Oily men of the world unite!! We need to make sure our oil is real!! And how do we test essential oils? Well, at the very least not going to burn our face off hey? Anyway, a friend of mine who has been – let’s say dubiously – watching my little journey to date arrived at my place the other day with a bottle of lemon essential oils in his sweaty little man-mit! He told me that he went to a trade show for his work (he is a chef) and he got the oils in one of the swag bags. It was given to him to use in food and he wanted to give it to me as he is far from a believer in all things oils.
“Besides” he said… “It smells like you did after that bucks party” – So much for not reading my posts hey! We opened the vial and OMG… it smelled like the lemons had been left in the sun for a year before they were made into an ‘oil’. He reckoned they were cheap rubbish and I think he was right. He wanted to know how he could tell if they were real? We made a few checks and we agreed they weren’t. So, of course now I feel that I should share with the rest of you how to go about testing essential oils to make sure what you have is the real deal!
What are the risks of using fake essential oils?
In my previous post What are Essential Oils and do they work? – A skeptical perspective, I discussed the very manly processes undertaken to produce essential oils and highlighted the fact that fake oils are often filled with chemicals, carcinogens, synthetics, solvents and anything else that can be made to cut down the original oils or add fake smells. The issue is that when we add these oils to a diffuser, onto our skin, or even into our food we can open ourselves up to any number of risks including:
- Rashes, itches, burns and scarring
- Respiratory issues
- Headaches and migraines
At the end of the day, they are essentially producing the opposite effect than what we got the oils for in the first place.
How do we check/test essential oils?
Luckily for us there are a number of quick and easy tests or checks we can do to help us determine whether the oils we have a real or fake. Let’s work through them:
1. Check the bottle
Hands up if you know why most beer bottles are brown – at least the ones we don’t need to put lemons in? And keep them up if you know why they are always made of glass? The answer is simple in that brown glass restricts the amount of UV rays that can penetrate the beer and alter the flavor. The bottles are made of glass as it is impermeable to oxygen and carbon dioxide – two things that make the beer go flat via oxidization.
If you remember my post discussing the Risks of Essential Oils, I mentioned that essential oils are susceptible to oxidization. So, all you have to do is keep in mind that essential oils are the same as a good beer in that they really need to be kept in a brown glass bottle or vial. Reputable oil manufacturers use brown glass so if yours is plastic or clear, it is probably fake or at the very least won’t last very long at all anyway.
2. Read the label
This one is not as fool proof but is also a good place to look. Check if the label says ‘100% Pure’ anywhere on it. I know this may make you skeptical as anyone can put anything they like on a label but in many countries there are consumer regulations that govern what can be put on a label in regards to the attribution of content facts. Other things to look for on the label are:
- Ingredient lists that are only naturally occurring plants or fruits etc.
- Use of Latin names in the ingredients (I know – I don’t know if they are right or not either, but it is apparently good that they are there when naming plants) – examples include Mentha piperita for peppermint or Lavandula augustifolia for lavender.
- Full details of manufacturer – name, address, website etc.
3. Check the Price
There is a common saying that “you get what you pay for”. Now I know that it is cemented into the DNA of the human male to prove this statement wrong, but in the case of oils this is definitely the case. I am not saying that you must always get the most expensive oil you can find as like any product there are variations in price but if it is really cheap, it is probably not real.
The reason for this is quite simple… It takes 60 roses to make one drop of Rose Oil so it is not something that can be made cheaply – after all – we all know how much a dozen roses costs on Valentine’s day right guys?. Even if you take into account a more cost effective oil such as lemon, it still takes roughly 50 lemons to make a 15ml bottle. Obviously a bottle of lemon essential oil is going to be cheaper than rose essential oil, however another common tell-tale sign is if all of the oils on the shelf are the same price – i.e. if lemon costs the same as rose and they both cost 5 bucks, then walk away.
4. Smell it
If it doesn’t smell like the actual plant or fruit it comes from, or smells like a ‘chemical’, well, you know the rest. I will acknowledge here that some of the oils we have smell like dirt (or worse) so depending on your own palette, this may not be the only thinking you should look at discussing the fake test… But trust me, if it is fake, you really can smell it – also the fake ones actually add things to stop them smelling so bad!
5. Run the paper test
If you are still unsure, or just need to test something manly and tangible, you can run the paper test. This is quite simple:
- Lay a piece of paper or paper towel on a flat bench or table (preferably on top of some foil or something as the oil will seep through).
- Place a single drop of oil on the paper and allow to dry.
If the oil is pure it will dry without any residue. Run your fingers across the paper and if there is an oily film on the paper (or ring around the original drop) then the chances are very high that your oils is not pure. However, this test does not work so well with thick oils.
6. Check the website
No website? Probably not a good sign. In fact, if you search online for the brand name of the oil and all you can find is a large site (amazon, eBay etc.) where they are for sale then start those alarm bells a ringing. All respectable essential oils manufacturers will have a website outlining how they source, manufacture and distribute their oils. Look for information such as policies and procedures and information on farming or ethical programs.
7. Check the laws in the country of origin
If you can find it on the label or website, you can always do a simple search on the laws governing the manufacture and distribution of essential oils in that country. The only thing to be aware of here is that they are often written in legal speak – and although we will study that carefully when it comes to the fuel ratio allowances in race cars etc. – it is not compelling reading when it comes to oils. If you are interested however, click here (Australian guidelines).
Essentially, these laws and guidelines dictate how they can be manufactured, what can be added and how they must be labeled. I can’t speak for other countries but I do know that in Australia for example that essential oil manufacturers must outline on their website how they are meeting their legal obligations and can suffer massive fines if breached.
8. GC/MS Testing
Now, if you reeeaaaallllyyy want to see if your oil is pure, you can take it to the laboratory for a Gas Chromatography (GC) Mass Spectrometry (MS) test. In short, the GC part of the test separates the volatile compounds of the essential oils and the MS part tests each compound to check for impurities.
If the oil test returns a percentage outside the acceptable level for a particular compound then it is highly likely it has been altered. For example, lemon essential oil usually contains about 70% limonene. If the test returns a level outside of say 50%, then it would be considered fake. These test will also pick up any chemicals or other impurities that have been added to the oil by the manufacturer.
So there you have it… to be honest, if you want to ensure your oils are pure, just buy them from a reputable manufacturer. If however you are given a bottle or feel the need to purchase from the local $2 shop, then you may want to run a few of these checks to be sure that what you have is pure. In regards to our original trade show gift… well it was in the right bottle type however the only thing of note on the label was that it was 100% pure – i.e. no manufacturer details, risks or ingredient list. It smelled terrible (compared to my bottle of real lemon essential oil) and I could not find the manufacturer name online at all. That to me was enough and into the bin it went.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of poor quality oils out there so keep your eyes peeled, run a few simple checks and you will be good to go…
Until next time
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My name is Paul and I live on the east coast of Australia with my wife and six year old son. I also have 19 and 23 year old daughters. I am an ex government and bank worker who took a bit of a sea change and opened my own business by the beach with my amazing wife. If you can do it, try it. You will never look back. You want to know more about me, read my About Me page