ORGANIC VS. NON-ORGANIC ESSENTIAL OILS
If you are a regular user of essential oils, whether for personal use or in your business, you might have been curious about the distinction between organic and non-organic (also called conventional) essential oils. Common questions can include:
- What does ‘organic’ really mean in the context of essential oils?
- In what ways do organic and conventional essential oils actually differ?
- How can I know if the essential oil I’m purchasing is truly organic?
- Are organic essential oils really superior to the conventional varieties?
- Should I be buying organic oils over conventional oils?
In this article, we will break down the concept of ‘organic’ in relation to essential oils, delve into the areas in which organic and non-organic essential oils differ from each other, and also answer some of these frequently asked questions.
WHAT DOES THE TERM ‘ORGANIC’ REALLY MEAN?
The term ‘organic’ refers to a formal and overarching standard of quality in relation to fruits, vegetables, meat or animal products, beauty products, cosmetic raw materials, and more. According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), substances that are ‘certified organic’ represent adherence to various requirements during the sourcing, production, and processing phases. This includes practices that:
- Conserve soil health, for example by applying manure and avoiding sewage sludge.
- Avoid the use of prohibited substances, including certain pesticides, herbicides, non-organic fertilizers, and other potentially harmful additives.
- Control pests and diseases using a PAMS (Prevention, Avoidance, Monitoring, and Suppression) management approach.
- Minimize contact between organic and non-organic crops.
- Actively avoid contamination or contact with non-organic and/or prohibited substances throughout the production process.
The NOP (National Organic Program) is the official enforcing body within the USDA responsible for maintaining the national standards of manufacturing and labeling of organic goods. They also accredit both local and international agents who in turn inspect and enforce standards to ensure they comply with USDA regulations. Depending on the extent that requirements are met, companies are allowed to use one of four labels on their products: ‘100% Organic’, ‘Organic’, ‘Made With Organic’, or ‘Organic Ingredients’.
In terms of the relevance of USDA policies and regulations in Canada, organic products certified in either country can legally be sold in both provided that the requirements of the United States-Canada Organic Equivalence Arrangement (USCOEA) are met. The USCOEA was instilled in 2009 and unites the USDA Organic and Canada Organic labels as representing the same standards (with a few exceptions).
WHAT EXACTLY MAKES AN ESSENTIAL OIL ‘ORGANIC’?
Overall, organically-minded food producers demonstrate a commitment towards more natural and natural-based farming and/or foraging practices. This same stance applies to essential oils. Suppliers and companies dedicated to organic standards are committed to providing high-quality, safe, and pure oils that have been derived from crops subjected to natural and organic farming and production practices.
Within the cosmetics and beauty industry, producers and companies who seek to market essential oils with organic claims must adhere to standards set by local governing authorities as well as any other labeling regulations or restrictions in the area they are being sold. In the US, organic claims must adhere to USDA conventions and FDA regulations for cosmetic labeling and safety, as stated under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) and the Fair Packaging and Labeling (FP&L) Act. In Canada, products must additionally conform to Health Canada label regulations.
A true ‘organic’ essential oil is one that has not only been derived from crops cultivated without harmful pesticides and other synthetic additives, but also where farming practices have been mindful of soil quality and the introduction of potentially harmful agents (by avoiding mono-cropping or the use of GMOs, for example) and the end-to-end manufacturing and production process of the oil is accounted for in terms of chemical contaminants. In other words, organic essential oils represent practice and philosophy that is designed to be environmentally friendly, sustainable, healthy, and more supportive of the agricultural community as a whole.
HOW CAN I KNOW IF AN ESSENTIAL OIL IS TRULY ORGANIC?
The presence (or absence) of organic certification is the only reliable way of assessing whether a certain essential oil product is truly organic or not. A company or supplier cannot use an organic seal on their products from a reputed certifying body or authority (such as QAI) without complying with its restrictions and regulations.
Researching the company and scrutinizing the product label for indicators of authenticity are important first steps to take as a consumer. Essential oil companies voluntarily going through the organic certification process get inspected and audited practically every step of the way, from the supplier’s planting and agricultural practices to the manufacturing operations of the end product. A label will show the fruits of this stringent process; a Certified Organic seal represents that the essential oil has been authenticated and validated to be truly organic.
HOW DO ORGANIC AND CONVENTIONAL ESSENTIAL OILS DIFFER FROM EACH OTHER?
There are certain differences between organic and non-organic essential oils; these include the oil’s safety, appeal, therapeutic value, and cost.
SAFETY – Certified Organic oils originate from plants and herbs that have met strict requirements in terms of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and GMOs, and may, therefore, be healthier and less toxic in general. However, some believe that due to the conditions of steam distillation, which is typically how essential oils are produced (the notable exception being cold-pressed oils), the chances of pesticides entering the final product are minimized nonetheless. In either case, those who are concerned about the potential effects of chemical or pesticide residues arising from cultivation or processing may purchase organic essential oils for better peace of mind.
APPEAL – Many believe that it is possible to distinguish between conventional and organic essential oils simply from their feel or aroma. Organic essential oils may smell better compared to conventional varieties due to differences in their main constituents. In addition, organic products, in general, have enhanced customer appeal and can elevate a brand or cosmetics line.
THERAPEUTIC VALUE – The chemical composition of essential oil is what gives rise to its properties and therapeutic value; as it is possible for the percentage of main constituents to differ between organic and non-organic essential oils (as well as from yield to yield), the resultant healing properties can differ as well. It is thought that organic essential oils contain a greater proportion of desirable active constituents, and can, therefore, make a better contribution towards aromatherapeutic applications.
COST – Organic essential oils are on the pricier side as they are more expensive to manufacture. Generally speaking, organic oils can cost 20-70% more than their conventional counterparts.
ARE ORGANIC ESSENTIAL OILS REALLY SUPERIOR?
In many ways, it is hard to deny that organic essential oils are exceptional in terms of their quality, safety, characteristics, and performance – and indeed, there is a widespread perception that this is so.
Some research exists to support this view. In 2014, for example, researchers in Indonesia steam-distilled Vetiver roots grown both organically and conventionally, and then analyzed the differences between the two. Overall, the researchers decided that the organic Vetiver oil variety was of higher quality based on a collection of indicators, including yield, pesticide residue, and analysis of its chemical constituents. However, it is important to understand that the results of this single study cannot be generalized to other essential oils, or even to Vetiver oils originating from other countries.
However, there are also many myths and misconceptions surrounding organic products, including organic essentials oils.
One big misconception many believe is that an ‘organic’ seal represents that the essential oil product is completely free from pesticides. This is not entirely true. First, organic farmers are permitted to use organic pesticides (such as microorganisms and others derived from botanical origins) and also synthetic pesticides if they are on the approved list of substances, in line with the PAMS strategy for pest control. Second, pesticide chemicals can still exist as residues which in turn pollute the environment at large scales; these cannot be easily eradicated. So while organic production of essential oils greatly minimizes the usage of toxic pesticides along with the risk of residue contact, it cannot totally eliminate its presence.
Another misconception is that organic essential oils are universally superior to conventional oils in terms of quality. There are many non-organic essential oils from reputable companies that are still of very high quality. Indeed, researchers in New Jersey, US rightly reminds us that organic farming in itself represents a system of agricultural production, and this does not mean that producers are necessarily focusing on the quality of the essential oil itself. Because of this, the quality and integrity of any essential oil, organic or not, should still be analyzed appropriately.
Even so, few will disagree that philosophy and practice behind organic farming are not making a positive contribution towards our environment and the conservation of our natural resources. While organic production is not a perfect process, it could be argued that it does pave the path towards superior essential oils in terms of quality standards and environmental impact.
SHOULD I BE BUYING ORGANIC ESSENTIAL OILS?
Ultimately, whether or not you purchase organic essential oils is down to individual tastes, preferences, and values. Those who are particularly concerned about safety may feel that organic oils – especially organic citrus oils – present the lowest health risk, especially if they regularly inhale or diffuse them. Similarly, those who care about the impact their choices make for the environment at large may find that it is worthwhile to invest in organic oils.
If you run a business, going organic can be a great way of signaling your brand’s ethics and commitment to quality to your customers. An organic label can look more desirable in the eyes of a customer, and you may find such products easier to market and sell at premium prices.
In any case, we recommend that consumers and businesses stand by making informed and educated choices. It is important to purchase essential oils from a reputable vendor or supplier, look for certification and availability of lab testing results, make yourself aware of organic labeling requirements and practices, and ask questions if needed. These are indicators and checks for the quality of essential oils, regardless of whether they are organic or not.
Consumer demand for organic products, including organic essential oils, is currently at an all-time high. Certified Organic essential oils embrace organic philosophies and practices that have a number of positive implications for consumers, manufacturers, and the agricultural world as a whole: for example, by leaning towards more natural-based farming, helping to minimize potentially toxic residues from pesticides, preserving soil health, and contributing towards overall long-term sustainability.
It is also important, however, to remember that high-quality oils and non-organic essential oils are not necessarily mutually exclusive. If your focus is on quality, it is important to purchase oils – organic or not – from a reputed company or vendor that is equally dedicated to quality and transparency for its customers, for example by going through stringent organic certification processes and conducting comprehensive internal testing.
USING ESSENTIAL OILS SAFELY
It is important to enjoy the benefits of essential oils while using them safely and responsibly. This includes never using them undiluted, performing a skin patch test prior to use, being knowledgeable about the sun’s effects after use, and sourcing them from an ethical brand known for quality and purity.
External use only
Essential oils are for external use only. Essential oils must never be used near the eyes, inner nose, and ears, or on any other particularly sensitive areas of skin. It is imperative to consult a medical practitioner before using these oils for therapeutic purposes.
Pregnancy and other health conditions
Pregnant and nursing women are especially advised not to use essential oils without the medical advice of a physician.
Those with the following health conditions are especially recommended to consult the advice of a physician: cancer, heart-related ailments, skin disorders or allergies, hormone-related ailments, or epilepsy.
Individuals that are taking prescription drugs, undergoing major surgery, or who are at a greater risk of experiencing strokes, heart attacks, or atherosclerosis are also advised to seek medical consultation prior to use.
Children and safety
These oils should always be stored in an area that is inaccessible to children, especially those under the age of seven.
How to conduct a skin patch test
Prior to using any essential oil, a skin test is recommended. This can be done by diluting 1 drop of the essential oil in 4 drops of carrier oil and applying a dime-size amount of this blend to a small area of non-sensitive skin.
Essential oil side effects
Potential side effects of essential oils include redness, rash, hives, burning, bleeding disorders, decreased speed of healing, low blood pressure, dizziness, headache, nausea, diarrhea, convulsions, and rapid heartbeat. In the event of an allergic reaction, discontinue use of the products and see a doctor, pharmacist, or allergist immediately for a health assessment and appropriate remedial action. To prevent side effects, consult with a medical professional prior to use.