Are All Pure Oils Alike?
In this series, I’m taking a look at essential oils, from the perspective of someone who doesn’t sell them, and uses oils as part of home health care. Last time, we talked about labeling, and what the various terms on a bottle of oils really mean. We talked about how not all oils labeled “pure” really consist of 100% of the oil you want. But what about those oils that DO? Assuming you’ve got a bottle of truly pure lavender oil, you’re good, right?
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. But you knew that, right? So, what’s the difference?
They Should Be Organic:
OK, I get it. Some of us are just comfortable eating conventionally-grown vegetables. You wash them well, and are perfectly fine ingesting the minuscule amounts of pesticides and fertilizers the FDA has approved. Fine by me – your body, your choice. But hear me out about the oils.
Essential Oils (EO) are very concentrated components of the plant. Anything that makes it through the processing is therefore going to be in a concentrated form as well. If there was a tiny amount on a single rose petal, consider how much might be on the petals from 30 roses. You’d never eat 30 roses, but that’s what’s represented in a single drop of rose essential oil (as rose “otto”, but that’s another post.) If there’s something undesirable on each of those petals, may be in that drop.
“Organic” is a great buzzword, but it’s also a very expensive label to have on your product. Some companies choose to use that money elsewhere, so they don’t carry USDA certification. Check the label. Do they carry certification from a private board (that they don’t run)? Does the website have a statement that while they do not carry certification, they have a process in place to ensure their plants are grown organically? Is the plant harvested from the wild, and wouldn’t have seen pesticides or fertilizers anyway? You’ll remember from Part One that labeling isn’t everything, so it’s OK to make decisions based on your own trust in a company and what you need.
Plant Growth and Harvesting:
It’s going to sound a little mystical at first, but this one has sound reasoning as well. It matters where the plant grows, and under what conditions. It matters when the plant is harvested, within a growing season, at a particular stage of its development, and even at the correct time of day.
Sounds a lot like the tribal sage in a movie saying “pluck the first bloom of the rose from the east side of the mountain on the first day after the moon is full”, right? But that supposed parody might be based on more fact than caricature.
I can see the effect time of day has on my own plants. On a cool summer morning the day after a good rain, merely touching a leaf of my lemon balm (melissa) will leave a delicious scent on my fingertips. Simply brushing up against my rosemary transfers enough of the oil to leave me smelling of it. But late in the afternoon, after a few dry days? The poor things need to be mashed or mangled to give up their luscious scents, and the scents aren’t nearly as luscious. The plants are adequately watered for their growth, and still very much alive, they’re just not at their peak for producing oils.
Growing Season and Plant Stage:
Plants focus on different things as they grow. Springtime is a time for getting greenery in order, with energy and nutrients going to leaves or needles. Then a plant will focus on reproduction – that’s flowers and seeds. Then the plant either dies, or starts sending those nutrients to the roots, for protection over the winter. This does not apply equally to all plants, and is not a full explanation of the topic, but you get the picture.
If you translate this to the making of essential oils, you’ll realize that if you’re harvesting a plant for its leaves, you need to watch its growth and look for the signs that the leaves are at their peak. If, on the other hand, you were to wait for the plant to bloom, so you could harvest both leaves and flowers, your “leaf” essential oil wouldn’t be of the highest quality.
I Get That, But Why Does it Matter?
It’s all about the chemicals. Yup, chemicals. We call them “components” or “constituents” because the word “chemical” has come into disfavor. Let’s remember that water is chemicals, keep our heads about us, and use all the awesome words with their specific meanings, shall we?
Each essential oil is desired for the specific chemicals it contains. Eucalyptus has compounds (that’s a group of chemical elements) that help respiratory ailments, among other things. Lavender’s compounds are calming. If the chemicals aren’t there as expected, or are not in the proper concentrations, an oil’s use may have unexpected results. Not only might it be lacking in what you want, but there might be an increase in compounds you don’t want, or don’t expect.
So, All Pure Oils From organic Plants, Picked at the Right Time, Are of High Quality?
Ha! Psych! Not. (Or, if you don’t speak 1980’s slang, “no”.)
Plants can be expressed, distilled, and otherwise manipulated into giving up their essential oils. Each plant’s desired components and its own properties will determine the method used. A steam-distilled bergamot contains fewer of the compounds that make it phototoxic than a cold-pressed bergamot, so someone has to decide what kind of process is used, and what kind of oil to create. Sometimes, the plant itself is the determining factor, and can only be effectively distilled in one way.
Once a production method is chosen, there are still things that can change the composition of an essential oil. Temperature, expression method, and the length of time the plant matter is allowed to process must all be chosen with care for each batch of plants, to produce the desired oil. Some oils need to “cure” a little to allow less-desired components to evaporate. Others must be steam-distilled, but not at too high a heat or the best parts will be broken down and destroyed.
Even a high-quality oil can be harmed if it is stored improperly before it gets to you. High heat and sunlight can break down the components you want, making them less effective, or not effective at all. Some oils are preferred when they are aged, like patchouli, but old patchouli that was stored by a bright window probably isn’t what you want. Some oils are better when used new, though most true essential oils never really go “bad” if stored properly.
So, There it Is:
Not all pure essential oils are created equal. If any step along the way is compromised, you might buy a completely pure essential oil that still doesn’t work for your needs. While no one remedy, natural or otherwise, works for every person every time, your odds are better if the product you’re using actually contains what it’s supposed to contain.
How do you know? Really read the website and product page. (Check out this new post on what to look for when you see a company website or brochure!) Watch for a company to tell you how their oils are prepared, and whether they are tested to ensure they contain the expected chemicals. (That’s a whole post in itself.) It’s unlikely that you’ll get a complete bio on the steps taken to create your bottle, from time-stamped harvest date to temperature used in the steam distillation, but you’ll get a feel for whether the company cares about oils, or about selling you something. Oh, they’ll be selling something, but it should always come with the information.
Cheery and Bright
I love this blend around “the holidays”, but the spruce definitely brings Christmas trees to mind. It’s also great for diffusing when you have company during those holidays, because the frankincense and spruce each have some anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties to help fight off whatever is going ’round! (Don’t forget to Pin it for later. I went to all the trouble of making the graphic, after all 🙂 )
8 Drops Spruce
4 Drops Pine
8 Drops Orange
3 Drops Grapefruit
8 Drops Frankincense
Combine all in an empty dropper bottle, and use as desired or as specified by your diffuser. I use 4-5 drops per 100ml of water.
I am a stranger on the internet who likes to study oils and natural health options. I am not, I repeat NOT a licensed anything. At all. I’ve not had formal training in anything but engineering and taxes. I’m not a doctor, and recognize that even the most nature-loving folks sometimes just need a doctor. If this is you, please seek medical care. Neither the author nor Liberty Zen are responsible for what you choose to do with the information and ideas put forth on this site, or any site we may link.