Standardization of Essential Oils

Standardization of Essential Oils

Alex Ruiz CEO of ChromEssence Alex Ruiz


How can I know if the oil I am buying or distilling is of "good quality"? On what basis do I establish my product specifications? I personally have many inquiries about that during the year. Such questions are not as easy to answer as they seem.

 If my oil is 100% pure and my competitor's is not, does my oil have to be of better quality or safety? This is another question not so easy to answer. The answer should be “yes”, because the ‘non-pure’ qualities should not be considered under the INCI name and CAS number are you buying, but the reality is that in many companies, pure oils are rejected for not meeting the specs while reconstitutions or adulterated oils are complying, and it usually does not matter whether the product can be legally classified as such or not.

The criteria for establishing quality specifications of a given essential oil depend on the final application. For example, in fragrance manufacturing companies the most important is the organoleptic profile, so the ideal would be to set certain chemical and physical parameters to ensure that the olfactory profile is the one we need for that oil. To that end, maybe it is better to use a reconstituted oil, which has the target odor profile and it will remains much more constant over the years, in terms of quality, safety and price.

This last example would be a case of creating internal specifications, but it does not mean that this oil has been standardized. Let’s see a definition of standardization:

“Standardization is the process of creating protocols to guide the creation of a good or service based on the consensus of all the relevant parties in the industry. The standards ensure that goods or services produced in a specific industry come with consistent quality and are equivalent to other comparable products or services in the same industry. Standardization also helps in ensuring the safety, interoperability, and compatibility of goods produced.”

 I particularly like this definition, and especially the word “guide”. Because the standards set for a certain product, should be revised before the production step (during the research or on a pilot scale) and not after.

 There are several organizations dedicated to normalization of essential oils among other chemical products, such as USP, European pharmacopoeia, or ISO, and several guides complementing the REACH regulation or IFRA standards. For today, and in my personal opinion, the best international tool for standardization are the ISO technical committees, in which ChromEssence is involved through the national committee, helping to develop ISO norms together with other agents in the industry (producers, traders, R+D centers, universities…). These norms are reviewed every five years, and they have some drawbacks, but for the time being they are the best we have.

In this regard, the essential oils industry has a problem today. With the rise of the aromatherapy and natural cosmetics, the number of new varieties and chemotypes is growing steadily, and the market is prioritizing the “100% Pure”, “100% Natural” and “Organic certified” claims over concepts such as “quality”, “safety” or “standardization”.

Having the same plant, different composition can be obtained depending, for example, on the operational conditions of the distillation, the plant part you are processing, the altitude of the plantation, etc.

 We have analyzed many PURE market samples from aromatherapy companies with a chemical composition radically different to the standardized ones.  Therefore, this can be equally harmful to health as an adulterated oil, since a particular user could apply to himself a different chemical product under the same label.

A typical example is the chemical variation of Roman Chamomile oil.

Composition variation in Chamomile Essential Oil

In the above table, the differences between several batches of Roman Chamomile can be observed. All of these samples have been labeled as "Roman Chamomile" in the market, and all of them have different "Angelates" as major constituents.

So, what would be the “Ideal” situation?

When a certain producer is starting to distill or extract a new product, it is obviously important to assure the purity , naturalness, and organic label of it, but they should not forget to characterize the oil before marketing it, and to assure the chemical composition is in line with the existing standards.

If producers has fine-tuned their process and plant selection, and they still get a different chemical composition, maybe a new chemotype is emerging!, and the ideal should be to label and classify it in a different way from what is on the market and monitor the oil for several crops to fix the specifications. Maybe in future, if production is extended to other locations, their specifications will become international standards!

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