Reader Question: Help! I’m so confused about essential oils!

Credit: Total Beauty

Dear GW (cc: Green Derm)

My biggest gripe about the skincare industry is the amount of conflicting messages. I have known Green Derm to always provide a clear and knowledgeable perspective so I hope you will be able to help me figure out the safety of essential oils in skincare. I read feature on Allure for the new line Oille (“OILLE Is Taking Essential Oils in Skin Care to the Next Level“) and their mantra is that “95% of essential oils are fraudulent” and their claim to have their essential oils entirely GC/MS tested for purity produces superior products. So I’m very confused if the only products I am using with essential oils should be discontinued and I should use Oille and essential oil free ranges. Please help!

– JL the Confused


 

Dear JL the Confused,

You’re not alone. The beauty industry is rife with unsubstantiated claims and fear-based marketing that has resulted in shaping consumers who become paranoid and buying into untested or half-baked statements.

I did a little research into both the article and the brand. You’re right, the claim that “95% of essential oils are fraudulent” is posted prominently. Unfortunately it is not cited nor substantiated, the closest I could find was the founders own estimation in the article:

“I set out to disrupt the beauty industry by exposing the truth and transparency of essential oils,” says King. “While studying to become a Certified Clinical Aromatherapist I learned that about 90-95% of essential oils on the market today are adulterated.”

So it is a rounded up statistic that doesn’t have any citations.

This figure needs to be sourced to be validated. If true, I’m surprised Oille did not cite any studies or concrete market data to back up this figure, especially as their brand message seems to be one that is highly precise and analytical with so much emphasis on lab testing and analytical data.

I did contact Mountain Rose Herbs, a purveyor of natural ingredients. Essential oils are a major category for them and I’m aware that they source to many green brands. I was informed that while there are many essential oil sources that may be selling low quality, inferior oils; it’s not actually possible to provide a percentage for fraudulent EO’s on the market due to the fact that it’s impossible to know where every manufacturer is sourcing from, how pure each batch is and the lack of standardized measure for fraudulence. Their conclusion is that such a statement can at most be an estimation and not a fact.

What I do not like when an unsubstantiated statistic like this is thrown around is not only the lack of credibility but also the fear-based marketing behind it. Fear-mongering tactics are prevalent in the industry and it’s effective in driving sales, but I don’t respect that game especially when it’s founded on grand unsubstantiated claims.


Next – while essential oils do differ in quality, the Oille message is one that is laying claim to using GC/MS testing as a differentiator from other companies which is again, not verifiable unless she contacted every single brand, manufacturer, and supplier to ask if this process was used**. I understand that some may not, but I also know that large companies do tests for purity and this is done for legal reasons in case of recall and contamination. I also spoke with a friend at the EU Regulatory Board that screens cosmetic safety, who reported to me that every single product placed on the European market has to undergo formula, ingredient and production safety testing and verification.  This involves compiling what’s called a Material Safety Data Sheet for each ingredient which includes providing samples where each oil is individually analyzed direct from the manufacturer for purity and safety assessment. So a company that uses 2 sources for lavender essential oil has to do safety testing for both sources to account for variance in quality and purity. This is a minimum safety requirement and considered in adherence to what’s called a “good manufacturing procedure” that producers must adhere to in order to place products on the market.  The good news for consumers is that  in terms of safety and purity, all of these companies for all intents and purposes pass this level of scrutiny and either Oille isn’t aware or is choosing to ignore this.

It’s also worth mentioning that performing this GC/MS test does not translate into Oille’s formula or sourcing being superior to other brands, it only means they did a test that other brands may or may not do as well (and right now, it appears many brands already do this). Here is how the test is explained by the founder:

“GC/MS testing is considered the gold standard in quantitative analytical testing – meaning it can measure the precise chemical makeup in a substance with their exact percentages. It combines two powerful techniques to identify volatile compounds. Information on a GC/MS report allows me to safely formulate for evidence-based medicinal properties also known as chemical component blending. This is advanced technique used by Certified Clinical Aromatherapists blends according to the exact constituent percentages. The GC/MS report also gives me clues to the plants living conditions. For example, if the essential oil was harvested too early it would result in missing constituents. Having missing DNA would greatly effect the oils ability to perform.”

GC/MS testing is conveyed as this very advanced technique when in actuality it’s pretty standard and getting a report is not difficult, and in fact just one part of the basic safety assessment for the aforementioned EU safety data sheet. So it’s not some newfangled, mysterious technology that will change the world: Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectronomy testing is a standard analytical method developed in the 1960s that uses the two processes of gas chromatography and mass spectronomy to figure out substances in a given sample. The testing is so commonplace and prevalent that it’s used in crime scene forensics, drug testing for athletes, security for detection of explosives, food nutrition (the thing on your nutrition label), and cosmetic analysis. We had these machines during medical school and it really wan’t such a big deal. The results you get back give you information like alcohol content and can inform you of contaminants such as the presence of pesticides. In essential oils, they can also be used to detect the presence of synthetic fragrances or chemicals that should not be found in oils. But what the testing will not do is tell you about “missing DNA” because it’s not a genetic test.

There is little information about actual sourcing and it’s probably because Oille sources from the same suppliers as everyone else, so it’s important to note that this test does not necessarily indicate sourcing or ingredient superiority in itself. Think of it this way: if two genius kids sat next to each other but only one took a MENSA test to verify their IQ, does that mean the other genius kid does not have a high IQ even when you see them pulling in the same grades or even higher? Or if one store buys apples from the same supplier that sells to Whole Foods (or even an inferior one) but then claims that their apples are better because they did a test. It’s a false equivalency.


I was also surprised to see on Oille’s site:

“Made without fragrance or false advertised “nature identical” essential oil constituents as in: Linalool, Geraniol, Citronellol, Eugenol, or Limonene (these are technically synthetic fragrance oils)”

While there are extracts and synthetic variants of the aforementioned ingredients; linalool, geraniol, citronellol, eugenol, and limonene are naturally occurring constituents that are found in many essential oils especially citrus oils. Some brands such as Tata Harper and May Lindstrom disclose them on their ingredients list because they are present due to the essential oils in the formula rather than being “false advertised natural identical” ingredients.

In my opinion, Oille is placing far too much emphasis on this one test and using it as a false equivalency for being an indicator of superiority. My personal view is that it is a gimmick. The ingredients lists themselves are not really revolutionary or introducing things we have not seen. If anything, I’m not a big fan of their formulation decisions such as the inclusion of alcohol in their elixirs, or a cleanser that has a pH of 9.5. I am also surprised to see that not even all of their ingredients undergo the GC/MS testing given how essential it is to their brand message – check out their $198 bottle of face oil where only a little over 50% of the ingredients are actually screened via GC/MS, and their Rose + Calendula Facial Organic Night Creme which doesn’t even have ANY ingredients that are GC/MS tested even though essential oils are used.

I had originally thought Oille was a new brand but only later discovered that they’ve been around since 2012. They seemed to do a overhaul on everything from their brand messaging to packaging, focusing on this GC/MS testing to lean into the two highly desirable areas of appearing scientific and safe. Given that many are only hearing about them now, it seems that this approach is working. To me, this schtick doesn’t really hold up to closer inspection. I have to keep it honest even though I am aware Oille has attacked people online for saying much less. With all factors considered from the unsubstantiated claims, to the false equivalency/misdirections/over-reliance from using the GC/MS testing as central to the brand messaging on what sets them apart/makes them superior, to the lackluster and even somewhat problematic formulations, I would personally skip this brand.


** UPDATE **
I received this brochure that Mountain Rose Herbs is sending out to all of their customers stating that all of their oils are now GC/MS tested. As they are a big supplier to many organic brands, I’m fairly certain this verifies that Oille (who doesn’t even do GC/MS testing for all their oils) is not doing anything that is really “changing” the industry.

  • Nina

    This is so well written and informative. Green Derm is a godsend.

  • Joyce

    I read this last week and have since recommended it to many friends because I keep going back to this piece. Thank you for sharing your thoughts through such a knowledgeable approach in a very straight forward manner. I wish more beauty writers could be like this.

  • Brianne

    There isn’t anyone who can break down an analysis like you, thank you for this terrific post!

  • Natalie

    I just read the link to the Oille freakout on that blogger and it is so disgusting. What is going on with these small brands from blatant plagiarizing (Recherche Beaute) to straight up harassing people?