By Sherill Pociecha, Dyndelf Aromatics
One of the (many!) eternal questions in aromatherapy is, “How do I know the essential oils I'm buying are good quality?”The first step in the answer to that is, “Work with good suppliers,” which is the subject of Part One of this article. The next phase is checking out the oils once you get them home. I'm writing this to offer newcomers to aromatherapy some guidance. There are, of course, more elaborate, more thorough, and more expensive ways to check the purity and/or quality of an essential oil, but here I'm just describing some simple techniques we can try in the comfort of our own homes.
These are the tests:
The main thing to remember about all these tests is that none of them is sure-fire—and that's a two-way deal. Some adulterated oils may pass the “tests” with flying colors; some perfectly good oils may fail them. If your most beloved, tried-and-true oil fails one of these tests, it may not be the oil's fault! But if an oil that seems iffy to you for other reasons fails these tests, it may be worth questioning it further.
(1) Drip a drop of your oil onto blotting paper or a coffee filter and leave it overnight. If there's a visible oily stain the next day, the oil may be “extended” with a carrier. Most essential oils shouldn't leave any mark at all. Dense, viscous oils like patchouli, vetiver, etc., may leave stains, as will some cold-pressed (citrus) oils.(2) Put a few drops of your oil in a clear glass vial, add a little water and shake. Then wait a few minutes. If the mix is cloudy or milky-looking after it's had time to settle, there may be alcohol or some other adulterant in the oil. This isn't right. If it's cloudy before you put any water in, that's not a good sign either. By “cloudy” I don't mean “opaque.” Not every essential oil is transparent by nature. (Oh, and sometimes, when you blend oils, you'll find the blend turns cloudy. In my own experience, conifer oils seem particularly prone to do this to a blend. This doesn't necessarily mean the oils in the blend are bad. Some things are just natural reactions of the natural chemicals naturally present in the oils.)
(3) Look at the color. Does it coincide with what (for example) Julia Lawless writes about oil color in her Encyclopedia of Essential Oils? There are normal variations in color, but not everything is normal!
(4) Smell it. The more experience you have with more oils, the better you'll get at this, of course—but I firmly believe that even a novice may have good intuition, especially if s/he remembers that with essential oils, “smells right” isn't necessarily the same as “smells pretty.” Genuine essential oils are not “fragrance oils,” and many of them smell different from what we might initially expect. Some smell downright icky, that's their nature. At the same time, some adulterants smell lovely, while others are “inolfactible” (is that the olfactory equivalent of “invisible,” “inaudible,” etc.?). But that doesn't mean you're totally incapable of smelling something wrong. Does the oil smell like toilet cleaner, is it strangely flabby or weak, does it just smell somehow “fake”? This may be a wrong impression—to me, atlas cedar smells like tear gas, and that isn't because there's anything wrong with it—but it may be a good reason to check out some other company's Oil X to compare. (Yes, I know that costs money—but this is education!)
Aha! It's also true that there are natural and normal variations in the way oils smell. So the fact that your new Oil X doesn't smell exactly the same as your previous Oil X is not in itself a sign that anything is wrong with either of them.
(5) I've also heard of some other non-sure-fire tests for specific oils:
(a) The best quality vetiver sinks in water.(b) Genuine rose otto turns solid in the refrigerator (so do a lot of adulterated rose oils, but otto that doesn't turn solid would certainly be suspect).
The smell of an oil straight from the bottle isn't everything. For example, there are many oils that reveal their great beauty only when they're warmed a bit, e.g., by applying them to your body (properly diluted, of course!): Sandalwood and myrrh come to mind as buddies who don't leap all over you as soon as you uncork them. So try your oils out in a massage, in a diffuser or nebulizer, in a bath, in various blends—you may be surprised at some of the developments. Here, of course, we're in another area where experience means a lot, where individual reactions are crucial, and where clear-cut guidelines are unfortunately hard to come by, but my advice to novices is not to dismiss an oil just because you don't take to its smell straight from the bottle. (In fact, I'm hard-core enough to say, except for when you can smell something wrong, as outlined in Step One, don't dismiss any oil just because you don't like its smell. In aromatherapy, it's not the fragrance that we're after. Given two therapeutically equal oils, of course you're allowed to choose the one that smells better to you; but the hard-core view is that fragrance isn't the main issue.)
(1) Offer the oil to someone else (along with appropriate instructions for safe use!) to see if it helps them;
(2) Try the oil for some other condition and see if it works for that;
(3) Check out another supplier's oil and see if it helps you more;
(4) Doublecheck your expectations of the oil, always bearing in mind that in aromatherapy there are really no Universal Truths or Guaranteed Results or Unfailing Experts.
© S. Pociecha 1997, All Rights Reserved
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