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IFA Conference 9th June 2012, Holborn

Essential Oils: Ecological & Other Issues Surrounding their Use

Tony Burfield Cropwatch

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. Thus: 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 www.cropwatch.org/Threatened%20Arom atic%20Species%20v1.21.pdf

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. Errwhy? 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 unestablished.

Sandalwood Oil East Indian

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: http://www.cropwatch.org/adulterationupdate08. pdf 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, S24-37 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 Linalyl acetate Linalool 60 ATO, ATD NC, ATI ND; SCI 3, EH A2 N; R51/53 Clary sage 20 ATO 5(3000); ATD NC; Xi; R38 ATI ND; SCI 2; EH A3 2 ATO 5(4200); ATD NC; Xi; R38-41-43 ATI ND; SCI 2; EDI 1; SS 1; EH A2

Clary sage


Clary sage

Geranyl acetate Limonene


N; R51/53

Clary sage

Xi; R38-43, N; R50/53

Harmful Components in Essential Oils?

Peroxides? (levels increase in some aged oils) CMRs 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: www.cropwatch.org/Banned%20essential%20oils. pdf 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 etc.
Cropwatch previously successfully challenged IFRAs ban on Melissa oil and the EUs proposed restriction on citrus oils re: their furocoumarin content. Cropwatchs 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 EUs Scientific Committee for Consumer Products (now the SCCS) UN-GHS: Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (inc. essential oils)