Stepping into the World of Essential Oils

Disclaimer: this post is going to be somewhat critical of doTerra and of multi-level marketing companies in general.  The intent is not to give offense, but to process through my own research, as well as to point out the importance of doing one’s homework.  Never before in history has information been so readily available to the general public.  With the Internet, it is so easy to research and learn about any topic, and yet most of us are content to believe whatever we hear without checking the facts.  Often we ourselves even contribute to the spread of misinformation, not because we are trying to deceive anyone, but because we just assume what we’ve been told is the truth – sometimes it isn’t.

I have been wanting to start using essential oils (mostly for cleaning and air freshener) for some time now.  I knew very little about them, but the idea of using fewer synthetic chemicals in my home was appealing to me.  So naturally, I was very excited to be invited to a doTerra class.

It’s called a “class” because there’s a textbook, and you learn things about specific oils (their properties, common uses, etc.), but if you’ve ever been to a Mary Kay or Pampered Chef party (or Tupperware party, to be more original) the structure is basically the same.  You learn about the products, you hear lots of testimonials, you try some samples, and then you order.  Along with the ordering process, you can opt to become a consultant so that you can make a little money selling the products yourself.

I was very intrigued, but I couldn’t afford to buy anything at the time.  I went home determined to save my money to buy a kit, but I also thought it would be a good idea to do some research on essential oils in general, and doTerra specifically, before purchasing anything.  I mean, if I’m going to plunk down $30 per 5-15 mL bottle, plus a $35 membership fee (which is waived if you opt for one of the kits – they start around $150), I want to know what it is I’m getting, and whether there are alternatives out there of equal quality, for less money.  I’m glad I did this, because so far my research has been very eye-opening.

The first thing I found out is that every company claims to sell the highest quality essential oils available.  Obviously, every company (no matter what they sell) is going to say as much as they can legally get away with – and in some cases, more than they can legally get away with – to convince people to buy their product.  These statements are claims; they are not facts.  Facts can be used to substantiate or invalidate those claims.

So how can we know whether a company’s claims are true?

doTerra is quick to answer with the phrase “Certified Pure Therapeutic Grade.”  They claim theirs are the only products that have earned this designation because they are rigorously tested for purity and potency, and only the products that meet their exceptionally high standards are labeled CPTG and sold under the doTerra label.  No other company has CPTG oils; therefore doTerra’s products are unquestionably the best.

This claim is misleading because the CPTG logo is a registered trademark, and the owner of the trademark is doTerra (scroll down to the bottom of the last page I linked, or look at the screenshot below).  No other company’s essential oils can be called CPTG in the same way that no other company’s essential oils can be called doTerra.  The truth is, there are no certified essential oils.  Unlike many other certifications, such as the USDA Organic seal, there is no organization that regulates or tests all essential oils and certifies the ones that meet the grade.  This is not to say that doTerra’s products are not as good as they claim, or that they are not really tested for purity; it just means the CPTG stamp is no indicator of doTerra’s quality relative to other companies’ products.

There are, however, certified organic essential oils.  The USDA and NOP regulations concerning organic products are strict and clearly laid out, and several companies are accredited by these organizations to certify, among other things, essential oils.  Here are a few I found in a quick Internet search:

Midwest Organic Services Association

Organic Certifiers

Bay State Organic Certifiers

Interestingly, doTerra does not offer any certified organic essential oils, while many other companies do.  They claim their products are free of pesticides and basically the same quality as certified organic oils, but they simply don’t go through the certification process, because varying standards make it difficult to obtain certification for all their oils.  However, many essential oil companies offer organic as well as non-organic oils, and a few offer certified organic oils only.


The second thing I learned about essential oils, or EOs for short, is that there are two very important factors for determining the quality of an essential oil: purity and potency.  

Purity means that the bottled product is 100% essential oil, with no fillers, additives, or bases – nothing added, nothing taken away.  In other words, pure means undiluted, containing only one ingredient.  “Pure” does not mean safe, nontoxic, organic, or hypoallergenic.  I put that in bold because it will become important later.  Many companies claim their oils are “100% Pure,” but that really doesn’t mean anything. Peppermint extract, the kind you get at the grocery store, says “100% Pure” right on the bottle and it’s 90% alcohol (turn the bottle over and read the ingredients).  

Potency refers to the strength of the oil.  EOs are highly concentrated substances, often requiring hundreds of plants to yield a few milliliters.  The idea is that more potent an oil is, the more of its beneficial qualities you receive when you use it. EOs tend to be the most potent when they are harvested from their indigenous environments; many EO companies import a large number of their oils because they are not indigenous to the US.  Good essential oils are extremely potent, concentrated and in quantities that do not occur in nature.  This fact is also very important to remember later so it is also in bold.

So if there are no industry regulations on essential oils, how do you know if a company’s claims to purity and potency are true?  The only way is to get documentation, and some EO companies will provide you with such upon request.  To be more specific, you should look for GC-MS (gas chromatography –  mass spectrometry) reports for each batch of oils, which refer to the quality testing done on the products, as well as MSDS (material safety data sheets), which include instructions on the safe usage of the products.  doTerra claims to do GC-MS testing, among other tests, but I don’t think there’s a way to obtain the documenation for them.  That doesn’t mean they’re lying about what testing they do; it just means other companies, which do provide that information, are more transparent.

At the doTerra class, I was told by the consultant that doTerra owns or controls about 80% of the world’s essential oil, either in owning the land or in purchasing more oil than the company uses.  I was told that the oil doTerra purchases that does not meet its quality standards is sold to other EO companies, which sell them at a lower price.  As far as my research can determine, nothing about this claim is true.  doTerra’s own website affirms that doTerra does not own any farms and only purchases high quality oils – if the oils are low quality, doTerra doesn’t purchase them.  Now, I don’t know if they purchase apparently high quality oils, test them, find them inferior, and then sell them to other companies – that’s certainly possible.  That means it’s important that the essential oil company you choose is upfront about exactly where they purchase their oils.

The next thing I learned is that you should not ingest essential oils unless directed to do so by a licensed aromatherapist who has an insurance policy that covers internal use of essential oils.  doTerra confidently asserts that their oils are safe to consume, and their website, consultants, and member magazine all encourage daily consumption.  They claim that because their oils are the purest available, they are safe to ingest.  However, the issue is not purity but potency.  Think about it: we consume impurities all the time (ever drunk from a drinking fountain?).  Our bodies are pretty good at flushing them out, although we should certainly do what we can do avoid them when possible.  However, consuming any edible thing in a large enough quantity can be not only dangerous, but potentially fatal.  A glass of red wine is great for your heart; several gallons will kill you.  You can overdose on just about anything, but most of the substances we consume are in small enough amounts that we’re not in danger.

Remember what I said about how good essential oils are extremely potent?  doTerra claims that its es
sential oils are the highest quality possible, which means they should be the most potent possible.  Shouldn’t that mean they are the most dangerous to consume?  Essential oils are so highly concentrated that even one or two drops could overload your system.  This doesn’t mean everyone who consumes EOs is going to be poisoned or die.  I mean, you can take strychnine without being fatally poisoned if you take a small enough dose (it used to be an ingredient in certain medications).  There have been reports of poisoning and even fatalities as a result of ingesting EOs – rare, to be sure, but very real.  Consuming EOs without the approval of a licensed aromatherapist is like taking prescription drugs without the approval of a medical doctor.  It may or may not kill you, but it’s not a good idea.

Fourthly, I learned that most essential oils should be diluted when used on the skin.  Again, here doTerra differs from the consensus of respected experts in the field of aromatherapy by recommending the use of neat (undiluted) essential oils.  There are a few that can safely be used on skin, but most should be diluted in what’s called a “carrier oil” (such as coconut or grapeseed oil, although there are many others).  The recommendations I’ve seen generally are 1-5% essential oil.  Also, greater caution should be used in applying EOs to the skin of children.  In my experience, children are a bit more sensitive to external stimuli in many forms (sunlight, temperature, spiciness, etc.), not just EOs.  Traditional medications are prescribed in smaller doses for children than adults; logically, the same goes for EOs.  Remember, “purity” does not mean hypoallergenic – it means you’re putting an undiluted, highly concentrated, extremely potent substance directly on your skin.  It’s just wisest to take precautions.

Finally, I learned that multi-level marketing drives up costs.  Multi-level marketing, or MLM, is a company structure in which consumers can become low-level management by selling the product they also purchase.  Avon, Mary Kay, Thirty-One, Youg Living, Pampered Chef, doTerra, and many other companies are MLM companies.  You have the executives at the top of the ladder, and below them are multiple layers of people who sell doTerra to other people, who in turn sell it to others.  The higher up on the ladder you get, the greater your discount on the product – this creates incentive to sell to others.  There are lots of bonuses and freebies built into the system for added incentive.  However, all these levels drive up the overall cost of the product because that is a lot of salaries you are paying for when you buy your product.  This doesn’t make the product bad, and it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t buy it – but if you wonder why the product is so expensive, well, now you know.

After all I’ve read and all I’ve now written, do I think doTerra is bad or that people shouldn’t order from them?  Not necessarily.  I’m sure their products are good quality – in fact, if you’re active in some kind of athletic field, it might be worth it to you to get your oils from doTerra simply because their “Deep Blue” rub is so good – it’s like IcyHot, but it actually works.  So far I haven’t found a product like it from any other EO company, although I’m going to try to see if a blend of the essential oils they used, added to lotion, will work.  Anyway, I am just not convinced doTerra is the best company, or that their quality is worth the price tag, at least for me.

I am still a novice when it comes to essential oils, and I will continue to research before I start using them. If you want to learn more about essential oils, if you’re looking for a company and really want to do your homework, or if you already use essential oils, a number of bloggers and websites have done far more thorough research than I have.  Here are the main ones I found helpful:

Whole New Mom (part 1 of a 7-part series)

Granola Living

Crunchy Betty