the big, burning question, answered (sort of), part i of iii

Of all of the questions I’m asked as an aromatherapist, the question about “which brand” of essential oils I recommend is BY FAR the most commonly posed — it’s also one of the most problematic and troublesome questions to answer. It’s especially precarious to provide a pat answer on a blog….

For me to really address this question meaningfully takes a lot of energy, honesty, and context, especially as I find it impossible to answer in short fashion. So I’ll be “answering” this question in three parts.

My “big picture” has to be in place for you to understand and appreciate my response, not least because my thinking challenges the context of the question itself.

So, rather than answer the question by naming a company, I’m going to walk you through how I address this question in the context of my workshops–and that’s going to take more than one post. My response will come in three parts: my perspective on the question itself (part i), things I consider when choosing an essential oil supplier (part ii), and my personal “red flags” (part iii).

Part I: “What brand of essential oils do I recommend?”

Thoughts on the Question: Essential Oils As “Brands”

The question of “which brand is my favorite” is impossible to answer because of HOW I think about essential oils (and therefore consider the question) in the first place…

branding cloudI don’t personally engage with essential oils as “brands.”

By common definition, a brand is “a type of product manufactured by a particular company under a particular name.” In my mind, nature produces the source materials from which essential oils are derived; the truth of that anchors both the magic I find and the trust I have in essential oils in general.

Since pure essential oils are sourced from nature and procured (as opposed to formally “manufactured”) and handled by people I consider to be craftspeople, I don’t think of essential oils as brand-able goods, at least not in the modern marketing sense of the word.

In my opinion, there’s only one entity that really has a monopoly on the purity, quality, efficacy, aroma, and energetics of an essential oil: Mother Nature.

(Regrettably, she has heretofore remained silent on a single essential oil company that she prefers.)

When I think of an essential oil, I think of the Latin name of its source and the therapeutic properties, energetics, folklore, and rich history associated with it. I think of farmers as stewards and distillers as artisans. And I think of the companies that sell essential oils as representatives. In the simplest of terms, I don’t think of companies when I think about essential oils, I think about essential oils.

The Challenges of Brand-Loyalty

Another problematic result of “brand” thinking lies in the common concept of “brand loyalty.” Consumers exhibit brand loyalty when they faithfully decide to purchase a product from a specific company over-and-over again. If you’re truly brand-loyal to Annie’s Organic Macaroni and Cheese, for example, and they don’t have Annie’s in stock at the store on a given day, you simply won’t buy mac and cheese. You’ll eschew every other mac and cheese on the shelf; you’ll wait until you can get Annie’s.

This brand dynamic doesn’t translate to essential oils for me.

Remember, I’m not thinking about a company (Annie’s), I’m thinking about essential oils (mmmmmm, mac and cheese). Do you have any idea how many amazing ways there are to enjoy mac and cheese?!

I’m not looking to find one-and-done. Quite the contrary: I am eager to try different essential oils from different companies. I WANT to experience breadth, depth, spectrum, and connoisseurship in relationship to essential oils. That’s part of what my engagement with aromatherapy is all about. I absolutely have standards in choosing which suppliers from whence to buy, but there is also more than one supplier that has met that standard. And every one of them has provided me with essential oils that are sublime.

In my opinion, if I immovably commit to a single company or brand of essential oils, I immediately limit the scope of my aromatherapy experience and the breadth and depth of my blending. For one thing, I would no longer have a broader context for the myriad ways in which a given essential oil may be different from one supplier to another. (This would make me a particularly terrible aromatherapy educator….) For another, it would limit my use to include only those essential oils, chemical components, and source locations that are relevant to my chosen company. This is unimaginable to me.

Avoiding one “brand” completely in favor of another prevents me from discovering and appreciating the subtle and sometimes powerful differences between one company’s Rose damascena from Bulgaria and another’s Rose damascena from Turkey. I didn’t get into aromatherapy just so I could eventually set myself up to miss those kinds of moments!

single rose petal

To be completely honest, I do look to one primary supplier in securing essential oils specifically for my clinical and private label blends, but that’s only because I need to have some level of consistency in the details and chemical composition of those blends. I also enjoy the benefit of being recognized as a wholesaler by that supplier, so I can also spare some expense. I nevertheless have essential oils from many companies in my oil fridge — and I credit several companies among those as being responsible for my favorites.

One more caveat to the brand loyalty moment that may well blow your mind: different essential oil companies sometimes buy their essential oils from the same quality distillers. (Yes, even multi-level marketing companies.) Same crop, same harvest date, same batch in the still. Same essential oil.

That’s because those distillers meet some of the industry’s highest standards with respect to quality, purity, sustainability, and more. That means it’s entirely possible that two different companies are selling the exact same oil from the exact same distiller. While that might seem strange, it’s perfectly logical if you consider that essential oils are sourced from all over the world — ideally from their native environment and climate. It would be unreasonable for one to expect that hundreds of different suppliers in the United States all had unique touch points and sources for a single essential oil whose native climate and best source is considered to be the relatively tiny country of Somalia.

With that understanding of my perspective, it may be easier for you to understand why I’m not interested in naming one supplier over another–two suppliers may have the exact same essential oil! One supplier may be able to handle larger volume, another not so much. I might recommend the rose absolute from one company one year, a different one the next. I might also recommend two rose oils in any single year…

I also haven’t tried every essential oil from every company, so my scope is limited. Naming names feels divisive to me. And the last thing aromatherapy needs is more division….

The Monetization of Brand Loyalty

(Yes, good people, I’m going to go there. Because addressing any burning question comes with the risk of setting oneself on fire, n’est ce pas?)

Sadly, single company brand-loyalty in aromatherapy can also contribute to real tension, frustration, and anxiety in the field as people rigorously defend or violently tear down the reputation of various competing companies.

It’s disheartening to see reputable suppliers having to defend themselves against what really amounts to trademarked marketing language used by other suppliers. It’s disturbing to hear people suggest that there is not only an oil for everything, but also a single source for that oil. It saddens me that another aromatherapist would allow for the wholesale dismissal of my account of a given batch of Eucalyptus citriadora just because it didn’t have the right company name on the label. It’s just not who I thought we were, what I thought aromatherapy was about, or where this beautiful community and industry started.

Since first discovering essential oils many years ago, I have always delighted in those moments when a colleague shared a particularly spectacular bottle of essential oil — there is nothing quite like “word-of-nose” in aromatherapy.

Some of the best among those moments have come when one supplier has straight-up fawned over another supplier’s essential oil, telling me without hesitation, “myGAWD, have you experienced so-and-so’s new batch of Sandalwood? No? Here you MUST have a moment alone with it….” And they merrily part my company so that I, too, can have a private moment to indulge in the unfathomable joy that one of their competitors has provided.

In my humble, limited, and imperfect view, much of the tension, hostility, impatience, frustration, vehemence, and fervor that exhaust many aromatherapists talking about essential oils in the United States today has come with the advent of monetization (or direct compensation) for brand-loyalty.

When multi-level marketing companies began directly rewarding their sales representatives for the volume of essential oils sold under their brand name, what was once an earnest and independent recommendation about quality essential oils became directly equated with a bottom line; people began profiting directly when their family, friends, neighbors, and associates committed to their company and their downline.

As multi-level marketing aromatherapy companies grew in the U.S., I saw two things happen: first, I heard more and more people communicating that there was a single source of quality essential oils. Second, I began to hear people suggesting that “more is better” when it comes to essential oils: ideas, recipes, and applications surfaced that leveraged increasingly unsafe practices (and relatively enormous volumes of essential oils). And in my mind, the fact that essential oils are sometimes suggested for use in “ALL the things” and now consumed in such large quantities by a more general public is not a coincidence. Because people are directly compensated for the volume of essential oils they sell.

To be clear, and before some of you go all sideways, I don’t necessarily think MLMs should be burned to the ground, shut down altogether, or prevented from supplying essential oils.

I also don’t necessarily think ill of all of their oils or their representatives, though I do have my opinions (particularly about those individuals who promote what I consider to be unsafe practices in the name of increasing their sales and expanding their downline).

There are many MLM representatives who have pursued education beyond their MLM company, promote safe practices, sell essential oils conscientiously, and are motivated by an authentic and personal engagement with essential oils. I’m not trying to bash MLM reps *or* sweep the knee of MLM structure.

But I am weary of the MLM model and what the model appears to have wrought on what was once a very different community and industry. The model makes conversations like “who is your favorite company?” prickly. It sometimes instigates fierce and unfriendly dialogues. I feel like more and more people are pitted against each other–and against companies, including MLMs. And it all divorces us from much of the best of what I believe aromatherapy is all about….

So I am jaded by the notion of essential oil “brands” and “brand loyalty.” I am challenged in faithfully, concisely, and comprehensively responding when someone asks me that question: “Which brand of essential oils do you recommend?”

In good faith, I can’t answer, not without a heap of disclaimers and an ocean of context.

(*I* shouldn’t be directing where your money goes anyway.)

And so I can’t reply to the question of which brand or company I recommend because I can recommend many for different reasons–and I still haven’t tried them all. 

I can tell you the criteria I use in choosing my cherished suppliers, which is exactly what I’m going to do next, in part ii

Bless and blessed be,

Kristina, the Untamed Alchemist

8 Comments

  1. Stephy

    Thank you VERY much for this blog. I have my own feelings about the “there’s an oil for that, and go ahead and use it neat and drink it” stuff. You put many of my feelings into eloquent words. I have shared and subscribed. 🙂

  2. catt33

    As someone who is very new to the world of EOs, but not interested in the MLM model, I appreciate your thoughts. I want to approach this journey as an art, as a relationship – between the oils and me, between my recipient and the oils, as well as between my recipient and me. I want to learn and absorb the science to make those relationships sound and healthy. I don’t want to simply rely on the quarterly marketing promo from the home office and more focused on their bottom line. Like you said, I want to embrace the subtle nuances between the batch from Bulgaria and the batch from Turkey. I don’t want to miss out on those moments, especially since I am so new to this. I look forward to your next installment.

  3. Kate

    Love this article. As someone who works in the industry of supplying essential oils both as a retail product and also as a wholesaler, your point about different essential oil companies buying from the same distillers and down to the same batch is so true. I source Australian essential oils for large companies in the US and Europe and I can tell you the same batch can be scattered around many, even the MLMs. I guess its how they deal with the after receiving it that might be the point of difference the aromatherapy world sees, tests and smells!

  4. Katie

    Yes! This! This is every thought I’ve ever had on this subject! I am dancing up and down fist pumping the air! I’ve been a fan of oils for 10 years–before the big oil boom–and I have also been dismayed with the shift. I never imagined such a beautiful tool could turn into such a riotous topic! Or that the joke would be “3 things you should never bring up: politics, religion, and essential oils.” Thank you for speaking these much-needed truths!

  5. ijpha

    Reblogged this on ijpha and commented:
    I am sharing this blog piece written by a dear friend who is always aver so eloquent in expressing her point of view (often shared by myself and so many others in the aromatic community). I highly encourage anyone engaged in buying essential oils to read this. (PS…there’s no brand bashing)

  6. RC

    I love your thoughts and opinions on this subject.
    While I do represent a new Direct Sales EO company, I have been using EO’s for nearly 40 years. I aligned myself with this company because they are all about safe usage, and education. We do not promote over usage, or bashing other companies. I personally have and use oils from several different companies.

    I am currently enrolled in a certified aromatherapist school, with hopes to become certified by the end of the year.

    Thank you for taking the time to explain your thought process, I am intrigued.

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