Essential oils -

IFA Conference 9th June 2012,
Essential Oils: Ecological & Other Issues
Surrounding their Use
Tony Burfield
Quick Definition of an Essential Oil
• An essential oil is the volatile oil produced by steam,
steam and water, or water distillation of volatile oilbearing vegetable plant matter. The vapours are
condensed to yield a water condensate and an
essential oil that can be separated off (usually by
gravity). Citrus peel oils, are also referred to as
essential oils; these are the mechanically coldpressed from the rinds of citrus fruits. In practice,
certain "essential oils" are also produced by the
distillation of oleo-resins and absolutes.
• During the distillation process, the essential oil can
be continually separated off from condensed water
in a purpose-built separating vessel (traditionally a
Florentine flask) which can be modified to isolate
oils either lighter or heavier than water. Once tapped
off, it is usually necessary to dry the oil over an inert
material, such as anhydrous sodium sulphate.
Modern Still Room, Morocco
Vegetable Matter Sources
• Essential oils may be present in many different types of plant
structures (wood, bark, leaves, stems, flowers, stigmas,
reproductive parts etc.) at concentrations ranging from
thousandths of a percent to one or several percent. Oil is often
contained in specialised secretory structures which include
secretory cells, ducts, cavities, glandular trichomes etc. The
yield of essential oils from seeds can often be high - sometimes
in the several tens of percentage - but for the majority of other
materials, the main range is 0.1% to 1%. Essential oils are
defined by source species & identifying botanist, part of plant
used, chemotype & geographic origin. Genetically modified
plant matter cannot be used as an essential oil source in the EU
for essential oils for use in food flavourings & cosmetics.
• Essential oils are not solvent extracted materials (where
solvents might include carbon dioxide, benzene, toluene,
acetone, ethanol, hexane etc.) – this list also includes
absolutes, products of dry (=destructive) distillation and
molecular distilled products. It should be noted that perfumery
absolutes frequently contain synthetics to boost their radiance
and diffusiveness – perfumery absolutes have featured recently
in aromatherapy magazines.
Mobile Still (UK) used to isolate
angelica root oil.
Natural Ingredient Usage Declines.
• The usage of naturals has recently declined in
cosmetics & toiletries due to downward pressure on
ingredient costs (synthetics are comparatively
cheaper), erratic supply (climatic & geophysical
events; political events; demand pressures) & from
stability & compositional issues.
• Under existing EU H&S policy, natural complex
substances are treated as a collection of individual
composite chemicals. The vast majority of essential
oils, absolutes & resinoids contain several of the 26
SCCP allergens, which may have to be labelled in
product under EU Directive 2003/15/EC (now under
review). The desire by cosmetic / household product
manufacturers to avoid excessive product labelling
has previously lead to some decline in the overall
usage of essential oils.
Essential Oil Trading: a Bureaucratic Nightmare.
Those who used to be chemists & technicians for traders
often now spend their working hours generating pieces
of paper – up to thirty per single essential oil transaction.
Analysis conforms to specification?
Naturalness Certification?
Organic Certification?
Approved for food use (?) wrt heavy metals content, free
of BSE, aflatoxins, dioxins, pesticides, GMOs, PCBs,
food allergens etc.
Kosher and/or Halal certified?
SCCP Allergen declaration?
Concentration of actives within food law limits? e.g.
thujone(s), pulegone(s).
IFRA certificate? etc etc…
Aromatherapy Essential Oils
• Many essential oils produced in bulk are,
traditionally, perfumery or flavour materials.
Perfumers do not necessarily require oils to be
pure, just consistent in quality batch to batch,
and to be able to achieve the desired effect in
product. This has lead to some problems for
Aromatherapists who require pure essential oils,
100% derived from the named botanical source.
• Aromatherapists also use certain oils which they
believe have efficacious properties and bring
benefits to clients in application, these oils are
not necessarily always those in the mainstream
of popular use, for example rosemary oil
verbenone type, or Helichrysum italicum ssp.
serotinum. This has lead to the establishment of
a small industry of specialist essential oil
distillers supplying the Aromatherapy market.
Essential Oils in Short Supply
• In the first part of 2012, essential oils such
as: Indian Black Pepper, Cananga,
Cedarwood Virginia, Citronella (both
Javan & Chinese), Lavender oil French,
Litsea cubeba, Orange oil bitter, Star
anise, legally obtained Sandalwood East
Indian, Rosewood oil Brazilian (CITES),
Nutmeg oil are amongst a list of others
that have been scarce, very expensive or
virtually unavailable spot.
Threatened Species
• Few essential oil users can be unaware of
the situation where aromatic plants &
trees either have been-, or are being-,
over-harvested to the point of extinction,
particularly in the cases of agarwood
(oud), rosewood, Cedrela odorata,
cedarwood Kenyan, sandalwood East
Indian, costus, candeila isolates (for bisabolol) & styrax oils to name but a few.
A more complete list is shown at
Sandalwood Oil East Indian
• Legally obtained sandalwood oil E.I. (Santalum
album) is virtually non-existent spot – from the
effects of disease and over-exploitation. Any
production (est. 70kg/y) goes to the Indian
sandalwood soap industry.
• The completely differently profiled Australian
sandalwood oil Santalum spicatum (containing
10% farnesol) often substituted in aromatherapy.
Err…why? Its classified (DPD) as Xi R43 Irritant
• Australian Santalum album oil producers are
now calling their sandalwood oil ‘E.I.’ which has
upset many senior figures in the e.o. trade.
• Santalum oils from minor sandalwood spp. are
also sold by aromatherapy oil suppliers. These
materials usually have no proper safety
assessment and any beneficial health effects are
Rosewood Oil
• Use of Rosewood oil is still being
recommended in current aromatherapy
magazines but the genuine oil is
completely commercially unavailable due
to the outcomes of the actions of CITES.
• The use of this oil from an over-exploited
S. American species was always
unethical, but few previous users seemed
to be aware of the issues (why not?).
Threatened Species commercially
exploited for oil: Baobab Tree
Threatened Species commercially
exploited for oil: Argan Tree
Adulteration of Essential Oils
Adulteration has been a feature of the essential
oil trade since its’ beginnings although a state of
denial about this practice frequently exists
amongst sellers. Cropwatch published a much
plagiarised article on adulteration at:
…but new fiddles are constantly coming to light
i.e. the adulteration of US peppermint oils with
(cheaper) Chinese Mentha arvensis oils.
Clary Sage growing in Morocco
Hazard & Risk
Few essential oils are without hazard, risk or
safety phrases under REACH. Labelling
protocols and Safety Data Sheets have to follow
the EU CLP Regulation 1272/2008 (CLP is the
European version of GHS).
For example according to IFRA-IOFI 2011, Clary
Sage Oil under DSD is Xi Irritant, R38-43-51/53,
and under UN-GHS is FL 4, SCI 2, SS 1, EDI 2A,
EH A2,C3.
Key R38=irritating to skin R43=may cause sensitisation by skin contact
R51/53=Toxic to aquatic organisms, may cause long-term adverse
effects in the aquatic environment
Clary Sage Oil Components
Clary sage
SCI 3, EH A2
N; R51/53
Clary sage
20 ATO 5(3000); ATD NC;
Xi; R38
Clary sage
ATO 5(4200); ATD NC;
Xi; R38-41-43
SS 1; EH A2
Clary sage
SCI 3; EH A2,C2
N; R51/53
Clary sage
SCI 2; SS 1; EH
Xi; R38-43, N;
Harmful Components in Essential
• Peroxides? (levels increase in some aged oils)
• CMR’s 1 & 2? (Carcinogens, Mutagens,
Reprotoxicants) including estragole,
methyleugenol & safrole.
• Allergens? e.g. cinnamic aldehyde, citral
• Irritants? e.g. alpha-terpineol, terpinen-4-ol
• (Allegedly) environmentally harmful
components? e.g. limonene
• Phototoxicants? e.g. furocoumarins
• Highly toxic components e.g. benzyl cyanide
• Corrosive components e.g. carvacrol, thymol
‘Banned’ essential oils
Cropwatch at:
divides this group into threatened spp. and
toxic/end-use restricted essential oils. Those oils
with adverse effects towards human health include
Elecampne, Croton, Jaborandi, Horseradish, Karo
Karunde, Melaleuca bracteata, Savin, Sassafras
Cropwatch previously successfully challenged
IFRA’s ban on Melissa oil and the EU’s proposed
restriction on citrus oils re: their furocoumarin
content. Cropwatch’s arguments resisting
legislation against essential oils based on their
alleged sensitiser content has been extensively
plagiarised by essential oil trade organisations.
Acronym Index
• BSE: Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy
• DSD: Dangerous Substances Directive 67/548/EEC
• CITES: Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of
Wild Fauna & Flora
• CLP: Classification, Labelling and Packaging of Substances and
Mixtures (CLP Regulation EU 1272/2008)
• CMRs: Carcinogenic, Mutagenic or Reprotoxic materials
• EU: European Union
• GMOs: Genetically Modified Organisms
• H&S: Health and Safety
• IFRA: International Fragrance Association (renamed)
• IOFI: International Organisation of the Flavour Industry
• PCBs: Polychlorinated biphenyls
• REACH: Registration, Evaluation Authorisation & Restriction of
Chemicals regulation
• SCCP: The EU’s Scientific Committee for Consumer Products (now
the SCCS)
• UN-GHS: Globally Harmonized System of Classification and
Labelling of Chemicals (inc. essential oils)

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