Organic Essential Oils, Everything You Need To Know

Is it just us or are essential oils just the best?! They are an eco-friendly alternative to synthetic fragrances for everything from zero waste cleaning products to DIY whipped body butter. They make our DIY green cleaning recipes a whole lot more pleasant, and we can make our own fragrances using different combinations like lavender + lemon + rosemary, or wild orange + cinnamon bark + clove essential oils. They offer lots of wonderful aromas to play around with, and even carry therapeutic applications that people swear by. Whatever the application, we opt for organic essential oils wherever possible.

But lately, there’s been a lot more buzz about them not being so great for the planet.

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What are essential oils and are essential oils bad for the environment?

Essential oils were once thought to be the very essence of the plants they are extracted from. That’s where the name comes from. They are extracted using processes like distillation, cold pressing, or solvent distillation, and different parts of the plants (or trees) are used including the leaves, bark, roots, flowers, fruits, resin, and seeds.

We love to use these extracts in our DIY disinfectant wipes, where they serve as fragrance, or as an added disinfectant in my favorite recipe for DIY non-toxic hand sanitizer (that actually works). You can even find them in green beauty products like natural face serums and eco-friendly makeup.

Unlike conventional cleaning and beauty products, they do not contain any of the phthalates found in the ubiquitous ‘fragrance’ or ‘parfum’ in these products. Not to mention that brands are not legally required to disclose any of the hundreds of ingredients that can be found in these fragrances.

The thing is, the essential oil industry turns out to be extremely resource-intensive because of the amount of plant matter it actually takes to make essential oils.

According to Eco Watch, it takes about 250 pounds of lavender to make just 1 pound of lavender essential oil. Or 10,000 pounds of roses to make just 1 pound of rose essential oil.

When conventional farming practices are used to grow the vast amounts of plants needed to make these oils, this also translates to lots of pesticides, fertilizers, fungicides, and a very fossil fuel-intensive process. 

In a study on calendula essential oil production, the agricultural stage carried the highest environmental impact in the entire supply chain, even where organic fertilizers were used. Modern conventional agriculture also requires lots of water and eats up healthy soils too — soils that are currently indispensable to food production and are being depleted by unsustainable agricultural practices.

What is the difference between organic essential oils and other oils?

Unlike conventional essential oils, organic oils are produced using raw materials that are grown using agricultural practices that limit or eliminate the use of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers based on standards set by reputable third-party organizations like ECOCERT, GOTS, and USDA.

These certifications are super helpful when looking for brands you can trust, though that is not always the case. Some products like essential oils do not have their own certifications or governing bodies to regulate them. It can also be very costly for small brands to get certified in the first place.

That’s why we use these certifications as a guide wherever possible but if they are not available it is not a complete deal-breaker for us.  Brands that offer as much transparency about their ingredients, sourcing practices, manufacturing practices, and take on environmental initiatives are worth considering in our book.

So how can you tell if an essential oil is pure or fake?

Certifications are helpful with that too. Some brands conduct tests on their products like the GC-MS test which speaks to the chemical constituents in their oils — and include a report from these tests with each of their products.

Beware of terms like “therapeutic grade”. Since there is no governing body to define these terms, things like “organic therapeutic grade essential oils” just sound really good.

How to shop for organic essential oils?

Thankfully there are several brands that offer organic options and/or wild harvested essential oils with a better environmental footprint than their conventional counterparts. To help shop for organic oils we would recommend using our green beauty criteria as we do with similar products:

1. Is it local?

We consider if the products are made nearest to us. This reduces the carbon footprint associated with transportation and helps to support our local economy.

2. Is it made of natural ingredients?

Ingredients are super important and we look for products made of natural or naturally-derived ingredients that are deemed safe for us and for the environment. The EWG rating system is super helpful here.

3. Is it certified organic?

Certified organic products or products made with certified ingredients are better for us and for the planet too so we try to find brands that source their ingredients accordingly, wherever possible.

4. Is it vegan?

We also look out for our vegan friends to see if animal or animal-derived ingredients are used. That’s stuff like beeswax, cochineal, honey, or chitosan (derived from shellfish).

5. Is it cruelty-free?

We do not support animal testing and thankfully many brands no longer do this. The Leaping Bunny certification is helpful here and speaks to cruelty-free products.

6. Are ingredients sustainably sourced?

Brands that source ingredients ethically and sustainably are at the top of our list. Especially when they are sourced from as near to manufacturing centers as possible. This helps to reduce the carbon footprint associated with sourcing and manufacturing and will help to find the best sustainable organic essential oils, or whatever it is you are looking for.

7. Does the company use environmentally-conscious packaging?

Packaging is a huge concern when it comes to sustainability so we look for products in compostable, reusable, or recyclable packaging. Take-back programs are also great.

If you are concerned about using essential oils in terms of sustainability, here are some little things you can do to lighten your footprint: 

➞ Try to avoid using essentials drawn from plants that are endangered or at-risk, like sandalwood. Look for substitutes from reputable sources or go for something else like hydrosols. They can offer similar benefits as essential oils and can contain elements that are not in essential oils, with their very own benefits.

➞ If brands don’t have an organic certification, you can also shop from brands who use wild harvested raw materials, grow plants on land the plant species is native to, and/or use otherwise sustainable agricultural practices to source their raw materials. This usually translates to less intervention which means fewer pesticides, water, and other inputs are needed in the growing process.

Our top picks for organic essential oils

Now that we’ve got all of that out of the way, let’s dive into some of the best sustainable essential oils.

1. Now Foods

a bottle of organic essential oils from Now Food on a table. Pin
Image: Now Foods

Now Foods is a well-known brand when it comes to USDA-certified organic essential oils and health products in general. They are a legacy family-owned brand with an expressed mission to empower people to lead healthier lives. Their range of essential oils is particularly popular, and you’ll find options including rosemary, peppermint, geranium, wintergreen oil, and more.

Their selection of organic options is certified organic by Quality Assurance International (QAI), and USDA Organic. Based on these standards, this means that raw materials used to make their essential oils are grown in soil that is free from pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and herbicide residue.

Everything from raw materials to finished products is also tested at their state-of-the-art labs for purity and quality assurance.  And customers really love their products for their potency and effectiveness.

To give back, Now Foods works with a number of charitable organizations locally and around the world, supporting causes like hunger relief efforts, conservation and environmental initiatives, disaster relief efforts, and more.

2. Thrive Market

A collection of organic essential oils from Thrive. Pin
Image: Thrive

Thrive Market is a membership-based online market that focuses on offering organic products from some of the best brands out there, without markups. Their selection also includes a number of organic options and blends that are more affordable than one might expect.

A certified B corporation, they carry their own line of organic options but also feature products from other brands like Aura Cacia and Now Foods so look out for that as you look around their virtual aisles.

Their oils are USDA Certified Organic and include tea tree, lavender, eucalyptus, peppermint, and more. Customers are happy with their oils though the scent expected might differ. Some of their top-rated oils include their organic lemon oil, organic peppermint oil, and Aura Cacia’s organic oregano essential oil.

3. Public Goods

4 bottles of organic essential oils from Public Goods. Pin
Image: Public Goods

Public Goods is another online marketplace that focuses on offering more sustainable alternatives for everyday essentials. Find a range of personal care products, household products, groceries, and pet products, all mindfully packaged for a lighter footprint.

Their selection of essential oils includes peppermint, eucalyptus, lavender, tea tree, rosemary, argan, and lemon.  Find essential oil sets as well. All are minimally packaged in glass and topped with a dropper rather than what you might normally expect. They are also on the more affordable side but they are not certified organic by any third party.

The brand does ensure that all of the raw materials used in their essential oils are high quality and organically sourced. Customers say the oils are quality and report being very happy with their oils. Top-rated options include argan oil, peppermint, rosemary, and lemon.

4. Penny Lane Organics

A bottle of organic essential oils from Penny Lane. Pin
Image: Penny Lane

For the owner of Penny Lane Organics, if it wouldn’t go IN the body then it shouldn’t go ON the body and that’s the philosophy with which the brand approaches all of its handmade products. Everything is produced in Ontario, Canada, in small batches, using ethically sourced, organic ingredients. Their products are also cruelty-free, with vegan and vegetarian options (where beeswax is used and sourced from up the street from them).

Within their range of natural skincare, personal care, baby care, pet care, and aromatherapy products, you will find a wide selection of organic options including basil, eucalyptus, grapefruit, oregano, rosemary, spearmint, lavender, and much more.

To produce these oils, Penny Lane Organics uses a steam distillation process. They also offer recommendations as to what oils would pair well. Customers report less fragrant smells, with some products smelling a little bit differently than they expected them to.

Since they are still a small company it is difficult and quite costly for them to get their products to be certified organic, as they work to keep up with larger, well-established brands in the market. However, they do disclose all of the ingredients in their products and ensure that all of the ingredients used in their products are sustainable and ethically sourced.

5. Mountain Rose Herbs

3 bottles of Mountain Rose Essential Oils. Pin
Image: Mountain Rose Herbs

Mountain Rose Herbs was born out of a small herbal business founded by Rosemary Gladstar back in 1987, and the brand has been on quite the journey since. It is Oregon Tilth Certified Organic and is fully accredited with the USDA National Organic Program, thanks to the help of a very dedicated employee of theirs who is now CEO of the brand, Shawn Donnie.

As part of their journey toward greater sustainability, they moved to Oregon to be closer to its farm operations, wild harvests, and processors, back in the early 2000s.

You will find all sorts of herbal essentials including herbs & spices, teas, and carrier oils. Their selection of essential oils is plentiful and includes kits and different size options ranging from ½ oz. to 16 oz. So if you are looking for larger quantities this is the place for you.

With a clear commitment to sustainability, the brand uses 100% post-consumer corrugated cardboard for shipping, and for padding, and 100% recycled-content paper that is recyclable and biodegradable. Some of the plant-based packing peanuts used are recovered from incoming shipments. They also have a Zero Waste Program to help reduce the impact of production, including composting — also started by Shawn.

6. Plant Therapy

A bottle of Plant Oil organic essential oil. Pin

As its core values, Plant Therapy is driven by safety and education. They publish test reports on their products and offer advice on how to use essential oils right on their website. Along with natural body products and CDB, you will find a wide selection of high-quality essential oils, including certified USDA Organic and ECOCERT options.

Their selection of organic options is also quite extensive. Some of their top-rated oils include the Organic Atlas Cedarwood, Organic Bergamot, Organic Citronella, Organic Clove Bud, Organic Eucalyptus Globulus, and the Organic Frankincense Carterii, just to name a few. You can find sizes ranging from 1.3 oz. to 3 ⅓ oz., with the option to subscribe or to make a one-time purchase.

All of their essential oils go through rigorous independent third-party testing. See the results for in-depth information on the chemical constituents in each oil, in the GC-MS test reports available on each product page.

7. Rocky Mountain Oils

3 bottles of Rocky Mountain  Essential Oils.Pin
Image: Rocky Mountain

Rocky Mountain Oils (RMO) was created out of love and admiration for nature and its healing properties. As such, all of their products are made from natural ingredients, in hands of qualified distillery technicians, and in world-renowned labs for the most potent and effective essential oils.

Their selection includes organic options that are certified USDA Organic, with the raw materials coming from USDA-certified farms. For non-certified oils, materials are sourced from farms that maintain organic practices and standards.

Their certified organic range includes eucalyptus, frankincense, lavender, lemon, organic, oregano, peppermint, tea tree, and turmeric, with GC/MS test results for each of their products here too.

Their most highly rated organic options are lavender, peppermint, turmeric, lemon, and orange essential oils.

All packaging is made from 100% recycled materials, and they even offer a Glass Bottle Recycling Program which we absolutely love. Plus, all of their products are backed by a 90-day Satisfaction Guarantee.

How to use essential oils?

Once you’ve gotten your hands on your pure organic essential oils, there are a number of ways to use them around the home, and for the body. We love using it in our all-purpose cleaner recipe!

Whatever you end up using yours for, there are a few rules of thumb to consider in order to use them safely and mindfully, while accounting for their hefty environmental footprint:

  • Don’t use them more often than you need to, especially in health-related applications. Be sure to follow the instructions of a specialist on how frequently and how much to use to avoid any unwanted side effects.
  • A little bit goes a long way. Similarly, don’t use too much of your essential oils because essential oils are small but mighty – and highly concentrated. Start with small amounts, and when it is completely up to you (and not a physician), go up from there. This goes for the best organic essential oils and conventional grade options.
  • Shop strategically wherever possible. Be mindful of how many oils and how much you are buying at a time to avoid anything going to waste before you can use them.
  • Take good care of your essential oils. Keep them in a cool, dark place to make sure they last as long as possible. Depending on the oil, they typically last between 1-6 years.
  • Do not ingest essential oils internally without consulting a physician. 

How to dispose of essential oils properly?

One last but very important thing! Essential oils are highly flammable — particularly oils like tea tree, frankincense, lavender, and eucalyptus to name a few. So it’s really important that they be disposed of carefully. Even the most organic pure essential oils can pose a risk and can even be toxic to aquatic life. So like all oils they should not be poured down the drain at disposal.

If your oil is no longer safe for therapeutic use (or if this was your intent from the beginning), you can go on to using it in household cleaning products. If it has gone rancid, it has to be disposed of through a hazardous-waste collection service.

To avoid oils going rancid, avoid contact with unclean surfaces like unclean hands. Drip the oil over a container or onto your palms or body without touching the dropper. If you must use something to draw out the oil, make sure it is clean. It is the same principle with open food containers like jams or nut butters, and used spoons or knives (or forks even – whatever you're into). This ensures products stay fresh for as long as possible.

Recycling the container also needs a bit of attention here too. Essential oils are so flammable that trace amounts can be dangerous for recycling plant workers, even if you clean them out as best you can. So check with your local recycling center to see if they will accept your used essential oil containers.

A final word organic essential oils

It will ultimately be up to you what role organic essential oils will play in your life. We opt to use them sparingly and these brands make it a little better for the planet. Sustainable living is all about give and take — not about perfection.  From sustainable food packaging to sustainable skincare brands, and certainly here.

Just make sure that whatever you decide you can keep it up for yourself while feeling good about your choices when it comes to your environmental impact. We totally have faith that you can strike the right balance for you and the planet, especially if you’ve made it this far in the article! For that we thank you,  if you found this post helpful, please help someone by sharing this article — Sharing is caring 🙂!

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