Organic or Non-Organic?

When it comes to essential oils, there can be fierce debate over which brands of oils are the best. One thing that is commonly put forth as a clear characteristic of superiority is the fact that some brands bottle organically grown oils, whereas others do not. But is all the hype about organic oils really something to stand behind when defending your favorite brand, and should you purchase oils solely by merit of the fact that they are organic? Let's take a look at the facts and find out.

First off, it's important to clear up a misconception about organic products. This is that "organic" does not necessarily equate to "pesticide free" or even to "chemical free." In fact, unless you get all your essential oils from your neighbor who distills the oils from the plants that grow wild in her yard, you are almost guaranteed to be coming into contact with some synthetic chemicals. Nonetheless, the USDA's regulations are fairly stringent and require that organic farms must be able to actually demonstrate during inspections that they are protecting the environment's biodiversity and natural resources and are using only approved substances. From their own blog post on the topic of what the USDA organic label means,

"Produce can be called organic if it’s certified to have grown on soil that had no prohibited substances applied for three years prior to harvest. Prohibited substances include most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. In instances when a grower has to use a synthetic substance to achieve a specific purpose, the substance must first be approved according to criteria that examine its effects on human health and the environment…"

The prohibited substances mentioned above can be found in full on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances, and they tend to include many of the harsher pesticides and chemicals that man has invented over the decades. Obviously, organic farms cannot use glyphosate (the principle ingredient in Roundup® Weed Killer) on their crops if they want to maintain their status as an organic farm, but what are some of the substances they can use? The list states that several chemicals that seem rather harsh to us may be used "[i]n accordance with restrictions specified in this section…Provided, That, use of such substances do not contribute to contamination of crops, soil, or water…" There is some ongoing debate about just how much of these substances must be present before "contamination" is declared to have occurred, but the fact remains that certain chemicals are allowed to organic farmers. Some of the synthetic approved substances include alcohols (ethanol and isopropanol) when used for disinfection and sanitizing, including irrigation system cleaning; chlorinated chemicals (calcium hypochlorite, chlorine dioxide, and sodium hypochlorite) for pre-harvest use as long as certain levels are not exceeded; copper sulfate as an algicide and for tadpole shrimp control in aquatic rice systems; ferric phosphate as slug and snail bait; elemental sulfur and lime sulfur for use as pesticides; and ozone gas to clean irrigation systems. Now, did you know that these substances were allowed? Even though most of them are fairly harmless as long as they are used in moderation, I'm sure that many of you didn't have this knowledge and are somewhat surprised or alarmed to see such chemicals are still approved for use on and around food crops. 

With the misconception about organic crops and chemical use cleared away, then, let's take a look at how organic essential oils stack up to their non-organic cousins. To understand their similarities and differences a little better, let's take a look at how most essential oils are extracted via a process known as steam distillation. For those of you with organic chemistry backgrounds, you're probably well familiar with the principle behind distillation, and this is the general setup you would find in your laboratory hood for such a procedure. As the water and the compound containing the desired substance reach a boil in the round flask (pictured on the left), the water vapor formed carries molecules of the distillate up into the condenser (the nearly horizontal tube in the center), where the water jacket cools it down until it can drip out the other end into the second round flask as a pure substance mixed with the condensed water.

In the process of distilling essential oils, a similar setup is used. All the plant matter that contains the desired oil is placed into a large metal drum with a grate or porous plate of some kind at the bottom that will allow steam to travel upward through the plants. As the hot water vapor passes through the material, molecules of essential oil, heated to vapor state, rise upward with the steam until they reach the outlet to the drum, at which point the tube containing the vapor passes through a water tank to cool everything down and then into a collection tank which is separated into two sections for collection of the oil, which floats to the top, and the hydrosol (or "flower water"), which remains at the bottom. Two examples of such distillation units are pictured below.

In this figure, the water tank producing the steam is kept separate from the drum containing the plant material.

In this figure, the drum containing the plant matter is contained in the same unit as the water that is boiled to produce steam.

When distillation occurs, the oils from tens to even hundreds or thousands of plants become concentrated into the substances that we use and enjoy. However, distillation does not just extract the essential oil from plants. At least some of the chemicals that were used during the plants' growth have the possibility of being extracted as well, which means that the substances used on those tens or hundreds of plants are now also concentrated into your bottle of essential oil. So whether organic or non-organic, the essential oils you use are quite likely to contain some synthetic chemicals.

If you believe that the approved substances from organic farming are healthier for you and your family to be exposed to, then organic oils are your best bet. It is also good to remember, though, that the non-organic oils do not automatically have high levels of multiple toxic substances in them. If even one of the unapproved substances from the National List is used on the plants, then it cannot be labeled as organic, even if the producer does not use any of the other prohibited chemicals. The important thing to consider is which chemicals you are comfortable with your family potentially being exposed to. In the event of concerns over the purity of an oil, companies that offer chemical composition reports such as IR, NMR and GCMS are helpful so long as they provide you with a means to read and understand such reports.

What are your thoughts on organic versus non-organic oils? Share them in the comments below!

Helpful Links:

National List of Approved and Prohibited Substances

Some Pesticides Permitted in Organic Gardening

Organic 101:  What the USDA Organic Label Means