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Raise your hand if you’ve ever used essential oils before or are currently using them. Now keep your hand raised if you’ve ever heard or done any research on how they are made.
Most likely, you haven’t BUT, you are right now so go ahead and give yourself a pat on the back for that. In all seriousness, it is a good thing you’re here because we have some important stuff to talk about today.
Essential oils have become a huge part of western culture in the last decade. Their popularity has increased extremely fast and is predicted to continue growing. By 2022, its market is estimated to hit 11.67 billion USD.
When something grows this much, this fast, it’s a good practice to take a step back and ask, “How sustainable is this?”
So now I know you’re really wondering, are essential oils sustainable??
I’m gonna keep you on your toes a little bit longer to ask you, what does sustainable actually mean? I feel like this word gets tossed around so much, but isn’t actually recognized.
According to Merriam-Webster, sustainability is “of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged.”
Keep that in mind while reading the rest of this post, and I’ll let you decide whether essential oils are really sustainable or not.
Okay, super long intro over, let’s get into it!
What are Essential Oils Used For?
I had never used essential oils before, so I wasn’t entirely sure what people used them for. But, I did some searching and found that they are used for a few different reasons, including:
- to make people’s home smell good
- make laundry smell good
- for a natural scent in homemade products
- an alternative to man-made mosquito repellent
- cosmetic purposes
- treat pain (is not actually recognized as medicinal)
However, many sites do warn of the harms essential oils can cause, which we’ll get into later in this post.
How Many Plants are Used in the Making?
Here’s your first clue into how sustainable essential oils actually are.
The number of plants used to make the oil v.s. how much oil is actually extracted is very extreme. According to Eco Watch, in order to produce one pound of essential oils it takes:
- 10,000 lbs of rose petals
- 250 lbs of lavender
- 6,000 lbs of melissa plant
- 1,500 lemons
And much more like this, you get the point.
Basically, it takes A LOT of plants to make oils, but why?
How Much Oil do Plants Contain?
The reason why it takes so many plants is simple: plants are made of only a small amount of essential oil. One whole plant contains only about 1-5 percent of essential oil, so to make just one bottle of essential oils, it requires an extremely large number of plants.
Some oils are more difficult to extract than others because the oils are stored in tiny cavities or ducts within the plant rather than on the exterior.
Weather is also a factor that determines how much oil a plant produces every year.
Is This Sustainable for Plants?
So by now, you’re probably thinking, “Holy cow, this is not sustainable.” And yeah, you’re right.
Some plants that are used for essential oils are on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. You read that right. Some of these plants that are being used in enormous quantities are endangered.
- Sandalwood (Santalum album)(which is listed as vulnerable)
- Rosewood (Dalbergia abrahamii)
- Atlas cedarwood (Cedrus atlantica)
- Aniba (Aniba rosaeodora)
In order to produce essential oils, they are either farmed in controlled environments or are wild harvested. Wild harvested oils are from plants that grow native to their location and are harvested in order to ensure the sustainable continuation of the species.
According to the San Juan National Forest Service, “The rule of thumb is to harvest less than 5% of the population. Less if harvest has occurred in the same area”. Clearly, in an 11.67 billion dollar market, it is unlikely to solely rely on wild-harvesting and therefore leads to unsustainable farming practices.
Are Essential Oils Actually Good for You?
So the question is, are essential oils actually beneficial for people?
Well, companies don’t have to disclose which pesticides are used on the crops that are used for essential oils and there are currently no organic certifications specifically for essential oils.
Obviously, making this sort of product is going to be expensive in both labor and raw materials. So if you’re buying the cheaper option, it’s more likely to have been sourced unethically and may not be as pure as it claims to be.
Many essential oils on the market are heavily contaminated with synthetic chemicals. Additionally, there is limited scientific evidence that they actually improve people’s health or mood.
Oils that are high in phenols, such as cinnamon, can cause skin irritation. However, essential oils are generally considered to be safe when combined with a base oil, like coconut oil. They are most likely harmless when used for minor health problems and when complementary to therapy.
Choosing Safe Essential Oils & Alternatives
So hopefully by now, you’re rethinking buying that 20-pack of essential oils (good choice).
If essential oils are absolutely essential for you, then I recommend doing your research to finding ethically sourced oils.
Essential oils are really dense (a 15 ml bottle of lavender oil contains almost 4 lavender bushes) so you really don’t need to use more than a few drops.
I also suggest buying in small quantities and only what you need/will use because they do go bad (within 1-6 years).
After doing a lot of intensive research myself, I’ve found that there are many essential oil companies falsely stating they are certified and pure. Most of them are MLMs (which is a whole other topic on its own), and that’s because there is no real approved certification or process for essential oils, so you really don’t know what you’re getting.
There are NO FDA-certified pure therapeutic grade essential oils. Even if a company, like DoTerra, claims they are CPTG (Certified Pure Therapeutic Grade), this does not mean anything (they essentially made it up).
I read that one way you can tell purity is from the smell. If it smells really potent and I guess, good, it’s more likely to be pure.
Another is the price. You should question the purity of a bottle that costs $2-$3 for a 10 ml bottle.
Plant Therapy may be a good option for oils, but you’d have to do more research into them yourself. From what I’ve read from other people who have used them, they claim that all of their oils are 100% pure and free from any additives or dilutions. They also seem to be the most affordable, but still potent.
How to Properly Dispose of & Clean Bottles
Most essential oils are extremely flammable — particularly tea tree, clove, frankincense, eucalyptus, lavender, lemon, and peppermint.
Flammable oils are considered household hazardous waste in small quantities, and the containers holding those items cannot be recycled unless the oil is washed from the container.
Some cities require that they be thrown in the trash rather than recycled, as even trace amounts of flammable liquid can pose a danger to recycling plant workers.
That being said, removing essential oils must be done carefully. Many oils are toxic to aquatic life and can have long-lasting impacts on marine ecosystems.
Most also come with a warning that the oils themselves should not come in contact with a water supply or groundwater, meaning they should never be dumped down the drain or toilet.
If a bottle of oil has expired, the best option for disposing of the rest of the oil is to use it with a passive diffuser or to add it to homemade cleaning products for the scent alone.
If an oil is contaminated or expired and cannot be used, it must be disposed of through a hazardous-waste collection service, which can be found through local waste-management programs.
It’s difficult to recycle the bottles as well. All quality essential oils come in glass containers since pure essential oils can degrade plastic. Glass bottles can be recycled in most cities, though some cities require all glass that previously held flammable or hazardous materials be thrown in the regular trash.
With 106 kilotons of essential oils produced in 2014 alone, that’s a lot of glass bottles potentially ending up in the trash. Some essential oils are made with a plastic lid and either a rollerball or drop-dispenser, which also typically ends up in a landfill as well.
For all of you essential oil lovers, there may be some things you can do. Some companies allow customers to return bottles for recycling. If that’s not available, the best way to recycle essential oil packaging would be to dispose of the oils following the recommendations of your local waste-management company.
So, that was a lot of info, but I wanted to make sure you knew just about everything when it came to essential oils.
I hope you realized that essential oils, in a continuously growing market, are not sustainable, especially in the long run.
As the demand for essential oils grows, the less sustainable they become. Companies will farm more rather than harvest, inevitably using pesticides.
However, if you are still interested in essential oils and looking for better options, then commit to doing your research. It is our responsibility to question companies on their farming practices, and so important for you to practice proper disposal and recycling habits.
If we aren’t there to take the extra steps to check these essential oil companies, it’s going to be easy for them to fall into harmful ecological practices because this industry is so resource-intensive.
I really hope you learned a lot and thank you for letting me share this important information with you.
Let me know your thoughts on this in the comments and if you have any helpful tips or more information, please share! I’d love to hear from you. 💚
Thanks so much for reading,