My Essential Oil Brand is Better Than Yours…..
I purchased ‘The Fragrant Pharmacy’ by Valerie Ann Worwood along with a few bottles of essential oils back in 1994 when I was twenty. At the time my mother was living next door to a professional Aromatherapist and I was studying chemistry at De Montford University. I thought it would be cool to pick the essential oils apart in terms of their aroma chemistry and work out which chemical gave rise to which result. It didn’t take me long to realise that essential oils are more complex and nuanced than that. My first lesson of how science works in the ‘real’ world.
I took my first ‘home made’ skin care products out into the jungles of Indonesia with me the following year – an aqueous cream base enriched with a blend of Tea Tree, Eucalyptus and Lavender. Smelt rough but I was hopeful that it would prevent my eczema prone skin from becoming mozzie bitten and infected. Whether it worked or not I don’t know but I did get through the 8 weeks of bush living without issue.
Anyway, that’s just a story, what I want to talk about is the reality of the Essential Oils market today.
We appear to be living through a time of brand supremacy when it comes to Essential Oils. This is relatively new to me as while I’ve been operating in the Essential Oil Industry for the last nineteen years or so I’ve never really seen this level of ‘my brand is better than yours’ before. It’s odd to say the least.
I don’t want to spend the next however many words debating the merits of one particular brand over another, more I want to open you up to the possibility that there is very little difference between ANY brand. Further, I want to explain where these oils come from, the longevity of the market, its traditions and what is and isn’t ‘normal’. The brand you choose to celebrate your love of essential oils via is up to you.
So let’s have a look:
Definition: Essential Oil.
The Quintessence (essential) or ‘life force’ of the botanical. The fifth element (earth, water, fire, air, quintessence (soul)).
- Essential oil distillation is not new science.
We have Persian chemist Ibn Sina (Avicenna) to thank for ‘inventing’ the process of extracting volatile and aromatic oil from botanical matter via steam distillation. His first experiment was on Rose petals. Since then we have gone on to perfect the art of distillation and added other methods of extracting the Quintessence from botanicals including CO2 extraction (still under discussion as to whether these are essential oils), Enfleurage and Cold Pressing.
- Essential Oils are farmed globally.
If we could step back, way back from the brand to the farm and not just the brand’s farm (some brands claim to own all their own farms. I’m saying nothing on that) we can see that the Essential Oil market is indeed a global one. Aromatherapy operates alongside the market for Fine Fragrances, Flavours, Cosmetics, Household and Industrial Cleaning Applications, Pharmacy and Industrial Solvents, Agriculture, Animal Health and Pesticides for these farmed crops. It doesn’t take much insight to work out which of the above markets is the smallest and potentially the least influential with regards to oil quality or farm ownership.
- Essential Oil Quality Varies From Batch to Batch, Farm to Farm, Plant Variety to Plant Variety.
Farming is an inexact science and one that is subjected to a variety of external influences that can only be partially managed and mitigated for. Because of that we can experience good and bad years for our oils just like you can for fruit or wine. As you would expect there are specific regions of the world that have the optimal environmental and soil conditions for growing a particular crop these areas might also become expert at processing the oil and as a consequence become synonymous with the best quality oil – Italy for Lemon, France for Lavender, Bulgaria for Rose. While concentrated ‘locations of excellence’ can be a very beautiful thing, when something goes wrong with the environment the whole global crop can take a hammering. We saw that quite recently with citrus crops out of California and with Limes in Mexico. So we have years where there is an oil shortage.
- The knock-on effect of an oil shortage on the Essential Oil Market.
When oils get tight those that can shout loudest and with the largest wallets usually win out. Some of these players do actually own a stake in the means of production (sounds like Animal Farm). This is called being ‘backwardly integrated’ and we see it most often in aromatics with Rose fields, many of which are owned by fragrance houses.
In ‘bad’ or lean years the top tier players get the best (multinational flavour and fragrance houses and multinational brands) and we all get the rest and the temptation to stretch or alter the oil increases massively.
- Stretched or Otherwise Altered Oils.
The general thinking behind an aromatherapy oil is that it is the pure, unaltered expression of the plant. Before I talk about whether this is what we get or not I’ll explain what can happen and why. As I’ve mentioned before, oils are farmed and farmed products have good and bad years including some years where almost the entire harvest can be ruined by frost, storms, drought or floods. In those years and during times when pests have altered the quality of the oil an oil might be stretched or otherwise adulterated to meet a standard. Standardised oils are very important to the pharmaceutical and fine fragrance market who are looking for particular notes of characteristic accords in oils. These can be bolstered, re-created or enhanced by adding either synthetically manufactured or naturally isolated aroma chemicals back into the oil. So you lavender oil was short on linanool this year? Add some from linalool you synthesised in the lab OR saved from last years batch that had too much. Maybe not a good example but an example all the same.
The take-home point here is that the big end of town like standardised oils, the aromatherapy market not so much although everyone is after the ‘perfect’ oil just like we all flock around a beauty queen or idolise the best singers or actors the world has on offer. As with those situations, not everyone is lucky enough to get them.
So this process of stretching or altering oils happens and it happens en mass due to the large volume requirements of the big end of town. That said it doesn’t necessarily happen to all oil and we, the aromatherapy market do try to grab what we can from the ‘other’ pile while still trying to ensure it smells good and meets our expectations for smell – a very hard task indeed!
So can one brand ever really have an exclusively better range of oils than another?
Well yes and no but mainly somewhere in between – not really.
A brand can have really good buyers – noses.
A brand can commit to never altering the oils they buy.
A brand can ask for paperwork to prove the quality and purity of their oils.
A brand can re-test these oils in their own lab.
A brand can have ISO accreditation for their facility including how they handle, store, decant and check their oils.
A brand can visit the plantations.
A brand might OWN some plantations – I don’t know a brand that has a substantial range of oils on offer that owns all its plantations.
A brand might lead research into oil quality.
A brand might have been established by an oil expert.
Even a brand that can and has and does all of that is still at the mercy of farmers and farm-land politics, mother nature, human greed and destruction, global markets, transport companies, intermediate storage companies and often even middle-men that might make it hard to even trace the oil back to its pure origins.
So what does this mean?
In reality I feel that most brands do try to do the right thing by doing as many of the above steps as they can (and more if they can think of it). But in reality most brands understand that they can’t control everything and that their competitors are no doubt doing as much as they can too. There are some oil brands no doubt that just started to make money without really caring about the quality or origin of the oil but these companies usually step up their game on entering the cosmetic/ aromatherapy market due to the requirements of this market and the questions that get asked.
I am of the mindset, based on what I see, know and have participated in for almost the last two decades that there are many reputable brands out there to choose from. Sure one year brand A might have the best rose and a terrible lemon while brand C has excellent relationships with the Sandalwood market but no idea about rose. To be honest this is the situation I see most often and is often why long-time trained aromatherapists can become a bit obsessive about testing lots of different brands and researching each and every detail. It becomes an artform – olefactory art 🙂
And to the ‘My Brand is better than your brand?’
So let me break this down into two things as a brand is more than the ‘formulation’ or the ‘wet stuff’.
Brand – pure essential oil.
No, I can’t buy this. Given everything I’ve said above and every situation I’ve ever come across I simply can’t buy that one brand has the absolute monopoly on quality and perfection. It would be a different situation if the product was entirely man-made as systems could be perfectly controlled, the best staff brought in etc but here we are talking about nature, a natural product. I can’t believe that one aromatherapy/ essential oil brand that is swimming in the same competitive sea as thousands of other brands across the globe can have hit the jackpot 100% of the time for every single oil they sell, every single time. Highly unlikely.
Brand – Everything else excluding the actual pure essential oil.
Sure, I am willing to accept that there are some brands that are better than others at communicating the features and benefits of essential oils, better at creating blends, at the supply chain, the packaging, the distribution and pricing. Yes I can accept that. But if that is true, if a brand really does stand head and shoulders above other brands in terms of marketing then surely they have enough to brag about with just that as while I can believe that there can be companies out there with outstanding branding to say that also includes their oil quality across the board would, for me be almost unbelievable.
I’ve always found the saying ‘if it sounds too good to be true then it probably is’ helpful. This situation is no different.
I’ve also found myself to be naturally suspicious of any brand that uses the tactic of disrespecting other brands OR creating their own standard of excellence then claiming it is above anything anyone else has to sell product. I can’t help but wonder why they put so much effort into doing that and wonder what they have to hide or what are they scared of? That may be a cynical approach to business and life but I can assure you it has served me well so far. But of course, you are free to make up your own minds x