My name is Kristen, and I love scents.

It’s probably a really good thing that I don’t get to go to the mall very often because I used to be the type of person who required a small search and rescue team to get me out of the candle store.  I would literally stand and smell every single candle back to back, and when I was done, start back at the beginning.  So it is no stretch to say that the scent of essential oils is very appealing to me.

However, when I was making the decision to try essential oils again, I had to sift through a lot of bogus marketing information to really understand the true qualities of the oils that I was considering.  One of the ways that Dr. Google’s selection of links recommended I test for quality was something called the “smell test.”

The premise of the smell test is that you should be able to compare two or more different brands of essential oils, and as long as they are the same oil (such as peppermint, for example) you should be able to tell which oil is of the highest quality based on the way it smells.

It sounded reasonable, after all, wouldn’t you be able to smell if the oil was “off” or maybe had some chemicals in it?

I mean, I was the queen of Lavender Fabuloso in my younger days…I knew what lab created smelt like.  Surely I’d ace this.

Does the “smell test” pass the smell test?

After a great deal of research I ran across limitations that made the smell test seem a lot less helpful.  Did you know that the aroma of an essential oil is one of the least important characteristics of an authentic essential oil?  I had NO clue.

The reason for that is, fragrance can be created synthetically, and it would take a very trained nose to detect subtle “additions” to help make an oil smell more appealing.  While some of the active components of the essential oil do smell, it takes scientific equipment to analyze an oil sample and determine what exact chemical compounds make up the oil, and how much of them are present.

Unfortunately for me, I don’t have that equipment to use and test the oils myself.

But I mean, but if you’d be willing to spot me for a GC/MS and an analytical chemist, I’m game.

Just sayin.’

Here are some of the things I found that the smell of an oil couldn’t tell me:

  • The smell of an oil couldn’t tell me with certainty that it is free of chemical residue, chemical fillers, synthetic perfumes, or other non-related essential oils.
  • The smell couldn’t tell me which species of the plant it was. (For example, there are many varieties of eucalyptus; I know of five offhand that are distilled for essential oils.  Chances are good there are a lot more.)
  • It cannot tell me whether the source plants were raised organically, or if pesticides or chemical fertilizers were used in their production.  Sometimes it can’t even tell me what part of the plant was used.  (Example: clove essential oil can be made from the bud only or with other portions of the plant to reduce the cost and the therapeutic value of each option differs.)
  • Smelling an oil couldn’t tell me if the plant was grown in the proper region for best results, nor could it tell me whether it was picked in the proper season at the proper time of day for it to be most beneficial and complete.
  • The smell test also cannot tell me whether the oil was distilled at the right temperature and pressure for the right amount of time to make a quality oil.
  • Most importantly, the smell test can’t tell me if there is a single helpful compound left in the oil.

There are even more things that it can’t detect, but those thoughts were enough for me to see that the smell test has some serious limitations.

The smell test in action

Let me give you a good example of essential oils and the smell test in action.  My husband and I once purchased the Twelve Oils of Ancient Scripture collection, and were sharing the oils around with some friends who had come to visit.  We passed around the oils and everyone was enjoying them, until we came to the bottle of hyssop essential oil.  That was where we saw the biggest reaction.

Both my husband and his friend LOVED it.  They loved it to the point of thinking they would use it regularly, even as a deodorant.  On the complete other hand, my friend and I were both repelled by the smell.

I already knew that the hyssop oil was pure and could be a helpful oil based on what facts I had learned about it and the company who distilled it, but if I had based my thoughts its smell, I would have been convinced it was a bad oil, and my husband would have had the opposite conclusion.  How confusing!

Another example of the limitations of relying heavily on scent to form a perception is from an advertisement for a popular brand of air fresheners.  In this series of ads, blindfolded volunteers are led into various places that are filled with garbage and dirty clothes and all sorts of things that would normally smell really bad.

But the volunteers breathe in and wax poetic about the place they imagine that they are in based on the scent of the air freshener.  When they take off the blindfold they are shocked by the disgusting state of the place they are actually in.  Did the scent tell the whole story, or did it just put a pleasant mask on something else?

So, what’s left?

When it comes down to it, relying on the appeal of the oil’s scent is not a very accurate way to decide between oils when you are hoping to find one with the most therapeutic quality.  There are too many critical considerations that the smell test overlooks or doesn’t even address.  Between that and the fact that the labels aren’t always truthful, what did that leave me to consider when making my decision?

It left trust.   But how do you know who you can trust?  I tackle the trust issue in PART SIX!

New to the series?  Check out Parts One, Two, Three, and Four.