Essential oils: Why Purity Matters

by Alison Tweedie
My passion for essential oils began nearly 20 years ago. I knew very little about them, I just loved the scent of Sandalwood, which I used regularly in my bath.

After a very difficult divorce I was bringing up two young daughters, with no maintenance and virtually no assistance from the government. I was trying to support all three of us on half of a typist’s wages—the other half went on childcare. The stress of this began to affect my health.

After months of ‘warning’ signs my neck seized up completely and I had to wear a neck collar. I was unable to drive and the slightest movement caused excruciating pain from my neck down the centre of my back. My GP could not explain what the problem was and each visit ended in my being offered painkillers or anti-depressants. I have always been averse to taking pills (since my mother only escaped having a thalidomide baby because she forgot to take the pills). In time the pain affected not only my daily life but my sleep too; each time I fell asleep, I would move and the pain would wake me. I was on the point of exhaustion.

Eventually I went to see a physiotherapist. If I was going to be like this for the rest of my life, was there anything I could do to ease the pain or at least to get some sleep without taking drugs?

It was a complete shock to me to find that the pain was caused by stress. I believed that stress was an emotional problem, not physical. The therapist explained what had happened to my muscles and why.

I realized how destructive stress can be and began to find ways of relaxing. Using Sandalwood oil became a regular part of my life. I would put a few drops in the bath, get in, lie back and bliss out! My Sandalwood bath was my sanctuary. One day I bought Sandalwood oil from a different shop. I put a few drops in the bath as usual, got in, lay back, waited—and nothing happened! I thought, ‘What’s going on? I’ve got Sandalwood in my bath and nothing’s happening!’

That was how I discovered that all essential oils are not the same even if they have the same name on the bottle. I began reading everything I could find about oils, their origins and properties.

I discovered that oils are like wines. Their quality depends on the soil conditions, the health of the plants and, of course, how the oil is processed. There are 5 grades of oil, rising from 4 (soap-grade oil) to 1 and then Extra, which is top-quality. My Sandalwood that didn’t work turned out to be a low-grade oil from Indonesia. Meanwhile France exports more lavender than it produces! Some lavender ‘from France’ is 75 per cent Croatian. Geranium Bourbon, from the Reunion Isles, is thought to be better than the standard Geranium from China. Some oils, like Rose and Melissa, are really easy to adulterate. Growers can have their crops affected by droughts, monsoons, or pollution from factory accidents, so a supplier has to keep an eye on world environmental events.

I decided to become a supplier of pure essential oils. Five years later, in November 2000, my partner and I opened Ellwoods in Dumfries. Since then we have gained a reputation for quality and excellence of which we are extremely proud. We don’t advertise, apart from the Green Handbook; reputation alone has brought enquiries from therapists and clinics across the country. Therapists from London to Aberdeen order their essential oils from us. Our diligence in sourcing top quality oils has established us as one of the main suppliers of pure essential oils in Scotland.

We buy our oils directly from producers rather than from importers. There is no adulteration in the oils as they come directly to us and our relationship with the growers enables us to obtain the highest quality.

We are members of the Aromatherapy Trade Council who, each year, randomly test our oils for purity and quality. The results provide full reports not only of the botanical species but also the country of origin.

In 2004, Trading Standards purchased oils from us for testing. This project was carried out as there had been so many complaints about the quality of products claiming to be ‘pure essential oils’ sold in other shops. The Trading Standards people were surprised by our welcome and by our support for random testing.

We have been invited to be added to the NHS database as a supplier of essential oils. The working groups to whom we supply essential oils include the Rape Crisis Centre, The Alexander Unit, Care Homes and Day Centres. We support a project in Brazil helping to re-establish areas of deforestation and produce Rosewood essential oil in a sustained and eco-friendly way.

We are able to give our customers advice about which oils would help them. If someone says, as one lady did, ‘Oh no, I’ve tried Lavender and it didn’t help at all,’ that means they’ve been using a poor grade of lavender. Some people complain that our oils are ‘more expensive than the oils at X shop.’ That’s because our oils are pure and therefore more potent; they have not been diluted. To get the same amount of the actual essential oil—Rose, for example—you would have to buy three of X’s bottles to one of ours. That makes the oils from X more expensive, when you do the sums.

We also supply a Fact Sheet showing how essential oils can be used instead of chemicals, for cleaning, deodorizing and eliminating bacteria around the home and in kennels and stables.

Wherever you buy your oils, make sure the shop is a Member of the Aromatherapy Trade Council. This means that the oils have been tested. Otherwise, if you buy oils from big shops or at a trade fair, the oils have not been tested.