How to keep imposters out of your holistic health
By Jessica Chia, Prevention
Is your oil a fraud?
Buying an essential oil is easy. Buying a good one, on the other hand, can be a challenge, even for trained aromatherapists. Ideally, you'll get a bottle of potent liquid distilled from the flower, root, leaf, or rind of an aromatic plant. Unfortunately, it's tough to know if that's what's actually in the little bottle you brought home. Some vendors "extend" essential oils by mixing them with less expensive nut and seed oils, while others pass low-cost oils off as ones that are harder (and pricier) to come by. And others just totally fake it with synthetics that echo the plant's scent.
So how do you spot the good stuff? Look for these telltale signs.
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The sign: How it looks
Here's a fun fact: essential oils aren't true oils at all. They simply got stuck with the label because they don't play well with water. And, as it turns out, this quirk comes in handy for spotting any hidden nut, seed, or vegetable oils covertly added to an essential oil. The test: Place a single drop on white printer paper and let dry. If there's an oily ring left behind, it's not a pure essential oil. The exceptions: Essential oils such as sandalwood, vetiver, German chamomile, and patchouli oils, which are naturally heavier in consistency and deeper in color, says Jade Shutes, president of the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy.
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The sign: The price
While high cost doesn't signify high quality, it's smart to be wary of an essential oil with a super-low price tag. Essential oils are almost inevitably pricey: It can take a roomful of plant material to fill just one bottle of essential oil, and if the botanical is scarce, it further drives up cost. "Some essential oils--like lavender, rosemary, and sweet orange--are so abundant that they tend to be good no matter what," Shutes says. "But oils like rose, lemon balm, jasmine, helichrysum, and chamomile varieties should always be very expensive." Check several sites to get an idea for the normal price of the oil you want.
The sign: The name
Make sure the plant's Latin name is listed on the label or, if you're shopping online, the webpage. If only the common name is listed (for example, "lavender essential oil") you might be shelling out for a lower-cost hybrid. And if it doesn't specify that it's an essential oil, it isn't. "Lavender oil" is nothing more than perfumed oil; it may or may not contain material from the plant, and won't have the same therapeutic properties as "lavender essential oil."
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The sign: Its container
All essentials must be stored in glass containers, because the oil's strong chemical compounds break down and react with plastic. What's more, glass should be dark blue or amber to protect the oil from degrading ultraviolet radiation, Shutes explains. Take note of the temperature, too. Bottles should be kept in a cool place, since heat messes with the oil's chemical composition.
The sign: The feel
Place a drop of a vegetable, nut, or seed oil on the pad of one index finger, and place a drop of the essential oil on the other. Rub the oils with your thumbs, noting the differences (or similarities) between the feel of each. True essential oils have a little slip, but for the most part, they shouldn't feel thick or greasy. Heavy, richly colored essential oils, like sandalwood, vetiver, German chamomile, and patchouli, are exceptions, Shutes says.
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The sign: How it pours
When you unscrew an essential oil's cap, ideally it will be sealed with an orifice reducer--a plug that controls how many drops come out at once. This is helpful for dosage, yes, but it also prolongs the shelf life of oxidation-prone oils by limiting their exposure to air at all times. It's not the end of the world if it doesn't have one, but do watch out for any essential oils with built-in dropper pipettes. The little tubes are typically made of plastic or rubber, which can both break down and release synthetic impurities into the oil, Shutes explains.
The sign: How it's cultivated
Since essential oils are plant-derived, avoiding pesticide contamination by buying organic only makes sense. Many companies carry the official USDA seal, but here's an insider secret: Oils labeled "wild-crafted" are also a safe bet. "It means the plant was harvested in the wild, rather than farmed," Shutes says. "You can pretty much assume they've been unsprayed." The organic label means a price bump, but you can be strategic about when to save or splurge. "If nothing else, make sure you buy organic citrus oils--it's been shown that they tend to contain pesticides," Shutes says.
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