As aromatherapy thrives and becomes, at best, a widely used natural, holistic healing modality, and at worst, a soulless cash cow, it is important to remember that behind each bottle of essential oil is a plant, growing somewhere on the planet. It is easy to forget that fact when essential oils moguls focus on how much money they can make out of aromatherapy – global essential oil market is expected to reach $11.67 billion by 20221, and when some brands market their products as panaceas.
Earth Day – April 22nd – is a good time to remember this. What does Earth have to endure for us to be able to support our overall physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being? Could our use of essential oils be problematic for the environment?
Back in 2017, the Justice Department announced that one well-known essential oil company pleaded guilty to charges regarding illegal trafficking of Rosewood and Spikenard essential oils2, thus violating the Lacey Act3 protecting wildlife and endangered species, and agreeing to a $500,000 fine.
As the final user of the product, and the ones putting our money into the business, it is our duty to do our research and make sure our suppliers are not knowingly harming biodiversity.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), more than 26,500 species are threatened with extinction – both fauna and flora. On their Red List website, more than 96,900 species are assessed, providing a critical indicator of the health of our biodiversity.
As of April 2019, here is what I found about the most common, endangered essential oil-producing plants, although they are still available for sale on many websites.
|Common name||Latin binomial||Country/region||Status|
|Spikenard4||Nardostachys jatamansi||Bhutan, China, India (Uttarakhand, Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh),Myanmar, Nepal||CR – Critically Endangered|
|Sandalwood5||Santalum album||China, India (Tamil Nadu, Karnataka) Indonesia (Lesser Sunda Is.), Philippines||V – Vulnerable|
|Guggul [a.k.a. common myrrh]6||Commiphora wightii||India (Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan), Pakistan||CR – Critically Endangered|
|Agarwood [Oud]7||Aquilaria crassna||Cambodia, Lao People's Democratic Republic, Thailand, Viet Nam||CR – Critically Endangered|
|Rosewood8||Aniba rosaeodora||Brazil (Pará, Amazonas, Amapá), Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Suriname, Venezuela||E – Endangered|
|Atlas Cedar9||Cedrus atlantica||Algeria, Morocco||E – Endangered|
|Opoponax10||Commiphora guidottii||Ethiopia, Somalia||V – Vulnerable|
As consumers, we have a direct responsibility toward the type and quality of essential oils we purchase. Although many associations are striving to educate and protect their local biodiversity, a sustainable origin is seldom indicated when buying an essential oil. It is our right to ask our suppliers for such information, and maybe simply stay clear of the endangered species at least until its population is back to normal.
This is also why I never purchase essential oils from suppliers who do not display the Latin binomial and country of origin – two key identification details.
Essential oils are obtained through steam distillation or expression. The first method, technically, does not allow transfer of pesticides molecules into the final essential oil, as their molecules are supposedly too heavy to be collected by steam.
But here again, it seems that the amount of pesticides in non-organic essential oils does not follow a clear rule: when some studies claim that the occurrence is rare in steam distilled essential oils11, others show that traces have been found in Peppermint, Patchouli and Lavandin12. At least scientists seem to agree on one fact: citrus oils, obtained through expression, are packed with pesticides13 if not grown organically.
Essential oils obtained through organic growing and harvesting methods are still preferred, simply because the use of pesticides is dangerous both for humans and nature.
Some pesticides affect the nervous system, some irritate the skin, eyes or respiratory system, and some are well-known carcinogens, and/or affect the endocrine system in our body (hormones)14. Even if they do not end up in our system, let us not forget that other human beings are farming and harvesting the plants, in direct contact with these harmful substances.
Other than poisoning us, pesticides are a threat to our environment and contribute to the destruction of biodiversity, threatening the survival of many birds, aquatic organisms and animals ,and of course, we are facing a disastrous mass extinction of precious, beneficial insects such as bees and beetles15.
Local aromatherapy: a sustainable future?
Even if the essential oil I am using comes from a species that is not endangered and organically farmed, the question of where still stands. Some plants grow and are distilled / expressed on the other side of the planet – wherever you might be – and transportation and import plays an important role in global warming.
Maybe we should start looking around us, learn to identify and use the plants that grow in our gardens, and just like fresh produce, act in favor of our local suppliers. Besides, I like to think that the common ailments we are affected by usually find some kind of support within the surrounding flora – after all, although still an object for study, it is known that local honey can help with seasonal allergy symptoms. For example, you may consider that many essential oils show anti-inflammatory activity; why not select the one that you can source closer to home rather than those that come from the other side of the world?
And, local suppliers exist, maybe not enough yet, but they do. In Sedona, Arizona, Claire and Max Lichter from PhiBee Aromatics harvest and distill wild native plants. If you are from the region, you will certainly enjoy the benefits of their Mexican Arnica, Pinion Pine or Corkbark Fir, all collected with an immense respect for nature and wildlife.
I like to imagine the future of aromatherapy as a local, community activity. I have the idea of installing a community still where locals can bring their plant material, and together, produce both essential oils and hydrosols, sharing the yield.
Before purchasing our precious essential oils, we have the opportunity to ask ourselves a few questions: Why do I need this oil? Is there a better alternative? What is my true physical / emotional need? Remember that aromatherapy is not a lifestyle, it is a healing modality that nature gifts us, and it is up to us to keep it special.