Lavender - What's in the bottle? A survey of commercial Lavender essential oils

Lavender: What's in the bottle?  

Lavender is one of the top essential oils that everyone knows and loves.  Lavender is known for its characteristic calming aroma, its wonderful skin-loving effects and, lesser known, its amazing cleaning benefits.  As a woman with a long career of the chemical industry and an avid interest in chemistry since my first chemistry course at the age of 16, I was very surprised to learn about the special market of essential oils and their amazing benefits.  Being a long time consumer interested in quality products, I really started to research essential oil suppliers and practices to understand more about what drives the market.  With my more than 20 years background in the chemical ingredient market, I believed that I would definitely be able to find the best essential oils at the best prices.  In my research, I discovered so many consumers with a strong passion to reap the benefits of pure, therapeutic grade essential oils and I discovered so many companies more concerned with profits than with providing the products that actually delivered these benefits.  A quote from the late D. Gary Young, founder of Young Living Essential Oils, stands true for the essential oil market, "Good oils aren't cheap and cheap oils aren't good."  In this article, I will give several examples of why you may see a huge variance in pricing between essential oils and what it means for you as the consumer if you are using the essential oils mainly for their therapeutic benefits.

As essential oils have become more mainstream, the demand for lavender has increased and far surpasses the global supply, causing manufacturers focused on profits to find ways to make more product more cheaply.  There is also a lack of regulation regarding the classification and labelling of essential oil, making it extremely difficult for the average consumer to really know what they are getting.  

There are many species of Lavender.   The species that most people associate with traditional Lavender is English Lavender, named Lavandula Angustifolia.  To make one pound of Lavender essential oil, you need about 250 pounds of lavender flowers.  The annual production of Lavender essential oil is somewhere around 200 to 300 metric tons.   Another common Lavender plant, Spike Lavender or Lavandula Latifolia, has a similar yield at between 200 to 300 metric tons per year.  Lavandin is a hybrid between Lavender and Spike Lavender, also called Lavandula x Intermedia and has an annual production of over 1000 metric tons and has a yield of 5 times the essential oil of Lavender or Spike Lavender, making it much cheaper to produce.  Lavandin essential oil contains higher quantities of terpenes, and specifically camphor, which gives the oil a sharper overtone.  

Focusing specifically on traditional Lavender, Lavandula Angustifolia, there are also varying growing practices within the industry for growing and manufacturing Lavender and producing Lavender essential oil, specifically referred to as "population lavender" vs "clonal lavender".  

Population Lavender is lavender grown from seed, which makes each plant unique and different in the field in color, size, smell and in the oil it produces, the way that nature intended.  Population Lavender also allows the plants to change and adapt to changes in soil, weather and environment and to survive sustainably.  

Clonal Lavender, on the other hand, is a practice where the farmer selects a plant in the field, usually the biggest one, takes stem cuttings, adds rooting hormone and clones it.  This results in plants all identical in size, shape, color and smell and usually results in higher yields but not better essential oil quality.  I was reading a commercial farming guideline from South Africa about how to grow Lavender for the commercial production of Lavender essential oil, which specifically advised against growing lavender from seed stating "germination rates are low and seedlings are slow to reach transplanting size".  

Companies seeking to maximize profits from this highly sought-after oil, therefore often adulterate the essential oils or use different growing practices to increase yields of essential oils.  

Adulteration means that the company adds a foreign material to the bottle in order to increase the perceived value of the product either by increasing yields, reducing production costs or enhancing perceived value of the final product.  Sometimes essential oil suppliers adulterate lavender essential oil with its cheaper hybrid cousin, lavandin, making distinguishing the oils by smell alone, difficult.  As you can imagine, with 5 times more yield, lavandin is 5 times cheaper than traditional English Lavender, making this practice an extremely common and easy way for essential oil sellers to sell lavender essential oil at a very reduced price.  

Adulteration could mean that a chemical version of the primary components present naturally in the plant is added.  In the case of lavender, this is most often synthetic linalool or linalyl acetate.  However, products manufactured in a chemical plant do not have the same effect as those created by nature and often contain byproducts that are not present in nature.  

Adulteration could also mean that the manufacturer "cuts" the oil with a foreign substance like fractionated coconut oil or other natural oils that will dilute the product reducing the therapeutic benefits of the essential oil and requiring the user to use more in order to reap its therapeutic benefits.  

Adulteration can also be geographical or environmental, meaning that oils that were produced in areas where labor is cheaper, such as Asia, are either blended or passed off as oils grown in "higher value" geographies, such as Europe.  Often times, these oils are indistinguishable even to experts by the most common method for characterizing essential oils, GC-MS (Gas Chromatograph Mass Spectrometry).  

If even the experts cannot distinguish between these oils, how are you supposed to distinguish between essential oils that you buy on the market?   The answer is simple: you need to trust that your supplier is both committed to the highest quality of essential oil and capable of distinguishing between what's real and what's fake.

There is a way to distinguish between these natural and synthetic compounds in the oils with a different type of chromatograph, called a Chiral GC-MS.  The chiral chromatograph allows scientists to look at the specific physical structure of the chemicals contained of the oil and distinguish if it is a natural variant only or if it contains synthetically obtained variants.  I like to think of it as the difference between right-handed and left-handed people, Lavender oil contains a unique compound and that compound is only left-handed.  If the chiral chromatograph shows that it's ambidextrous and contains both the right-handed compound and the left-handed compound, the scientist knows that this oil contains a synthetic compound.  

Additional scientific techniques such as NMR or Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, allow scientists to evaluate very small components present in the essential oil, which give clues to where the product was produced geographically, its environmental conditions or if trace amounts of pesticides are present in the product.  Further testing of the safety of the essential oil can be determined by ICP-MS, inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry, which is an expensive test that allows for accurate detection of trace amounts of heavy metals in a product.  Each of these testing methods alone can be quite expensive but when considering your supplier of essential oils, you should know if your supplier uses these techniques as a part of their quality process. 

Market Survey of Lavender Essential Oils - You get what you pay for

I did a very simple survey of 3 commercially available essential oils: Lavender from Young Living Essential Oils (5 ml retail price $15.79), and two I bought from my local CVS Pharmacy: rareESSENCE Aromatherapy Organic Lavender French USDA Organic (5 ml retail price $12.99), and Nature's Truth Lavender 100% Pure Essential Oil (15 ml retail price $7.79).  

Lavender from Young Living Essential oil - Interview with Nicolas Landel - Head of the Young Living Lavender Farm in Simiane-la-Rotonde France.  

Nicolas was born into the lavender production as Young Living's farm at Simiane-la-Rotonde was run by his father, Jean-Noël Landel, began his partnership with Young Living founder, D. Gary Young.   He spent his entire life surrounded by lavender fields and grew up on the farm, which he now heads.  I asked Nicolas about Young Living's policies toward lavender and how they fit into the global production of lavender essential oil.  Nicolas told me "Young Living has a commitment to growing all of the products from seed.  Especially in Lavender production this is very unique because most Lavender grown in the world these days is clonal lavender.  Many of the plants grown now are clones of plants from 50 years ago, which means they have not been exposed to changes in soil, weather and environment and believe me, it makes a big difference in the quality of the oil.  Young Living is lucky to have the Seed to Seal(r) practices from the vision of Gary Young who would absolutely not compromise on quality."  I asked Nicolas if he could share what the global production of Lavender Essential oil for Young Living was and Nicolas said "I know this information but I am sorry that I am not allowed to share this information with you.  I can tell you that Young Living has 80% of the global population lavender market."   This information combined with Young Living's first-class Seed to Seal quality process, which includes GC-MS, chiral chromatography, NMR, ICP-MS, IR-MS and additional third party testing, gives peace of mind that you're buying the oils the way that nature intended.

rareESSENCE Aromatherapy Organic Lavender French USDA Organic (5 ml retail price $12.99)

When I saw this product on the shelf at CVS, from the box, I was impressed with the fact that it was USDA certified organic label.  They also claimed that it was "French" Lavender, one of the most well-known locations for growing lavender and that it was "GC-MS tested".  I actually wrote an email to the company requesting a GC-MS test report and received one a few days later.  I opened the box and read the insert, which explained the product I had purchased and here is what it said:

Organic Lavender French 100% Pure Essential Oil

Botanical Species: Lavendula angustifolia (OK I forgive the spelling mistake - it's LAVANDULA)

Origin: France

Certified Organic by MOSA

"Also known as Clonal Lavender, this lavender grows at low altitude in the Provence region of France.  It has a lower ester content than High Altitude Lavender, giving it a slightly more pungent and earthy aroma, which some people prefer.  Lavender is a gentle oil and is the most versatile in aromatherapy." 

They admitted that they are selling me clonal lavender!  Now I know that these plants are probably clones of lavender plants from 50 years ago.  Not only that, they admitted that there is lower ester content!  Linalool and Linalyl Acetate are the esters known for the amazing benefits we buy lavender for.  Therefore, they told me that the product I bought is inferior!  

Now I know why the price is $12.99 instead of $15.79 like Young Living's product - I am getting what I paid for!

Nature's Truth Lavender 100% Pure Essential Oil $7.79 for 15 ml

Immediately noticed that I am getting 3 times the amount of essential oil for about half the price with this oil, so I became immediately skeptical.   I read the box to see what "Lavender" I was buying and was struck by the extremely tiny font on the front of the box stating "Lavandula x intermedia" - IT'S LAVANDIN!  How else could they sell Lavender oil for so cheap!   They also claim that this product is GC-MS tested (OK) and the absolute ONLY place on the box where they do not refer to this product as Lavender is in the Ingredient: label on the side of the box which states "100% Pure Lavender Oil (Lavandula x intermedia) (Lavandin)"  Remember: Real Lavender Essential oil is only one-fifth of the production of Lavandin essential oil.  This means that this producer of Lavandin is making WAY more profits than both Young Living Essential Oils and rareEssence with way less certifications, quality programs.  They are also misleading all of us as consumers by claiming to provide us Lavender, when it is actually Lavandin.  

I know that this is a lot of information to take in. I really hope that this analysis helped you to understand the reasons why you see such a big difference in the price of essential oils on the market.  If you really intend to use essential oils for their therapeutic benefits, I really hope that you review the supplier that you choose to buy your essential oils from and make a sound decision about what you are paying for.  As I started this post I will end it with the quote of D. Gary Young "Cheap oils aren't good and Good oils aren't cheap."


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