Essential oils are a very concentrated liquid extract of plant materials such as fruits, leaves, and roots. They can serve many purposes including aromatherapy, therapeutic uses, and even cleaning. Unfortunately, all essential oils are not created equal so depending on what you will be using them for, it is important to select one that is best produced for your needs.
In terms of production, there are a few different ways in which essential oil can be extracted. With distillation, plants are exposed to steam so that their oils evaporate and are passed through a pipe where they are then cooled and change back into a liquid. Cold pressing is usually used for citrus oils as rinds are separated from the fruit and then pressed to release the oils.
In the maceration process, plant matter is soaked and heated in oil (such as vegetable oil) so that the plant oil is absorbed into the original oil. Once completed, remaining plant matter is removed. Lastly, in solvent extraction (which can be used when a plant material is unable to tolerate the high heat of steam distillation), a solvent is added to the plant material to dissolve the oil. Some solvents include ether, ethanol, methanol, hexane, alcohol, and petroleum. Distillation is then used to filter and concentrate it. Finally, alcohol is used to extract the oil from the concentrate and once it evaporates the essential oil remains.
You can imagine that the solvent extracted essential oils are the ones that makes me most nervous in case any of the solvent remains after processing. In fact, one article states that 2-3% of the solvent can still remain in a finished bottled essential oil. Yuck!
If you are looking to an essential oil for healing powers, most say that the essential oils must be unadulterated and as pure as possible. Unfortunately, it is also stated that some essential oils can be diluted with other cheaper oils so price can really be an indicator of whether or not an essential oil was diluted or synthetically produced.
Careful research and selection of essential oils is important and contacting a company for additional information may even be necessary if not enough information is provided on the bottles. Often times, price will be a good indicator of the quality of an essential oil. If you’ve purchased any, you probably noticed that some are very cheap and others extremely expensive.
There are several reasons for the widely varying prices among essential oils:
- Some essential oils require more plant material to produce the same amount of extract. For example, citrus oils such as lemon and sweet orange are relatively inexpensive as they contain a large amount of oil. Lavender, on the other hand, requires a much greater amount of flowers as they simply contain less oil.
- The processing method used can be cheaper for some plant materials and more expensive for others (some plant materials cannot be exposed to much heat, etc.)
- The processing method can also directly relate to the quality of the finished essential oil as some oils are considered therapeutic and others are for perfume or smell only
The two essential oils considered the most adulterated are lavender and frankincense. Unfortunately, the lavender essential oil that is most widely available is a hybrid and cut with synthetic linolyl acetate to improve the scent. Frankincense takes at least 12 hours in the distillation process and is extremely expensive unless processed with solvents. Other common essential oil adulterations are listed here.
In my case, for housecleaning purposes, I generally choose essential oils that are the most economical (not organic or necessarily 100% pure) because I know that I will not be ingesting them or actually applying them to my skin. If price was not an issue, I would certainly always buy the best quality ones.
However, if I am using an oil specifically for aromatherapy purposes or to add scent to a homemade body product, I only use organic or 100% pure ones. Whatever your use is, it’s worth taking the time to research the safest oils for your purposes; even the 100% pure ones I sometimes use probably deserve another critical look.