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What are Organic Essential Oils?

In recent years, organic essential oils have been appearing on shelves and online. Similar to food products, organic essential oils imply they are of high quality, may be more ‘natural’ than competitors, and may have a greater therapeutic value.

Essential oils sold in the United States are regulated by the FDA as either a cosmetic or drug depending on their purported claims. For cosmetic purposes, essential oils must adhere to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) and the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA). Neither of these guidelines have regulated definition of ‘organic’ or ‘organic cosmetics’.This provides some confusion of over what exactly an organic essential oil is, and how to oversee these claims.

How are organic claims regulated?

USDA Certified Organic essential oils

The USDA Certified Organic Seal is the only recognized standard for organic essential oils. There is no regulation for terms such as ‘therapeutic grade’ or ‘grade A’ essential oils.

The Agricultural Marketing Service of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulates the use of the term ‘organic’ and the USDA Organic Seal. Under the National Organic Program, agricultural products may qualify to be registered as USDA organic.1,2 As essential oils are derived from plant sources, it is possible for products to bear the USDA Organic Seal.

Companies who wish to produce organic essential oils must comply with both USDA organic requirements and FDA labeling and cosmetic guidelines.1

What makes an essential oil qualify as organic?

In order for an essential oil to be considered USDA organic, it must meet all USDA production, labeling, manufacturing and sourcing requirements. For agricultural products, there are four organic labeling categories a product may be classified under.2

100% Organic – Excluding water, an essential oil can only contain organically grown ingredients. Proof of accreditation must be available. Products that meet this specification can display the USDA Organic Seal and state they are 100% organic.2

Organic – To use the term organic, 95% of ingredients used must be deemed organically produced. The remaining 5% of the essential oil must use approved ingredients from the National List. Proof of accreditation must be available. Products that meet this specification can display the USDA Organic Seal. These products cannot claim they are 100% organic.2

Made with Organic Ingredients – Products that contain 70-94% organic ingredients may state they are made with organic ingredients. Products can list up to three organic ingredients. These products cannot display the USDA Seal.2 As single essential oils will typically contain one ingredient; this designation would likely only be used for essential oil blends.

Less than 70% Organic –  If products contain less than 70% organic materials, they cannot make the claim of organic anywhere on the principal (outward-facing) label. These products may denote that certain ingredients are USDA certified organic in the information panel, but cannot use the USDA seal or display accreditation.2

Are organic essential oils more expensive?

In order for a company to acquire the USDA Organic Seal, they must pass a thorough application process. On top of this financial commitment, sourcing ingredients that are organic may be a costly or time-consuming process. Additionally, companies must secure manufactures that are USDA approved, which may increase production costs. For many companies, these expenses may be reflected in their pricing.

Are organic essential oils safer?

Whether or not an essential oil is deemed organic will have no impact on possible side effects or safety of the oil. Even organic products can be toxic or harmful is not properly used. Regardless of organic designation, all essential oils companies or individual sellers are responsible for ensuring their product is safe for consumers via their intended use.3

What does it mean if an essential oil is not labeled organic?

There are a number of factors which may contribute to an essential oil not obtaining or displaying the term organic. To acquire the USDA organic designation can be a costly and lengthy process, which may not be possible for smaller producers. Further, companies may use manufactures that are not USDA accredited, making them ineligible for this designation.

The intended use of the essential oil may affect the company’s decision to pursue organic designation. If an essential oil is marketed as a cosmetic or to improve body odor, consumers may not demand a need for products to be organic. If the intended use is therapeutic in nature, this attitude may change. It’s important to note that many essential oils that are not labeled organic are often still extremely high-quality in nature.

Scientific Research Referenced in this Article

  1. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2015, November 10). “Organic” Cosmetics. Retrieved March 31, 2017 from https://www.fda.gov/Cosmetics/Labeling/Claims/ucm203078.htm
  2. United States Department of Agriculture. (2008, April). Cosmetics, Body Care Products, and Personal Care Products [PDF]. Retrieved March 31, 2017 from https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/Cosmetics-Body%20Care%20Products.pdf
  3. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2016, October 5). Aromatherapy. Retrieved March 30, 2017 from https://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/productsingredients/products/ucm127054.htm
  4. Canadian Food Inspection Agency. (2016, May 20). Regulating organic products in Canada. Retrieved March 31, 2017 from http://www.inspection.gc.ca/food/organic-products/labelling-and-general-information/regulating-organic-products/eng/1328082717777/1328082783032
  5. United States Department of Agriculture (role). (2006). The official seal found on USDA certified organic foods [PNG]. Retrieved March 31, 2017 from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:USDA_organic_seal.svg
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