When you're just starting out in aromatherapy, it's easy to get confused by all the variety. Not the (wonderful and fascinating!) assortment of oils themselves - I mean the baffling variety of essential-oil suppliers beckoning at you, with their multitude of prices, ranges, jargon, labels, catalogs, policies and promises. How is a shopper to decide who to buy from?
I sympathise - and instead of just sincerely replying "buy from me", I wondered if it might be worth something to someone if I tried to describe some steps toward assessing new sources of essential oils.
I'm thinking here of mail-order retail suppliers - mail-order because that's how I buy my oils, and because I truly think it gives you more access to a larger range of good oils, often at better prices; and retail because I don't think it makes sense for people to start out by purchasing in the large quantities that wholesale implies. Or by reselling them, which is what wholesale is about.
It's important to note right from the start that I don't mean that you should pick one and only one supplier and buy all your oils from them alone. It would be a very unusual coincidence if any single company offered every oil you want just the way you want it. Different people (and that includes suppliers too!) have affinities for different oils - and different needs, different tastes, different noses.
So while Supplier X may have your ideal Oil Y, it might be Supplier Z who has the best Oils W and Q for you. If you're like most people, you'll end up using a range of good suppliers, not just one.
I've had some very helpful input from friends on the Aromatherapy list (thank you!), but this outline is still long and doubtless frequently debatable. I hope other people will add their comments and insights, because there are surely other points of view on all this.
Here goes nothing!
There are lots of places you can look: join one of the aromatherapy email lists, and get acquainted with the suppliers who contribute to them. Read the advertisements in publications like The Aromatic Thymes (defunct as of 2012) or the International Journal of Aromatherapy. Check out suppliers listed in aromatherapy books you like. Do a net search ... or ask your aromatherapist or teacher.
If you're an end-buyer, just starting out, trying to put together a basic set of oils for home use and feeling unsure of what to do, then I'm sorry, but you really shouldn't be buying wholesale. There are lots of mail-order retailers who don't have minimum orders, who happily sell oils in small (even tiny!) quantities. I will happily direct you to some of them if you contact me privately.
(I know I know - some people have websites instead of catalogues, and that's fine, except for people like me who can rarely get their netscraper working!). If you request a catalogue and don't receive one, you can decide for yourself whether to ask again. Some people with nice oils seem not to be superefficient businesspeople. It's up to you whether or not that bothers you. If you receive a catalogue plus a barrage of high-powered hard-sell material, again it's up to you whether or not that bothers you. (It bothers me.)
What information is given about the oils? If it doesn't say they're pure, natural, etc., then I assume that they aren't all pure, natural, etc. Besides that, I want to see at least two of the following - the more the better:
- the common name and botanical name
- the country of origin
- the chemotype (where appropriate)
- the distillation method
- what part of the plant is involved
Do they offer different "versions" of any oils, such as geranium and geranium Bourbon, neat and liquid benzoin, ylang ylang extra and III, organic and "standard" lavender, etc? This isn't a "must", especially with small suppliers (like me!) but it would indicate an awareness of various users' various needs and preferences.
Look at the prices. If all the oils in the line are the same price, they aren't natural essential oils. (I don't mean no two prices can be the same, just that they can't all be the same price).
If the prices seem very high or very low compared to other people's, is there any justification for that that doesn't bear on the quality of the oils? Gorgeous, sexy bottles vs plain amber glass, for instance? Is each oil accompanied by a handwritten document relating the history of the oil? Is it a small company running on love and without a lot of overhead? Does the supplier have a heavy eye-make-up habit that s/he needs income to support? Essential oils aren't cheap, so if someone's offering (for example) jasmine at $10 an ounce, it isn't pure, natural jasmine absolute. But within reasonable limits, prices vary and aren't a surefire indication of quality.
"What questions?!" It depends. If you know nothing about the supplier, you may want to start by asking whether any of the oils are extended with anything. Some companies use the phrase "100% pure and natural X" to mean "100% pure and natural X diluted in 100% pure and natural jojoba or something" (which is apparently legal), but sometimes they'll admit this if you use the term "extended".
If the botanical names, countries of origin, distillation methods, etc., aren't listed in the catalogue (see Step Four), ask about them. This is all stuff every dealer should know about their oils.
You can also ask if they have their oils tested for purity, and/or if they buy from suppliers who have their oils tested. Tests are expensive, and some people question their relevance to aromatherapy, so if the answer is "no" you have to decide for yourself what that means to you. The most commonly-given reason for not having tested oils is that the supplier knows his/her sources are trustworthy and wants to keep the prices down. I'd think twice about buying from anyone who told me that tests don't prove anything (they can prove something about purity) (which is different from quality), who doesn't know whether their oils have been tested and/or who doesn't seem to have heard of the notion of testing oils.
After that: Does the supplier seem to know his/her stock? Not every company keeps all the oils they list in stock, they just order it from their supplier when someone orders it from them. This isn't necessarily wicked or evil - but I personally feel very bothered when someone is selling something they don't seem to have ever seen or smelled. Questions that can help you assess this might include:
- How does your Lavender X compare with your Lavender Y?
- What color is your Oil X?
- questions about the olfactory quality of the oils you're interested in.
It can also be useful to ask some questions that you know the answer to. This implies doing some research. I find Julia Lawless's Encyclopedia of Essential Oils a very useful source of questions of this ilk. The point is not to debate with anyone, but rather to learn more about who you're dealing with by hearing how they respond.
And ask some questions about the aromatherapy uses of the oils. If you're just starting out, I would think you'd prefer to deal with someone who knows something about aromatherapy. (If this sounds strange, you've been very lucky! There are really lots of suppliers who know less than you do, I promise!) The supplier may well feel hesitant to offer medical advice (which would be illegal in most places, unless they're licensed medical practitioners), so don't ask for too many details. Try things like:
- Is Oil X suitable for aromatherapy use?
- Would Oil Y be safe to use in a massage?
Again, you don't have to debate about anything - my main point here is that by asking questions you can learn more about who you're dealing with. Of course, if it's a large company, it might not be fair to expect every person who answers the phone to know every oil intimately - but if that bothers you, you'll probably prefer to work with smaller companies. And an honest "I don't know" doesn't necessarily mean the company is no good!
Start small. I know you may be excited and want everything at once, but it can be risky to go whole hog on your first order. See if you get what you ordered, within a fair amount of time, in good condition. Again, not every talented aromatherapist is a brilliantly efficient businessperson, and again that may or may not bother you.
Obviously, if there's something blatantly amiss (eg you got the wrong oils, or something broke or leaked badly) you'll want to check out whether the company's way of rectifying it is what you deem fair and honest.
Otherwise, it's time to start checking out the oils themselves - but that, I think, is food for a separate article!
Copyright © 1997 S. Pociecha
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When this article was written in 1997, the internet was just getting going. By 2013, almost no one buys essential oils "by mail". We do it on the Internet and sometimes by phone. But the principle is the same. Even though many suppliers who were out there in 1997 are gone, there are many others who are still here, and myriads who have come and gone.
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