Expert's Opinion

Synthetic Fragrances vs. Pure Essential Oils

By Suki Kramer, Suki Clinically-Proven Natural Solutions | October 17, 2012

Suki Kramer shares her thoughts on aromatherapy.

Aromatherapy equals big bucks for big business nowadays. And, you know anything can be labeled “aromatherapeutic,” even synthetic fragrances. I see it everywhere. But believe me, there’s a world of difference between the real therapeutic worth of a pure essential oil, distilled the correct way from plants and flowers, and the “qualities,” if you can call them that, of a parfum—a highly allergenic fragrance blend, made of synthesized chemicals in a lab. Not only that, but there is a huge difference in agricultural value for the organic farms that grow roses for essential oils. Now that’s REAL organic bang for our green buck! The problem is, as always, how can we be sure we are getting quality ingredients?
Why Buy Organic?

Essential oils, at their essence, harness the incredible healing power of plants, as well as their powerful scent. We can utilize botanicals for so many things: uplifted mood, better skin, healthier body and more homey homes, to creat a better quality of life. But if we truly want to use essential oils, and the aromas they possess for therapeutic purposes, it is important to know what’s real and what’s fake, and it’s so important to purchase our essential oils from manufacturers committed to, and certified in, organic farming practices (grown without synthetic fertilizers or chemical pesticides). Not only are they far better for us, but they support large acreages of the organic agriculture, so when you are buying organic essential oils and extracts, you are really supporting organic farming in the extreme. It takes, for instance, 60,000+ roses to produce an ounce of essential oil! And, it’s easy to find resellers and suppliers of quality organic essential oils because they paid dearly for the right to proudly display their organic certification. Mountain Rose Herbs, a certified organic processor through Oregon Tilth, fully accredited with the USDA National Organic Program, has been around since 1987.
What’s Fair Trade?

Ideally, you want to be able to trace your essential oils from “seed to shelf,” with distributors that support organic agriculture and from sources that farm sustainably, but equally as important, in accordance with Fair Trade principles. At its core, Fair Trade is a trading partnership based on respect and transparency that creates fairness for the workers and suppliers. The Fair Trade Federation guidelines ensure that the workers who harvest the raw materials (botanicals) are paid a living wage, that working conditions are safe and humane and that the land is cared for ethically and sustainably. In some cases, manufacturers maintain their own source of botanicals. In fact, I know of personal care business owners who have gone overseas to help villagers set up their own shea butter harvesting “factories” and now make their own money, and have gone from poverty to self-sustainability.

If a Fair Trade manufacturer (like me) sources its materials from foreign countries (and in many cases, like with tropical ingredients or exotics, that is the only source available), they must negotiate with overseas farmers to guarantee the same fair, ethical working conditions, or ensure they are a Fair Trade supplier. Check out Aura Cacia’s fascinating video story about its aromatherapist traveling to Madagascar to find a sustainable source of vetiver essential oil.
How Botanicals Are Distilled – Quality vs. Quantity

We know essential oils exist naturally in plants and flowers. They are the very essence (essential oils) of plants and flowers, in fact! And, distillation is the method we use to extract this potent essence. When it comes to producing a quality essential oil, the method of distillation makes all the difference. Essential oils are very complex; each is made up of many, sometimes hundreds, of distinct molecules that come together to form the oil's aroma and therapeutic properties. Some of these molecules are fairly delicate structures that can be altered or destroyed by adverse environmental conditions. Distillation is a complex process that determines the quality of the oil, and ultimately the quality of the finished product that contains that oil.
There are two main types of distillation: hydro or water distillation refers to the immersion of a plant material in water, which is then heated to boiling, like a tea. Water/steam distillation involves the flow of steam into a chamber holding the raw plant material, like using a still.

Each method produces different results. Vertical steam distillation seems to produce the best quality oil when distilling essential oils, protecting the therapeutic benefits with virtually no risk of overheating the plant, which can chemically alter the benefits.
Despite the drawbacks of aggressive processing, high temperatures and pressures are often used to produces large quantities of oil in a short period of time. Remember? Big bucks are to be made here! These oils are usually destined for use in cosmetic and processed food manufacturing, but are sometimes sold to consumers as essential oils for use in aromatherapy. As you can expect, these oils are less expensive, but are of little therapeutic value, and the difference is apparent when you compare the products side-by-side. There’s a reason the phrase, “you get what you pay for” exists.

By choosing companies that are committed to traceable sourcing, farming and distillation practices, you’re assured that your essential oil is as pure (and real) as possible. The distillation of essential oils can be time-consuming and costly. Some companies will add solvents (which they don’t have to list on their labels) to their oil to get more out of production—diluting it and making it dangerous for therapeutic or healing work. Another distillation practice that “stretches the plant” is to re-extract or re-distill the oil, which produces a very weak oil absent of any therapeutic quality.

As I’m always saying, as a consumer, you gotta know what you’re buying, know your beauty! Ask pertinent questions; find out about the treatment of the workers, look for certifications and ask about sourcing and testing. Or start by simply reading the label and look out for the word parfum (synthetic fragrance). Like anything in life, it seems, it’s worth taking the time and spending more for something real and lasting, makes you healthier, happier and the world a better place.

About the Author
Suki Kramer founded Suki Clinically-Proven Natural Solutions Skincare with a commitment to education, empowerment and 100% natural beauty products that work like they should. Suki’s vision for the brand is without fail reinforced by an open and honest belief that every beauty product should guarantee efficacy and longstanding benefits to its users. Her passion for effective, natural products and ingredients has made her a leader in the health skin movement.

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