What are therapeutic grade essential oils?
Therapeutic grade essential oils. I’ll risk my 20 plus years of aromatic authority and say, I think they pretty much all are. I’d like to add, I don’t like saying that. Therapeutic grade is an umbrella term, like natural and pure. It holds limited meaning without a standardized definition. It’s currently used to discriminate the good from the bad essential oils — our oils versus their oils.
Is this term accurate when qualifying the quality and validity of essential oils? If not, what defines a superior quality essential oil?
With so many new essential oil companies showing up, it’s hard to distinguish good from bad and high quality from low quality essential oils. Of course everyone has the “best” essential oils. The term therapeutic grade gives some direction to the quality, though this only suggests that the oils can be used for therapy. Therapy refers to medicine-like and providing health.
Can therapeutic grade oils be adulterated?
Over the years essential oil buyers and sellers have demanded essential oils that are unadulterated. Adulteration is the practice of adding synthetic or natural compounds to the essential oil. It’s been said adulteration causes reactions and makes the oil less effective or not at all effective for the proposed therapeutic use. This is moderately true, though keep in mind that even the best unadulterated essential oil can cause reactions. Adulterated oils are inferior and undesirable, although they still may have therapeutic potential or be therapeutic grade.
Essential oils are a complex mixture of botanical chemical compounds. The compounds are shown through scientific analysis to have benefits for many health conditions as well as supportive function for the wellness of body and mind. The science has determined the individual compounds, even when separated from the oil, reduce stress, heal wounds, kill bacteria, destroy viruses, soothe a headache, and so on.
If these natural compounds have therapeutic properties, they should still be therapeutic even if added to another liquid or essential oil. This is the logic I use when saying most essential oils are therapeutic grade, even if adulterated. That said, there is an important value to the therapeutic potential of the whole oil — its emergent properties and synergy — that is not possible from isolated compounds or adulterated oils. Nor would therapeutic properties be similar in 100% synthetic composition. Keep in mind that this statement is debated within the scientific field of olfactory research where synthetics have been shown to have “therapeutic” action — including the proven wound healing function of synthetic sandalwood oil.
Pure vs. Artisan Essential Oils
I am in no way supporting adulterated or synthetic essential oils. My motive here is to create a realistic foundation to support my logic in resourcing the essential oils that I buy, sell, and most importantly, use in my therapeutic applications. I go in the extreme opposing direction of adulteration and synthetics.
Whenever possible my essential oils are bought from artisan producers, and are “small-batch” produced or vintage. My choice is to avoid large scale or industrial production.
Some oils are manipulated, grown, and produced to meet a standardized chemical composition. The result may be a “pure” essential oil, but I’m not a fan of development to match a perceived ideal chemical composition. Think of this in relation to food. Do you prefer industrial-farmed produce or produce from local organic family farms?
Large Scale Often Equals Flat Essential Oils
The production of essential oil is similar to that of wine. Geographical region and growing method of the plant material is the starting point in defining quality outcome for both. The harvest of the plant material (including grapes) also determines the outcome of the final product.
As is well known in winemaking, the vintner is the authoritative technician and artist who produces a masterful wine. In essential oils it is the skilled artisan distiller. Details of what this entails is a discussion for another time. Understand that it is a skill that ultimately determines the quality and chemical structure of your essential oil.
The other side of artisan and small batch production is industrialized production, which is not necessarily a bad thing. As in any commercial product — food, cosmetic or whatever — there is a loss of character, sometimes quality, that comes from company growth and large scale manufacturing.
The small artisan producer can spend more time and oversee each process more intently. The essential oils that come from this are generally more complex in their chemical structure. As to whether they are “better” may be subjective. My personal opinion would support artisan-produced oils as a better choice from a fragrance complexity and therapeutic perspective. Large-scale production does result in some very good essential oils. It also produces oils I consider flat.
Yellowtail or Vintage Essential Oils?
To continue the wine analogy, mass-produced Yellowtail is wine and therapeutic grade — it will do what wine does, get you drunk. It is not a vintage artisan Bordeaux made in limited quantity. There is a huge difference in intricacies and structure. Industrial essential oils will also do what they are intended to do, though they do not have the fine complexity and nuance of an artisan small-batch producer.
There are more and more essential oils now being produced for the aromatherapy trade. Several small-batch producers are entering the field. Not all are producing great essential oils. Distilling fine essential oils is a skill that is achieved only by a certain few.
Those of us who purchase essential oils seek those artisan producers and fine essential oils that bring the art of aromatherapy to a distinctive level of fragrance and therapeutic complexity.