What company should I buy my essential oils from? How can I tell what is pure? Are essential oils safe for babies? If these things are natural, why do we need to worry so much about safety?
These are a few of the questions I’ve been getting from my friends and family in comments, private messages and texts. They are questions I had too! I wish I could give some easy, bullet-point responses, but unfortunately, the answers to these questions are not as straightforward as they might seem! I found myself writing long, book-y replies that were kind of disastrous with my pudgy pregnancy digits typing a lot of big words on a minuscule mobile keyboard. That is why I decided to write my Big, Fat Essential oils post. The one where I talk about my approach to essential oils and hopefully answer some of those questions.
(EDIT: If you actually read this whole post to the end…congratulations! It’s the longest ever. I originally planned on splitting this up into a four post series. I chose not to because while I wanted to share the information, I also wanted to minimize the “bombardment” effect of publishing multiple posts in a row. At the time I wrote this, I was aware that I was already sharing a lot of strong opinions and didn’t want to come off overly critical.)
Honestly…blah. I dreaded pushing the post button on this one. Not because I don’t love a good talky-reasearchy-bullet-pointy post. It’s because half of my best friends are essential oils distributors and I don’t want them to hate me for life. I just want you guys to know…these are my opinions on essential oils. Not on you guys.
(EDIT: And actually, I really do need to issue an apology to some of my friends for that paragraph. The way I said that did hurt some of my friends feelings. It was said in an exaggerated way that was not very sensitive. I want to apologize for that. The intent of that line was to make light of the fact that I know I’m about to be sharing a lot of strong opinions on a controversial topic. I know sometimes strong opinions can make others feel criticized or looked down upon…I have been on the receiving end of that before. I know how it can feel. That is not my intent. Regardless of differences in opinions or methods, I know that we are all just trying to do what is best for our families and I respect all of us for that. )
The goal of this post is to help some of my friends/readers navigate the big world of essential oils…and maybe even save them from some of the mistakes I made! I’m not a professional and I still have a lot of learning to do. This post is my story and a compilation of my favorite must-read articles on therapeutic essential oils…and yes, much of my own personal opinion.
When I first purchased my essential oils, I didn’t know much about therapeutic use (to treat sickness). We were integrating a handful of herbs and other natural remedies into our medicine cabinet to maintain our immune systems and treat sickness. I was learning a lot from my midwife and other naturally minded parents in the home birth community. I was delighted with the outcomes. So when some friends started buying kits and using oils therapeutically, I started thinking I might be missing something that could be really good for our family. The only problem is, I had no idea what an essential oil was or how it could be used. So I did not have any criteria to analyze what I was buying! I didn’t even have enough understanding to know that I needed to put in more time researching my safety information first.
I decided not to worry about it and to buy from a multi-level marketing company that a bunch of people I knew were using. Everyone said they were the highest quality and sang the praises of their efficacy. I figured I’d jump in and learn as I went along! In doing this, I put my full trust in the information the company provided. My main source of use and safety information was from friends and the company where I purchased. I found out later that it really wasn’t responsible at all (though thankfully nothing earth-shattering or scary happened). I had a lot of mis-use going on that I didn’t find out about until much later.
About six months after getting my kit, I started getting lots of other friends and readers asking me which brand of essential oils I was using and why. To be honest, I really didn’t know exactly why…which was a little embarrassing. I decided to put on my big girl panties and go in search of some facts. I thought maybe I’d do some digging around that would eventually end up confirming the choices I’d made to purchase from a particular company. Actually, I HOPED that would be true. What I found…well, it wasn’t exactly that! (I really have to credit some essential oils safety article circulating Facebook for pointing me in the right direction…so thank you Facebook article-sharing people.)
So where to start first? My answer: Read, read and read some more!
First, I do not recommend getting use and safety information solely from a company who is selling oils. Some of the information is good. But take the information and compare what you are receiving from some unaffiliated sources. There is too much of an interest in selling the customer lots and lots of products! You will find that while not all of the use information provided by these companies is wrong, not all of it is right either. I am not saying that essential oils companies are evil and lying to us. But I can am saying that essential oil companies are distributing use information to the public with missing information.
The other problem is that due to the nature of the multi-level marketing model, even if a company’s use information is accurate, sometimes the individuals representing these companies may be unaware that they are giving out inaccurate information. A lot of times the safety and use information is presented as an afterthought, which can be really misleading as well! I think that these companies are good overall. In fact, I appreciate what they are doing and I suspect that most of their essential oils are pretty quality too! However, the volume at which they are hoping the consumer will purchase their product lends to the proliferation of some incomplete information.
I love the word proliferation. I practically wrote this entire post just so I could use that word.
My rule of thumb is that I would always recommend that the primary source of use and safety information come from an aromatherapist. Aromatherapists are scientists who understand the make-up of essential oils and how they work in the body. The term “aromatherapist” has always been misleading to me. It always conjured up images of using pretty smells to make people feel emotional. While aromas can make us feel good, aromatherapy is more about the practice of treating the physical ailments of the body with powerful plant chemicals (essential oils). Here is a short article explaining what an essential oil is.
Finding a reliable online information source about essential oils was easier said than done, since many were tightly affiliated with one distributor or another. Multi-level marketing has done such a great job of creating brand advocates that it is hard to find a source that is not connected to a business! I did a lot of library trips and some Googling (down some questionable internet rabbit holes, I might add) before finding some solid info.
Lea Harris’ website Learning About EO’s, is the best resource I have found on the web. I re-learned EVERYTHING I knew about essential oils from this web site. The information presented is scientific, but well-organized and easy for the average person to digest. It is also the only one (that I know of) that has gone to the trouble and expense to do third-party testing on various brands of essential oils and publish the results. I feel comfortable with the fact that Lea is an aromatherapist who is unaffiliated with an essential oils company. (Though I’m sure she has some loose affiliations with various vendors in order to make a living doing what she does on the website). Even here, you will find a lot of debate within the comment sections. Reading these questions and debates actually taught me a lot. One thing I know for sure about essential oils: if you go in search of information online, you are guaranteed to find loads of heated debate!
I also liked her Facebook page and request to join her closed group Using Essential Oils Safely. Both have policies about brand promotion, which for me lends to a lot of credibility.
I have also found Aromaweb.com to be really helpful. For book resources, I am investing in Robert Tisserand’s reference book “Essential Oil Safety” to have at home. You can read his blog here.
I honestly wish I had more resources to give you guys. As I do more research, I promise to post any good finds on my Facebook page.
How to Choose a Company
Everyone wants to know where to get their essential oils. It seems like the question of the decade! I was to’ up about it myself. How can you know who is legit? How do you really know who is offering the superior product? When I was trying to find the answer to this question, all I seemed to find was claims about purity by different essential oils companies and their affiliates. At the end of the day, these claims could be legitimized only by the internal practices of that company. It isn’t that these internal standards are not good, it’s just that I’m a research-y kind of gal…and I wanted more!
One day, I stumbled upon this checklist by Lea Harris. I finally learned now to analyze my purchases using this list. It’s not an industry standardized list (there are no real industry standards for essential oils yet), but it makes the most sense out of anything I have found. You can take this list and cherry pick whatever criteria you would like to help you analyze your purchases. I decided I want my essential oils purchases to line up with all of the bullet-points on the list!
If you read the list and it looks like Greek to you, then you might have more reading to do before you use essential oils. That’s okay. I would read through all the posts on Learning About EO’s and get some safety and use books from the library. Before I buy something, I often post questions on their Facebook page. Looking back, I feel like there is absolutely no reason to rush into essential oils. The oils will be there in a couple of weeks after you do your reading and question-asking, I promise.
So after learning all of this, where do I buy my oils? (JUST TELL YOU ALREADY, right?)
I have moved to buying my essential oils at Mountain Rose Herbs. It is an online distributor, so you don’t have the convenience of walking into a store and pick these up, but the prices are very reasonable. They also provide containers, supplies and other bulk herbs. This is the only company that I have verified so far which provides the criteria on Lea’s checklist. (I’m sure there are more.) Are they the best? I don’t know. I do know that they meet my personal requirements. The company has been around since the 70’s. It was started by herbalist Rosemary Gladstar as a means of providing her students with supplies for their classes at California School of Herbal Studies. (I do not receive anything for recommending this company. It’s just a web distributor that I like and feel comfortable recommending to my friends.)
If you do need to walk into a store and pick up an essential oil, the company Aura Cacia meets many (though not all) of the criteria.
(EDIT: I found another company that fits my criteria. It is called Plant Therapy. One advantage of this brand is that they offer an entire line of child-safe essential oil blends. I bought several.)
A note on purity: as you can see according to the checklist, finding an excellent oil company is about far more than purity. I have heard distributors try to convince consumers to buy their essential oils based on their brand being the purest. Purity is important, but only a small part of the story! First, there is no way to prove the purity of an oil except with third party testing! Even that can vary from batch to batch. While internal company protocols are wonderful, they are just that…internal. In other words, the quality is still not governed by an outside body. Therefore, purity is not always a provable claim. That is why it’s wise to analyze a company using a holistic approach. Quality controlling crops and extracting essential oil from a plant is a complex beast. That is why an essential oil can be “pure” and still have a lot of things wrong with it! Here is a great article on essential oil name games.
Red flag: It may be recommended by some companies that you ingest their oils without professional guidance or use them without dilution based on the premise that the oils are more pure. This is not proper safety information. Ingesting (in capsules or “mixed” with water) or applying undiluted essential oil to your skin can still be deadly or harmful, pure or not! While adulterated essential oils obviously pose another world of problems, it’s really important to remember that even the purestof oils are subject to all essential oil safety protocol. So making claims that you can ingest or use oils undiluted bases on purity is simply not a correct one! Use caution when purchasing from a company that will tell you it’s okay to practice unsafe use.
I have so many friends right now who after purchasing a big kit of essential oils are having an anxiety attack over what in the world to do with them! I had the same panic moment! There’s a reason for that. It’s because the average person just does not need very many essential oils. The more I learn about essential oils, the more I realize that keeping large quantities of oils around doesn’t make a ton of sense.
If I had a do-over on this oils thing, I would back the train way up and start small. I would have done my research first and began integrating a few oils in a progression based on what my family truly needed, versus buying a bunch of oils and then wondering what to do with them! I think having large quantities of random essential oils set me up for waste and unsafe use. Not only that, but the money I spent on all those essential oils really needed to be directed towards the proper equipment for whatever I was attempting to treat, like a good diffuser and some inhalation sticks.
I would have asked myself the following questions first:
1.) What health issues are we dealing with on a regular basis? Specifically, every few months or during cold/flu season? Because I have small children, I would safely say congestion. Particularly croup and nighttime coughing. (Even though essential oils help us with nighttime coughing and croup, I still take responsibility to keep searching for the root cause of our croup.)
2.) Who am I treating? For me, that would be my kids. This means that I need to put my investment into child-safe essential oils and methods of administration. (As a general rule, herbs should always be the first option for children under six years of age).
3.) Are there any sicknesses or health issues that my current herbal remedies aren’t addressing as well as I’d like? Again, the answer for our family would be croup and nighttime coughing.
4.) What is the safest way to use essential oils to treat these sicknesses? For us, diffusion, inhalation and topical application.
By asking myself these questions, I would have ended up purchasing far fewer essential oils to begin with. I would have chosen a different set of child-safe essential oils. (Fir needle, for example, instead of eucalyptus and peppermint.) There are restrictions on how essential oils should be used on children. Had I known this, I would not have purchased the pre-mixed blends that I did, as the two blends I bought contain oils that are unsafe for children under ten. (As mentioned above in my edit, I use a brand called Plant Therapy that offers a line of kid-safe essential oil blends formulated for kids ages 2-10.) would have invested my funds towards the proper equipment to administer the oils to my kids.
Now, this is not to say that some day I won’t have a tidy collection of essential oils to treat a variety of my family’s health issues! I will probably grow a small collection to add to my arsenal as I learn. These are just a few questions that I wish I would have asked myself when starting out.
After I read a lot of books and articles (and debates!) about essential oils, I picked up some keys that helped me understand why safety and conservation are so important.
- Essential oils are the most concentrated form of plant medicine available. I now think of them as the “active ingredient” of a plant. This active ingredient can be taken therapeutically in lots of different forms! Good old herbal tea, for example is a safe and economic way to take in the essential oils of a plant. A bottle of essential oil is highly concentrated and just not always necessary to effectively treat the problem at hand! And the more I learn, the more I feel cautious about the casual daily use of essential oils. I would advise against the ongoing use of an essential oil for maintaining health. It can cause skin sensitivity and serious organ damage if taken internally. Here is a great article on how to know when you should use an herb over an essential oil. We need to do our research before we treat our families with any kind of medicine, plant-based included!
- The amount of plant it takes to make a bottle of essential oil is probably more than you realize. If we used essential oils as liberally as some people are recommending, it would be very hard on the plant world. Here is an article by the Wellness Mama which helped me wrap my head around the potency of essential oils.
- Just because something comes from nature doesn’t make it safe for everyone. Ask someone with a nut allergy or other food sensitivity! We need to remember that all essential oils are active chemicals.
- Essential oils are complex. The latin name, chemo type, country of origin and distillation method all affect the therapeutic properties of an oil! It’s really important to understand these things if we are going to be using essential oils. A change in any one of those properties changes the affect it has on our bodies. Here is an article about why latin names matter and another good one about the importance of knowing chemo types.
- Just like pharmaceutical and over-the-counter drugs, we cannot safely treat a child the same way we would treat an adult. Like any other form of medicine, age-appropriate formulas and doses must be administered. The chemical make-up of some oils can slow respiration in children under ten. In fact, two of the most popular essential oils used to treat respiratory illnesses (peppermint and eucalyptus) can actually harm children due to high levels of a constituent called 1,8 cineole. Others can cause seizures. (Here is a child-safe recipe for anti-germ and anti-congestion blends. Here is an article about essential oil hazards and children by a naturopathic pediatrician.)
- Essential oils have a limited shelf life! Most are 6-12 months. That’s why for the average person, a huge variety kit of oils will not be the best investment.
- Essential oils at the end of the day are simply a combination of plant chemicals. Many essential oils have intersecting therapeutic chemicals. Often a few oils can treat a variety of issues. This is one reason why most people do not need every essential oil under the sun! Lavender is a great example of this. (That’s why you always hear people tell you to use lavender…for errrrrrrathang. “Put some lavender on it” needs to be a t-shirt. I know I would wear it!)
- You can run your diffuser for long periods of time, but studies have shown that the effects wear off after an hour. So if you are using a diffuser, don’t run it continuously. Turn it of for thirty minutes every hour before starting it again. No need to waste your oils!
- Ingestion has it’s place in extenuating circumstances under the guidance of a professional. They are NOT “dietary supplements!” Never, ever should they be ingested casually, to flavor your water, for example! Especially not every day. (Here is a great article on the hazards of ingestion.) But why would a company give us unsafe information about using essential oils? Are they lying to us outright? No. The truth is, ingesting essential oil does have it’s place. Just usually not orally and not casually without professional supervision, as is commonly suggested! DEFINITELY not to flavor your water. Oil does not mix with water, so when it hits your internal organs it’s as if it was taken straight from the bottle. There are various schools of thought on how essential oils should be administered. The French school of thought does subscribe to some internal use. But even the French will tell you that essential oil ingestion should be very rare and done only in an extenuating circumstance under the guidance of a professional. It should not be done casually and especially not on a regular basis by the general public! This missing piece of information is the primary error with what EO companies are telling the public. Here is a must-read article about essential oil “schools of thought.”
After spending this time in research, I set a use standard that I feel is the safest for my family:
- Conservative use. We use herbal and other natural remedies to treat sickness and maintain our immune systems on a daily basis. We intake essential oils through teas, tinctures and salves as much as possible. Essential oil is the last stop. We usually only need them at night and on occasions when we will be exposed to very germy environments.
- I only buy essential oils that provide all the information about the plant, chemotype, country of origin and safety warnings. (Checklist above)
- I get all my usage and safety information from unaffiliated aromatherapists. (We will not ingest them without professional guidance or apply them topically without diluting with a carrier oil.)
Now the Opinion Part
I can do this because it’s my blog…and for some reason typing my personal opinions to the Internet doesn’t seem as awkward as telling people in person. Also because I can be in my pajamas.
(EDIT: The above sentence was meant to be exaggerated/humorous, but looking back I can completely understand how that line might read wrong to my friends too. My intent was to make light of the fact that a lot of times I avoid sharing my opinions on controversial topics because I know that sharing strong opinions can make others feel that they are being looked down upon. I want to offer my apologies if anyone reading this feels that I have looked down on them in any way. As controversial as this topic is, that would never be my intent.)
Essential oils are only a part of how we can treat ourselves with plant-based medicine. They are not a cure-all. They should be approached with the same caution that we would approach learning about herbs or a pharmaceutical drug.
I know that there will be people reading this who will want to say to me “Essential oils have changed our lives!” I believe you! I am excited that people are recognizing alternative medicine as a legitimate option for the families. But I also think that if we’re going to consider using essential oils therapeutically, we should also stress learning about herbal and natural remedies in parallel. Diet change, lots of water, rest, traditional foods and herbs (like teas, tinctures and salves–which also contain essential oils) can have the same life-changing impact without the expense and safety risks involved. (Which by the way, we do need proper safety and usage information for herbs too).
The first time I posted an article that suggested trying herbal remedies before essential oils, a number of people voiced their resistance to the idea because they were unfamiliar with natural medicine and felt overwhelmed by the time and research it would require to transition their families. I totally get that! I am there too. The truth is, it’s not “one or the other.” It’s just that the current popularity of essential oils is simply making them seem more approachable than other plant-based therapeutic remedies! The good news is that herbs and essential oils are all part of the same family of natural, plant-based medicine. If we want to take charge of our own health, there will not be a quick short-cut to answers! But I can say with confidence that the learning hours spent investing in my family’s health has been worth it!
If you know of a company who meets the criteria in the above checklist, please post below! If you have a company to add to my list, leave it in comments section of this blog. Please only leave names of companies that you have verified meet all the criteria in the oil buying checklist on Lea Harris’ website. This means you’ll have to check before you share! If you have other expert resources (books, websites, blogs) to direct us to, please mention those also!
I know signing up with Disqus to leave a comment on this post is more of a pain than commenting on Facebook or Instagram, but I want your contributions to remain visible for any reader who comes to this site from around the web. I would love to have your input…but I will delete comments that contain outright brand promotions!