Waste Not: Essential Oils and Sustainability

With the explosion of interest in essential oils, these potent plant extracts are in high demand. But with demand come questions of sustainability, and author Stephanie Tourles urges to you ask about sourcing before you buy.

Photo of citrus fruits, grapefruit, orange, and lemon, on a spread of herbs with a small blue spray bottle and tin of balm.
Photo © Michaela Jebb, excerpted from Stephanie Tourles’s Essential Oils: A Beginner’s Guide.

Essential oils are potent, chemically complex extracts of herbs, spices, fruits, and other plants. They form the basis of the fragrant science of aromatherapy — the therapeutic application of pure, superior-grade essential oils for physical and psychological well-being. Aromatherapy appeals on many levels, and its skyrocketing popularity might be growing more rapidly than other methods of natural healing.

Have you ever stopped to think about just how much plant material it takes to produce essential oils? Aromatic plants contain anywhere from 0.005 to 10 percent essential oil, with the average amount being 1 to 2 percent. With citrus fruits, the uplifting, refreshing essential oil squirts out in such profusion that it’s easy to collect, but not all plants contain essential oil in such quantity. It takes 40 to 60 rosebuds, for example, to produce a single drop of rose otto essential oil — that’s 600 pounds of rose petals for a single ounce of essential oil! It takes nearly eight million jasmine blossoms, hand-picked on the day the flowers open, to produce just over 2 pounds of superior essential oil. For tart-sweet lemon balm, one of the rarest essential oils, upward of 3 tons of fresh leaves and flowering tops are distilled to make 1 pound of essential oil. Not surprisingly, rose, jasmine, and lemon balm are three of the most expensive (and most adulterated) essential oils on the market.

Photo of an oil dropper on a wooden platter with slices of orange and orange peel.
Citrus fruits contain essential oils in such profusion that it’s easy to collect. Photo © Mars Vilaubi, excerpted from Stephanie Tourles’s Essential Oils: A Beginner’s Guide.

Thankfully, not all plant materials are that stingy with their essential oil. One pound of essential oil can be extracted from approximately 250 pounds of rosemary leaves, or from 150 pounds of lavender buds, or 50 pounds of eucalyptus leaves, making the prices for these oils accordingly lower.

The growth of an industry dependent on natural resources brings challenges, and the rapid boom in the sales of essential oils during the past decade or so has sparked concerns over sustainable sourcing. Securing a supply chain can definitely be challenging for an essential oil broker, retailer, or product manufacturer. Circumstances beyond the grower’s or wild-harvester’s control — climate conditions, pestilence or disease, labor availability, and civil unrest — all add layers of complexity and can lead to supply shortages.

I sometimes hear the argument that essential oils waste natural resources because they require too much plant material compared to other herb-based products such as infused herbal oils, teas, and tinctures. Well, I beg to differ. If highly concentrated essential oils are used properly, they can be both environmentally sustainable and economical. Granted, one drop of an essential oil does represent a lot of plant material, so use that precious drop wisely, understanding and honoring its potency. Remember that in aromatherapy, more is not better. A little goes a long, long way! Don’t use 20 drops of peppermint in a revitalizing foot bath when 5 to 8 drops will suffice, nor 4 drops of lavender on a mosquito bite when 1 will do the job. Lower dilutions are not only economical but safer for the skin, too.

Photo of frankincense and oil dropper on a plate.
Frankincense essential oil is in great demand but resources are limited and confined to drought-prone regions of the world, making it one of the essential oils most vulnerable to illegal poaching and trade. Photo © Mars Vilaubi, excerpted from Stephanie Tourles’s Essential Oils: A Beginner’s Guide.

Certain essential oils such as Indian sandalwood, agarwood, and rosewood, though not discussed in my book Stephanie Tourles’s Essential Oils: A Beginner’s Guide, continue to be unsustainably produced from dwindling resources. Professional aromatherapy organizations and responsible aromatherapists do not support the continued use of essential oils from threatened species, especially when there are viable alternatives. Also worth watching are frankincense and myrrh, as they are in great demand but are collected from limited resources in areas of the world that tend to suffer from severe drought conditions. These five highly sought-after and valuable essential oils, in particular, are often subject to illegal poaching and trade, as they bring big bucks to the shady harvester.

It is your right and, I believe, your duty to ask your suppliers about their sustainability policies and how and where they obtain their oils. Consumer dollars speak loudly, and your purchases influence decisions that directly and indirectly impact our environment as well as economic and social policies. I encourage you to ask questions and let your suppliers know that you are concerned about these vital issues.

For more information about the world of essential oils, for additional aromatherapy education, or to seek the guidance of a professional aromatherapist, here are two trusted resources for you to visit:

Becoming an educated, discerning consumer will only enhance your enjoyment of the natural pleasures and benefits offered by these powerful, aromatic plant essences.

Excerpted and adapted from Stephanie Tourles’s Essential Oils: A Beginner’s Guide © Stephanie Tourles.

Stephanie L. Tourles

Stephanie L. Tourles

About the Author

Stephanie L. Tourles is the best-selling author of Pure Skin Care,Stephanie Tourles's Essential Oils: A Beginner's Guide, Organic Body Care Recipes, Hands-On Healing Remedies, and Raw Energy. She is a certified foot and hand reflexologist and aromatherapist—and a licensed massage therapist and holistic esthetician. Tourles also has a strong background in Western and Ayurvedic herbalism. She lives in Marble Falls, Texas.

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