Aromatherapy Standards & “Grades”

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Compliance Officer, Essential Wholesale & Labs

Steven Borden Compliance Officer

If you’re confused about all this talk about the ‘grade’ of an Essential Oil, you’re not alone.

Controversy surrounds the entire topic of Essential Oil grades.  If you have ever wondered why then just do a little research and you will see that you get different information from various sources, much of which is inaccurate or simply there as a marketing tool. I’ve spent many years working with farmers, distributors, and experts in the field of aromatherapy every day and wanted to weigh-in on this topic.

There are regulated standards of quality by which natural products are evaluated. The one that comes to mind first is “certified organic”. In the United States, the term “Certified Organic” refers to a material or product that has been cultivated and processed according to the National Organic Program (NOP) standards as defined by the USDA. Various agencies, such as Oregon Tilth, work directly with growers and manufacturers to assure that NOP standards are being met by all parties using the USDA label. These agencies monitor their client’s activity and address issues when guidelines are being overlooked or ignored.

Related terms are “organic”, “non-sprayed”, “cultivated without chemicals”. These terms are simply descriptions rather than standards. A material that is genuinely organic (non-sprayed, cultivated without chemicals, etc.), but not certified may be just as good as a certified organic product, but without the certification you can’t be sure that the supplier’s definition of organic is exactly the same as your own.  Unless a product comes with a USDA organic certification, there is no way of knowing what the seller is really claiming. Some people will find wild-crafted products more appealing than organically farmed, but wild-crafting is by definition unregulated and un-certifiable.

Other regulated standards include USP, NF, and FCC. USP stands for the United States Pharmacopeia. The USP is a non-governmental, not-for-profit public health organization that sets standards for all prescription and over–the–counter medicines and other health care products manufactured or sold in the United States.  By Federal law, all prescription and over–the–counter medicines available in the United States must meet USP, “pharmaceutical grade”, standards. I am skeptical of the term “medicinal grade”. A material acceptable for prescriptions and over-the-counter medicines should be labeled “USP”.

The USP authority also defines NF and FCC standards. NF stands for National Formulary and consists of standards for medicines, dosage forms, drug substances, medical devices, and dietary supplements. FCC stands for the Food Chemicals Codex, which is an internationally recognized standard for testing the purity and identity of food, food ingredients, food additives, and food processing aids.  While the USP is an independent organization, it works hand in hand with the FDA, which enforces the observation of USP, NF and FCC standards by manufacturers.

I do receive requests for many different “grades” of oils. Therapeutic grade, aromatherapeutic grade, perfume grade, massage grade, pure grades I, II and III, and so forth.

There are many so-called standards out there, and if you look closely you will notice that some of those standards are trademarked or are only offered by a particular supplier. So, if you want this or that particular “grade” you will have to buy it from that specific supplier. Similarly, if your french fries must come in a red box with a big yellow “M” on it, then some corporate marketing committee has done their job very well.
I am not aware of any regulatory agency that defines, monitors, or enforces any such standards. Provided that there is no false advertising involved, a seller is just as free to market their products with these descriptions as consumers are to be attracted to them. So if you are buying a Lavender I, II or III you need to understand that this is strictly a marketing ploy by the supplier to sell a similar product at a potentially higher price.  There may be little to no difference in the chemical makeup or aroma of that oil.  Don’t be fooled by these terms, either an essential oil is pure unadulterated or it is adulterated.  It is either certified organic or it is not.  It truly is that simple.

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12 years ago

All these terms (organic, natural, etc.) get so confusing so quickly. I think your comments are really useful.

12 years ago

It really comes down to a matter of trust doesn’t it?

Larona Lollie
12 years ago

Thank you! That is a very straight and simple explanation.