Essential oils: Quality vs. predictability

Essential oils: Quality vs. predictability

June 28, 2019 0 Comments

It's an interesting question in our modern times, generally:

Do we choose quality or predictability? And how does that relate to plant medicine and essential oils? I'll explain.

Humans have a deep biological leaning toward 'predictability'. This is, of course, for our survival. The easiest example is to point to our history as foragers or 'hunters and gatherers'. When we found a berry and tried it for the first time, if it tasted sweet and didn't make us feel sick, we could be reasonably certain it wasn't toxic or going to kill us.

We still have this mechanism but it plays out not with tasting berries as much (though I've had that experience, and not pleasant!) but explains why we are 'creatures of habit'. Predictability keeps us safe.

Let's turn for a moment to the modern example of perfume. The kind that comes in a fancy box and costs upwards of $300/ounce. Chanel No.5 is an easy example. Many of our moms, grandmothers...maybe you...have this perfume sitting on a dresser or boudoir. Every time a new bottle is cracked opened, it smells exactly the same as the one before it. If it doesn't, we’re likely to take it back or complain to the company that we "got a bad batch" - because it smelled “different”.


There's nothing inherently wrong with this, of course. But often times (and not saying anything about Chanel No.5, specifically) this uniformity and predictability come at a cost. Typically the fragrance or perfume from the department store is synthetically-derived or is made with predictable 'natural' compound isolates, and the potential 'cost' is toxins in our bodies. These ingredients can have harmful or ill effects, such as endocrine disruption or the initiation of a lifelong sensitivity.

Think about a time you were in an elevator with a person wearing a strong cologne that made you sick to your stomach and your eyes water. Or how about the aroma of dryer sheets wafting outside from the neighbors' house. Ask yourself, is it pleasing or does it make you feel a little queasy? Our bodies know the difference and what's 'good for us', just like our foraging ancestors.

So why does this matter?

How we define 'quality' is up for grabs – and often it’s not defined by us, but by corporations seeking dollars over integrity, sadly.

Most every company that sells essential oils, for example, advertises that they are "highest quality" or some such phrase. As a customer, how do you know if they really are? How do they know they really are? And is there really a way to claim that honestly? (I'm recalling the scene in the movie Elf where Elf bursts through the door of a NYC coffee shop, enthusiastically congratulating them after seeing on their sign that they serve "The World's Best Cup of Coffee"...but I digress.)

Some multi-level marketing companies, for example, even feature men in white lab coats talking about "quality control" and fancy-sounding testing methods that reinforce their own private "certification standard", ironically enlisting similar tactics as the pharmaceutical industry, convincing people that a battery of tests are required. This serves to remove us from our primal relationship to plants through scent, and our own experience.

"Therapeutic grade" or "pure" are popular marketing claims in the world of essential oils. What do these phrases mean? Who defines "highest quality"? Is there an independent regulatory body that tests and requires a standard of purity to hold companies to account? The answer, is no.

The "regulatory body" is our own. What 'feels' good, smells good, uplifts us and energizes us, etc. is truly how we define 'quality'.

Then there is the issue of variability and lack of access to (dare I say) quality, authentic essential oils. With a thought to regulation, a need for oversight of what defines claims of ‘purity’ would be most useful to buyers.

Let’s get back to ‘predictability’ for a moment.

If your essential oil blend doesn’t smell the same as the last bottle or the ‘other guys’ rosemary essential oil, what does that ‘mean’? Is it fraudulent? Is it synthetic? Did the formulation change or did someone screw up?

The answer is, it could be any or all of those reasons – or it could be something less concerning, and understood through imagining the experience of a fresh loaf of bread or a glass of wine. Allow me to elaborate.

I have had conversations about this with the most talented and experienced distiller I know of – he offers Temple Tree frankincense, sandalwood, rose, geranium, bergamot, many citrus oils and more that are simply intoxicating. He discovered and invented a method of extraction that “mimics the distillation in Nature” – and it produces essential oils like no other I’ve ever experienced in 20+ years of aromatherapy. No solvents, no high heat nor heavy pressure. Perfection, in my mind. Our conversations have gone something like this…

“Lisa, if people only understood that what gives them the ‘best’ loaf of bread or the most pleasing bouquet of wine, and then applied those principles to essential oils, they would understand.”

And I, of course, then agree. And why we get along so well!

As a former Slow Food leader and advocate for sustainable food production for most of my life, I have a deep connection to what ‘quality’ in food is.

The best bread comes from organically grown heirloom wheat and carefully fermented dough with an oven that serves as a tool of the baker, allowing her to interact with it all as an artisan. Not a predictable or easy process, but decidedly delicious and no comparison to say, Wonder Bread, right?

Consider wine: What makes a good wine, or an exceptional one? It’s the vintner who interacts with the wine as a living substance, tasting it with regularity as it cures in oak barrels for flavor and ‘peak’. The terrior of the place where the grapes were grown is key as well. The soil, the rain that year, the amount of sun, time of planting, harvesting, varietal all play a role in the ‘quality’ and experience of that glass of wine you enjoy.

All of these principles apply to essential oils. Ideally, and technically, they come from plants, or botanicals. Yet, many “essential oils” sold do not. Or they contain other ingredients, such as inferior fatty oils that make them rancid, but provide more profit for the company or individual selling them. Many people are surprised to learn that some essential oils are combinations of lab-derived isolates. Or that isolates are combined to create a desired scent. This is all ‘legal’ and acceptable on the open market. It’s a “buyer beware” world for essential oils.

When I talk to people about what I’m writing now, they often feel overwhelmed if they care about not only getting what they pay for, but using them medicinally for health and wellness. And it’s easy to understand why!

When I first decided to begin offering essential oils to my clients, I was overwhelmed with the task of how to determine ‘quality’ on a scale that I could trust. So, I started like most great endeavors do, with person-to-person relationships. I asked questions. I went through hoards of bottles of essential oils from many sources. Sometimes, I went with my nose and my gut and discarded what didn’t smell or feel right. I asked for testing results, but then learned that tests can be manipulated and falsified.

I traveled to other parts of the world. I talked with people face-to-face. I asked questions. I saw photos and tests, and smelled their offerings. Relationships built upon trust. Trust with people. Trust in myself. Trust with the plants. Ultimately, it was a combination of my nose and my gut, but the key was personal interactions – getting to know the distiller or wholesaler working with distillers from around the world.

I’ve come to relate and refer to the botanical essences or essential oils that I work with as “living”. They synergize with other plant oils, adapt and communicate. They have characteristics that similar to humans. As Humans are not experienced by one another through their DNA and cellular structure, plants also are not merely experienced nor understood through their molecular parts and compounds.

From the perspective of the experiencer, like humans beings, they interact. I’ve noticed, to my delight, that the formulations I’ve orchestrated have changed over time. I open the bottle and various “notes” emerge, like a symphony.

There are many reasons for this, those of which I’ll save for another day. But suffice it to say, that true and “living” essential oils are not stagnant and they are not uniform.

They, like Humans and animals, are delightfully, deliciously “unpredictable'.

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Recently, a dear friend used one of my favorite words to describe his experience with my formulations: "Enchanting."

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