Buying Better Essential Oils

An essential oil is a concentrated oil derived from various parts of a plant. The term "essential" is used colloquially, rather than nutritionally, to suggest that the oil contains the "essence" of the plant's fragrance. The oils are usually extracted by steam distillation or cold pressing and are extremely potent.

buying essential oils
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Essential oils are commonly used to make perfumes, soaps, incense, and cosmetics or to add to flavoring (like lavender or peppermint) to certain foods or drinks. Some essential oils (like wintergreen) can be dangerous and even fatal if taken by mouth.

Alternative practitioners frequently use essential oils in aromatherapy, the practice wherein scents are believed to elicit specific physiological or emotional responses. Aromatherapists will typically utilize blends of essential oils to "treat" certain conditions or stimulate the desired effect.

While there is no scientific evidence that aromatherapy can prevent or cure any illness, some essential oils are known to act as mild decongestants or expectorants. Others oils have been shown in studies to render a sense of calm in people exposed to their fragrance.

So popular are these oils that the industry is targeted to grow to over $2.35 billion dollars globally by 2035, according to a report from the market research firm Grandview Research.

If you're purchasing an essential oil for personal use, there are several things you can do to ensure you buy the best product available.

How to Sample an Essential Oil

If purchasing an essential oil for aromatherapy, you don't want to test it in the same way you would a perfume. Rather, there are some simple rules to follow when evaluating a scent:

  • Do not place your nose right up to the open tester and sniff. The undiluted oil is incredibly strong and can give you a headache. Instead, hold the lid at least five inches from your nose and gently sniff.
  • Do not put the oil on your body in the event you may be allergic to it.
  • When comparing a variety of oils, take a break in between scents. Sniffing oils too closely together can overwhelm the senses and reduce your ability to discern the fragrant notes.

Know What to Buy and What to Avoid

As a rule, avoid buying essential oils from a company that prices all of its oils the same or an oil that is unusually low-priced. The process of extraction can vary enormously from one plant to the next, and it makes no sense that an agarwood essential oil (costing around $800 per ounce) could be priced anywhere near the same as a lemon essential oil (which costs less than $15 per ounce).

Pricing practices like this suggest that the oils are either synthetic, contain little of the essential oil they claim to have, or are of low quality. Ultimately, the price of an oil should be based on how much of the raw material is needed to produce it.

A few other handy buying rules:

  • Avoid essential oils that have been diluted with vegetable oil. To test this, place a couple of drops on a piece of paper. If the drop leaves an oily ring, it likely contains vegetable oil.
  • Choose oils from companies that list the Latin name and common name on the label as well as the country of origin. In this way, you can be better assured of buying the correct oil rather than one that may be generically named. Sandalwood essential oil, for example, can come from many different types of sandalwood and many different regions, some of which may produce better oils than others.
  • Try to buy from companies that will provide test results regarding the unique chemical makeup of each oil they sell. Called a GC-MS (gas chromatography-mass spectrometry) report, these tests are virtually the only way for the vast majority of consumers to have peace of mind that what they're buying in fact contains the essential oil they intend to purchase.
  • Essential oils should be sold in dark amber or dark blue glass bottles. Clear glass allows unfiltered light to enter and can cause the oil to spoil.
  • Never buy pure essential oils in plastic bottles, since the oils can dissolve plastic and contaminate the product. (PET plastic is considered safe for blends, such as room sprays, that contain a small amount of essential oils.)
  • Always buy less rather than more. A 10-milliliter bottle will likely last months even with frequent use. Buying too much can lead to spoilage and waste.
  • Typically, you should plan to use an essential oil within a year, although shelf life can extend to several years for many essential oils.
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  1. Grandview Research. Aromatherapy Market Size Worth $2.35 Billion By 2025 | CAGR: 9.3%. San Francisco, California; issued August 2017.