Updated 12/2014 and 7/2015
* 7/2015 update has removed all references to health or wellness related usages of essential oils. This blog no longer discusses the use of essential oils for anything other than scent. If you choose to apply oils topically or take internally, you do so at your own risk and outside of recommendations by this blog or blogger. I have also removed all references to brands. Good luck with all that, it hasn’t worked so well for me.
If you have ever considered using essential oils for aromatherapy, you might have a little bit of sticker shock. I know I did. I was accustomed to buying tea tree oil at our local natural foods store at something like $10 for a small bottle. Before I was pregnant with my son, I was investigating the dangers of phthalates that are used in all chemical perfumes. Phthalates are endocrine disruptors, which is obviously especially risky for pregnancy and in infancy. Instead of using traditional perfumes on my body, I decided to add essential oils to unscented lotions from Whole Foods. One of the scents I particularly liked was Amber, but unfortunately a small bottle cost around $30, so I went with some of the less expensive oils such as orange, lemon, and gardenia. More recently, I heard that chamomile oil might be good for calming my son. When I went to Sprouts to buy some, I found it was $36 for 15 ml. Essential oils: why are they so expensive?
Have you ever twisted a lemon or orange peel? The beads that pop up on the surface of the fruit’s skin are the essential oils of that fruit. Now consider the leaves of tiny plants like Thyme or Lavender. How much oil can be produced by the leaves or flowers of those tiny plants? From the book Quick Reference Guide for Using Essential Oils by Connie and Alan Higley (affiliate link):
Producing the purest of oils can be very costly because it may require several hundred pounds, or even several thousand pounds, of plant material to extract 1 pound of pure essential oil. For example, 1 pound of pure Melissa oil sells for $9,000-$15,000. Although this sounds quite expensive, one must realize that 3 tons of plant material are required to produce that single pounds of oil
Then why are we able to buy much cheaper essential oils at stores like Walmart or Whole Foods?
There are a few ways to make oils cheaper. One way is to dilute the oils by adding carrier oils. Check the label, as it will often say, for example: Ingredients: Cedarwood essential oil, sweet almond oil. Many oil bottles actually do not have ingredients listed at all. Why not? What are they hiding? I’d stay away from those altogether. But guess what? There is nothing that requires essential oil companies to list ingredients. Unless they seek approval by the FDA as a food supplement (the two major MLM brands do), they don’t have to disclose ingredients.
Another way to make the oil cheaper is to extract it using chemicals rather than the expensive and lengthy process of steam distillation with water:
High pressure, high temperatures, rapid processing, and the use of chemical solvents are often employed during the distillation process so that a greater quantity of oil can be produced at a faster rate. These oils may smell just as good and cost much less, but they will lack most, if not all, of the chemical constituents necessary to produce the expected therapeutic results
Why use “therapeutic grade oils”?
As I read more about essential oils, it appears the term “therapeutic grade” can be used loosely by a lot of different manufacturers to mean a lot of different things. Like the label “natural” which is put on food, there is no regulation of this term — anyone can use it, in an context, and there is nothing to stop them from doing so. When I researched the word “pure” in relation to oils, I encountered vague information as well. Some say that there is no regulation of that term in labeling, and other said that the FDA requires a minimum percentage of the oil in the bottle to be undiluted in order to use that term, but I could find no confirmation of that on the FDA’s web site.
My common-sense take on describing oils is: take a look at why you want to use the oils. If you want to use oils just to smell good (diffusing, creating sachets, deodorizing, etc.), who cares if it’s “therapeutic grade” or pure, or whatever you want to call it? I think oils from Walmart or Whole Foods would be just fine for those uses.
But if you are using the oils topically on the skin* (where they will be absorbed into the blood stream) or for direct inhalation — I think in those cases you probably want to make sure you are getting something that undiluted and does NOT contain carrier oils.
Why are the oils I buy at some stores diluted?
It sounds shady, but it can be practical. Even very pure, therapeutic grade oils need to be diluted with a carrier oil to keep their potency from burning the skin or other areas to which they might be applied.
What’s important to know is whether the oil you are using has already been diluted or not. If it’s been diluted, for heaven’s sake, don’t go diluting it more! But if it’s pure, you will need to seek instruction from the manufacturer on how much it should be diluted before use. Check the bottle label for dilution instructions. If your label does NOT have dilution instructions, be very wary of that brand — they might not know what percentage of oil is actually in their bottles. You will also need to dilute more for children.
Of course, you can probably tell somewhat from the price, the brand, and where you are buying it whether the oil you’re considering is a good quality and whether it might have been diluted.
One more note on cost
As I’ve been starting to use my high quality oils, I’ve noticed that they are indeed MUCH more potent than any of the oils I had previously purchased. I could definitely see how they could have health benefits when used correctly. Also, I can see that it takes only a few drops of these oils, regardless of application method, to yield the benefits. So while I might be paying more, I have to use much less, and the purity makes the results much more effective.
To me, it seems like you get what you pay for, and that researching the purity of oils before purchasing is an important cost-saving measure.
I’m enjoying learning more about oils, please let me know what you think. Did you find this post helpful?