Choosing Quality Essential Oils: The Scent of an Oil

What Does Scent Really Say About an Oil's Quality?

Why I Wrote This


If you read some essential oil reviews online, many of them will look similar to one of the following:

“This is a high-quality cinnamon oil. I know because the smell is so strong, just like candy!”


“This vitex berry is a horrible oil! It smells nasty! Do not recommend”

Of course, you could put any plant you like in place of the two I chose. Such reviews are actually terribly unhelpful, because they tell you nothing about the oil, only that the reviewer’s brain does or does not like what it smells. With so many folks reading reviews, and many more new to the world of oils, it’s important to know that a pretty or strong odor just isn’t very telling.


Why It’s Not All About Scent


Human Noses Just Aren’t That Sensitive

I want to say, right off the bat, that my above statement is partly fallacy. There are humans who have been highly trained to recognize even slight differences in scents. Some of these are aromatherapists. Some are perfumers and coffee blenders. But they exist, and their work should certainly be recognized. Also, some folks who are very experienced with essential oils can teach themselves to recognize the differences. It is possible to learn things without a formal education, licensing, or degree, and it takes a whole lot of work and dedication. I am on my way, but do not consider myself to be one of these folks yet.

The vast majority of us walk around able to say “yup, that’s lavender”, with a fair amount of confidence. Most of us cannot say, “that soap has the Bulgarian lavender with a high Linalyl acetate percentage.”  If you’re one of the majority, here’s why scent isn’t everything:

“Smell-Alike” Oils

Oh, the trickery and deceit! I once bought a bottle of “100% Pure Organic Therapeutic Grade Peppermint Essential Oil” from WellnessScent. I used it in household bug sprays for several months before really reading the bottle. The bottle really contained cornmint (mentha arvenisis) oil, not mentha piperita (peppermint). Why didn’t I know? Because the (cheaper) cornmint smells a whole lot like peppermint, and my nose wasn’t trained to notice the difference. Plus, I was expecting peppermint, so I smelled peppermint.

I posted the link for transparency, but there are a few things you’ll notice on that page. First, the seller gives information pertaining to peppermint, but is selling an oil with slightly different components. It is possible that the reason you’re using peppermint won’t be duplicated in using cornmint. Next, the seller says the oils are organic, but they don’t have a USDA label. (This can be OK – read about organic certification of oils.) Finally, when the best review calls them out, they don’t change their page or language. Yikes! These are a lot of red flags.*


Yes, a “pure” essential oil may contain additives. Remember, when it comes to essential oils, the words on the label don’t always mean what they say.   

Other Oils

We’ll use my above example of cornmint and peppermint, to keep it simple. Let’s say that the peppermint essential oil procured by a seller is not of the highest quality. They know this, and you’ll know it when you get it, because it doesn’t have that punch of scent you’re used to. What they do have is some really great cornmint oil that nobody wants. They add the cornmint to the peppermint to help boost the scent, and can now get rid of the cornmint and sell the bad peppermint.

And they can still call it a “pure” essential oil, because it doesn’t contain anything but essential oils. And, hey, to most of us it still smells like peppermint!

Specific Compounds

Other “Natural” additives can be something you might not consider really natural at all. They can be the lab-extracted compounds that should be in a quality peppermint, but aren’t in this one. In other words, they’ll order up a bottle (jar? canister?) of menthyl acetate, and add to the oil what should have been there in the first place. Sometimes it’s cost-effective to use a low-quality oil, and amp it up a little in this way with readily available chemicals. And your nose isn’t likely to know.

Some Oils Just Don’t Smell Good (To You)

In the review examples, I used vitex berry, but there are many examples, and they vary from person to person. I love the smell of vitex. I think it smells like walking in the woods on a rainy fall day. Most people think it smells of rotten cabbage and feet. If a particular scent is new to you, it may not be what you’re expecting and it may smell bad to you. This does not mean it isn’t a quality oil, or that it won’t work as intended. Those “essences” work differently in everyone’s brain, or we’d all love the same perfume and wretch at the same cheeses.

Also remember that scent is the strongest of our senses as they relate to memory. The smell of crayons evokes childhood, and the aroma of burning wood your favorite camping trip. My thoughtful midwife wore lavender to the birth of our daughter, who had passed away prior to delivery. It was brought as a calming scent, but you can be sure my husband will never think lavender smells “good”, because it will always evoke that painful memory. Whether you realize it or not, you may have a pronounced or slight prejudice against certain scents. This doesn’t mean you should make yourself use them, but it also doesn’t mean the oil itself is at fault or faulty.


So, Don’t Bother Smelling Them?


Yes, bother. It’s called “aromatherapy”. You absolutely should smell your oils! Both straight out of the bottle, and dropped onto some plain white paper. Here’s what to look for:



OK, this is kind of grody, in my book. If your essential oil smells like alcohol, whoa, Nellie, do you have a problem! Fermentation would indicate that the oil is contaminated with plant matter or juice. This would be more common with citrus and other fruit oils, but could happen with nearly any oil. If this has happened, you may be able to tell by moving the oil to a clear container and actually seeing the separation and/or plant matter (ick). However, in some cases you wouldn’t be able to see it with the naked eye, so smelling the oil is definitely important. (This is a pretty rare occurrence. I have well over a hundred oils, and it has happened twice. The first company is no longer in business. The second had shipped several units from a bad batch. I was notified of their error, and that a new oil had been shipped overnight, before I received the bad oil. I hardly count that one because humans err and they handled it well.)

It is also possible that an oil could smell fermented, or like alcohol, because it has been distilled with alcohol. While not a preferred process for making true essential oil, some folks do use a method at home where the plant is soaked in vodka to make a tincture, then the alcohol allowed to evaporate. If a friend gave you some fun homemade oils, ask. If this was their method, feel free to use that oil for flavoring food (assuming they used food-safe fruits), and as scent in other crafts. But they won’t contain all the properties in a steam-distilled or expressed oil.


Most true, pure essential oils don’t go bad. But some of what you would call “carrier oils” are also considered “essential oils”, and can go rancid. These are oils like avocado, olive, argan, sunflower, coconut, and other nut and seed oils. If your essential oil has been diluted with one of these oils, the rancidity can come through as the oil ages. Yuck!

Just… Wrong

I once bought an orange oil from a new company. At the time, I had orange from probably five other companies.** They all smelled similar, with some expected variations due to distillation method. This one just smelled “funny”. It kind of smelled like oranges, but it lacked all the sharpness. There was also a scent I didn’t recognize, a little like a heavy vegetable oil, maybe, but not really. I couldn’t pinpoint it, but with just a few months of learning under my belt, I knew it wasn’t right. In that case, further home “tests” showed it was contaminated with some carrier oil.

In another case, a bottle of cinnamon was so bad I threw it away. It simply smelled of stale cinnamon and rank feet. I wrote the company, to ask for an explanation or replacement. Maybe this was some rare cinnamon foot tree with great benefits. Because of inconsistent labeling in that case, I didn’t really know. the company never replied, and I left an appropriate review. Yes, that was based on my opinion, but also my experience with how cinnamon leaf and bark normally smell. This one was just wrong.


Teach Yo’ Self

I said earlier that it doesn’t always take formal training to learn. Smell oils from different companies. Smell cornmint and pepperint and spearmint. Take notes. Does one have a sweeter scent, while you detect herby notes in another? Does one brand smell so different than the others that it’s just wrong? I’ll post my methods as we go, but start keeping a journal of your oils, even if you have only one brand or plant type. Write what you smell the first time you use it, then try again in a week or so. Read what other people say about that oil, and see if you can find the various “notes” they talk about. Sort them into your ideas of “high” or “low” notes. Consider how they might blend with other oils. Then just keep at it!


*I wholly support their right to be jackwangs, because of the liberty thing. But I also totally support our right to let others know when jackwangery is occurring, and to tell such companies to hit the road. Jack. Return bad oils, report shady sellers where possible (like to Amazon), write reviews, and tell your friends!

**Please remember that many of these were free products for review. I have a few companies I’m comfortable using, and others that I have accepted at a steep discount or for free. I did always disclose any discount or complimentary item in my review, and I did not hesitate to leave a brutally honest review even if the product was free. Unless you are independently wealthy, do not attempt to acquire all the oils at one time. Please. Your financial health is important, too!


Clear Winter Sky

This blend is surprising and refreshing. It works well during cold weather, especially after the holidays may have left you overwhelmed with cinnamon, peppermint, and sweet bakery scents.

EO Scents - Sleight of Nose

Clear Winter Sky

  • 2 drops Juniper Berry
  • 2 drops Lemongrass
  • 1 drop Pine
  • 3 drops Wintergreen

Add to about 100 ml of water in an ultrasonic diffuser, or diffuse by cotton ball or other method.


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