Every other day you can look and see a new company selling essential oils. Presumably, this variety is good for consumers. It offers more choices and different price points. But do cheap essential oils work?
It’s no surprise, either. Essential oils are a multi-billion dollar a year industry just in the United States alone. That’s why everyone from your scented wax melt company to cleaning product company is adding essential oils. People want oils, and many don’t do much research first. After all, we (I include myself in this) often impulse buy.
Maybe you’ve seen a friend posting about their awesome essential oil results on Facebook. If you’re reading that friend’s testimony and then see an ad for a budget priced oil, do you think you might impulse buy it?
After all, it’s a lot cheaper than what she’s probably selling, so you think you might save a few dollars. It happens a lot.
When I bought my first essential oils, I was very concerned about price. Even though I still spent $200, I had a shoe box full of large essential oil bottles to show for it. I felt quite proud of myself for “saving so much money”.
So, why did I abandon the popular budget brand? It all leads back to the original question: “do cheap essential oils work?”
SO, Do Cheap Essential Oils Work?
I was an essential oil virgin when I grabbed my very first discount bottle. I had never used them before and had just met my very first friend who had. Despite being relatively inexperienced, I was definitely expecting much better results than I got. I mean, all sorts of people were raving about what essential oils were doing for them. My essential oil experience, though, well, it didn’t do much for me.
My friends weren’t brand loyal at the time, either. Some of them were happy with their oils and others were not. I had a hard time getting to the root of “why.”
The oils didn’t work well for me and I put them away to forget. Some time later, after I tried a so-called premium brand, I had much better results. I’ve heard that same story many times since then. Most of the time, people who switch are very glad they did.
That is all well and good, but it’s hardly verifiable evidence of a major difference in results. I needed something more than just “well, we all like them better.”
What do 3rd party experts have to say about cheap essential oils?
Why are some cheaper than others?
Jane Buckle (PhD. and RN) says this about cheap essential oils (from her book on the clinical use of essential oils, p. 71):
“Essential oils can be purchased in a great many places, as well as online. Just remember that essential oils are easy to dilute or adulterate, and if the price sounds too good to be true, it probably is. The most common method of dilution is adding by adding vegetable oil or alcohol. The most common adulteration is adding a small amount of a cheaper oil…Sometimes individual components are added, such as citronellal, geraniol, or linalool. Sometimes the individual components are mixed in a test tube and the result is labeled ‘natural essential oil.'” (emphasis mine)
What Dr. Buckle exposes is the rampant tampering with of essential oils that help companies provide an oil for every price point. Many times the company selling the end product isn’t even aware that this has happened before they bought the oil. Most oils are bought from middle-man suppliers before being relabeled and sold.
Kurt Schnaubelt (PhD.) speaks even more strongly of the quality of many oils (p. 58):
“Most essential oils used for aromatherapy in the U.S. are fabrications and are not genuinely and exclusively from a single plant source.”
But that still doesn’t answer the original question which is “do cheap essential oils work?” Because surprisingly enough, if they do work, consumers often willingly overlook possible adulteration.
So, what’s the big deal?
Dr. Schnaubelt follows up the quote above with this doozy (p. 59):
“Standardizing and adulterating both alter the original composition of the essential oil…They are generally tolerated because of the misconception that natural and synthetic substances are identical if their chemical formula is identical. Adulteration is apparent in the price. It is common to find essential oils retailing for prices well below their production cost at the source. Rosemary and Lavender are prominent examples of this. Logic would dictate that this is only possible by extension with less expensive materials.”
He goes on later to explain the difference in how cheap essential oils and authentic essential oils work (p.63):
“Then the question arises regarding how authenticity–or the lack thereof” reflects on the therapeutic efficacy of essential oils. As is often the case in real life, the answers are not black and white. Whether purists like it or not, there are, in fact, therapeutic applications of essential oils…that can be quite successful even with oils that are not 100 percent authentic. But for other [uses], especially [complex concerns], where many different components of the essential oil interact simultaneously with multiple systems in the body, success appears to hinge entirely on the authenticity of the chosen oils.”
According to Dr. Schnaubelt, essential oils work in three major ways:
- Nonselective action that comes from the simple monoterpene compounds that are in nearly every essential oil.
- Selective action that comes from complex compounds like sesquiterpenes, diterpenes, and sesquiterpene lactones.
- The synergistic combined effect of both nonselective components and selective components in each individual oil.
Because the monoterpenes are one of the first botanical compounds to distill out of plant material, they are in every essential oil in some measure. The cheapest essential oil of the lowest quality will contain these, and other, nonselective compounds.
Monoterpenes are responsible for some of the cleansing and purifying characteristics of essential oils. Other compounds like the phenylpropanoid methyl salicylate (found in Wintergreen and Birch) is often synthesized for use in muscle ointments. This synthesized methyl salicylate is legally marketed as “oil of wintergreen” despite being completely lab created. Menthol, a popular component in muscle ointments and chest rubs, is also nonselective its general cooling and expansive aromatic properties.
These are the most common results that my friends who use budget brand essential oils have told me about.
Schnaubelt sums it up (p.64):
“[I]t can be understood that essential oils, even if they are standardized or adulterated, will display the nonselective effects of commonly present monoterpene components…However, selective effects due to specific sesquiterpenes generally disappear with standardization.
Most importantly, the complete effect–the properties emerging at the level of the whole organism expressing the characteristic qualities of a specific species–are woefully absent from doctored oils.”
So, do cheap essential oils work?
Yes, and no. If cheap essential oils did absolutely nothing, they’d disappear from the shelves quickly. The trick is, they tend to do just enough to make people believe that they are “good enough.” Without comparing to an authentic, high-quality essential oil, the non-selective benefits of a cheap essential oil satisfy many consumers.
But the lack of selective activity and the synergistic effects of the whole pure oil leaves many users disappointed. That’s why I wasn’t happy with my cheap oil experience. And for all of you who found better results after switching, now you can see why.
What do professional aromatherapists use?
One of the most revealing parts of my aromatherapy certification has been learning what the professionals know. Aromatherapists are trained to get results, and part of the training is how to choose effective and safe essential oils. Jade Shutes (former president of the National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy–NAHA) has an excellent article that explains some of the quality guidelines aromatherapists are taught to use when selecting essential oils to use with clients.
Practicing aromatherapists, in general, do not use cheap essential oils. In fact, let’s examine some comparative prices of oils at some commonly used companies.
How do prices compare for quality oils?
For this example we’ll look at the cost of a 15ml bottle of Lavender essential oil (Lavandula angustifolia) from several different companies.
How do they compare price-wise?
- Aromatics International: $21.00
- Floracopaeia: $25.00
- Original Swiss Aromatics: $28.10
- StillPoint Aromatics: $23.00
- Young Living Essential Oils (my preferred brand): $23.50
Average price for a 15 ml bottle of a premium brand’s Lavender oil?
Just let that soak in for a minute.
How do budget brands compare?
I am not going to provide links or name names here, because well, I don’t intend to irritate people. I only want to educate. But suffice it to say I am choosing the most popular budget branded oils. You can find these brands on Amazon, in health food stores, or on their own websites.
Here is the comparison for budget branded Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia):
- Budget Brand A (found online and in health food stores): $7.95 for 1oz (that’s double the size of the 15ml bottles we quoted for the premium brands, so if we just looked at the price for 15ml of this oil then 15 ml of this brand would cost $3.97)
- Budget Brand B (also found online, on Amazon, and in health food stores): $8.95 for 15ml This brand also sells organic Lavender oil for $11.71 for 15ml.
- Budget Brand C (available for purchase on Amazon and on its own website): $14.95 for 1oz (that’s $7.48 for 15ml) This brand also sells an organic Lavender oil for $16.95 for 1oz. (that’s $8.48 per 15ml).
- Budget Brand D (available for purchase on their own website): $12.75 for 15ml
- Budget Brand E (available for purchase on their own website): $18.95 for 1 oz. (that’s $9.48 for 15ml)
Do you see a huge difference here? When you compare them to the premium lavender oil average, you see anywhere from $11.37-$20.15 in price difference!
Remember what Jane Buckle said above about “if the price is too good to be true”?
The numbers don’t lie. And the science doesn’t either.
Why are the premium oils so much more expensive, though?
That’s an excellent question. I was actually pretty put out when I started shopping for essential oils. I took one look at how widely the prices varied and just felt like someone was trying to take advantage of people.
Turns out I was right….but not in the way I thought.
When I was using the cheap essential oils I had to use a lot of them. I got them at a very low price, but it seemed like I needed many drops over many applications to notice anything.
For the exp, anation we go back to our good friend, and expert, Kurt Schnaubelt (p. 17).
“Without a doubt, genuine oils are much more expensive than adulterated oils…But keep in mind that the most expensive oils are also the most potent, and therefore the most cost effective: they require the smallest amounts to achieve their effects.”
Having used both bargain and premium oils, I can agree with this statement. I have gotten much better results with the genuine oils than I did with the bargain oils. And I use a lot less essential oil to get the result.
Factors that Affect the Quality of Essential Oil (and, ultimately the Price):
Data from Jane Buckle, PhD (page 69)
- Age of plant
- Altitude the plant was grown at
- Climate the plant was grown in
- Genetics of the plant
- Geography where the plant was grown
- Length of time the essential oil was distilled
- Number of times the essential oil was distilled
- The quality of soil the plant was grown in
- What temperature the oil was distilled at
- Time of harvest (that means both time of year and time of day)
- Use (or lack of use) of fertilizers and pesticides
Essential oil producers can drastically cut their costs by cutting corners on any or all of those factors. That’s in addition to whatever synthetic or other manipulation is done to an oil before sale.
The best essential oil producers have to control as much of that quality list as possible in order to make sure their oils are authentic.
Unfortunately, as the essential oil market continues to boom, more and more cheap oils will continue to flood the market.
But it’s worth it to do the work to find a high quality essential oil. It takes a lot of digging and investigating the company’s quality control standards, but it is possible.
So, do cheap essential oils work?
Technically yes, but only on the most surface of levels. And that wasn’t enough for me.
Is it enough for you?