Essential Oils: Safety & Sustainability Concerns

A little bit ahead of Earth Day there is an important subject I want to discuss. Have you noticed that the popularity of Essential Oils globally is skyrocketing? I started to wonder what our fascination with essential oils is doing for the planet. Two main concerns have arisen: safety and sustainability.

Concern 1 | Safety

Essential oils are highly concentrated plant extracts, containing volatile compounds. Currently, essential oils can be sold by anyone, regardless of educational background or training. Their sales and usages are unregulated, and it’s easy to see why overuse is a problem:

  • Essential oils should always be used diluted in a carrier oil and only 1-2% is considered safe. Using undiluted EO will cause allergic reactions, photo-toxicity and damages that are not reversible, but does everyone know about that?
  • Prolonged exposure to essential oils can cause headaches, nausea and a general feeling of uneasiness; ensure adequate ventilation, drink plenty of water and take frequent breaks.
  • Essential oils should never be ingested.
  • Some people should not use essential oils at all, such as: pregnant or lactating women, children, and older people.
  • Did you know that some essential oils are so potent that their spills must be handled as if they are hazardous? That's right. Take tea tree oil, for example. If it spills, it cannot be allowed to enter a sewer or waterway. It should be absorbed with inert material and sealed in a container. Then the container must be disposed of as if it were a hazardous waste, - suggests Mountain Rose Herb webpage.

Concern 2 | Sustainability

The amount of resources necessary for the cultivation, harvest, distillation, and global distribution of essential oils is overwhelming. Hundreds or thousands of pounds of plant material are needed to produce just 1 gallon of essential oil. This is a huge volume when we think about the amount agricultural land needed to grow the plants (soils, fertilisers, pesticides, water).

!! It takes a whopping 10,000 pounds of rose petals to make 1 pound of rose essential oil !! 

Heat distillation process requires high temperatures, and chemical solvents used create toxin exposure. Crops too delicate for steam distillation, require enfleurage which employs fat as the primary saturation medium for these fragrances. Certainly utilising animal fat creates its own ethical dilemmas, but the alternative, palm oil comes with a tragic cost. Vast acreage of tropical rainforests are required to obtain the necessary palm oils which endangers wildlife, disrupts indigenous communities, and contributes to global warming. Many rainforest animals are treated with extinction.
And then other questions arise:
  1. What about the people involved in essential oil production? Are farmers or gatherers being given a fair price for their efforts? Is there support going back into the community? Do they have access to food, water, healthcare, and education?What about the company’s employees? Are working conditions safe?
  2. What about the plants? Are they critically threatened, or does the process of gathering the materials for their essential oil production actually kill the plant? Are they an endemic species, or do they require very specific habitat that can easily be destroyed through intensive harvesting? Are industries cutting down forests to create space for agricultural crops, as is the case with Palm Oil?

Essential oils are very precious, and therefore we should be more conscious of our choices and uses. We ought to explore other powerful resources for complementary therapy that can be as helpful and more sustainable:

  • Firstly, I believe essential oils should be used by certified herbalists, therapists, aromatherapists, or people who have acquired enough knowledge in this field.
  • Instead of essential oil, or additionally, you could use herbal teas, tinctures, flower essences, hydrosols, or macerated oils, as we do here at Herbowski. Please read here about Herbowski Herbal Infused Oils.
  • Essential oils certainly can play a supportive role in emotional healing, but running a diffuser all day long just for pleasure is simply wasteful. Consider other therapies for emotional support: meditation, yoga, physical activity, crystals healing, massage, tibetan singing bowls you name it!
  • Invest in essential oils that have been extracted using the newer supercritical C02 extraction process, rather than steam distillation. The CO2 methods are more efficient, producing the most oil per amount of plant.
  • Try to find locally produced essential oils from small ‘artisanal’ distilleries, making hand-crafted oils. Small and local distillers generally going to be more sensitive to plant population dynamics than those harvesting for a global market.
  • Always dilute your essential oils appropriately.
  • Return to the source. Many natural foods and herbs contain natural oils without processed chemicals or the risk of overdose, creating balance with the body because they are ingested with other minerals and vitamins.
  • And remember less is more!

What is your opinion on this subject, please share and comment!


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