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No Wonder Physicians Wonder about Adulterated Essential Oils!

The following declaration is copied from the website of a very large essential oil company:

"Each test confirms that our essential oils are free of contaminants and that no unexpected alterations occurred during production."

Do you see the red flag? I put it in bold as a hint. Sadly, most consumers, especially their loyal direct marketing teams, don't catch this statement. They understandably stand by their companies claims of purity.

Unexpected = unanticipated.
Alteration = adjustment, change, revision, modification

The regulation of essential oils is gray at best. They are classified as GRAS (generally recognized as safe) with the keyword being generally. In general, they're considered safe, but ... what follows but matters.

According to the FDA, if a product is intended to cleanse, beautify or make a person smell good, it's labelled a cosmetic. On the other hand, if it's intended for therapeutic use such as relaxing muscles, calming the body, relieving pain, and so on, it's deemed a drug. Such claims are often made for products containing essential oils and marketed as aromatherapy.

Just because an ingredient comes from a plant, does not prevent it from being regulated like a drug.

Unfortunately, the cosmetic end of aromatherapy is not closely monitored and the big companies bank on this. This is especially important when it comes to your patients and clients.

question essential oils

The FDA recognizes the therapeutic aspect of essential oils. Nearly 8 years ago, at least two industry leaders were warned by the FDA to stop making health claims on their products. They immediately adjusted their marketing to remain in compliance with the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act which includes using some essential oils as flavorings in dietary supplements as long as they do not "exceed the amount reasonably required to accomplish the intended technical effect" (as noted in section 409 of the Code of Regulations Title 21)

Some may argue that they're not just being used as flavorings when taken in capsule form, yet, that's a personal decision, not an approved use.

According to the FD & C Act, a cosmetic product is adulterated if:

  • "it bears or contains any poisonous or deleterious substance which may render it injurious to users under the conditions of use prescribed in the labeling thereof, or under conditions of use as are customary and usual" (with an exception made for coal-tar hair dyes);

  • "it consists in whole or in part of any filthy, putrid, or decomposed substance";

  • "it has been prepared, packed, or held under insanitary conditions whereby it may have become contaminated with filth, or whereby it may have been rendered injurious to health";

  • "its container is composed, in whole or in part, of any poisonous or deleterious substance which may render the contents injurious to health"; or

  • except for coal-tar hair dyes, "it is, or it bears or contains, a color additive which is unsafe within the meaning of section 721(a)" of the FD&C Act. (FD&C Act, sec. 601)

As you can see, the cultural explanation of adulteration is something that contains toxic substances. However, the original meaning of adulteration (from the 16th century) was to debase a material by mixing one substance with another, not necessarily toxic.

This definition remains unchanged today.

In the drug world, things like this happen all the time as a dealer cuts their stock with another less expensive substance or drug in order to increase their profit.

Welcome to the world of big business!

The essential oil industry is estimated to reach USD 16.0 billion by 2026 owing to its end-use applications, making it a highly competitive market.

Several essential oils with adulterants often used … 
  • Bergamot: other citrus oils or their residues, rectified or acetylated ho oil, synthetic linalool, limonene or linalyl acetate

  • Grapefruit: orange terpenes, purified limonene

  • Jasmine absolute: indole, a-amyl cinnamic aldehyde, ylang-ylang fractions, artificial jasmine bases, synthetic jasmones, etc

  • Lavender: Lavandin oil, spike lavender oil, Spanish sage oil, white camphor oil fractions, rectified or acetylated ho oil, acetylated lavandin oil, synthetic linalool or linalyl acetate

  • Lemon: natural or synthetic citral or limonene, orange terpenes, lemon terpenes or byproducts

  • Lemongrass: synthetic citral

  • Patchouli: gurjun balsam oil, copaiba balsam oil, cedarwood oil, patchouli vetiver and camphor distillate residues, hercolyn D, vegetable oils

  • Peppermint: cornmint oil

  • Pine: turpentine oil, mixtures of terpenes such as a-pinene, camphene and limonene, and esters such as (_)-bornyl acetate and isobornyl acetate

  • Rose: ethanol, 2-phenylethanol, fractions of geranium oil or rhodinol

  • Rosemary: eucalyptus oil, white camphor oil, turpentine oil and fractions thereof

  • Sandalwood: often a blend of Australian or East African sandalwood oils, sandalwood terpenes and fragrance chemicals, castor oil, coconut oil, polyethylene glycol, DEHP

  • Ylang-ylang: gurjun balsam oil, cananga oil, lower grades or tail fractions of ylang-ylang oil, reconstituted oils, synthetics such as benzyl acetate, benzyl benzoate, benzyl cinnamate, methyl benzoate, benzyl benzoate and p-cresyl methyl ether.

Burfield 2003; Kubeczka 2002; Arctander 1960; Singhal et al 1997

This matters to you for several reasons:

  • adulterated essential oils do not have to have toxic substances added to them to be adulterated which means they pass the cosmetic test

  • adulterating essential oils is not only permitted but accepted within the industry as long as they're not mixed with contaminated oils. Case in point, speaking with several representatives from the company that has the statement noted at the top of this post on their website, they described in detail how certain oils that they sell are mixed together. It never dawned on them that these oils fall under the category of adulterated ...

  • the sale of essential oils adulterated with other oils is, from what I can tell, a case of misbranding because their label does not include all the required information and people use these products for more than cosmetic purposes. I educate people on how to use essential oils to support the body's natural abilities and when they don't know what they're actually getting ... they are misinformed consumers

  • essential oils, whether pure or adulterated, are lipophilic compounds, used by many patients and clients. These affect the body in any number of ways which is potentially harmful when a person is misled with company promotions and / or is taking medications

The last 40+ years of my life has been devoted to working with and investigating plant constituents and I am quite frankly horrified by the loopholes afforded big business. While I do not begrudge anyone the opportunity to make a living, I do not agree this should be done at the expense of anyone's health.

Quite honestly, being an aromatherapist was not a conscious dream of mine. It was a field I happened upon through a series of life events AND it's now a way of life I choose to embrace because:

  • people deserve honesty and the ability to make an informed decision

  • people deserve to be as healthy as possible which means bridging the gap between allopathic and natural care rather than having the two worlds at odds due to poor business ethics.

Genuine essential oils have pure potential when used appropriately, however, they are not a stand alone method. This fact and others is something I will be illustrating in upcoming posts!

Thank you for reading!

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