How to find authentic essential oils and why it's necessary

 

When Miles, an aromatherapist and reiki practitioner, learned that the essential oils he was using were adulterated, he was shocked. He thought that he was working with a reputable essential oil company, but his inquiries exposed a Pandora’s box of deception. The scary part is that this unsettling situation could happen to anyone—and does—but he decided to do something about it.

His story actually begins several years ago. While he was searching for alternative methods to resolve numerous health issues, Miles discovered the benefits of aromatherapy. His ultimate goal was to wean himself off pharmaceutical drugs, a goal that he achieved largely due to his success with essential oils along with incorporating other alternative healing modalities into his lifestyle. He became an independent distributor for the multi-level marketing company Young Living (YL) because the oils worked so well for him.

The trouble started earlier this year. He spotted rumors circulating on Facebook that YL oils were adulterated with synthetics, in contrast to company claims assuring the unsurpassed purity and quality of their oils. Out of responsibility to himself and the people who were buying YL oils because of him—he decided to find out if there was any truth to those rumors by bringing them to the attention of Young Living executives.

You’d think that a company would demand further inquiry over the multiple claims against their oils. However, when repeated attempts to get answers from the higher ups at Young Living did not come up satisfactorily (they dismissed the findings as a “smear campaign by competitors”), Miles took over the investigation for himself.

He paid out of pocket to send a brand new bottle of YL’s cinnamon bark oil to a lab for testing. He even took the precaution of shipping directly from Young Living’s facility directly to the lab, so that nobody could accuse him of tampering with the bottle. The disturbing findings confirmed that the oil—which YL maintains is pure—had indeed been diluted with synthetic ingredients. You can read about the entire eye opening experience on his blog Holistic Essentials, including the exchanges between Miles and Young Living execs, as well as the official lab reports.

Unfortunately, Miles’ story is not an isolated one. How can anyone measure the authenticity and purity of an essential oil? In short, we can’t unless we’ve fine-tuned our senses to an expert degree—and even then we only derive limited information. A company may tick off an impressive list of therapeutic properties, but there is no way for the average consumer to verify those claims.

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Even judging by cost is not enough. We could be duped into shelling out a king’s ransom—i.e. Young Living’s Rose Oil* costs $185 wholesale and $244 retail—convinced that we’re walking away with a pure essential oil, when in fact we may not be getting the real deal.

What is GC/MS lab testing?

One way to ensure the quality of an essential oil is to send it for independent GC/MS lab testing the way Miles did. GC/MS is an acronym for gas chromatography/mass spectrometry, an analytical method that combines the features of gas-chromatography and mass spectrometry to identify different substances within a test sample. That sounds a bit complex to my unscientific brain, so here’s a video to show you exactly how it works. It’s a device that breaks down the various constituents of a substance for analysis.

 

Aromatherapist Kirsten King, founder of the recently rebranded skin and hair care line OILLE, lets everyone know that the oils in her blends are GC/MS lab tested. It says so right on the bottle. Actually, her product labels were the first time I had ever seen anything about GC/MS testing, and I was intrigued enough to want to get the scoop. Here’s what she told me in an email:

I use essential oils that have been GC/MS lab tested because I need scientific proof my oils have not been adulterated. With the rise in oil fraud, it is very easy for a supplier to dilute oils with alcohol or blend with old harvests that have lost their therapeutic value. You’d never know with the naked eye. Many oils look the same with the exception of color variants. That’s why I think making fraudulent oils is so lucrative. Most people wouldn’t know to think twice. So how do you know if the expensive oil you purchased is of any value? You have it lab tested. GC/MS lab testing gives you a wealth of information. From reporting any adulteration to diving deep into discovering the plant’s DNA.

Caveat emptor: testing is not foolproof

Not everyone is sold on GC/MS testing though. Amy Galper, founder of The NY Institute of Aromatherapy (NYIOA), considers herself a rebel when it comes to testing. “To me the GC/MS is not the ‘be-all end-all.’  I think it’s one of the many ways to better understand the dynamics and the therapeutic actions [of essential oils].”

The reason, she says, is because many companies that harvest and distill their own oils also do their own testing and set their own standards. She recommends that a GC/MS should always be done by an impartial, independent third party.

The GC/MS testing is a sticky one. I guess the best way to think of it is that the GC/MS report is not the SOLE way to detect if the oils are genuine and authentic.  One must also use the oils, compare its aroma to other oils, touch it, and develop your sense of smell.

For the uninitiated sniffer, though, a full report is helpful. Amy finds that it makes an excellent teaching tool that she uses often at the NYIOA. She explained that “they are wonderful to help deconstruct the oil by its chemical components and understand the oils by the molecules that make them up.”

Amy is not the only one who finds GC/MS testing could give a false sense of security. Pascale Edwards-Labelle, founder of Blue Labelle Skincare, a company that recently introduced essential oils to its label, concurs that GC/MS testing is limited.

She said, “From my research GC-MS tests are incredibly helpful, but they may not show everything such as the age or therapeutic quality of the essential oil, and the reports can show differing levels of constituents due to time of year the plant was harvested or the country it came from.”

Testing won’t show if the oil is from organically grown plants and can’t detect potential toxins such as heavy metals or pesticides in the oil; so it may pass the testing but actually contains nasties. I’ve even read that synthetic versions of expected essential oil compounds can be added to the oil and the testing won’t tell the difference between that and the ‘real thing.'”

She added that she definitely uses her senses and has returned essential oils over the years that didn’t look or smell as they should. A few years ago, she bought an essential oil blend for personal use in an oil burner only to find that it was obviously diluted in a carrier oil.
When it comes to her business, Pascale doesn’t take any chances. “I only use suppliers I trust based on sampling before purchasing, their pricing, professionalism and how they market themselves,” she said. “After using the same supplier for a number of years I know what to expect from the essential oils I buy, their perfume, and consistency. The fact that I was able to learn about their in-house GC/MS testing and receive certificates from them with every order is also excellent and shows their high standards.”

Buying from trusted sources

If going the distance of testing your oils isn’t in the cards—no judgement, I don’t either!—then knowing which oils are reliable is key. Amy lists several companies that she trusts and has gotten to know intimately through her workshops at the NYIOA in this post. A couple of my favorite sources include Blue Labelle and Graydon essential oils.

You could say that as long as an oil works well for you, then it doesn’t really matter whether it contains synthetics or isn’t as pure as it claims. However, what does that say about a company that knowingly deceives its distributors? It certainly would not be one that I could put my faith in.

Sadly, Miles’ story doesn’t end well, nor does it bode well for several essential oil brands. Miles along with a group of aromatherapy advocates raised funds in order to verify the authenticity of other essential oils from DoTerra, Young Living, and more. Many are falling short of their claims. Young Living evidently does not value his revelations, as the company has since terminated his membership. Hmm…that’s not exactly the response you’d expect from one of the largest essential oil brands that prides itself on the purity of its products. It definitely smells fishy to me.

*Young Living’s Rose Oil has not been verified through testing. I merely chose it as an example.

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