The importance of organic essential oils
Quality control in the essential oil industry is extremely complex and chalenging. Even the term “aromatherapy” is misleading, as it has been corrupted by companies producing a wide range of products based on synthetic petro-chemical-derived compounds that are aromatic but dangerous to the health. For therapists, it is important to realize that many essential oils and fragrance products sold for aromatherapy purposes are completely unsuitable for such purposes. Finding good sources of high quality oils can be difficult, especially at the retail level, but it is important to know not only the quality of the oils, but the health of the environment from which they come and whether or not they are ethically and sustainably produced.
One way to easily understand this complicated subject is to classify essential oils according to their agricultural origins. Distilled plant mate- rials can come from many types of environments, and multiple factors determine the quality and purity of the oils.
The first category is those oils that come from wild harvested plants.
One of the best examples of this is frankincense oil, which is distilled from resins harvested from trees growing in remote desert areas of northern Africa. Other examples include high-altitude wild helichrysum from the Mediterranean region, and Palo Santo from Ecuador, which is distilled from dead wood that has aged for many years on the forest floor.
Wild harvested oils are some of the best in the world. Wild plants tend to have a greater genetic diversity compared to those that are cultivated, such as wild, high-altitude lavender, which produces a very different oil than those distilled from sterile cultivars grown on lavender plantations. This genetic diversity, combined with the diversity of terrain and ecosystems where the plants grow, tends to give the wild harvested oils a greater range and higher levels of therapeutic compounds than cultivated ones. Because they need stronger immunological resistance to survive in harsh environments, wild plants have long been considered by traditional herbalists to be more therapeutically potent.
The primary challenge facing wild harvested plants, both aromatic ones dis- tilled for their oils and medicinal plants in general, is overharvesting. In some places projects are now developing that will ensure long-term sustainability. Great examples include the regulation of helichrysum harvesting on the is- land of Corsica, the community forests caretaking the wild jatamansi of Nepal, and the creation of fair trade cooperatives of frankincense harvesters in Somaliland.
The next two categories are the so-called “organic” oils, which can be of two types: certified or non-certified.
“Certified organic” means that a third party certifying agency has inspected and certified the source of the plant material and the distillery. Once the oil comes into the hands of an essential oil company that is rebottling and selling it, they may continue using that term if their facilities are also certified; if not, the oil may be sold under the term “organic,” as the oil is still organic but the chain of certification has ended.
Because of their origins in natural environments, wild harvested oils can be considered “organic.” In some cases these oils will have organic certification from a third party, such as the jatamansi oil from western Nepal and many of the conifer oils. In many cases there will not be certification, and the prima- ry concern is whether or not the oil comes from an ethical and sustainable source.
Because of the high cost, third party certification is not economically possible for many farmers and distillers; the term that is sometimes used for oils of this type is “non-certified” organic. These oils can be just as high quality, or better, than those that are certified, but they lack the official stamp of recognition. Ironically, individual artisans working on a small scale often produce the highest quality oils, but they are the least able to prove it. In many cases, oils that are currently non-certified will become certified at a later time, as demand for certification is driving a general trend toward increased implementation.
The fourth category is those oils that come from crops that are conventionally grown with agricultural inputs, such as fertilizers and pesticides.
Agrochemicals are generally not found in wild harvested, certified, or non-certified organic oils, but they can present in oils that are produced on a large industrial scale. A great number of aromatic plants do not need pesticides, as the plants produce essential oils for that very reason, but pesticides and fertilizers are often used in large scale production of more vulnerable species such as some flowers and citruses.
There are basically three ways for both essential oil companies and retail buy- ers to know that the oils they are getting are high quality. The first is having the certification on the oils, whether from both the producer and the distributor, or only the producer. The second is having the ability to test the oils; this is an expensive process unless a company has a dedicated chemist and the right equipment, which many do not. The third is knowing the producers on a personal level, and knowing that the oils come directly from artisans distilling top grade products from the high- est quality plant materials.