Are essential oils of therapeutic grade? Are they the only ones that can be used because the others are full of synthetic molecules?

Essential oils have a therapeutic grade

By Marco Valussi

No. Among the many terms used to describe essential oils, the term "therapeutic grade" has recently begun to appear, followed by similar others such as "certified therapeutic grade", "therapeutic degree" , "Clinical grade", "pharmaceutical grade", all terms that seem to suggest the existence of a certification that ensures the achievement of a therapeutic standard, that is, a standard for "effectiveness in treating diseases". We should pay attention to the use of terms. One thing is to argue that essential oils are pharmacologically active (from this point of view probably most of them are to a certain extent), or even effective in treating disorders or treating diseases (and certainly some are) It is another  matter to state that your product has specific and certified features that make it therapeutic, unlike other products from other companies.

On this we need to be clear: it is pure rhetoric of marketing, rhetoric that approaches fraud and misleading statements to the consumer. There are no independent and authoritative institutions that have the authority and tools to decide on standards defining the "therapeutic degree" of an essential oil. And what could be a therapeutic standard? If this standard existed, it should be a set of indications on the chemical composition of essential oil, which ensures efficacy on a specific pathology measured on the basis of clinical data.

Let's see this with an example: how can we state that our lavender oil is of therapeutic grade? We should firstly define the meaning of the "therapeutic" concept better, we should reduce the range of possibilities and choose only one indication, for example the ability of lavender oil to reduce anxiety, because the standard to describe efficacy as anxiolytic is not the same useful to describe the efficacy as an antiseptic. We  should thn analyze scientific literature to see whether lavender is able to treat anxiety, and if there are indications on which molecules in lavender oil are responsible for this activity, and if there are indications of the percentage to which these molecules show activity in the context of essential oil. At this point, but only at this point, I can say that a lavender oil with the features just described, that is, that corresponds to th one used in clinical trials, is an oil that can perform a therapeutic activity. It is therefore not an agency, an institute, that decides which is the therapeutic standard, but the scientific community, through the typical communication channels, that is, the scientific articles published by recognized journals.

Certainly we can imagine an agency that collects all scientific data, summarizes them, and establishes standards (albeit temporary, given the perpetual progress of research) clear indicating the minimum conditions to be able to talk about effectiveness. But at this moment such an agency does not exist, and anyway, even if it existed, it would have little to say. Indeed, research on essential oils, although greatly increased in recent years, is still far from being able to indicate with certainty which molecules are responsible for biological activity. That is why those who boast that their essential oils (and only theirs) are of therapeutic grade, deceive consumers twice, because they use a non-existent standard and because they do not say that for most essential oils we do not yet know which are the important molecules. Not to mention that potentially there may be multiple therapeutic standards for each essential oil, one for each activity (as I said above, in principle it is not said that the important molecules for anxiolytic activity are important for other activities).

Sometimes some firms, in the absence of a certifying body for therapeutic quality, just invent them. It is easy to find on the web, or on some textbooks, the indication of the role of AFNOR, which would give therapeutic quality "Grades". In particular, it has often been written that AFNOR (and ISO) publish standards to distinguish essential of "higher" grades (Grade A) from oils of lower, non-therapeutic grades, divided into Grades B and C. Tis is entirely false, as declared by AFNOR itself. AFNOR is a private entity (Association Française de Normalisation), is a member of the ISO (International Standard Organization). The task of the association, with regard to essential oils, is to produce industrial standards for the commerce of the same. Standards that must be used to avoid the adulteration or replacement of an oil with another. AFNOR does not certify any type of Grade, whether therapeutic or A, B or C. As far as the argument that non-certified therapeutic oils are full of synthesis molecules, it is again a marketing strategy to deceive consumers and sell more.

All these false arguments are based on the idea that trademarks and registrations would be the best method to ensure the quality of a product. But even if these certifications existed, it is the concept that is misguided. End-of-line standards, such as gas-chromatographic analysis, are certainly important, but do not replace the production-chain control. The more a company has the control of the production-chain, the more it is able to control the quality critical points, and can show it openly to the consumer, as can be the case, for example, in the case of direct production companies.


Is it true that essential oils are so called because they are essential for a plant or for human beings?

By Marco Valussi

No. There is a lot of confusion about the term "essential oil", which is worth dispersing.

Some authors have written that essential oils are called like that because they perform "essential" functions in plants, some say that essential oils are akin to the vital energy of a plant, or that they play the same role in plants as blood does in animals. Others say that they represent the "essence", the totum, of the plant, that in the essential oils we find represented all the complexity of a plant. Finally, other authors would state than that essential oils perform "essential" functions in our body.

It must be stressed that the genesis of the name "essential oil" is fairly clear, probably derived from the alchemical environment and from the idea that alchemists had that distillation was a process of "purifying the coarse from the thin". The belief was that by means of this process alchemists could obtain the "fifth essence", the "incorruptible element". That is why the "essential" term denotes, in the reading of European medieval alchemists, the incorruptible and foundational nature of what is obtained from distillation (which, we should briefly state here, at the beginning were not essential oils per se, but aromatic waters, which were deemed more subtle).

Having said this, what scientific bases have the explanations offered by some authors in aromatherapy? Let's see:

1. Essential oil performs "essential" functions in plants, which is essential for the survival of plants.

If, for essential function, we mean that without the essential oil the plant cannot survive, we already know that this is not true, both in the sense that there are plants that do not produce essential oils (non aromatic plants) and yet survive perfectly well in their environment, and in the strictest sense that even aromatic plants survive without essential oils. This can be demonstrated in both indirect and direct ways. Our knowledge of the role of essential oils in plants tells us that they are very important as tools of attraction, defense and ecological mediation between plant and biotic and abiotic environment, but that they are not indispensable for the survival of the plant itself, not in the sense in which chlorophyll or starch or cellulose are. A plant cannot survive, it cannot exist without chlorophyll to capture and transform radiant energy, without starch to store the chemical energy derived from sunlight, or without cellulose to give solidity to its structure. An aromatic plant deprived of essential oils survives worse than others, and is less fit, less able to cope with periods of crisis, but it still can survive.

If we hold that essential oil are not "essential" to the plant, it is clear that they cannot be described as the vital energy of a plant, such as the plant's blood. Besides, this would leave no explanation as to how non aromatic plants would survive without essential oils, since they would be devoid of vital, "blood" energy. In addition, the idea that essential oils may "circulate" in the plant, perhaps through the lymphatic channels, is completely unfounded. Essential oils are extremely concentrated and active substances, and if they come into direct contact with the plant tissues, they will damage them very quickly. In fact, they are stored in special structures, pockets, glandular hairs, canals, and so on, which keep them well separated from other tissues.

Of course this does not mean that essential oils do not play very important roles, but that is another matter

2. Essential oils represent the totum of the plant, they enclose all the complexity of the plant.

This we know very well not to be true, if we just go back a minute to the process we use to get the essential oils. It is clear that they are a very specific and limited fraction of the whole complexity of the plant (phytocomplex). They only contain molecules that are volatile and which are liposoluble, usually a very small fraction of the phytochemical complex of the plant. Any alcoholic tincture or even a herbal tea is more complex in the chemical sense than an essential oil, because they contain a wider range of molecules. Of course, essential oils represent a very salient fraction from the sensual, organoleptic and symbolic point of view, but this has to do with human culture and biology, not with the plant's.

3. Essential oils perform "essential" functions in our body.

This is certainly not true if by essential we mean necessary for life. Human beings have survived and survive without any problems without essential oils. Humans did not use essential oils for most of their history. It is true that aromatic plants (which contain essential oils) have accompanied man for a long time. But of course, as important as they were, they were not necessary for human life.


Is it true that you can never use essential oils on children?

By Marco Valussi

Yes and no. As with the ingestion of essential oils, the argument is complex. Children, the elderly, pregnant women and breastfeeding women, as well as subjects with liver problems and other chronic conditions, are subjects that need special attention because they may not be able to handle essential oils as a "standard" person. Specifically, children may have a skin too thin or not yet fully competent to deal with irritant molecules, their liver may not be able to metabolize some of the essential oil molecules, their immune system may be at a stage in which it is more dangerous to expose it to potentially ambiguous immune stimuli, etc. Risk-benefit assessments are more difficult in children, and it is not inevitable that what is an acceptable risk in an adult is for a child.

Of course this does not mean an absolute ban in the use of essential oils, also because there are more differences between a 13-year-old boy and a 1 year old child, than between a 13-year old and an "adult" of 18.

As a general rule, I always prefer the use of essential oils in children up to 12 months of age, unless they are evaluated as necessary by a professional and I am convinced that in most cases up to 2 years old there is no .You need to use them and you can use the olfactory effects safely using a few drops dispersed in the environment. Remember that it is not a good idea to introduce substances that are so powerful in the skin of young children. As a general rule, remember that for children it is best not to exceed 3-6 drops of essential oils over the 24 hours.

Essential oils containing 1.8-cineol (eucalyptol) and menthol such as peppermint, peppermint, green mint, eucalyptus, rosemary should never be put near the nostrils of young children. There are cases reported in literature where the rapid cooling effect caused by these essential oils has caused severe respiratory problems and even collapses.

Never, under any circumstances, add pure essential oils directly into the bath, may cause severe skin and eye irritation. Always be careful that your hands do not keep traces of pure essential oils before touching the baby or washing it.

For a more exhaustive list of essential oils NOT to use, here is a link to a table (essential oils contraindicated in children) obtained from Tisserand and Young's text (2014)



Is it true that essential oils, absolutes and macerated oils are the same thing?

By Marco Valussi

Well... Absolutely not. The three products derive from completely different processes, the essential oils are distilled - or cold pressed in the case of citrus peels, the absolutes are the result of a complex extraction process involving various passages with different solvents, and macerated oils are a type of simple extract where the solvent is a lipid (i.e. olive oil, sunflower oil).

For more details on the different types of aromatic extracts and essential oils, here is a more complete article.

Is it true that the ingestion of essential oils can be risky?

By Marco Valussi

The oral intake, in its various forms, and along with inhalation, allows the fastest and most massive absorption of essential oil. The difference is that in inhalation the total amount of oil offered to absorption is almost never very high because it is difficult to inhale very high doses of essential oils. In ingestion, however, it is possible, especially by using capsules, to take high doses of essential oil. This fact, alone, explains why oral administration is one of the most delicate modalities from the point of view of safety. Of course, as almost always in life, the dose is significant. Every day most people consume essential oils by mouth, eating raw vegetables, drinking an aromatic herbal tea, brushing teeth with a toothpaste, chewing chewing gum  or a balsamic candy. We also assume very toxic essential oils, such as absinthe, by drinking certain liqueurs. It is thus clear that at least some essential oils are not so dangerous that we cannot use them by mouth. But the amount of essential oils we introduce in this way is very low compared to those used in therapy. In the first case, it is in terms of parts per million (ppm), while in the second case percent dilutions are used (%).

Let's give an example: an absinth liquor has approximately a concentration of 60 ppm (or 0.006%) of wormwood essential oil; by drinking 20 ml of absinth liqueur we are taking 0.0036 ml of essential oil, or a tenth of a drop. If I take a capsule containing 5 drops of essential oil (a not particularly high dose) I'm taking a 50 times higher dose of essential oil! Indeed, the same legislation recognizes this difference. Essential oils that are certified as safe for intake as food aromas are not deemed safe for higher dosing.

Oral use for therapeutic purposes is a completely different matter. Since significant doses of the substance are taken, there must be a reasonable certainty that the oil is safe at the dose used, the proper dilutions and galenical forms should be used. Essential oils are different from one another, and some may contain toxic molecules even at low doses, and most contain molecules that can cause problems if used at excessive doses. That is why subjects in special conditions such as children, pregnant women, elderly, allergic subjects should pay particular attention to the oral use of essential oils. Furthermore, the idea that essential oils, as derived from a natural source, cannot cause adverse effects, is completely unfounded. Not only because there is nothing inherently secure in plant derivatives (some are safe, others no, the evaluation has to be individual), but also because essential oils are among the most active plant extracts, and therefore potentially even more toxic. We must not forget that taking important doses of essential oils puts a burden on the liver and on other sites of detoxification in our body. Essential oils for our system are a xenobiotic, an external substance that could be dangerous. Our body then uses metabolic steps (in the liver, intestine, lungs and skin) that should reduce its toxicity and make it more water-soluble and eliminate it with urine. But it can happen that these substances are little or badly metabolized, concentrating in the liver and leading to toxicity (in the case of 1,8-cineole) or that they metabolize but that metabolites are more toxic than essential oils and that they can express their toxicity on the liver (as the primary site of detoxification), or even detoxification complicates our system, making us less efficient in detoxifying other substances (perhaps reducing our liver glutathione stocks).

There is also the very important issue of the administration and type of vehicle used. For example, it is possible to use peppermint oil by mouth, and in fact, peppermint essential oil-based products with or without essential oil of Carum carvi have existed for years. These products are formulated into gastro-resistant capsules, but taking the same amount of essential oil by mouth in an unprotected manner would certainly lead to adverse effects and irritation.

Conclusion: any drug-related therapeutic action, including the ingestion of significant amounts of essential oils, includes the possibility of side effects, interactions and toxicity. This does not mean that you cannot use them, indeed, but to do this you need to know which oils are effective, which ones are safe, what dosages and in what galenic form it is best to use them, and if the whole thing is worthwhile. Consult a professional and be wary of those who suggest oral essential oils as a risk-free panacea.