Sourcing Sustainable Essential Oils

Your favorite essential oils may be sourced from critically endangered plants; learn how to replace those oils with sustainable alternatives.

  • Replace essential oils sourced from endangered plants with ones that are more sustainably harvested.
    Photo by Getty Images/temmuzcan
  • Do some research into your essential oil usage.
    Photo by Getty Images/PeopleImages
  • Even though Nepal banned export of spikenard, smuggling of this plant still continues.
    Photo by Adobe Stock/Prashant ZI
  • Sandalwood is a popular essential oil that has a sultry, woodsy smell.
    Photo by Getty Images/Amy_Lv
  • Every part of the rosewood tree is fragrant, which makes it a heavily sought-after source for oils.
    Photo by Adobe Stock/alexanderkonsta
  • Atlas cedar is a slow-growing plant, taking 120 years to mature.
    Photo by Adobe Stock/aaron90311
  • Frankincense promotes peace, wellness, spiritual focus, balances moods, and encourages relaxation.
    Photo by Adobe Stock/Madeleine Steinbach

If we’re not careful, essential oil use could potentially become one of the largest modern sources of environmental damage and plant extinction. Producing just one 15-milliliter bottle of lavender essential oil takes approximately 3 pounds of lavender flowers; and producing a single 15-milliliter bottle of lemon essential oil takes nearly 50 lemons. Clearly, essential oils are an extremely concentrated product that require a massive amount of plant material to produce.

Because these precious oils are natural, generally safe, and effective, it’s fine to use them in small measures when they’re the best solution for a problem. However, as essential oils have gained popularity in our mainstream culture, we’ve left balance in the rearview mirror. Diffusers run all day in many homes simply to make the air smell better or to encourage a feeling of calm. In some of the worst cases of abuse, companies advise the use of these potent oils to flavor water. As our use of essential oils increases, we remain unaware of the demands we place on the plants themselves, as well as the communities and environments in which these plants grow.

Our consideration of this problem — and the steps we can take to remedy it — should begin in our own homes. We, the consumers, must support sustainably sourced essential oils and recognize that many endangered aromatics, including rosewood, sandalwood, and spikenard, need to be used cautiously and with respect.

Finding Substitutes for Endangered Aromatics

Some of our aromatic medicinals can be responsibly forest-grown, but producing them will take time, care, and money. It will also require a consumer who understands that a higher value must be placed on these resources. If you desire to use essential oils, you can do so in a more sustainable way by substituting more common aromatics for endangered ones.

Finding one essential oil to substitute for another of equal quality is a complex notion. Each oil is heavily nuanced and has a specific effect on the emotional, physical, and even the spiritual well-being. You’ll need to find an oil or oil combination to replace the aspect you need. You should do thorough research and take extra precautions when substituting, blending, and using your oils. If you want to avoid unintended consequences, seek the advice of a trained aromatherapy professional as well as a medical practitioner.

Spikenard (Nardostachys grandiflora & N. jatamansi)

Spikenard is a small plant that grows in the Himalayas, particularly Nepal. It’s very difficult to cultivate and therefore is typically wild-harvested. The part of the plant used for essential oils is its root, so when harvested, spikenard is not able to individually regenerate. This fact, combined with an increased demand for the plant, has contributed to its decline. Spikenard was banned from export from Nepal, but the popularity of the plant has ensured that smuggling continues. For example, Young Living — a popular essential oil company — was sentenced to pay $760,000 as part of a plea agreement for illegally trafficking spikenard and rosewood essential oil overseas.

11/23/2020 3:56:41 PM

Thank you so much for this article!! I am an aromatherapist and it makes me sad to see some of the advice that has been handed out by some of the companies all in a gimmick to make you buy more. Less is more, there is no reason a diffuser should be going all day and while there is nothing wrong with ingesting oils it SHOULD NOT be put in water to begin with.

10/12/2019 11:10:55 AM

I agree that we should be mindful of our purchases for the sake of these precious plants. However, how do I know which products to use? This information isn't mainstream. It would be great if EO companies would be mandated to put a disclaimer indicating level of endangerment/resource-ability and viable alternatives.

5/20/2018 7:11:11 PM

Your article makes me sad. Yes, there are companies that are buying from a middleman and that middleman buys from farms that are not practicing sustainable farming. Money is their bottom line. Those oils are full of additives, fillers, and synthetics to stretch the amount of oil and make it faster. They are unsafe to use. Crackdown on those companies, not the reputable ones who are environmentally focused, practice sustainable farming, find replacements for plants that are in danger, don't cut down forests... Your comment about Young Living should have had a little more info on it. Young Living didn't knowingly "traffic" illegally. It was a matter of not having the correct permits. Young Living found the problem during an annual audit. The management that made the mistake is no longer with the company. Young Living turned themselves in. That says quite a bit about their character. They also created a very strict Lacey Act compliance agreement. I don't believe any other company has one. If they hadn't turned themselves in anybody would have ever known. Again, a display of their character. Hydrosols are generally referred to as trash water because it's the leftovers and not much use is left in them as far as subbing them for an essential oil. They are good for cosmetics though. As for MLM's, it's fine that you personally don't like them, but it's no reason to be a hater. Many, many companies around the world operate as an MLM and many people are thriving because of it. Don't let one bad apple spoil the whole bunch.

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