The Adulteration of an Essential Oil

Many of us realize by now, through practical experience, that a label declaring ‘100% pure’ on an essential oil bottle is not a guarantee that the contents are genuine or indeed pure.

What Is The Meaning Of Adulteration in the World Of

Essential Oils?

To adulterate something means that it has been made impure by adding a foreign or inferior ingredient or substance. In the context of preparing to sell a product to the marketplace, adulteration means you are intentionally debasing that product by replacing higher value ingredients with less valuable ingredients – a practice widely used and accepted within the perfume industry (the biggest user of essential oils) in order to have the same chemical makeup and aroma from one batch of perfume to the next, year after year. So that the 1.7 oz bottle of Coco Chanel, for example, which you purchased three years ago for over $150. will smell exactly like the new bottle you are replacing it with.

Pure aromatic / essential oils distilled from plants are genuinely inconsistent in their chemical makeup. This is due to the environmental conditions and location in which those plants were grown.

“The fixing [‘putting right’ or ‘cleaning up’] of these inconsistencies by the perfumer”, writes Angela Eksteins of the Natural News Website, “is carried out so the end product is exactly what the perfumer wants…A good example of this is wine – we all know there are good and bad years with wine, and the same applies to the plants from which we obtain precious essential oils. The chemical makeup of the oil will differ based on environmental conditions, and where in the world it is grown”. 1.4.

Eksteins writes that adulterated oils intended as fragrance oils for the perfume industry, enter into the supply chain and are being sold to consumers as pure and genuine oils. She states that this, of course, raises many safety issues [regarding application of an essential oil].

Given that there are many, many naturally occurring components or chemical constituents (often hundreds of compounds within a single distilled oil!), a pure and genuine essential oil must exist as a whole with its original compounds working together synergistically giving that oil its own unique properties and effectiveness in therapeutic use. Adulterating an essential oil will therefore, alter its natural synergy and diminish its therapeutic benefits.

4 Grades of Essential Oils

Four grades of essential oils are produced today:

  1. Synthetic or nature-identical oils are commonplace in the market and can be created cheaply in a laboratory and sold for a very low price.
  2. Extended or altered oils are ‘fragrance grade’. Used in the perfume & cosmetic industry, and account for 98% of plant-based oils produced today.
  3. Natural” oils, “organic” and “certified” oils – pass oil-standard tests but may not contain many or any therapeutic compounds – may be grown in chemical free environment but are not concerned with exactness of harvest time or distillation to maximize therapeutic potency of the oil. An oil may be labeled “100% pure” but have sub-therapeutic values as well as GMO contamination. It may be adulterated and diluted with synthetic and inorganic ingredients. It may also be a 2nd, 3rd, 4th, or even 5th distillation oil. FDA regulations allow essential oils to be labeled as 100% pure so long as they contain at least 5% of the actual oil alleged to be in the bottle. Some “100%” brands really are pure. Others are not. You can smell the difference.
  4. Therapeutic-grade essential oils are pure, medicinal, steam-distilled, 1st distillation only essential oil, containing ALL desired therapeutic compounds. It’s imp. to understand that only 2% of EO’s produced in the world today can be applied to achieve therapeutic or medicinal benefits.

Common Ways In Which Essential Oils Are Adulterated:

  • Addition of a cheaper oil (less expensive and less effective) to replace a more effective or expensive oil, often due to inavailabilty of the more expensive oil
  • Extension or ‘stretching’, with the addition of alcohol (difficult for even an experienced nose to detect a difference in the aroma)
  • Addition of other essential oil isolates, such as orange or lemon ‘terpenes’ which are available in huge quantities at very low cost to the procurer.
  • Addition of colourless and odourless synthetic compounds such as dipropylene glycol (DPG) often used to extend lavender oil
  • Addition of mineral oil, or a vegetable oil such as a very cheap Rapeseed oil (from a non-food grade variety of flaxseed)

Examples of Commonly Adulterated Essential Oils:

  • PEPPERMINT – the most adulterated oil, usually adulterated with cornmint.
  • YLANG YLANG – easily adulterated with Peru balsam, cananga oil, or inferior fractionated and synthetic oils
  • PATCHOULI – often cut with castor oil, balsam, clove, cedarwood, citrus terpenes (as mentioned above), vetiver residues, and others
  • LAVENDER – often adulterated with acetylated lavandin, synthetic linalool, linalyl acetate, fractionated ho leaf, and aspic
  • LEMON – extended with BHT (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) synthetic antioxidants used as preservatives in lipsticks and moisturizers, among other cosmetics, addition of orange or lemon terpenes, or synthetic limonene
  • JASMINE – commonly adulterated or synthesized with ylang-ylang, cinnamic aldehyde, and benzyl acetate
  • GERANIUM – often cut with citronella, palmarosa, and synthetic components
  • SANDALWOOD – often cut with castor oil, copaiba, amirs, araucaria, or cedarwood

Know Your Purveyor!

“Know your purveyor”, writes Nerys Purchon, leading expert on essential oils. 2

“Lack of regulation within the essential oil industry means consumers should arm themselves with the knowledge of adulteration and take steps to ensure they are buying genuine essential oils, with full therapeutic benefits. Using pure, genuine essential oils means less is needed in order for the oil to be effective. This is easily forgotten when we are motivated to buy oils on the false economy of price. The possibilities for adulteration and contamination increase with the number of times an essential oil changes hands in the production cycle. The ordinary consumer should therefore make themselves aware of the supply chain, along with the reputation and standards of both the retailer and the supplier of the essential oil. A number of laboratory tests can determine if an essential oil has been adulterated but independent testing, especially for buyers of very small quantities, is a very expensive exercise.” 3

How Can You Detect the Adulteration of an Essential Oil?

How can I know if the essential oil I am inhaling, applying on myself, my family, my clients, and in some cases even ingesting as a dietary supplement, is unadulterated? Especially when the adulteration can be so highly sophisticated and virtually impossible to detect without expert testing and analysis?

Warning signs of adulterated oils that consumers can look for:

  1. VISIBLE SIGNS:  VISCOSITY (a material’s resistance to flow; for example, honey has a much higher viscosity than water) – increased viscosity in essential oils can indicate oxidation, i.e. that an oil has ‘aged’. Some oils are naturally more viscous – Sandalwood essential oil, for example, is harder to get drops out of a bottle than lemon essential oil which flows very freely.  Viscosity test: Place a drop of the essential oil on a piece of blotting paper or white cloth. If the oil is fresh and less viscous it will drop from the bottle very quickly and spread quickly on the blotting paper or cloth. If an oil has become more viscous it will take longer to drop from the bottle and will not spread quickly on the blotting paper or cloth. See Image 1 below.                                                                                             CLOUDY APPEARANCE, along with increased viscosity may indicate an adulterated oil on its way to becoming rancid. Pure unadulterated essential oils have no expiry date and are not subject to rancidity.
  2. SMELL:  As you become more familiar with how genuine essential oils should smell, you will find it easier to detect those which have been extended, diluted, and altered, and certainly those which have become rancid, most often due to the addition of a ‘fixed’ or non-volatile vegetable oil such as olive oil. Use the same test under point #1 above, to check the potency and purity of the aroma left behind once an oil has evaporated from a blotting paper or cloth – you should be able to smell the essential oil’s aroma for two to four hours after it has evaporated and is no longer visible on the blotting paper or cloth. See Image 2 below. In Image 2, the circle on the right had negligible aroma left after 4 hours, whereas the circle on the left had significant aroma left after 4 hours, and detectable aroma 8 hours after the essential oil drop had evaporated.
  3. COST: The time it takes and difficulty to harvest the plant material from which an essential oil is distilled or pressed, whether the plant is seasonal, and its yield during harvest time, are all factors in the cost of that essential oil. How much plant material is needed to produce that essential oil? Rose oil is expensive because it takes thousands of pounds of rose petals to produce a pound of oil. Sacred Frankincense (Boswellia sacra) is expensive because of its limited accessibility in the world and the tedious process by which the resin is harvested from the trees prior to distillation. When it comes to genuine essential oils, cost is definitely an indication of purity.
  4. SIMPLE TEST FOR ADULTERATION WITH A FIXED OIL (e.g. a vegetable oil)Place a drop of the essential oil on a piece of blotting paper or white cloth. If a fixed oil is present it will leave a greasy ring once the essential oil has evaporated. See Image 2 below – neither of the essential oils represented appear to have been adulterated with a fixed oil.
LEFT: Image #1:  *Viscosity Test / ***Fixed Oil Test phase one
RIGHT: Image #2:   **Smell Test / & ***Fixed Oil Test phase two
* In Image 1, the oil on the left had very low viscosity (i.e. dropped from the bottle quickly and spread very quickly across the blotting paper). The oil on the right had a much higher viscosity (i.e. dropped much more slowly from the bottle and did not spread on the blotting paper).
** In Image 2, the circle on the right had  almost negligible aroma left after 4 hours, whereas the circle on the left had significant aroma left after 4 hours, and detectable aroma 8 hours after the essential oil drop had evaporated.
*** In Image 2, neither of the oils left greasy ring once the essential oil drop had evaporated.

How can you really know if the essential oils you are purchasing are authentic and unadulterated?

The best way to know what you are consuming is to purchase essential oils from a company which has a reputation for pure authentic essential oils, that never accepts diluted, cut, or adulterated oils, that carefully monitors the production of it’s oils from beginning to end, and that includes both in-house laboratory testingand testing by third-party facilities.

Almost two decades ago Young Living was the first to establish guidelines that define what therapeutic essential oils are that meet or exceed any know medicinal standard.

Young Living Essential Oils is the only company dedicated to the medicinal use and application of essential oils that is able to guarantee essential oil quality from SEED to SEAL.

  1. 3.  Adulteration of Essential Oils, Part I, 05.12.2009, Angela Eksteins. Natural News website;
  2. The Complete Aromatherapy & Essential Oils Handbook For Everyday Wellness, Nerys Purchon and Lora Cantle, ©2014 Robert Rose Inc.
  3. The Chemistry Of Essential Oils Made Simple, David Stewart, Ph.D., D.N.M.,©2015 Care Publications.
  4. {Association for the International Research of Aromatic Science and Education}.

For further information on how to obtain the finest Essential Oils produced with utmost purity contact Diana at:

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