil isn’t packaged properly in a tightly sealed dark glass bottle.
What about “therapeutic grade”?
Simply put, a grading system for essential oils doesn’t actually exist.
Shopping for essential oils is like shopping for diamonds in that you have to shop from quality vendors and they’re both precious commodities that aren’t always the real deal.
But unlike diamonds, essential oils cannot be graded. Some sellers will claim EOs can be grade A, B, C, etc., but if you see any bottles marked this way, remember that it’s just grade A bull.
One of the best ways to suss out which essential oils are authentic and of high quality is to really strengthen your sense of smell (seriously).
You may want to take an introductory aromatherapy course or at least spend some time really comparing and contrasting various essential oils with the guidance of a professional to become more alert in an olfactory way.
This can take time, though — some people, like aromatherapists and perfumers, spend a lifetime refining their sense of smell. But even the experts still use the following three tips to ensure quality:
Check the bottle
A quality supplier will sell their essential oils in a tightly sealed dark (usually amber) glass bottle. These are typically less than 4 ounces, though the most common size is a half ounce (15 milliliters).
Sometimes they’ll come with an eyedropper cap, but more often they’ll come with an orifice reducer (the round, plastic part fitted into the bottle’s opening that helps meter out one drop at a time).
Light and heat can damage essential oils (hence why the bottle needs to be dark), and the highly volatile chemical compounds in EOs don’t mix well with plastic, so they must be kept in glass. If you ever see an essential oil in a plastic bottle, do not buy it!
Read the label
It should clearly state the common and the Latin name of the plant used to make the oil. It should also state what plant parts were used (i.e., on a bottle of niaouli it should say “Plant part: Leaf and twig”), how it was extracted (distillation or expression), and how it was grown (aka organic, wild-crafted, traditional).
The label should also specify that it is “100 percent pure essential oil” and list the net contents (including metric measurement). If it says “essence oil,” that’s not a pure essential oil but typically a premixed blend of essential oil(s) in a base of carrier oil (like jojoba). This is great for certain applications but is not a pure essential oil.
The label should clearly list all ingredients in the formula, and if you’re shopping for a pure EO, it should have only one ingredient.
Verify the source
You should be able to easily find out where it was sourced from. If the label doesn’t outright mention country of origin, you might see a “lot#,” which you can then look up.
If you’re buying from a website, it should state where the oil is from on the product page, even if the individual bottles may not (simply because labels can be quite small).
Sometimes it’s easy to tell right away if an essential oil isn’t the real deal. Other times, the clues are more subtle. At least look out for these three main things:
You see the word “fragrance”
If a label outright says “fragrance oil” and there’s no Latin name present, it’s not an essential oil.
Some plants aren’t even capable of yielding an essential oil — like violets. If you see a bottle labeled “violet oil,” sorry to break it to you, but there’s no violet essential oil from the plant Viola odorata (aka sweet violets). They’re too small and delicate to extract an EO from using traditional methods.
Side note: You can get violet leaf essential oil, which is made from the leaves, not the blossom, and is verrry green in both color and aroma. It is not recommended for aromatherapy.
There’s no Latin name
Again, if it doesn’t list the Latin name as well as the common name, don’t buy it. It’s likely a mix of synthetic perfumed “fragrance oil.” It might contain some essential oil, but who really knows?
For example, a label shouldn’t just say “lavender,” it should specify which of the many species of lavender the it was extracted from. Lavandula angustifolia is very different from Lavandula latifolia, for example.
Do a price check
Compare the price. A very low price is something to be wary of. But the highest priced bottle might not be the best choice either. In recent years the sale of essential oils has become retail-driven, whereas it used to be more practitioner-driven.
These days, certain multilevel marketing giants may be marking up their prices because they’re really selling a *brand.* These oils are mass-produced, and the companies are not always forthcoming about their sourcing or sustainability efforts. These oils are typically overpriced.
For example, if you’re looking to add a quality bottle of pure bergamot essential oil to your home aromatherapy kit, $11 to $26 is a good price for a half ounce (15 milliliters) as of the writing of this article. It will be at the higher end of that range if it’s certified organic.
But if you see the same size bottle retailing for $40, be wary — you’re probably paying for brand markup.
Prices also fluctuate through the years, depending on crops and what certain harvests can yield. For example, more than 80 percent of the world’s vanilla is grown on the island of Madagascar, which has been hit with terrible weather in recent years.
Failed crop yields have caused vanilla bean prices to soar to 10 times what they were prior to 2017. This affected the cost of vanilla for everything from baked goods to beer to ice cream. And availability of vanilla absolute (not an essential oil since it’s obtained via solvent extraction), often coveted by botanical perfumers, is still extremely limited.
Suppliers won’t claim to sell low quality or adulterated essential oils, so it’s important to learn to see through clever marketing.
Look for essential oils sold in dark glass bottles that are clearly labeled with the Latin name, plant parts used, type of extraction, growth method, net contents, and country of origin.
Steer clear of plastic bottles, labels with vague or little to no info (or ones with images of a completely different plant than it’s claiming to be!), and anything labeled simply “fragrance oil.”
And, as our disclaimer says, it’s a good idea to chat with your healthcare provider about using essential oils if you haven’t before. A naturopath (ND), certified aromatherapist, or certified clinical herbalist can also be of great help on your essential oil journey.