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How sustainable are essential oils? - The YEARS Project

How sustainable are essential oils?

Aromatherapy and essential oils have long been used to ease stress, boost relaxation, or even help alleviate pain. Tea tree oil lines the shelf at Trader Joes, frankincense oil is sold in packs at Walmart, and a lavender oil mix is offered in “The Goop Bundle.” However the pros of essential oils do not always necessarily outweigh the con of their environmental impact.

For one pound of lavender essential oil to be made, 250 pounds of lavender are needed. For an ounce of rose oil, 625 pounds of rose petals are needed. This is all without taking into account what climate and weather the plant grew in because it can also affect how much oil the plant can produce.

Essential oils are a resource-intensive product. Grown in fields and exported mostly by the United States, India, China, France, and Brazil, essential oils are usually extracted from different plants, where each plant has a different method of extraction. Some of the more popular methods include steam distillation, where steam is injected into the plant to release the aroma molecules and turn that into a vapor. While delicate flowers like roses have to go through water distillation, this adds the flowers to pure boiling water, and then once it is cooled down, condensed, and separated, the oil is obtained. This makes for a highly water-intensive process. 

The bottles the oils are stored in also have their own environmental footprint. Essential oils usually have to come with a safety data sheet which lets the consumer know the toxicity of the product or the flammability of it. For certain essential oils like lavender, tea tree, and frankincense oils, once you finish using the oil, there are precautions needed for when you dispose of it. These containers have to be thrown in the trash if they are not cleaned properly.

Another environmental issue has to do with the plant from which the oil is being extracted. Some essential oils may be on the threatened species list like sandalwood and rosewood, while frankincense is being overharvested. Anjanette DeCarlo, an environmental scientist, told The New Yorker: “If the demand keeps up without proper controls, we risk causing an ecological crash of a rare and endangered ecosystem.” It is even illegal to harvest sandalwood in Australia, where if an individual harvests the species they can get the maximum fine of $100,000 and corporations can get fined the maximum amount of $1 million. 

It is impractical to try to get people to stop buying essential oils, and in some cases oils are useful alternatives to toxic substances for cleaning or pest control. However, individuals can play a part by researching the sustainability of the essential oil producers, avoiding oils from endangered plant species and opting for locally produced oils if possible. If you buy an essential oil and finish it, you can clean the bottle out thoroughly to use again, and then on the next purchase, you can find an essential oil that is less resource intensive.