Despite their long history and wonderful benefits, essential oils are for all intents and purposes just another ingredient. They’re everywhere, from the lowest quality detergents to the most revered candles. But, just like other ingredients, there’s a spectrum of quality determined by how they’re grown, made and handled.
Simply the best
Better ingredients make better products. That’s why when we make a cake we’re told to use the best sugar, the best flour and the richest chocolate. Making a perfume is similar. The better the essential oil, the better it’ll smell in a fragrance, or maybe it’ll feel better when you shower with it. It’s a pretty simple formula really, after all a product, be it a brownie, a bath bomb or a fabric conditioner, is only the sum of the parts that go into it and the people who make it.
Ensuring that only the highest quality oils make it into a Lush product is a task that spans departments and countries. It means having good relationships with the growers of the raw ingredients and the suppliers of the oils. It means having a whole team whose noses are trained to detect even slight changes in quality. It means using state of the art technology to create digital fingerprints of the oils to ensure that they aren’t adulterated or severely different from the norm. It means having an in depth knowledge of the law and safety regulations. It means having whole teams of people working around the clock to maintain the highest standards in the industry.
But how do you tell whether or not an essential oil is good? Inside a tiny office in Poole, quality control analysts Alina Gliwinska and Nicola Bowman work amongst hundreds of tiny vials, filing cabinets filled with data, and industry leading computers and software to ensure that the essential oils that are added into products incountries across the globe are the best they could possibly be. It’s staggering to think that from this tiny office Alina, Nicola and their team ensure that the products being made in Lush factories across the world, are up to scratch.
Nicola explains: “In a nutshell, we check all of the essential oils that come into this building to make sure they have not been adulterated in any way. That’s basically the crux of everything we do, it’s to make sure we are buying the best quality materials we can.”
Despite having an array of specialist equipment though, the most important tool the pair have is their noses. And that’s where the whole quality checking processes begins.
Before any essential oil is bought by the team, the duo first receive a sample representative of the quality of the batch they want to purchase. Nicola and Alina must determine whether the contents of the vial they receive is good enough to make it into products and perfumes. They start off the process with a whiff...
Nicola says: “Initially it is all through smell. What does it smell like? Does it smell right? Is it what we are looking for?”
But Alina and Nicole’s noses aren’t super human. They explain that the nuances they smell in the fragrances are a result of the amount of time they’ve been working with them.
Alina says: “It all depends on how much experience you have with smelling. If you work with these oils and smell them a lot, over time you are going to get more sensitive to the differences between them.”
So what are they smelling for? Even the slightest change in environment, production methods or weather condition can have an impact on the smell of an essential oil. It’s Nicola and Alina’s job to determine whether those changes are down to natural variation, honest changes in processing, or, in the worst case scenario, extra ingredients diluting the product.
To be able to make sure the oils are the quality expected, the team have a collection of control oils - a who’s who of the essential oil world. Quite literally the cream of the crop. These controls have been developed through extensive work with the buying team who travel across the world meeting suppliers and getting to know the processes, and variables involved in creating the essential oils.
Nicola and Alina compare the representative sample to their model essential oil and if things don’t quite match up they investigate further. Enter Gas Chromatography Mass Spectrometry (GCMS) - a machine that separates the individual volatile compounds in an essential oil to show its chemical make up.
Nicola explains: “We break down the fragrance into its chemical components and it produces a fingerprint that we can compare against our controls.”
Once the ‘fingerprint’ has been taken, Alina and Nicola are able to analyse the results and determine possible reasons for variations. And variation isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Plants like mint come in different shape, sizes and colours and can smell slightly different, but that doesn’t mean these differences are bad or undesirable. Essential oils are natural products, and from the very beginning of the growing process there are things that can affect the yield of a plant.
Alina says: “Everything can have an impact on the quality of an oil. There can be different origins of the materials, or a different type of plant may have been used. Even weather conditions can affect them. If there is a flood or a hurricane, that can affect the product and how much we can get from the crop.”
But, thanks to the two step quality-checking process, and the close relationship that the teams foster with growers and suppliers, it is not often that a batch has to be sent back - perhaps three or four times per year they tentatively suggest. This helps to ensure wastage is minimal, and of course, that products are consistently top rate across the world.
In good hands
But quality isn’t just about the best fragrances or effects. Nicola and Alina also ensure that the essential oils, as well as the perfumes made from them, are safe for whatever they are used in. This means ensuring that any allergens are measured and controlled in accordance with IFRA - the International Fragrance Association.
But it’s not just allergens that pose a risk. Essential oils can be dangerous. As natural ingredients there is a fine line between safe and harmful - for example to obtain almond essential oil the deadly poison cyanide must first be separated from the yield. Alina and Nicole are responsible for understanding and regulating the quantities of chemicals in any given oil or perfume.
IFRA regulations are split into 11 different categories based on the purpose of a product and how it interacts with the skin. This means a shower gel and a moisturiser are allowed to contain different qualities of chemicals because one is washed off, while the other is left to soak into skin.
Alina explains: “When we develop new products we quite often have to make changes because the inventors like to be creative and let nothing dampen their creativity. Quite often they don’t look at how expensive they are, or the material used, or how many allergens they have.
“If they make a fragrance and they like it then they give me that information and I will check it if it is meets the regulations. Quite often for example they have a problem with benzyl alcohol. Because benzyl alcohol is one of the synthetics we use, but it also occurs naturally in jasmine, when you put them together you get an amount which is not safe for us to use. When that happens we combine the data, analyse the fragrance and make calculations so we can see how much of a substance we can use in a product to make it as safe as possible.”
So, although essential oils are natural, that doesn’t mean they’re guaranteed to be safe, high quality or effective - that all depends on how they are grown, made, and handled. Beneath the beautiful blends and alluring aromas, an entire world of science awaits that’s essential to ensuring the essential oils in the products you use everyday are the best they can be.