Essential oils have taken the world by an aromatic storm: in 2016, the market was valued at 6.63 billion USD, and by 2022, it is forecasted to hit 11.67 billion. Post-Christmas, Amazon’s ‘most gifted’ health category list touts an aromatherapy diffuser as #1, and two different essential oil kits as #4 and #6. (Diffusers are ahead of Fitbits?!). In a sector growing this quickly, how sustainable is the essential oil industry?
According to Britannica online, oils “are called ‘essential’ because they were thought to represent the very essence of odour and flavour”. The production of essential oils is incredibly resource-intensive: According to The Heart of Aromatherapy by Andrea Butje, it takes 30-50 roses to create a single drop of rose essential oil. As a DIY wellness trend, any online search of essential oils will reveal that their uses are as broad as can be: from beauty to household cleaners to pain relief to sanitizing produce. It’s no mystery that essential oils use is on the rise, but come along with their share of health risks and environmental impact.
The first uses of essential oils were recorded in ancient India, Persia, and Egypt. Plants were most likely placed in fatty oils in order to extract what would be used directly on the skin. Distillation became commonplace in Europe in the 11-13th centuries, with a handful of scents. With increased trade, the selection of oils diversified and in the late 1800s/early 1900s, chemical understanding and manipulation of essential oils allowed the product uses to be expanded to perfumes and consumables.
For many, essential oils are an ideal way to reduce stressors, but also to heal chronic ailments. However, with the incredible advertising push online and by multi-level marketing campaigns, essential oils have become very accessible and trendy without a lot of insight into the industry’s impact on the environments it draws from, or when it’s best to turn to an alternate natural remedy.
Is the use of essential oils a sustainable option?
If it takes 50 lemons to produce one 15 ml bottle of DoTerra’s Lemon Oil, and the consumption rate is growing exponentially, then the question of environmental sustainability in the essential oil industry is worth asking. Creating a product that expensive in both labour and raw materials comes with a ticket price, and if you’re purchasing the cheaper options, it’s unlikely to have been sourced by ethical means or to be as pure as the claims.
In order to produce essential oils, they are either farmed in controlled environments, or wild harvested. Wild harvested essential oils are from plants that grow indigenous to their location and are harvested in order to ensure a sustainable continuation of the species. The composition of wild harvested essential oils can change year over year, since they are not in a controlled environment and mature according to environmental changes. In order to wild harvest ethically, the amount harvested should be a fraction of what exists in the area. 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.
Another option is to farm the plants needed for extraction. Most essential oils are produced by farming the plants in controlled environments. It is, however, important to consider the impacts of large scale farming of plants for essential oils.
- Are the plants grown in monoculture cropping systems? These growth systems first need to clear-cut old growth forests.
- Does the plant actually grow locally in that country/region, or is it there additional energy being used to increase productivity?
- When the crop is decimated, what happens to the community that is now more vulnerable to poverty (loss of income) and landslides?
As conscious consumers, it’s our responsibility to understand the impact of what we buy. How can we use essential oils in a way that’s sensitive to the environment?
- Health-related cautions also reduce your use. Using essential oils at a reasonable frequency and potency based on the recommendation of a specialist. Applying essential oils too frequently or not reducing the potency of the oils with a carrier oil can lead to sensitization (which can result in rashes, itchiness).
- Avoid purchasing at-risk plant species: There are plant species that are sold as essential oils that are endangered. Once a plant species is exhausted, what is the impact for the local community? What are the ripple effects of the loss of biodiversity? Learn more about which species are at risk, and use that knowledge to decide whether or not you really need that essence. Examples of endangered plant species include rosewood, sandalwood, and spikenard. United Plant Savers keeps a regularly updated list of species at risk here.
- Consider alternatives: Love the smell of roses, but feel bad about 50 of them in one drop? The process of distillation for essential oils also produces a byproduct called hydrosols (also known as flower water, for example, rose water). Hydrosols can have similar benefits for your mood or healing, but since it’s not as pure as an essential oil, it starts you off with the minimum dosage. Hydrosols also contain some elements that essential oils leave behind, which can have added benefits.
- Take care of your oils: Essential oils have a shelf life. Since they expire (ranging from 1-6 years), select carefully rather than buying one big kit where some would go to waste, or you may not enjoy the scent. Storing essential oils in dark, cool places will give them the longest shelf life possible. Signs that oil is past its’ prime can include a change of smell, or an adverse reaction when it’s on your skin.
- Proper disposal: As with anything we obtain and consume, once that little brown bottle is empty, its’ story doesn’t end there. All essential oils are flammable to varying degrees (particularly citrus scents), so the disposal of the little glass bottles would likely need to be treated as hazardous waste. In the UK, essential oil companies are required to provide Material Safety Data Sheets with the purchase. This information is indispensable, as the MSDS explains the risks with the product as well as disposal directions. See examples here.
If we consider 'sustainability' from the environmental lens of ‘the quality of causing little or no damage to the environment and therefore able to continue for a long time’, then essential oils by nature are simply not sustainable. For each of its’ superpowers, there is a major downside. With the potential to kill bacteria, it’s also toxic enough to kill good bacteria and cause reactions. They are a natural health solution, while also exhausting natural resources.
One thing for certain: it’s up to us as consumers to be aware of the impacts of this industry, and to manage our consumption accordingly.