the big, burning question, part ii: how I choose my essential oil suppliers

the big, burning question, part ii: how I choose my essential oil suppliers

The big, burning question I so often get is, “what brand of essential oils do you recommend?” The first part of my response to the question, focused on the question itself, can be found in part i of this series here. In this post you’ll find part ii of iii, focused on the criteria I use in choosing my essential oil suppliers.

Part II: How I Choose My Primary Essential Oil Suppliers

There are a wide variety of essential oil suppliers and they can vary tremendously in the quality and purity of their oils, their commitment to sustainability, their customer care, their empowerment of safe use, and their engagement with the aromatherapy community; choosing the best among them can be difficult, but there are a surprising number of companies who offer quality essential oils who have met my relatively stringent standards.

There are two categories of things I consider when choosing my suppliers: the nitty-gritty details of their essential oils and the big picture of their business.

THE “NITTY-GRITTY” OF WHAT I CONSIDER

When purchasing essential oils, there are certain assurances I have to have to be confident in my purchase. Some are evidenced right on the label of the bottle, others come from a broader understanding of how a supplier keeps and handles their essential oils.

lab analysisI need to have a batch-specific gas chromatograph/mass spectrometer (GC/MS) report for the essential oils I purchase.

This is important for several reasons. A GC/MS provides insight into the chemical composition of a given essential oil and it is specific to the oil tested. GC/MS can reveal adulteration, contamination, and other anomalies that speak to an oil’s purity, quality, and therapeutic action. It’s imperative to me that my supplier can and will provide a batch-specific GC/MS for every oil I purchase as it provides some assurance that the essential oil in question is “good” and unadulterated; consistent GC/MS testing for each batch also tells me my supplier is invested in the quality and purity of their products.

Some companies claim to run GC/MS reports, but won’t share them with their customers under the auspices that their GC/MS reports are “proprietary.” I don’t know how to be anything but honest: in my opinion, that’s a load of hooey. Essential oils come from nature and their natural constitution is not “owned” by any one company; unless an essential oil is adulterated, compromised, or straight-up fraudulent, its chemical composition should fall within agreed upon ranges as determined by nature, laid out by chemists, and confirmed by a GC/MS report.

So, basically, I call shenanigans.

First of all, for a company to suggest they somehow “own” the chemical makeup of an essential oil they’ve procured from nature via best practices agreed upon across the aromatherapy industry, to me, is like someone saying they own the very nature of that essential oil.

Secondly, an essential oil company calling their oil’s GC/MS report “proprietary” is, to me, absurd. It’s parallel to a pure, raw carrot juice company saying they won’t share the purity test of their carrot juice because the constitution of pure, raw carrot juice is somehow their exclusive trade secret. This is a thing that just makes me go, “hmmmmmm….” (Again, SHENANIGANS.)

Why would a company be afraid to share the chemical composition of their Santalum paniculatum oil, an oil that, by design, should present with relatively consistent chemical details? Do they seriously think that suddenly you and I are going to be able to magically craft Hawaiian Sandalwood from thin air using their “recipe” with something other than, say, HAWAIIAN SANDALWOOD?! That would be some serious magic indeed.

In my mind, if a company argues that their essential oil is so materially different that its constitution is worthy of being a trade secret, it’s not an oil I want anyway. I don’t want any “special,” “secret,” “mystery” Hawaiian Sandalwood. I want HAWAIIAN SANDALWOOD, the one that comes from, you know, natural, actual Hawaiian Sandalwood. The one that has the aromatherapeutic properties, chemical components, and therapeutic actions of recognizable Hawaiian Sandalwood from Hawaiian Sandalwood as determined by nature and confirmed in a lab.

I can appreciate that aromatherapy has become a competitive industry for suppliers. I get that some companies think their oils are better than other oils and perhaps don’t want to share the profiles that they believe inform that. If you believe you can trust a company to not only GC/MS test but also vet that test against established results to verify the purity and efficacy of an essential oil without sharing that information with you, the consumer, good for you. Personally, I have more faith in a company that independently tests and transparently shares those results. Plus, *I* need those results to inform my clinical blending. Why?

GC/MS reports provide me with details as to the volume of individual chemical constituents that have a variety of corresponding therapeutic properties. A GC/MS report doesn’t just assure purity, it empowers safe and intentional blending. A batch-specific GC/MS report enables me to work more meaningfully, most safely, and most effectively in addressing my clients’ concerns, especially in the context of their unique circumstances. It allows me to find synergies between multiple essential oils in a single blend, avoid specific constituents (and their source oils) for individuals for whom they are contraindicated, and it grounds the art and magic of my work in real, honest-to-goodness chemistry.

(By now you get it: transparent, independent, readily-available, batch-specific, and up-to-date GC/MS reports are important to me. Moving on…)

Essential oils are relatively easily compromised if not stored properly and they do have a shelf life, so I want to know that my suppliers are responsibly storing their oils. Essential oils need to be protected from light and should be kept in a temperature-controlled environment in dark, glass bottles. Exposure to light, heat — even oxygen in the bottle — increases the risk for oxidization which compromises the quality of the oil and increases the risk of adverse reaction. I also want the expected shelf-life called out in the oil’s description.

Similarly, I expect any essential oils I purchase to come in dark glass bottles with a tight-fitting, safety-sealed cap and a clean orifice reducer. (I don’t mind if an oil purchased in a single-bottle large quantity doesn’t have an orifice reducer, however, as I probably bought it in that volume because I am using many milliliters at a time in my blending, anyway.)

On my essential oil bottle’s label (or at least at hand), I look for:

  • common name of the essential oil (i.e, Rosemary)
  • botanical or Latin name of the source material (i.e., Rosmarinus officinalis)
  • chemotype, if relevant (i.e., Rosemary ct Verbenone vs. Rosemary ct Camphor)
  • source material/plant part (leaves, petals, resin, bark, seeds, etc.)
  • extraction method (steam-distilled, cold-pressed, solvent extracted, etc.)
  • country of origin
  • distillation date and/or batch information

senior hand with loupe on the white background

Common name is important because it points me to the general oil I’m looking for, but botanical name is most important, especially as there can be confusion with “common” names. In the case of botanicals with shared “common” names (“Mint,” “Sage,” “Eucalyptus,” “Tansy”), I need to know which one. Is the mint Peppermint? Corn Mint? Wintergreen? Spearmint). Is the sage Clary Sage? Spanish Sage? Common Sage? Which eucalyptus is it? Citriadora? Smithii? Radiata? Globulus? Is the tansy essential oil in my hand Blue Tansy, Tanacetum annuum, or, god forbid, toxic Common Tansy, Tanacetum vulgare?

Sadly, there are also some unscrupulous sellers who flat-out label an oil as “Mint” hoping the consumer won’t notice that what the consumer has assumed to be Peppermint (Mentha piperita) is in fact Corn Mint (Mentha arvensis) — these are two VERY different essential oils, y’all! (Worst of all, there is a company whose “Mint,” listed as Mentha x piperita on the bottle, was independently tested to reveal that what was labeled as Mentha piperita was in fact Mentha arvensisI know, OY. Did I mention I always want a GC/MS report?)

Chemotype matters because some essential oils, such as Thyme and Rosemary, may present with different primary constituents that are directly relevant in how they are best leveraged. (It also informs safe use.) It’s nice to know that a given essential oil is Rosemary ct verbenone versus Rosemary ct camphor when taking safety and therapeutic properties into consideration.

Juniper twig with cones close up isolatedSource material is important, too, though I can get over it if it isn’t on the bottle. Still, I want to know… When I want the oil from the needles of a tree, it shouldn’t be distilled from the bark. If I want the oil from flowers, it shouldn’t be derived from flowers and leaves. Crazy as it sounds, I know someone who, years ago, purchased an oil sold as “juniper berry” who found, upon further digging, that her oil was not distilled from the berries, but rather from juniper needles, twigs, AND berries “in berry season.” (So, they just cut parts of the tree and threw them all together in a distiller? ISH.)

Extraction method is important because it can impact not only the quality of the resulting essential oil, but also determine things like phototoxicity (potential for increased sensitivity to UV rays that can result in serious adverse reaction). By way of example, distilled lime does not present as phototoxic, but cold-pressed lime most certainly does.

Distillation date informs the freshness (and resulting shelf-life) of an essential oil; batch information tracks back to individual GC/MS reports. I don’t want to buy a bottle of Sweet Orange in 2015 that was distilled in 2013. And when I am looking up a GC/MS report, I may need to know which archived batch number to search for.

It’s also nice to have the bottle size/volume on the label, but, honestly, one of my favorite companies leaves that off their label and that detail hasn’t prevented me from purchasing from them; I often know what size bottle I’m looking at thanks to my experience anyway.

Ideally, there should also be some relevant safety warnings. While some essential oil bottles may be too tiny to reasonably contain every relevant safety warning, I have nevertheless found suppliers who have managed to fit “Keep out of the reach of children” and “Store in a cool, dark place” on their 5 ml bottles; it’s nice to see.

“BIG PICTURE” THINGS I PERSONALLY CONSIDER

In addition to the nitty-gritty details, I have some “big picture” concerns that are really important to me personally. As essential oils find their way into more and more homes, my commitment to their thoughtful growth, procurement, and sale deepens. These are the “Big Picture” things I look for in my suppliers:

farmer in an organic fieldI want my essential oils to come from source materials that are thoughtfully grown, handled, and distilled. To wit, I look for essential oils that are certified organic, wild-grown, grown in concert with organic practices, and/or pesticide-free. Be aware that formal organic certification (yielding the USDA Certified Organic assurance and seal) is incredibly expensive and relevant only in the U.S. There are a number of growers and distillers who choose to use farming methods in keeping with organic practices without pursuing formal organic certification. This is especially true of growers in other countries.

At a minimum, it’s important to me that the source material for my essential oils is procured without the use of pesticides which can not only harm the environment but also contaminate the oil resulting from the source plant’s distillation.

Pesticides on source material often remain in essential oils resulting from their distillation. (Really, can I just say: Eep!) A pesticide-free designation can therefore make a really big difference in the quality of an essential oil.

Ideally, the source materials for essential oils should be wild-grown and thoughtfully harvested through wildcrafting, though this definitely isn’t plausible with every source plant. Wildcrafting involves harvesting only relevant plant parts (i.e., resin instead of the whole tree, petals instead of the whole plant) from the wild of their natural habitat and then only in volumes that do not threaten the continued organic growth, regeneration, and thriving of the species. In wildcrafting St. John’s Wort on my own property, for example, I only take one of every ten of the flowering tops and buds I see. That way I can be confident I’ll find St. John’s Wort where it naturally grows again next year. (And, to be clear, source material does not have to be wild-grown to be thoughtfully harvested: farms that grow source materials such as trees with needles may elect not to cut the whole tree down, but rather harvest needles thoughtfully to allow the tree a chance to continue to grow.)

I avoid essential oils that are macro-farmed, i.e., procured on enormous mono-crop farms that use lots of heavy machinery, a heap of pesticides, and unsustainable farming practices. In my opinion, that approach not only yields a lesser quality oil, it’s also not in keeping with my ethics or my desire to see farming reflect more sustainable practices. Candidly, I know much more than the average person about organic farming, biodynamic farming, and GMOs, both because of my work history and my personal commitment to sustainable practices on my own farm. I eschew macro-farming, period. Gratefully, many farmers already know that macro-farming depletes the soil and presents an unsustainable model both environmentally and economically.

I want my essential oils to be extracted at appropriate temperatures through a thoughtful distillation process. I want my suppliers to offer essential oils that have been crafted using methods that yield the purest and best essential oil from their source material. I don’t want them over-processed so that they are underwhelming in their aroma and action. I also want the extraction method to be different from oil to oil as appropriate to what works best in yielding that essential oil. I only want a solvent-extracted absolute if it’s absolutely necessary. (See what I did there?) To be sure, with some essential oils, it is.

Ideally, the source material for my essential oils also shouldn’t have to travel too far (and risk contamination or compromise) before it’s distilled. This is especially true for essential oils that are derived from the freshest and most delicate plant parts (such as petals). With source materials like resins, I am a little less concerned about the turnaround between harvest and distillation.

I want my essential oil suppliers to faithfully represent aromatherapy, not just SELL essential oils. It’s important to me that my suppliers have expertise and background in aromatherapy, use essential oils themselves, and are engaged meaningfully with their peers and colleagues in the industry. They should be invested emotionally, not just financially. The owners of many of my favorite companies are all real friends, good peers, supportive colleagues — imagine that?!

I insist my suppliers obtain independent lab analyses of their essential oils. The real purity of essential oils (and signs of adulteration or fraud) is determined by lab analysis in the form of a gas chromatograph/mass spectrometer (GC/MS) test. Some essential oil companies tout the fact that their own laboratory has proclaimed the purity of their products. To me, that feels like someone saying they make the best pies because their husband thinks so…. I want an independent audit of that pie, please.

I want my suppliers to have breadth and depth in the spectrum of essential oils they offer. I don’t just want lots of different essential oils, I also want to see multiples of some essential oils from the same botanical, i.e., I want to see multiple chemotypes for oils that present with those variants (such as Thyme and Rosemary). I want to see CO²s, oleoresins, absolutes, and more. I also appreciate having the choice between an essential oil from the same botanical sourced from several unique locations; it’s a wonderful thing to be able to choose between Lavandula angustifolia from India and Lavandula angustifolia from Bulgaria.

I’m encouraged when I see a company sells more than just essential oils, though it’s not a deal-breaker for me if they don’t. Still, it’s nice to find whole resins, organic hydrolats, essential waters, oleoresins, natural salts, and organic carriers as I also use them in my practice and my life.

Much of aromatherapy is chemistry so, naturally, I want my suppliers to have a decent understanding of that chemistry. They should absolutely know more than I do and they should be able to readily demonstrate that knowledge.

I want my suppliers to know what they’re representing and pay that knowledge forward to their consumers. I want them to have robust resources including a decent website with thorough, and readily available profiles for the essential oils they sell. They should have rich descriptions of each essential oil so that everything from note to aromatics are tangible to the consumer. (Some of my favorite companies regularly update their online descriptions for essential oils with each new batch.) Shelf life, storage information, cautions, and other safety considerations should be clearly called out.

Risk ManagementThe companies I buy from have to emphasize safe use and back that use up with both knowledge and practical empowerment. Even if I don’t need them to tell me how not to use a given oil based on my education, I don’t want them to be misleading, misrepresenting, or avoiding safe use of essential oils: they need to help mitigate the risks associated with essential oil use. No matter how redundant it might be for some aromatherapists, that information needs to be there for the general public. I want to see safety information, phototoxicity, dilution limitations, and contraindications plainly spelled out.

I prefer my companies to be in a relationship that mirrors mine: a relationship to their oils that celebrates and engages both therapeutic and energetic properties, one that reflects deep love and respect for essential oils, their source materials, and the earth from which they come, and one that is marked by passion, balance, discovery, and thoughtfulness. I delight in hearing a company’s owner describe their sublime elation with a particular batch of oil they have in hand as those kinds of disclosures tell me the company is paying my kind of attention.

I want my suppliers to be actively engaged in a real relationship with their distillers and the communities from whence their oils are procured. This might not matter to everyone, but it’s a big deal to me. I find it heartening to see pictures of a supplier’s visit to the distiller, especially when that visit reinforces that a grower is working in keeping with organic growing principles. I also want to know that the community from which these precious resources where taken benefitted from the relationship and commerce that resulted from an essential oil’s growth, harvest, and production. It’s not uncommon for suppliers and distillers to partner directly with communities so the communities, too, can prosper and thrive thanks to essential oils.

A relationship based on integrity between “my company” and the distiller also sets a foundation that makes it easier to address challenges or concerns. On the rare occasion that a supplier has cause to challenge a distiller, I appreciate knowing that they’re meaningfully connected to one another and not just exchanging goods and money.

Though I’ve called it out before in various places, it bears repeating that sustainability heavily informs my decisions. A lack of sensitivity to the bigger picture of the planet and her precious resources suggests to me a lack of compassion, gratitude, and reverence that I both hope and expect to find in my suppliers. Gratefully, there are a number of suppliers who share my concerns and sensibilities.

respect source (1).jpgNote that sustainability extends beyond just responsible growing practices — it’s also informed by the scarcity of a given essential oil or its source material. There are several essential oils that I absolutely adore — they are sublime in their aroma and action — but I still eschew them for other essential oils based on their status as threatened resources. So while I have essential oils like Rosewood and Palo Santo, both of which face threats to their long-term survival, I very, very rarely use them. When I do, it’s only after thoughtful consideration of every other oil that might work instead and with deepest reverence for the fact that they have contributed their unique, rare, and precious support to my  or my client’s well-being.

Finally, sustainability also extends to the community from which an essential oil is sourced: it means fair pay, fair trade, fair share, and more; it means conducting business in a way that allows all stakeholders to thrive.

To be sure, some of these “big picture” considerations may be deeply compelling for you — some of them may be useless in your context. These are nevertheless some of the “big picture” things I think about. 

PRICE, STOCK, SHIPPING, AND CUSTOMER SERVICE

I am admittedly not as sensitive to price as many essential oil purchasers are. (After all, many of my costs get paid forward to my clients.) While I’m not exactly eager to be fleeced by a company, I can also honestly say that I expect meeting the criteria outlined above comes at at least some expense to the company with which I’m engaged. GC/MS reporting alone is expensive and a big commitment, especially for every batch of every essential oil, and I completely understand that. I also appreciate that it can take up to 60,000 roses to produce one ounce of rose; I expect to pay accordingly. Finally, what I pay for essential oils is wrapped up in costs that I extend to my paying customers, so I am to some extent passing them along. To wit, I don’t challenge this point as much as other people, including you, might.

Believe it or not, I am completely okay with a supplier occasionally running out of stock. The fact is, essential oils are primarily derived from agricultural products many of which are farmed and have a distinct season. It’s perfectly logical to me that the stock of a given essential oil, harvested only in early summer, might be low in the winter. Regular, rampant out-of-stock situations are another matter entirely, of course.

While free shipping is wonderful for some people and feels like a huge savings, it is not a driver for me personally. Frankly, I want my essential oil purchase to get here fast with as little risk for compromise en route as possible. Since I often spend a fair amount on my orders, I also want to be able to both track and insure my order. Yes, it costs a little more, but it’s worth it; I’m happy to pay $15 to insure and track $400 worth of essential oils! In my world, that cost is also incorporated into the cost of essential oils and therefore, my blends. You might feel differently based on your circumstances.

As far as customer service is concerned, I haven’t found a single supplier who met the previously outlined criteria who wasn’t also deeply invested in me, their customer. By the time suppliers have passed my relatively rigorous checklist, I can be pretty confident I’ve found someone who takes their business seriously, stands by their products, and provides quality essential oils.

Many essential oil suppliers aren’t just great businesses, they are good, GOOD people, too.

And that also matters to me.

(Ready for part iii? Click here!)

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13 thoughts on “the big, burning question, part ii: how I choose my essential oil suppliers”

    • Hi, Deanie. Thanks for your question. 🙂

      I have several suppliers. I don’t typically share their names for several reasons. For one thing, there are many more wonderful suppliers than I am currently using and I don’t think it’s fair to inadvertently suggest someone has missed my marks just because they aren’t on my list. I also don’t think it’s fair to speak to suppliers whom I haven’t tried yet.

      The only exception to that rule is this: I provide information on my suppliers to my workshop participants as they are exposed to the essential oils and carriers and deserve to know how to get something they fell in love with.

      I honestly think that finding one’s own suppliers is a great way to discover and learn. Everyone has unique needs and qualifiers–determining the ones that are compelling and relevant for you is a part of making a thoughtful foray into aromatherapy and essential oils. Suppliers often call out their company’s features and forums, peer groups, and community networks can also do a lot to inform your choice.

      Hope that helps! 🙂

      Blessings,
      Kristina, the Untamed Alchemist

      • Thank you for your prompt response. I have to say I am disappointed that you won’t share your sources for essential oils. As a newbie to oils and reading so much on all the controversies around suppliers I was in hopes after reading your post here I might get a little further with this. I do respect your choice not to provide a supplier list as you appeared informed and experienced. And I was in hopes to to use your knowledge and experience to help guide me.

      • Hi, Deanie. Thank you for your honesty. I can totally understand why you’re disappointed–and I really appreciate the gentle way in which you shared that fact. I have genuinely agonized over this, not least because I have heard from LOTS of people wanting the same thing, most of them in direct messages where many people were not nearly as kind and respectful as you’ve been. On principle, it wouldn’t be fair to exclude potentially amazing suppliers just because I haven’t tried them. Here’s the other very new and very strange thing for me: over fifty thousand people have seen some of my most recent posts, if you can believe it. (Honestly, even *I* can’t.) I am loathe to not only direct business away from suppliers I haven’t tried, I am equally reluctant to overwhelm my current suppliers with customer questions and inquiries.

        All of that said, you CAN find evidence of who I’ve purchased from on this blog. Some of the essential oils I use appear in photographs in posts, some company’s are named inadvertently included in articles I’ve shared, other times I share links to recipes offered on some of my favorite suppliers’ websites, so it’s not impossible to track back. I sincerely hope that helps a little. <3

        Thank you again for your kind comments and your thoughtful reply to my initial response.

        Blessings,
        Kristina, the Untamed Alchemist

      • Again… A thank you! I will look around your site and thanks for your understanding.

  • This is a really good post. I will say on the proprietary GC/MS issue that I have asked my favorite company about why they call it proprietary and I was told it was because any trained chemist would automatically know precisely where the oil had been grown and who the supplier/farmer was and they didn’t want other companies stealing their supplier/farmer from them.

    While I can see my company’s point, I still think that in this day and age, transparency is much more important. I also think that it is quite likely all companies are quite capable of finding out who the suppliers/farmers are for any given company.

    Also, one thing I would add to your list, if it was me, is I would look for companies that practice fair trade. I know there are certain companies who have destroyed small farmers by underpaying them and stealing their growing methods and they are ones I avoid as well. (Just a thought!)

    • I will consider that now it’s brought to my attention. Good point! I was in hopes to get a few trusted suppliers to,begin looking at where there are so many. I wouldn’t know a ethically transparent company as I haven’t any to,compare with. Before I start spending as the essential oils are expensive and,I,don’t want to,waste my money. I have found a facebook group that is willing to,share the experiences with different suppliers so I can research. If I were to google,I,would be forever looking at suppliers. Thanks

    • Thanks for your kind comments, Shannon! I totally agree with your point about seeking out fair trade suppliers; it should probably be called out more directly in the post. I include both environmental AND economic sustainability in my umbrella of sustainability as a whole. Ideally, farmer’s are not only obtaining a fair wage, their communities are also benefitting from their relationships with suppliers.

      It may well be that a chemist could identify a supplier, region, and other details, perhaps even a precise farm, from a GC/MS report–I don’t honestly know. I’m with you in thinking if someone really wanted to know that information could likely be tracked down by a competitor, even without a corresponding GC/MS report. I’m genuinely grateful for the suppliers who willingly share their reports. In the context of what I do personally, they’re imperative. And I’ll still buy a highly recommended, exquisitely aromatic essential oil without a GC/MS for use purely in perfumery! 😉

      • GC/MS stands for gas chromatography/mass spectrometry. A GC/MS is created using special equipment in a laboratory by a trained chemist. Chemists and, to a lesser degree, aromatherapists can use a GC/MS report to identify what chemical constituents are present in a given essential oil and in what volumes. An essential oil will typically present with specific constituents in generally agreed upon ranges. Anything too far out of an expected range, either above or below, may raise questions about the quality or purity of the essential oil. Finding constituents on a GC/MS report that “don’t belong” in a typical sample of that essential oil can also point to adulteration.

        Dr. Rob Pappas, who is perhaps the most accessible (and outspoken!) among the chemists working with essential oils, regularly speaks to the anomalies he finds in his reporting (and he doesn’t provide the names of the companies, either). He regularly provides a lot of insight into what essential oils to watch out for and what he’s been seeing in samples coming through his door. He also debunks a lot of essential oil myths with his rich knowledge and experience in both chemistry and aromatherapy. Much of what he shares can be found by connecting with his Essential Oil University page on Facebook or on the Essential Oil University website. 🙂

  • Yes, a trained chemist can tell what percentages of what oils or “consitituents” of oils are in name brand blends so that those can be replicated with no problem. it is getting the exact recipe from the end product. A trained chemist can tell you the year crop, season and location of an oil. Because part of what makes every crop unique is the soil and the soil has unique markings around the globe.
    GC/MS is a fingerprinting like process that can tell you much much information. The chemist would have to have samples of what types of oils are around the world and most are already loaded onto the GC/MS library (computer memory). It is fun to work with GC/MS. they can do a lot for research and Qualitry Control.
    K

  • Reblogged this on ijpha and commented:
    The Untamed Alchemist further discusses the important factors that matter in selecting essential oils as they matter to her…and I wholeheartedly agree!

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