Are Essential Oils Really Sustainable?

Over the last decade or so, essential oils have enjoyed a monumental increase in popularity. In 2018, the global essential oil market demand was 226.9 kilotons. This is largely thanks to their use in cosmetics, home care, and aromatherapy, largely propagated by companies such as doTerra.

Unfortunately, to produce even the smallest amount of essential oil requires a substantial amount of plant material. Essential oil-bearing plants, such as roses, must produce 10,000 petals for just one pound of the good stuff. With such large amounts of product being sold every day, you can understand where sustainability issues may come into play.

As consumers of essential oils, we can’t assume the product we purchase will be available forever. This is especially true for essential oils derived from endangered plants. To ensure we have access to essential oils, we must try to use essential oils responsibly and encourage sustainable usage.

How Are Essential Oils Farmed?

Essential oils are harvested from botanicals, and as mentioned, it takes a large amount of source material to harvest just one ounce of essential oil. Essential oils are increasingly farmed in controlled environments, much like wheat and rice.

Many controlled farms are monoculture cropping farms. That is, they focus on harvesting a single plant. For them to get started, forests are often clear-cut, eliminating natural growth. This is detrimental to the long-term health of the species.

Similar to other large, corporate farms, these essential oil producers often use pesticides. There is no official organic certification for essential oils. In fact, company’s like doTerra create marketing terms to bypass this fact.

They claim their essential oils are “Certified Therapeutic Grade” and that they’re superior to organic. In reality, they may contain pesticide residues or be genetically modified.

On the other hand, some essential oils are wild harvested. In theory, wild harvesting is a surefire way to ensure a population continues to thrive, as you would typically only harvest 5% of the existing growth.

wild harvest essential oils

These essential oil-bearing plants grow naturally and are harvested selectively. The essential oils that result from this method are subject to change, as they aren’t farmed in a controlled environment and are subject to environmental changes.

Because the essential oil industry is so massive, the wild harvest method has been insufficient. To keep up with demand, essential oil farms are operating all over the world.

At the end of the day, the consumer is responsible for discovering how and where their essential oils are harvested, and whether or not they contain pesticides.

Sustainability of Essential Oil-Bearing Plants

The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) keeps a list of endangered botanicals, including essential oil and carrier oil-bearing plants. This list is by no means the definitive source, but it is a start to learning about the sustainability of the essential oils we use every day.

The IUCN Red List has created a classification system to identify and categorize botanicals according to their risk level. They are:

  • Not Evaluated
  • Data Deficient
  • Least Concern
  • Near Threatened
  • Vulnerable
  • Endangered
  • Critically Endangered
  • Extinct in the Wild
  • Extinct

It’s important to point out that plants listed as Not Evaluated or Data Deficient could be vulnerable or endangered.

Noteworthy Takeaways from the Red List

To be the most responsible consumer, we would ideally only use essential oils derived from plants listed as Least Concern. Here are just a handful of notable oils that have received this classification:

Ylang-ylang (Cananga odorata)

Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)

Roman Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile)

Cypress (Cupressus sempervirens)

Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)

What follows are some notable essential oil-bearing plants that have received the Near Threatened, Vulnerable, Endangered, or Critically Endangered categorization:

Frankincense (Boswellia sacra)

Sandalwood (Santalum album)

Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis)

Vanilla (Vanilla planifolia)

Taiwan Cypress (Chamaecyparis formosensis)

This is just a small sample of the plants you can find on the database. It’s up to the consumer to look up their favorite essential oils to determine whether they can be used consciously.

How You Can Minimize the Environmental Impact of Essential Oils

As consumers of essential oils, it’s our responsibility to be conscious consumers. Knowing how the products we use affect the environment ensures we are mindful in our purchases. Here are a few ways to use essential oils mindfully.

Properly Dispose of Essential Oil Waste

Everything we buy has an environmental footprint. The most apparent form of that is the product’s packaging. In terms of essential oils, what we do with the glass bottles afterward can significantly affect the environment. 

The best thing you can do is reuse the glass bottles you get that carry your essential oils. Beyond that, recycling is the next best thing you can do, but ensure you rinse out the bottles first, as many essential oils are flammable. Check your local hazardous waste disposal guidelines to ensure you’re getting rid of your product responsibly.

Tea tree, frankincense, lavender lemon, peppermintall of these essential oils are flammable. Improperly disposing of these bottles could cause an accident that is easy to avoid. Your essential oil supplies should supply an MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) outlining how to dispose of the bottle and any remaining oil properly.

Avoid Purchasing At-Risk Species

We’ve mentioned just a handful of species that are at-risk. Not purchasing at-risk essential oils helps maintain plant life by lowering the demand. When purchasing essential oils, try to find out where the company sources its product from and how it’s harvested.

There are alternatives to using at-risk plant byproducts. If you simply like the smell, fragrance oils have come a long way. Many are now paraben- and phthalate-free, making them just as safe as essential oils.

at risk plant species

If you use essential oils for aromatherapeutic purposes, odds are a different oil will give you the same results. For example, frankincense oil is often used to relieve anxiety, while lavender is widely available and can do the same thing.

Aside from the Red List, you can also check out United Plant Savers. They have a pretty thorough database of threatened species.

Consider Alternatives

Speaking of alternatives, you can also use hydrosols. Hydrosols are byproducts of essential oil distillation that carry the same benefits. If you’re a fan of rose essential oil but aren’t keen on using up to 50 petals for one drop, opt for floral water (rose water, in this case) instead.

Hydrosols aren’t as pure as essential oils but can have the same effects on mood. The aromatherapeutic properties carry over into hydrosols, albeit at a lower dosage. 

Be Aware of Shelf Life

Like most things, essential oils have a shelf life. The shelf life of a particular essential oil is determined by the chemical composition of said oil. The oils that contain a lot of monoterpenes have a short shelf life, typically one to two years.

Essential oils containing phenols may last up to three years, while others can stay stable up to five years. 

When purchasing kits of essential oils, make sure that you aren’t getting essential oils that you’ll never use, or purchasing a quantity that you can’t work through in the allotted time. Try to get small sample sizes of new essential oils so you can determine whether you like the scent before you get a large batch.

Use Oils Responsibly

Store your essential oils properly. They should be kept in dark, cool places to keep them stable for longer. Don’t keep them in hot rooms as that cause them to spoil more quickly. 

Make sure to use your essential oils as per the guidelines. Use them at a reasonable potency and frequency, and do not ingest essential oils regardless of what others tell you. Essential oils are toxic even when diluted and can cause health problems.

Research Your Favorite Essential Oil Companies

It’s up to us to find out how and where companies are producing essential oils. Being responsible consumers will ensure the longevity of the industry and help to keep these wonderful plants around for longer. If we don’t keep the industry in check, no one else will.

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