How to Choose an Essential Oil Brand
In this article, you will learn about:
- What Every Blogger, Distributor & Mom needs to Know
- 6 Tips to Discovering the Right Brand for You!
- How to Check for Quality
- Indigenous Sourcing
- Contamination Concerns
- Is Organic Necessary?
- EO Regulation
- Drug Claims
- Supplement Label and Internal Use
- The Great Aromatherapy Debate
- Tips for Internal Use
By far, the #1 most common question I get from the folks who get my weekly newsletter or follow me on Facebook is to which essential oil brand I recommend. Interestingly, fewer people ask for the brands that I recommend (emphasis on the pleural), which leads me to believe that most are trying to find the “Holy Grail” when they question me. In fact, snugged right next to this question, many people also ask me what the “best brand” is. Sadly, this train of thought has gotten a lot of people into trouble because nothing could be further from the truth.
Don't get me wrong, I really can't fault anyone for thinking this. We live in such a capitalist-driven society where we have been trained to believe that the competition is never as good as the “real deal.” Not to mention, networking marketing propaganda has done an exceptionally thorough job reshaping the way that people view oils. The “brand wars” have reached fever pitch at this point, and people will swear on their death bed that their brand sells the only pure oils on the market and all others are contaminated!
Again, I really can't fault people for thinking this. What else are they to logically think when a cancerous tumor disappears after using frankincense oil or their Lyme disease vanishes after using the protocol a distributor friend of theirs recommends? Literally, there is no lack testimonials out there, and I personally know people who swear essential oils saved their lives. I'm not talking about bloggers out there who use their “story” to sell oils. No, I'm talking about real people with real testimonials from real essential oils!
What Every Blogger, Distributor & Mom needs to Know
First off, as a public health researcher I am committed to staying as unbiased as possible so I don't give product recommendations.
Not to mention, if I start selling and recommending essential oil brands, the Food and Drug Administration can shut down my website like they have several of my colleagues for making so-called “drug claims.” Unlike pharmaceuticals, the manufacturing of EOs and supplements are not monitored by the government. This is why your medical doctor can recommend (and sell) specific drugs.
Things work differently in the natural health world. The only solace I have to continue educating the world about the life-transforming properties of natural therapies like essential oils is the First Amendment at this point. And, to maintain my freedom of speech to discuss what the scientific research has to say about how essential oils affect the body and various disease processes, I need to remain brand neutral.
There are some good Facebook groups, however, that lay it all out there. The purpose of my site is not to dive into this piece, but to educate about uses. Once we start to name brands, we get into the FDA's scope and we want to preserve our freedom of speech. It's a fine line…
With that said, let me break it to y'all. There is no #1 essential oils company. It simply does not, nor will it ever, exist. Now, don't stone me because I refuse to bow down to the essential oil gods out there. If you've been following my work for a while, I hope that you've come to appreciate that my mission in life is not to give people fish, but to give them the fishing pole that they need to regain control of their health. As a Biblical health educator and natural health researcher, I'm very passionate about educating people and equipping them to take the information that I teach to the next level.
The take home message is that it all boils down to trust. As you will see below, the entire supplement and essential oils industries are entirely built upon the “honor code.” So, if you have found a company that you can put your faith in because they readily provide you with the information that you're looking for, your body responds well to their products, and you have no reason to believe that they are selling junk then you found a “keeper.” On the other hand, if you cannot get the information that you want from them a company, your body reacts to the oils in an undesirable manner and you develop suspicions because of an increase negative reports on the Internet, you should probably find a new brand that you can put your faith in.
With that said, let's now tackle the most emotionally-charged and controversial topic in the essential oils industry…
6 Tips to Discovering the Right Brand for YOU!
- Ask the company that you're investigating for a report of their sourcing and quality standards (check out the section “How to Check for Quality” below).
- Contact a friend or family member who uses essential oils that you trust to be conscientious and a thorough researcher – be careful to not let hate speech and multi-level marketing propaganda get in the way of truth. EVERYONE's brand is the best, right? Especially, when they're selling something. 😉
- Contact the company and see if they sell therapeutic grade oils, and ask them for a definition of what “therapeutic grade” means because this is an unregulated term that can be defined in a variety of ways.
- Check to see if the oils are safe for internal use. Look for the SUPPLEMENT label on the bottle, which is an indication that the company you are interested in may be selling oils that are GRAS (generally recognized as safe). I have listed the FDA-approved GRAS oils at the end of this article.
- Try a couple, and test for yourself. Lemon, lavender and peppermint are common, relatively inexpensive and you should get a good gauge to see if this brand is for you or not.
- Remember, many of the small companies get their oils from the same suppliers. They just private label them.
From what I've been told, the larger companies have unique suppliers, which differentiates their product from their competitor. This doesn't guarantee purity, but it can help put your mind to rest that they (should) be proprietary.
Note: For a product to be labeled as an “essential oil supplement,” a supplemental fact label is required to be placed on the bottle, even though prior FDA approval is not required to use these labels. Essential oils that are being recommended for ingestion should have the supplemental fact labels on the bottle, however, this is not always the case. As well, the supplement label is not a guarantee of safety or purity as these labels are not regulated unless complaints or injury reports cause the FDA to intervene. (More on this below…).
How to Check for Quality
Before jumping in and buying a bunch of oils from a company, consider asking these questions to help ensure quality:
- Does the company has relations with their distillers?
- Can the company readily supply a batch-specific report (MS/GC) on the oil it sells?
- Can the company readily provide material safety data sheets (MSDS) upon request?
- What is the common name, latin name (exact genus and species), country of origin, part of plant processed, type of extraction (distillation or expression), and how it was grown (organic, wild-crafted, traditional)?
Also, it is critical to test for your own organo-leptic assessment. “Organo-leptic” meaning the way your body perceives the oil through the six senses: taste, touch, smell, vision, auditory, and intuition.
In my opinion, the most important factor is whether or not the oils are indigenously sourced. Meaning, they are harvested where God planted them, which is why they are referred to as “native” plants. One reason why is because “organic” is not a guarantee of purity (more on that below). The other reason, and even more important, is because non-native plants pale in comparison to native plants when it come to nutrition and chemical constituency.
My father-in-law is a retired PhD agriscientist and spent his career evaluating the chemical compounds in plants. He told me that native plants always have a better nutritional profile because the soil is naturally designed to feed indigenous plants with what they need most. For example, we live in Atlanta, GA where the growing season lasts nearly 10 months out of the year. It's warm enough to sustain a fig tree in our backyard, but the taste and vitamin and mineral content of our fig is nothing what it should (and could) be if that same tree were grown in Israel where figs are native. Same for the pineapple, limes and lemons that grow in pots on our deck.
Additionally, there are some other importance differences between indigenous and non-indigenous plants:
- Evolved over a long period of time, and best suited to thrive in their native region.
- Adapted to the local weather and geology.
- Can thrive in drought and inclement weather situations.
- Environmentally sustainable for pesticide-free farming because they have developed natural resistance to native predators.
- Has a positive impact on the local environment and ecosystem by forming natural “communities” with other plants.
- Unnaturally introduced (deliberately or by accident) into an environment in which they did not evolve.
- Are not well-suited for pesticide-free farming because they are not naturally resistant to native predators.
- Has a negative impact on the local environment and ecosystem because they have a tendency to take over a habitat, require pesticides to thrive, and are not natural food sources for neighboring wildlife.
The fact that people are questioning which brands are best is a good thing. The underlying concern and motivating factor is that people want to use unadulterated pure oils, with no contaminants or harmful fillers. I validate this concern 100% and hope that more people will demand pure products in the supplement world so that suppliers step up their game. Remember, it's all about supply-and-demand.
In 2014, scientists and essential oil producers met at the International Federation of Essential Oil and Aroma Trades (IFEAT) Conference in Rome, Italy to share their concerns about quality and safety of our global essential oil supply. These are some of the key takeaways as shared by the Founder, President, CEO, and Principal of the American College of Healthcare Sciences (ACHS) Dorene Petersen: (1)
- “Pesticide residue and concern for pesticide levels in essential oils, even in certified organic oils, was the subject of three sessions at IFEAT 2014.”
- “It is a regrettable fact that essential oils can contain pesticide residues, even certified organic essential oils.”
- “Detecting residue is even more likely if pesticides are administered during cultivation of the plant material.”
- “However, passive contamination can also occur even if a farmer does not actively use pesticides.”
- “Acts of nature such as a puff of wind or water runoff from a neighboring field, even incorrect storage of an essential oil, can all result in cross contamination.”
- “According to the test results conducted by the German Medicines Manufacturers' Association (BAH) Working Group on Contaminants, cold-pressed essential oils from the pericarp of citrus fruits are more likely to contain pesticide residues than steam-distilled citrus because of the hydrophilic, thermostable, and volatile characteristics of pesticides.”
- “Most pesticides can easily combine with or dissolve in lipids or fats, facilitating the transition to the oil.”
The reality is that it's increasingly becoming more difficult to find truly pure, clean air, food and water because of modern agricultural methods and pollution on a global, massive scale. This is especially true for supplements and essential oils that are labelled “organic.”
Is Organic Necessary?
It's important to realize that the USDA certified organic does NOT guaranteed that a product is:
- Local– More than 10% of organic food is reportedly imported and their safety regulations vary considerably. (2)
- Chemical or Spray Free– Many sources claim that so-called organic produce is actually sprayed with more chemicals than non-organic sources. The loophole is that the spray must be tied to a “naturally-occurring” chemical, which can get into a gray area very quickly. (2)
- Sustainable– Most organic farms are mega-million dollar operations with the same over-harvesting practices as conventional producers.
For an item to be considered organic, it must be produced using methods “that preserve the environment and avoid most synthetic materials, such as pesticides and antibiotics.” (3)
The FDA has helped to further define the varieties of “organic” food: (4)
- Organic crops -The USDA organic seal verifies that irradiation, sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers, prohibited pesticides, and genetically modified organisms were not used.
- Organic livestock – The USDA organic seal verifies that producers met animal health and welfare standards, did not use antibiotics or growth hormones, used 100% organic feed, and provided animals with access to the outdoors.
- “Organic” multi-ingredient foods – The USDA organic seal verifies that the product has 95% or more certified organic content. If the label claims that it was made with specified organic ingredients, you can be sure that those specific ingredients are certified organic.
- “Made with Organic” Ingredients – These products contain at least 70% organically produced ingredients. The remaining non-organic ingredients are produced without using prohibited practices (genetic engineering, for example) but can include substances that would not otherwise be allowed in 100% organic products.
Also, you have to wonder what the extra 5% of ingredients in certified “organic” multi-ingredient food items are actually made of. Your guess is as good as anyone's, but it's safe to assume they are not pesticide-free and that they do not pass the USDA certified organic sniff test.
Yet, it's not all doom and gloom. According to Petersen's report of the IFEAT meeting. (1)
The European Pharmacopoeia expert group database focused on essential oils from 2006 to 2013, have tested nearly 600 samples for 217 substances representing 28 different oils.
- 314 samples didn't show any residues.
- 275 samples were contaminated with at least one residue.
- 1,150 results were discovered to contain at least one pesticide residue.
- A few of the specific oils they looked at were neroli, rosemary, eucalyptus, caraway, and lavender.
- Of the 65 samples of neroli, 199 positive pesticide findings were discovered, and 77 showed that the pesticides were above the maximum levels.
- 49 samples of rosemary were tested, and 15 revealed more than the maximum level of a citrus peel treatment agent known as biphenyl.
- Interesting, rosemary does not have a peel so the presence of biphenyl can only be explained because it was contaminated by the packaging, the manufacturing equipment or some other manmade intervention.
- 36 eucalyptus and 25 caraway samples were tested, and three of each were positive for pesticides,.
- 19 lavender samples tested and one was positive.
Essential Oil Regulation
At this point, the most natural question you should be asking is, “Who regulates essential oils?”
The easiest answer to this question is, “No one.”
Technically-speaking, they are regulated in a roundabout way, but manufacturers and distributors are not required to obtain FDA approval to sell their products beforehand, so what's the purpose? “Because dietary supplements are under the “umbrella” of foods, FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) is responsible for the agency's oversight of these products. DSHEA created a new regulatory framework for the safety and labeling of dietary supplements. FDA is not authorized to review dietary supplement products for safety and effectiveness before they are marketed.” (5)
Hence, the reason why you'll see this disclaimer on essential oil bottles, “*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent disease.”
Unlike drugs, supplements and essential oils are not intended to cure, diagnose, prevent, or treat diseases. That means supplements should not make claims, such as “reduces pain” or “treats heart disease.” Statements like these (i.e. “drug claims”) can only be made for drugs, not essential oils or supplements. (6)
Under the FD&C Act, cosmetic products and ingredients, with the exception of color additives, do not require FDA approval before they go on the market. Drugs, however, must generally either receive premarket approval by FDA through the New Drug Application (NDA) process or conform to a “monograph” for a particular drug category, as established by FDA's Over-the-Counter (OTC) Drug Review. These monographs specify conditions whereby OTC drug ingredients are generally recognized as safe and effective, and not misbranded. Certain OTC drugs may remain on the market without an NDA approval until a monograph for its class of drugs is finalized as a regulation. (7)
It's important to keep in mind that essential oils are only regulated after they go to market. Even then, in the tangled web of “regulation” there are so many loopholes that there is virtually no system set in place to properly regulate the products being sold. To help make sense of this all, here is a quick summary of the current regulatory system and the principal players:
- The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994, which amended the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, regulates manufacturers by holding them accountable to what are known as “good manufacturing practices” (i.e., industry quality standards ).
- The Food and Drug Adminstration (FDA) regulates the label, but only after the product goes to market. (More on this below…).
- The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulates supplement advertising – manufacturers must report truthfully what their products contain and must have proof backing up any claims they make.
- Dietary Supplement and Nonprescription Drug Consumer Protection Act (DSNDCPA) of 2006 requires “adverse event reporting” – the same system the FDA uses to inform the public about injury reports and unsafe incidents.
Under DSHEA, FDA is responsible for uncovering that supplements are “unsafe” before it can remove the products from the marketplace. Essentially, all essential oils and supplements are innocent until proven guilty and the primary way the FDA is aware of a situation necessitating an investigation is at the very hands of the manufacturers and distributors themselves; as they are required to record, investigate and forward all safety concerns and adverse event reports to the FDA.
In contrast to dietary supplement manufacturers, who are able to utilize structure/function claims, aromatherapy companies who sell essential oils for external use cannot.
Establishing a Product's Intended Use
“A product can be a drug, a cosmetic, or a combination of both… For example, a fragrance marketed for promoting attractiveness is a cosmetic. But a fragrance marketed with certain ‘aromatherapy' claims, such as assertions that the scent will help the consumer sleep or quit smoking, meets the definition of a drug because of its intended use. Similarly, a massage oil that is simply intended to lubricate the skin and impart fragrance is a cosmetic, but if the product is intended for a therapeutic use, such as relieving muscle pain, it's a drug.” (7)
This is where some brands get in trouble because they, or their distributors make “drug claims” that are outside the scope of cosmetics. “The law doesn't require cosmetics to have FDA approval before they go on the market. But FDA can take action against a cosmetic on the market if we have reliable information showing that it is unsafe when consumers use it according to directions on the label, or in the customary or expected way, or if it is not labeled properly.” (8)
The SUPPLEMENT Label and Internal Use
Essentially, if the label says SUPPLEMENT, then yes, it's considered a consumable product.
As described by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, “A dietary supplement is a product intended for ingestion that contains a ‘dietary ingredient' intended to add further nutritional value to (supplement) the diet. A ‘dietary ingredient' may be one, or any combination, of the following substances:
- a vitamin
- a mineral
- an herb or other botanical
- an amino acid
- a dietary substance for use by people to supplement the diet by increasing the total dietary intake
- a concentrate, metabolite, constituent, or extract
Dietary supplements may be found in many forms such as tablets, capsules, softgels, gelcaps, liquids, or powders. Some dietary supplements can help ensure that you get an adequate dietary intake of essential nutrients; others may help you reduce your risk of disease.” (9)
Other sources explain this further: “Dietary supplements can be created by using both nutritive and non-nutritive ingredients. Essential oils, of course, would be considered non-nutritive dietary supplements. The use of essential oils continues to actually grow within the dietary supplement world. This is the value of GRAS approved essential oils. They have already gone through incredible safety evaluation for internal use. So we see dietary supplement companies utilizing GRAS approved essential oils/co2 extracts.” (10)
Remember that essential oils are oftentimes a key component of the supplements that we take and this is key: Dietary supplement manufacturers are able to utilize structure/function claims whereas traditional aromatherapy companies who sell essential oils for external application cannot.
So, if a company states on the bottle or package that their essential oil product(s) can alter body function (i.e. reduce pain, inflammation, etc.), the FDA requires that these claims be supported by conclusive evidence to prove the supplement truly has the claimed effect. These types of claims on labels must be approved by the FDA within 30 days after its first use. Additionally, the FDA requires that this information be printed on the product label in a clear manner for it to be regulated. Still then, these claims can only be “general structure function” and cannot state the product “cures” or “treats” a disease or illness.
This seems pretty straightforward, but is not a guarantee that products are being regulated. Only products that make claims on them are regulated. So, the natural course of action for a vast majority of supplement and essential oils manufacturers is to simply not make claims on their labels! Then, these same companies can make claims on their website and try to walk this fine line and stay under the FDA's radar. For instance, let's say that:
- Company XYZ states that a product reduces pain and inflammation on their website only.
- Company XYZ does NOT state this on their dietary fact supplement label.
- Subsequently, the label does NOT require FDA approval before it goes to market.
- The supplement label will be regulated by the FDA ONLY if it has been found to be adulterated or responsible of causing harm.
- If dietary supplement claims are made on a supplement label, Company XYZ is then required to have substantiating evidence to back up their claim and get approval within 30 days after its first use.
The bottom line is that according to the law (DSHEA), manufacturers are responsible for ensuring that their products are safe before they are marketed.
The Great Aromatherapy Debate
To make a brief statement about internal use in the context of the SUPPLEMENT label discussion, the fact remains that there are no scientific, evidence-based, anatomical, physiological or logical reasons to say that essentials oils are unsafe for human consumption. Paradoxically, aromatherapists are still at odds with each other on this point, which confuses the casual essential oil user all the more. With that said, rest assured that large professional organizations like National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA) support safe, internal use.
In the words of NAHA, “Essential oils may be applied on the skin (dermal application), inhaled, diffused or taken internally. Each of these methods have safety issues which need to be considered.” (11) And this makes complete sense to me. Like anything we can easily overdo it, and we must remember a little goes a long way with regard to essential oils – especially internal use!
The thing that really throws me through a loop regarding people who speak out against internal use is that they are in direct opposition of the several human studies in the scientific literature and completely disregard the Food and Drug Administration. Yes, you read that correctly! According to the FDA, essential oils are safe for human consumption. For the exhaustive FDA-approved list of Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) oils see below. (12)
Note: not all oils that are safe for ingestion are included in the FDA-approved GRAS list. I recommend that we use this list as a base point to start the conversation about what is and what is not safe.
Tips for Internal Use
It is important to realize that people consume essential oils all day without even realizing it. Where do you think your processed foods get their flavor from!
Virtually anything that is naturally flavored most likely contains essential oils. This is what the FDA says in the official document Code of Regulations, Title 21, Volume 6, Animal Food Labeling: Specific Animal Food Labeling Requirements.
Foods Containing “Artificial Flavors” and “Spices” do not Contain Oils
“(a)(1) The term artificial flavor or artificial flavoring means any substance, the function of which is to impart flavor, which is not derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof.
(2) The term spice means any aromatic vegetable substance in the whole, broken, or ground form, except for those substances which have been traditionally regarded as foods, such as onions, garlic and celery; whose significant function in food is seasoning rather than nutritional; that is true to name; and from which no portion of any volatile oil or other flavoring principle has been removed.
- Allspice, Anise, Basil, Bay leaves, Caraway seed, Cardamon, Celery seed, Chervil, Cinnamon, Cloves, Coriander, Cumin seed, Dill seed, Fennel seed, Fenugreek, Ginger, Horseradish, Mace, Marjoram, Mustard flour, Nutmeg, Oregano, Paprika, Parsley, Pepper, black; Pepper, white; Pepper, red; Rosemary, Saffron, Sage, Savory, Star aniseed, Tarragon, Thyme, Turmeric.
- Paprika, turmeric, and saffron or other spices which are also colors, shall be declared as spice and coloring unless declared by their common or usual name.”
Foods Containing “Natural Flavors” do Contain Oils
“(3) The term natural flavor or natural flavoring means the essential oil, oleo-resin, essence or extractive, protein hydro-ly-sate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzy-mol-ysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional. Natural flavors, include the natural essence or extractives obtained from plants.”
By letting common sense be our guide, I propose some tried and true tips on how to take essential oils internally.
- When starting out, stick with those that are GRAS (see below for the FDA-approved list of oils that are Generally Recognized As Safe for internal use).
- Be safe.
- Don't overdo it – limit to 1-2 drops at a time, and be sure to wait at least 4 hours before taking consecutive doses.
- Discontinue use IMMEDIATELY if adverse reactions occur.
Trust me, people don't break out in hives in a “detox” reaction when using essential oils like I've read out there in cyberspace. Pain, irritation, swelling, inflammation, bloating, burning, reflux, and anything else that isn't pleasant is NOT a good sign. This is your body's way of warning you that something harmful is attacking it.
Some More Practical Tips:
- Gentle oils like frankincense and lemon can usually be taken directly under the tongue for quick access into the bloodstream.
- More volatile oils like oregano and clove should ALWAYS be diluted with a carrier oil. 1 drop per teaspoon is usually safe for people.
- Putting 1-2 drops in a capsule can help you avoid esophageal irritation.
- Putting 1 drop of a citrus oil in your water is generally safe and quite enjoyable.
- My family and I regularly enjoy a drop of lemon/lime + some liquid stevia in sparkling water as our soda pop alternative.
- Include 1 drop of your favorite oils in your food.
Cooking with essential oils is an extremely effective way to enjoy the health benefits as well as the aromatic experience through your taste buds. 1-2 drops of cilantro or coriander with 1-2 drops of lime, for example, goes wonderfully with your homemade guacamole. Dry 1 drop of cumin in your curry next time. Or 1-2 drops of black pepper in virtually anything savory!
Safety & Contraindications
When it comes to drug interactions and contraindications, there are literally textbooks devoted to the study of essential oil safety, and I must defer to the chemists, pharmacists and experts who understand this complicated topic more than I.
With that said, as a trained researcher and doctor, I think it’s important to note that there is virtually no research out there discussing how essential oils interact with drugs in human clinical trials. Essentially, what this means is that essential oil safety is still a wild frontier in the science community and no one really knows (for certain) how essential oils will interact with drugs or your body.
Let common sense be your guide. Still, be sure to maintain proper dilutions, and general safety considerations still apply. As always, discontinue use if any adverse reactions occur and consult your physician immediately.
FDA Approved GRAS Essential Oils
Subpart A–General Provisions
|Sec. 182.20 Essential oils, oleoresins (solvent-free), and natural extractives (including distillates).|
Essential oils, oleoresins (solvent-free), and natural extractives (including distillates) that are generally recognized as safe for their intended use, within the meaning of section 409 of the Act, are as follows:
[42 FR 14640, Mar. 15, 1977, as amended at 44 FR 3963, Jan. 19, 1979; 47 FR 29953, July 9, 1982; 48 FR 51613, Nov. 10, 1983; 50 FR 21043 and 21044, May 22, 1985]