Sourcing Sustainable Essential Oils

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

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.

How it’s used: Spikenard is a sedative for the central nervous system. It’s used to uplift and promote relaxation. Topically, it’s used to encourage clean, healthy skin.


Healthy skin: Rose geranium (Pelargonium graveolens)

Mood lifter: Lime* (Citrus aurantifolia) or ylang-ylang (Cananga odorata)

Relaxation: Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)

Sedative: Mandarin (Citrus reticulata)

*May cause photosensitivity if produced by cold-pressing.
For topical application, use lime produced by steam distillation.

Sandalwood (Santalum album)

True sandalwood is a slow-growing tree native to India. It doesn’t reach maturity until it’s 80 years old. For essential oil production, it can be harvested when it’s as young as 30, but the tree must be uprooted because the root is the part that’s used. Around the world, multiple species of sandalwood are threatened by our demand, including the Hawaiian species S. paniculatum and the Australian S. spicata. In most places, the old-growth wood supply is simply not able to keep up with demand in a sustainable way.

How it’s used: Sandalwood has a sultry smell that’s been used in meditation and spiritual focus. It’s used topically as an anti-wrinkle solution and to reduce scars. In aromatherapy, it’s used for anxiety relief and grounding.


Clear skin: Tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia)

Grounding: Vetiver (Chrysopogon zizanioides)

Mature or dry skin: German chamomile (Matricaria recutita)

Spiritual focus and meditation: Myrrh (Commiphora myrrha)

Rosewood (Aniba rosaeodora & A. duckei)

Rosewood grows in the rainforests of northern South America. Every part of this tree is fragrant, making it a highly sought-after medicinal and aromatic oil. The tree must be cut down to harvest the oil, so it can’t regenerate individually. Where it’s not endangered, it’s threatened. A better substitute oil is from ho wood (Cinnamomum camphora ct linalol), an abundant plant with a similar chemical profile and aroma to rosewood. 

How it’s used: Rosewood is used topically for acne, scars, and sensitive and dry skin, and is very soothing to the central nervous system. It has a sweet, rose-like aroma, used to combat colds and flu, headaches, and stress.


Acne: Neroli (Citrus aurantium)

Anxiety, stress, and depression: Tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum)

Colds and flu: Lemon (Citrus limon)

Sensitive, dry skin: Rose absolute (Rosa x damascena), German chamomile

Atlas Cedar (Cedrus atlantica)

The Atlas cedar tree, native to Morocco, takes about 120 years to mature. It’s endangered because of negative weather patterns and overharvesting for a number of uses. Some studies have found that the oil can be produced from the waste wood and sawdust left over from other uses of the tree, and other studies have found that oil can be extracted from other parts of the plant, such as the leaves. Even though the essential oil market isn’t necessarily driving this tree to extinction, finding substitutes for Atlas cedar helps bolster the population and support those who are fighting to protect this tree from other threats.

How it’s used: Cedar has a long history as an aromatherapy tool to increase mental focus and act as a decongestant. It’s often used in a diffuser to ease coughs and colds.


Decongestant/coughs and colds: Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus)

Focus: Tulsi or peppermint (Mentha x piperita)

Frankincense (Boswellia spp.)

Trees in the Boswellia genus ooze a special resin, which we call frankincense. The tree bark is damaged to encourage resin production, which is stressful for the plant. The tree doesn’t need to be cut down; thus, along with habitat loss, its greatest threat is people over-stressing trees until they weaken and die. Boswellia carterii is said to be the most-used species for essential oils. Based on location, its status changes. In Somalia, it’s threatened, but in Oman, it’s critically endangered.

How it’s used: Frankincense is said to promote peace and overall wellness. It’s used in aromatherapy to balance moods and encourage relaxation. It has also been used to enable a spiritual connection during prayer and meditation while acting as a grounding energy.


Inner peace: Tulsi or lavender

Mature skin: German chamomile

Prayer and meditation: Myrrh

Stay Smart with Essential Oil Purchases

Becoming aware of public sentiment toward sustainability, some of the industries that rely on essential oils have created new marketing campaigns. We’re told that the plants are being sustainably grown on vast farms. These are often monoculture cropping systems that must clear-cut old-growth forests for the ground they farm. We’re also told that even though the resources are scarce, when we make a purchase, we provide income to indigenous populations that need a hand. In the long term, those resources will dry up. When the forest is empty of the crop those populations are paid for, their communities are even more at risk for poverty, landslides, disease, and more.

Be aware of which organizations are trustworthy and avoid corporate multilevel marketing schemes. Instead, source your oils from companies that work with distillers, producers, and communities with care; that stay transparent about their oils’ contents and where they’re sourced from; and that operate sustainably on multiple levels.

Try Hydrosols First

Hydrosols (also known as “hydrolats”) are gentle, aromatic distillations that offer a sustainable replacement for essential oils. When aromatic plants are distilled, a small amount of essential oil and a large amount of water come out of the still. The oil on top contains the fat-loving (lipophilic) compounds. Later, the oil is separated from the water and sold as essential oil. The remaining water is the hydrosol, and it contains the plants’ water-loving (hydrophilic) compounds. Two well-known examples of hydrosols are rose water and witch hazel.

Hydrosols offer a range of therapeutic benefits, depending on usage. Add some to a spray bottle to mist your bed for a relaxing evening; spritz some on your wrists for a natural perfume; apply some as a facial toner to help restore the skin’s natural acid mantle; and the list continues. It’s also fairly easy to make your own hydrosols using plants from your garden, whereas it’s unrealistic for most home gardeners to grow the amount of plant material needed to make essential oils. 

We will further explore hydrosols in our July/August 2018 issue. 

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