What Is a Pure Essential Oil?

“Pure” sounds so perfect, but seriously, how pure is pure and what exactly does it mean?

In the world of essential oils, there is again no formal definition for this word.

So yes, my dear reader, take claims of “100% pure” with a pinch of salt. It can mean different things for different manufacturers.

Pure water splash

The perfect definition (that doesn’t exist)

Let’s start with the very, very strictest definition of “pure” which honestly, can’t be achieved yet based on current technology.

Strictly speaking, a 100% pure essential oil:

  • Is made from the plant of a single botanical species, and
  • Contains 100% of the plant’s essence. Nothing less, nothing more.

The first condition can be achieved. It’s the second one that’s difficult.

But let’s talk about the first one first.

The same family (but different children)

If you’re thinking of buying chamomile essential oil (which is one of my favorites, by the way), it’s not enough to just know that the oil is made from chamomile.

Oh no, it’s not that easy.

Within the big, happy family of Chamomile, there’re at least three children.

Roman Chamomile, German Chamomile, and then there’s the lesser-known baby, Moroccan Chamomile. Each child (i.e. species) has its own unique characteristics.

For an essential oil to be “pure”, it should be extracted from a single species. 

So when buying essential oils, check its label. The botanical name (species) should be given, not just the family.

This step of checking the label is also important because different species have different uses and prices.

For instance, German Chamomile is generally considered to have “stronger” effects and is more expensive than its other siblings. But if you’re planning to use chamomile on children, Roman Chamomile is the better option.

The whole of the essence… Really? 

Now let’s talk about the second condition.

In an earlier post, I’ve mentioned that the essential oil of a plant is the “essence” of a plant. And the essence is made up of hundreds of volatile aromatic compounds that together, give the plant its unique aroma and unique properties.

Now that sounds very nice.

But in reality, it’s incredibly difficult (in some cases, impossible) to extract all the hundreds of volatile aromatic compounds, with no change to them at all, in exactly the same proportions as that of the plant, and with no other extras.

Remember the four ways of extracting essential oils I described in another post (How are essential oils made)? Here’s how these methods can affect the essence made:

  • Distillation: There is some heat involved in distillation. Some aromatic compounds may be slightly changed by heat, and others may refuse to budge (i.e. cannot be extracted) at the temperature used.
  • Cold-pressing: Other than the aromatic compounds, some extras, for instance natural waxes, may also be pressed out and included.
  • Solvent extraction: This one is obvious. There would be a bit of solvent mixed in with the aromatic compounds extracted. Also, similar to distillation, there’re some compounds that refuse to dissolve in the solvent and therefore cannot be extracted.
  • Carbon dioxide extraction: Generally, this method is considered to be able to extract the most complete profile with fewer extras. However, even it cannot achieve a complete and exact profile for all plants. It’s also a pretty new method and scientists are still evaluating its results. And as it’s very expensive and new, not many vendors use this method yet.

Pure is not pure, just almost pure

So now you know that “100% pure” is, strictly speaking, not true. Because it is not achievable (yet).

But from a realistic point of view, even a reputable manufacturer may still use these words to describe oils that:

  • Are extracted from a single botanical species, and
  • Are as pure as the oil can be based on the extraction method used. That is, it captures as complete a profile and with as few extras as possible, within the limitations of the extraction method used.

Summary

1. “100% pure” in the strictest sense is not yet achievable.

2. Current essential oil extraction methods have limitations. They either cannot pull out a 100% complete profile that is identical to the plant the oil is extracted from, or some extras are also pulled out/ included.

3. “Pure” from a realistic standpoint refers to essential oils that are as complete and with as few extras as current technology allows them to be.

4. A “pure” essential oil should also be extracted from a single botanical species.

2 thoughts on “What Is a Pure Essential Oil?”

  1. I didn’t know there were so many types of Camomile essential oil! Your definitions and descriptions are very helpful for someone just starting out on using them. Your page is very easy to read and very informative. I like your balance of text/pictures/white background. Its refreshing to see a page that is so well laid out.

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