Organic vs. Therapeutic Grade Essential Oils – What’s the Difference?
Essential oils are fascinating substances. It is estimated that there are over 3,000 types of essential oils currently known, though not all of these are commercially available.1 Each small bottle of essential oil contains numerous chemical constituents and therapeutic properties. These precious oils are found in many plants and are extracted from different plant parts including the leaves, flowers, roots, stems, bark, seeds, and more.2
And because it requires such a large amount of plant material for each bottle of essential oil (sometimes several pounds!), it should come as no surprise that these oils are very concentrated.
Essential oils don’t contain all of the properties that the whole plant contains, but only what is extracted during steam distillation or cold pressing. But don’t let that fool you into thinking that essential oils are somehow lacking in beneficial properties. On the contrary, each essential oil has numerous unique chemical properties, some containing more than 300 compounds!3 Even more intriguing is that chemical properties can vary from batch to batch for each specific type of essential oil. This can happen due to several factors including:
- Growing practices
- Environmental factors
- Soil quality
- Exposure to disease
- Natural predators
For example, rosemary that is grown in different years from the same region may have a slight variation in aroma and chemical properties due to any of the aforementioned factors. And not only do essential oil chemical constituents vary from year to year, they also vary from region to region. This is one reason why the same essential oil sold by different companies can have slightly different aromas; they may be from different regions of the world or extracted at different times.
Additionally, this explains why there are some essential oils from specific regions that are highly sought after. For instance, French lavender is considered to be one of the best lavender essential oils on the market. It has a distinct aroma and chemical profile that makes it treasured among essential oil users.
These varying chemical constituents are what make each essential oil unique. They help determine which therapeutic properties each oil may have and which parts of the body an essential oil may have an affinity for. Additionally, it’s how safety precautions are determined for each of the oils and how aromatherapists determine when a specific type of oil should or shouldn’t be used.
All essential oils are not created equal
Aside from the natural differences that essential oils have depending on the year, climate, environment, weather, region, and more, not all essential oils are pure or of good quality. Unfortunately, some essential oils from non-reputable companies contain fillers or synthetic ingredients. Others are not 100% pure or are stretched with other less costly essential oils. In fact, there are many factors to consider when purchasing your essential oils—which we’ll get to later. But first, let’s take a look at the differences between organic, non-organic, and therapeutic grade essential oils.
Are organic essential oils better than non-organic oils?
There is some debate as to whether organic essential oils are superior to non-organic essential oils. Some claim there is no difference whatsoever, while others claim that organic plants are naturally more resilient and therefore have more beneficial chemical constituents. Not to mention the fact that there is less potential for unwanted chemicals in the final product. Interestingly, an Indonesian study conducted in 2014 found that organic vetiver oil was of better quality, was visually more appealing, produced a higher yield of essential oil, and had lower levels of pesticides than non-organic vetiver oil.4
Is organic certification necessary?
Organic labels and certification can be a confusing topic. In the last couple decades or so, we’ve started becoming more conscientious of the food we eat, the clothes we wear, and the products we use on our bodies. More and more people are seeking healthier, organic, plant-based, and environmentally friendly alternatives. But how do we know that these products are organic? Most of the time we simply check the packaging for labels and certifications. However, when it comes to organic labelling and certification, it might be a good idea to dig a little deeper than simply looking at a label.
The thing is, organic certification is a very costly process. There are many criteria that must be met every year, and it can be lengthy and expensive. Additionally, crops grown in countries outside of the US may or may not qualify for USDA organic equivalency.5
In other words, certification can be unrealistic or unattainable for some growers and not all organic essential oil producers choose to pursue it. Some choose not to due to prohibitive costs, while others don’t feel it’s necessary since they use even higher standards than the USDA for the growth and processing of the plants. (To be labeled organic, a product only has to be 95% organic.6) Namely, just because an essential oil bottle doesn’t have the USDA organic seal doesn’t always mean that the essential oil inside isn’t organic. I know of a few very reputable companies that do in fact have organic products that meet or exceed the USDA requirements for organic certification, but do not pursue certification due to the expense.
This is where company transparency is important, as well as research done by the consumer. In all honesty, just because an essential oil doesn’t have a USDA organic certification on the bottle does not prevent me from purchasing it. I have purchased many bottles of essential oils without organic labels that I’m confident are indeed organic and pure based on the information and level of transparency provided by the company.
What is therapeutic grade?
Another label you may have seen on essential oil bottles is the “therapeutic grade” label. If you’ve ever purchased an essential oil, then most likely you’ve come across this term at one time or another. Some companies use the term “therapeutic grade” to describe the quality of their oils. In fact, some go so far as to give their essential oils an in-house certification of therapeutic grade.
However, the term “therapeutic grade” can be a bit confusing. There is no organization that oversees or grants therapeutic-grade essential oil certifications. Additionally, there is no universal criteria to meet to achieve that status. However, many companies choose to use this label to show their consumers how high their standards for their products are. Some of the largest and most well-known essential oil companies use this term and put their essential oils through several steps of rigorous testing, including third-party testing, to ensure that the oils meet high standards of quality.
What to look for when choosing an essential oil brand
Because of the points highlighted above, it’s important to do your due diligence with essential oils and look beyond whether it has an organic, therapeutic-grade, or all-natural label. While these labels can be a good starting point, you should also consider the following when looking for a high-quality brand.
1. Bottle labels
The label on the essential oil bottle is the easiest place to start. It’s simple to see if each oil is labeled clearly with specific information such as the Latin name, place of origin, plant parts used, and contents of the bottle. Each bottle of essential oil you purchase should have most or all of this information on it. The Latin binomial of the plant used to extract the essential oil should always be on the bottle. If it’s not, don’t purchase it. There are many different variations of plants, so it’s crucial that you know exactly which variety you’re purchasing.
The label should also always list the contents of the bottle. This is where you can see if the bottle contains 100% essential oil or if another “filler” substance has been added. Personally, I also like to see where the plant was grown and harvested (place of origin) and the plant parts that were used during extraction. The more information on the bottle, the better!
2. Easy-to-access information
Another question to ask is if the company provides easy-to-access information on the growing, harvesting, and extraction processes. Or do they make available the analysis reports on the chemical constituents of each oil? When I’m considering purchasing essential oils from a company, I look for transparency. I want to know whether the essential oils are organic or not, information on the growing practices, places of origin, and I also like to see gas chromatography mass spectrometry (GC/MS) reports available for the oils. These reports can be extremely helpful for identifying volatile molecules and potential contamination in an essential oil product.7
If a company isn’t clear on how their oils are extracted or how the plants are grown, if they can’t (or won’t) give me information on growing practices, or if they refuse to show GC/MS reports, then I don’t purchase from them. If their essential oils are as pure as they say they are, then they should be willingly backing that up with information for the consumer.
3. Price point
The price of an essential oil can oftentimes, though not always, be helpful when determining the quality of an essential oil. It’s one of the first things you will probably notice about any essential oil that you purchase. It isn’t hard to get a feel for what a fair price is based on the specific oil itself, simply do a little research and look at the prices of that specific essential oil sold by 5 to 10 companies. If the price is significantly lower than the majority of other essential oil companies, there’s often a reason for that.
Just remember that if the price seems too good to be true, most likely it is. It’s entirely possible that if the price is really low that the oil isn’t pure and instead, there is some sort of filler substance used to “stretch” the oil to make it more affordable.
With a little bit of effort, you can find quality essential oils.
It’s important to remember that while each essential oil is unique, not all essential oils are created equal. However, with very little time and effort on your part, you can ensure that you’re purchasing quality oils that are completely pure and 100% natural. Instead of worrying about the quality of your essential oils, you can instead enjoy experiencing the many different therapeutic properties and enchanting aromas and familiarize yourself with the unique characteristics of each oil you purchase. This, of course, is a much more enjoyable use of your time!
ZYTO technology can help you make better decisions when choosing essential oils and other wellness products. Learn more here.
About Nicole Stine
Nicole Stine is a certified herbalist who has numerous aromatherapy and natural health certifications. She is passionate about using herbs and essential oils safely and thoroughly enjoys researching and writing about natural health, as well as creating her own formulations.
1. Dagli, N., R .Dagli., et al. “Essential oils, their therapeutic properties, and implication in dentistry: A review.” Journal of International Society of Preventive and Community Dentistry 5, no. 5 (2015): 335.
2. Sankarikutty, B., C.S. Narayanan. “ESSENTIAL OILS | Isolation and Production.” Encyclopedia of Food Sciences and Nutrition, Second Edition (2003): 2185–89.
3. Dhifi, W., S. Bellili., et al. “Essential Oils’ Chemical Characterization and Investigation of Some Biological Activities: A Critical Review.” Medicines 3, no. 4 (2016): 25.
4. Kadarohman, A., R.E. Sardjono, et al. “Quality and Chemical Composition of Organic and Non-Organic Vetiver Oil.” Indonesian Journal of Chemistry 14, no. 1 (2014): 43–50.
5. “How Does USDA Assess Organic Equivalency with Other Countries?” Agricultural Marketing Service of the US Department of Agriculture. Ams.usda.gov.
6. “Organic Labeling Requirements.” NSF International. Nsf.org.
7. St-Gelais, Alex. “The Highs and Lows of GC-MS in Essential Oil Analysis.” Tisserand Institute. Tisserandinstitue.org.