Essential Oils & Aromatherapy: What is Therapeutic-Grade?

Essential Oils & Aromatherapy: What is Therapeutic Grade?For the most effective aromatherapy purposes, essential oils should be therapeutic grade… but what does that really mean? Since there is no organization that oversees therapeutic quality like there are for organic standards, the Essential Oil Exchange (EOX) has its own position and standards for the oils we offer. It is our premise that essential oils should be therapeutic-grade in order to have true aromatherapy benefits.

Organics are an important step in the agricultural progress and mindset of the world at large, but that is only part of the issue. There are several other ‘labels’ under which essential oils are produced and marketed: some of those methods are covered under various laws and some are not. It is between these paradigms that companies operate, some more responsibly than others.

Distillation laws are different in the U.S. than in Europe regarding essential oils and legal applications. In the U.S., in order to be able to legally use an essential oil in a food or beverage (i.e. ingested internally) it must be re-distilled. That means after the initial distillation, the essential oil is then put back through the a second round of distillation. In Europe re-distillation is not generally required to allow internal use. In the U.S., however, that is not the case, and anyone claiming that their oils can be ingested internally that hasn’t been shut down by the FDA is selling oil that has been re-distilled, whether therapeutically produced or not, plain and simple.

Now, that being said, there is nothing wrong with re-distillation, and if done properly it is actually an alchemical process. However, since most re-distilled oils that are commercially available are processed for food industry applications, there is no focus on therapeutic integrity for the oils from the aromatherapy viewpoint.

The question is… is the source you buy essential oils from even aware of the difference? Almost every website online says “therapeutic grade” because it’s a buzz word and it’s expected… but is it true? A lot of companies push certified organic, food-grade oils without the slightest inquiry about their distillation, other than being steam distilled, which doesn’t actually guarantee a therapeutic-quality oil. I’ll take an artisan distillation without certification any day over most of the “certified” oils on the market.

EOX only deals with therapeutic-grade materials, yet most of the ingestible oils (i.e. oils from plants and herbs that are normally ingested as food or supplements) have been properly re-distilled to both meet therapeutic qualities and satisfy regulations.

Another wearisome thing is the adulteration of essential oils with less expensive essential oils or vegetable oils, and still being called ‘pure and natural’–which a great many companies do. It is actually not illegal to take an essential oil and dilute it by 90% with a vegetable oil, and sell it as ‘pure and natural’ because the vegetable oil is considered a natural oil. At EOX, we find this to be a reprehensible concept. In our opinion, when a customer buys a bottle of essential oil, it should be a truly 100% pure, unadulterated, essential oil of the exact botanical being purchased, and anything less is simply unacceptable. Almost all essential oils should be diluted in a carrier oil for topical treatment (depending upon each individual’s tested sensitivity), but we do not dilute essential oils.

After distillation pressure, other often-seen designations are ‘premium’ (which is a fancy word that doesn’t really mean anything); ‘perfumery grade’ (which has nothing to do with aromatherapy); or ‘high altitude’ (which is also generally used by specialty perfumers and has vague references to somehow being more therapeutic, but isn’t necessarily so). What does make an essential oil therapeutic is being a ‘whole’ oil, not fractionated in rounds to call the top notes more therapeutic. Just because some molecules of an oil are larger does not mean they do not have therapeutic properties, which is claimed by promoters of these types of oils. It can mean that the larger molecules are less effective for some applications of aromatherapy through inhalation because of the molecule sizes, but we strongly believe the oils should be used in a holistic way and as whole oils, not fractionated segments.

As an example, when an essential oil is distilled, the process is performed over a period of time. The molecules of the oil that are obtained first are the smallest and most volatile. Some distillations are performed in rounds in order to obtain particular levels of scent for specific applications, primarily perfumery, as in the case of ylang-ylang (Cananga odorata). ‘Ylang-ylang’ means ‘Flower of Flowers’ and has an incredibly sweet, floral scent. In order to capture this scent, it is distilled in four segments. The first segment is called Extra, then follows I, II, and III respectively. With each successive segment the oils progress from the highest, most floral, top notes to the III where the oil takes on more masculine, bourbon-type notes. Following these segmentations, equal amounts of each of the Extra, I, II, and III are then recombined to create the ylang-ylang ‘Complete’ in order to create a whole oil. All essential oils are distilled in this manner, yet ylang-ylang is the only one commonly discussed and openly sold by its level. At EOX, we believe that essential oils should be whole distillations, not just a segment as discussed above. Ylang-ylang, however, is the only exception we make (as part of ylang ylang distillation tradition in particular) and we do offer the Extra and III because that is how our customers have requested it.

In addition to distillation and segmentation is the ‘organic’ status. According to the chemistry definition, something is organic if it is carbon-based, which is just about everything. What organic should mean for consumer products is that there are no synthetic chemical pesticides or fertilizers involved in the process at any stage, from the agricultural level to the finished product. At EOX, this is the definition that we use for ‘organic’ simply because it’s the only thing that makes any sense.

For the consumer, finding oils labeled ‘organic’ or ‘certified organic’ does not automatically extend to being therapeutic because 95% of all essential oils produced by ‘certified organic’ distillers are still for the flavor and food products industry (who now want to be able to make organic label claims for food usually devoid of nutritional value). They distill under higher-than-natural pressure, and generally do not produce therapeutic-grade oils. Many consumers believe that certified organic oils are being driven by the aromatherapy marketplace, but this is not correct. The vast majority of the larger ‘certified organic’ distilleries have the flavor and food industries as their largest customers, who are not concerned about aromatherapy.

EOX does its best to use smaller, independent, micro-distillery partners around the world when they are available to provide our therapeutic-grade essential oils, as they have artisan distilled for decades. EOX has had to set its own standards for our materials because getting certified organic oil that is only food grade has no value towards the therapeutic mission of EOX or the value we want to provide our customers.

EOX believes in consumer education because that makes more knowledgeable customers and a better future market for real value. We hope this article helps you to understand some of the nuances that affect the aromatherapy marketplace so you can make informed and truly therapeutic choices.