Essential oils - where do they come from and how sustainable are they?

I love being out in nature and bringing nature into the home. Over the years I have came across many essential oils, some better than others. Recently I was introduced to Perfino and asked if I would like to share an article by Kim Brookes. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.


Essential oils - where do they come from and how sustainable are they?




One of life’s great pleasures is the smell of nature. In an ideal world, I would walk around with a rose permanently under my nose, but as that is somewhat impractical, I have for years turned to essential oils as the closest substitute for the real thing.


As with everything, you get what you pay for when you buy essential oils. Rose Otto, otherwise known as Rose essential oil, retails at around £48 for 2.5ml, which is half a teaspoon. This may surprise you if you are used to buying affordably priced oils which claim to be Rose, Neroli, or Jasmine, three of the most expensive essential oils on the market. If it’s affordable, it’s generally not the real thing.


Why is it so expensive? Well, consider how it is made. It takes around 10,000 roses to produce 5ml (a whole teaspoon!) of this precious oil or, put another way, 5 dozen roses to produce a single drop.


Rose essential oil is extracted through steam distillation. The harvesting of flowers is traditionally done by hand in the morning before sunrise. Large stills, traditionally made of copper, are filled with the roses and water. The still is then fired for an hour or so. The vapourised water and rose oil leaves the still, enters a condensing apparatus, and is then collected in a flask. This yields a very concentrated oil. The water which condenses with the oil is then drained off and distilled again. The two collections, once combined, make the final rose essence, or Rose Otto essential oil.


This process is very ancient, having its origins in Persia, and today takes place mainly in Kanzanlak in Bulgaria, Kannauj in India, and of course Grasse in France.


The super-expensive Rose Otto is typically only used in aromatherapy, where it is diluted with a carrier oil. Like most essential oils, it should never be applied undiluted directly onto the skin. Aromatherapists love it as the distillation process is said to keep the therapeutic and vibrational qualities intact, but it does produce a less intense scent when compared to Rose Absolute which is favoured in the perfume industry and is slightly more affordable at around £23 for half a teaspoon!


An Absolute, which again you may be familiar with as a Rose oil, is traditionally made using the enfleurage method. Enfleurage is a very old technique of extracting oils from very delicate flowers such as Rose, Tuberose or Jasmine, and was popularized in France during the nineteenth century. It works on the simple principle that animal fat, or beeswax, dissolves essential oils and thereby absorbs their aromas. The flowers, again hand-picked, are placed between layers of the fat or beeswax, repeatedly, over several days, until the fat becomes saturated with flower oil, producing a “pomade”. To extract the Absolute the fat or wax is then dissolved in alcohol, et voila!


This is the most labour intensive, and time-consuming way to make an Absolute but it is the only way possible for some of nature’s most delicate flowers, and so the price for the real thing stays high.


The good news, and to the delight of anyone with Vegan leanings, and in a world increasingly reluctant to use animal by-products, organic solvent extraction is now a commonly used technique for extracting this form of aromatic. The raw materials are submerged and agitated in a solution or bath that is capable of dissolving the desired aromatic compounds. The price remains as high as we are still dealing with hand-picked ingredients which require vast quantities to yield the oil, but it is arguably kinder to the environment.


The price of Rose Absolute can come down even further when carbon dioxide extraction is used. In this method the CO2 is put under high pressure. This turns it into a liquid which combines with the plant matter and acts as a solvent extracting the oils or resin. It operates at lower temperatures with no toxins, and is therefore the cleaner way of producing essential oil. When the CO2 is brought back to natural pressure it returns to its natural state leaving the resulting pure oil.


As you can see, any Rose oil should be respected as the process, whichever one it has been through, produces a very precious oil and one that should command a high price. The best essential oils are grown sustainably, imported by wholesalers who regularly inspect not only the growing methods but also the work practices of the farmers or growers and have a historical and regular relationship with the growers.


Not surprisingly with any product that is expensive counterfeits abound. An expert will know whether an essential oil is the real thing, but there are plenty of synthetically produced replicas claiming to be the real thing at a reduced price, so it is important to know who you are buying from and to check their credentials. They may not disclose the exact source, but they should disclose the country of origin, and the best suppliers will have a sustainability strategy. A sustainably sourced and correctly priced essential oil is providing jobs and incomes to growers and pickers around the world, quite often in deprived environments, so I, for one, am very particular in what oils I buy.


Roses are grown annually and can be repeatedly harvested, but there are some plants, that are less fruitful, more difficult to harvest, and it is critical that they are protected to ensure sustainability of the species. One such plant is Frankincense.


Frankincense, with its name derived from the old French “franc encens”, has been used for many years as incense and as a symbol of holiness as it is so wonderfully fragrant when it is burned. The oil is derived from the resin of the super hardy Boswellia tree, which typically grows in the dry, mountainous regions of India, Africa and the Middle East, often in the most hard to get to places. It takes 8 to 10 years before the tree, when tapped, yields the streaks of resin, known as tears. Wild harvested by making perforations into the bark of the trunk, the tears are collected and then steam distilled to produce the essential oil.

Experts say that the tree should be cut no more than 12 times a year to keep them healthy. When cut the resin leaks out and much like a scab protects the tree from infection so the wound can heal, but if this happens too much, and the healing resin is removed, the tree will ultimately suffer and die. In the mountain regions of countries like Somalia this is difficult to monitor as the trees grow in areas with harsh climates, often plagued by poverty and conflict, and may be the only source of income for local people.


It goes without saying that anyone sourcing Frankincense should be absolutely clear that it is being sourced sustainably. Frankincense trees aren’t covered under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the global treaty that regulates cross border trade in plants and animals, although experts argue that Boswellia species meet the criteria for protection and thousands of tons of frankincense is traded every year to be used by priests as incense, natural medicines and essential oils.

In Somaliland it is illegal to overharvest trees, and in Oman some trees are located in World Heritage sites that protect them by law, but in other countries such as Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sudan, where two thirds of Frankincense come from, the tree is threatened by over tapping and habitat loss. So, it is important to find a supplier in whom you have confidence that the sourcing is ethical and sustainable. Once again, the cheap versions are usually cheap for a reason.


A very similar dilemma exists for Rosewood, the world’s most trafficked item, even beating ivory to this unenviable title.


In the case of Rosewood, CITES has put restrictions on the trade of all 300 species, in an attempt to clamp down on illegal logging of this timber. Having plundered the forests of Southeast Asia to virtual extinction traffickers have turned to West Africa and Central America for the prized timber. The good news is that reputable suppliers of this essential oil will always sell it with a CITES certificate so you can trace the origin of the Rosewood oil you are using and be sure it is grown and harvested sustainably.


The situation is similar for Sandalwood, a vulnerable species, but one that is prized in perfumery for its heartwood and roots. As a result of uncontrolled harvesting in India where it is highly valued for its use in perfumes, soaps, incense, cosmetics and medicines it is increasingly being grown under governmental protection. India has imposed an export ban on Sandalwood and instigated conservation measures to protect this species in their country. Sandalwood is now mainly grown sustainably in plantations in Australia, so again you need to be sure where your Sandalwood oil is being sourced if you really care about sustainability.


Happily, the horror stories of man abusing nature are counterbalanced by the occasional success story, where plants have been grown sustainably and in a controlled fashion, and man has applied his ingenuity for good. Vetiver is one such success story.


You may have heard of Vetiver in the context of perfumery. It is a wonderful woody, earthy base note, predominantly used in men’s fragrances. Vetiver is a tall grass which can grow up to five feet, but more importantly the root structure can grow to a depth of 20 feet, which makes it fantastic at preventing soil erosion and promoting soil conservation. It is grown all over the world for a multiplicity of uses from basket weaving to Ayurvedic medicine, and as it can be planted and harvested in a two-year cycle, is a very sustainable product and one that provides tremendous support to agriculture practices and earnings around the world.


In Haiti Vetiver is grown as a cash crop for the essential oils found in the roots, produced through steam distillation after much washing and drying to remove impurities and enhance the natural oil production. If you haven’t smelt it, I would encourage you to do so.