Beyond the Label: 3 Things You Should Know Before Buying Essential Oils

I've wanted to write a series of posts on essential oils for quite some time, but I've somehow never actually sat down and done it.  I don't have any formal training, but I grew up in a very essential oil-friendly household with two Certified Aromatherapists - my mom and older sister - and I also received some essential oil training while I was working at the health food store, so I have a pretty good knowledge base to draw from.

For this first post, I want to talk about a few things I think you should know before buying any essential oil.  There is currently no legal standard or governing body for essential oils, which means companies can basically bombard you with claims without ever needing to actually prove or back them up.  Similarly, laws - at a minimum, those in North America - do not require full ingredient disclosure on essential oil labels. 

You all know I love a bargain, but essential oils are one area where I think it's generally worth spending a little more.  Here's why -

1. Growing Conditions
The most basic thing to look for is organic oils.  Essential oils are a highly concentrated plant product, so if the plants being distilled are not organic, any essential oil produced will also contained a concentrated amount of whatever pesticides, herbicides or insecticides have been used on the plants.  

Also consider issues of sustainability - are the plants being grown with sustainable farming practices that protect the environment, public health, human communities and animal welfare?

2. Extraction Methods
There are numerous ways to extract essential oils, but basically you want to look for oils that are distilled at low temperatures, low pressures, and without chemical solvents.  Steam distillation is generally good, and much like with olive oil, essential oils from the first distillation are preferable to those from the second or third or "complete distillation," which refers to a blend of the three.  

Solvent extraction - the cheapest, quickest method and the one with the highest yield - is also very common, so if a company does not credit another method, it's very possible they are using solvents at some point in the distillation process.  

Those looking for vegetarian and vegan products should also keep an eye out for enfleurage distillation which can involve distilling oils in animal fat.  

3. Ingredient Transparency: Additives + Misleading Ingredients 
Obviously we are looking for pure oils, but with the lack of supervision and governing,  that can be harder to confirm than you might think.  A couple things to keep in mind:

Is the oil diluted or cut with chemicals?  
Disingenuous companies have been shown to "stretch" essential oils with other ingredients.  Whether to make them smell better to the average consumer or just to increase profit margins, fillers can include nasties like propylene glycol and synthetic fragrance components.  Look for companies that do external, third party testing to ensure that oils have not been diluted, cut, or adulterated. 

Does the chemical (INCI) name match the common name on the label?
There are a lot of related plants out there and sometimes companies will take a cheaper relative and sell that oil in place of a more costly one.  While the replacement plant likely has a similar scent, it can be problematic because it won't necessarily have the same medicinal properties.  

Lavender is a common culprit for this and is one of the essential oils that is most often falsely labeled and/or adulterated.  Take this example:  The health food store I used to work in sold one of the more expensive and well-thought of essential oil brands on store shelves and said brand offered ten varieties of lavender.  My store only stocked two: "True Lavender" which was real lavender and "Lavender Hybrid" which was lavender's close relative, lavendin.  The two share a similar scent profile and both are great for relaxation, however lavendin does not have the same skin healing properties as lavender.  Lavender is great for healing burns, but lavendin - which contains camphor - can actually aggravate them and make them worse.  Lavendin is, however, a whole lot cheaper.  

The Bottom Line
Essential oils can be wonderful, powerful, healing things, but I think it's so important to make sure you're buying high quality ones.  Whichever oils you decide to use, the main point I want to stress is to DO YOUR RESEARCH.  Not everything on the shelves is honest, so you really need to take it one step further and research beyond what's on the label.  A reputable company with nothing to hide should be able and willing to answer all your questions.

There's a lot of push/pull about specific essential oil brands out there, which is one of the reasons I've mostly refrained from writing about this topic in the past.  I don't need to start a debate over which oils are best, but personally, I choose to use Young Living.  I've used these oils for years now and in pretty much every way imaginable - for aromatherapy, neat (undiluted) and even internally - and I'm very happy with them.  I've gotten a number of emails over the last few months asking for essential oil recommendations, which is why I'm putting it out here publicly.  I started with Young Living purely to get the products for personal use, but as I'm sure many of you already know, it is an MLM company.  If you decide to join, I'd love it if you used my member/sponsor number: 954496.  

Would you be interested in more essential oil-related posts?  Are there any specific topics/questions you'd like to see addressed in upcoming posts?


  1. Great post - I had no idea there were so many things to look for! I'd love to see more essential oil posts on your blog

    1. Thanks Janelle! I'm glad it was informative :)

  2. OMG Caitie, i search for a review like that for a while, i'm happy you did this post! I want to take a course about essentials oil soon. It's complicated to find a good quality on the market. I bought Now rapidly 3 days ago without doing research.. Yes this happen sometimes.. I want to use relaxing oil in my daughter bed.. I think i'll joint xx

    1. Thanks Julie! I'm so glad it was helpful :) I've certainly done the same thing before too - it's a lot to research sometimes!