Essential oils: friends or enemies?

Starting an ecological transition leads us to use more natural and eco-friendly alternatives to respect our planet. Essential oils are one of these solutions. They have been long known for their multiple virtues. Strong and concentrated, it’s important to inform yourself before starting to use them.

As we are no experts or doctors, we are going to focus on discussing the fragrant action of essential oils. Used as an alternative to perfume, essential oils can often be added to cosmetic or household products.

 

First of all, what is an essential oil and how is it made?

When thinking of essential oils, the image of a small glass bottle pops up in our mind. Even though it’s called an oil, essential oils are in no way comparable to oils used in our kitchens for example. They come from a plant’s scent: a volatile substance which has unique properties and characteristics. 

Plants diffuse scent to both attract pollinators as well as to ensure their survival by keeping parasites and predators well away. According to the plant, this scent can come from the flower itself, but also from the leaves, bark or even the seeds or roots.

Different methods exist to extract aromas present in a plant, distillation being the most common practice. To do so, steam which will charge in aromas, is sent onto the plant. This steam will then cool down and, as oil is insoluble in water, it will end up floating on the surface. It is then decanted. The remaining water will be used to make floral water, also called hydrolat.

 

What contraindications exist for essential oils?

At Comme Avant, we decided to avoid using essential oils in our products, only our toothpaste has some. We made this decision to make our products universal and accessible to all. Here are a few essential oils contraindications you need to keep in mind:

  • Pregnant and breastfeeding women: some essential oils can penetrate the skin barrier, enter the blood and act on the body. Some can impact the baby’s cell development and even cause miscarriage. With regards to breast feeding, we know that essential oils don’t mix with water. However, they are liposoluble, meaning they can mix with fatty substances, such as breast milk.
  • Young children: some oils aren’t recommended for children, the age varies according to the type of oil. For example, our mentholated toothpaste isn’t recommended for children under 7 as it contains mint crystals, obtained through crystallisation of mint essential oil.
  • People under homeopathic treatment: some essential oils aren’t compatible with homeopathic treatments and they can cancel its efficiency.

Essential oils need to be used with caution. You must respect the doses as well as the instructions in order to take full advantage of its benefits without putting yourself in danger. If you want to add essential oils to household products or cosmetic recipes, we advise respecting the recommended dosage written on the bottle and checking the contraindications linked to these oils. Before adding it them your recipe, test them on a small part of your body in order to determine if you tolerate them.

 

How to use essential oils in an eco-friendly way?

Around 100kg fresh flowers are needed to obtain 1kg essential oil. This huge amount of ingredient for such a concentrated product can lead some industries adrift, causing them to use intensive production methods and excessive pesticides.

Also, some essential oils come from illegal harvesting. This can damage the natural environment and in turn fragilise the neighbouring fauna and flora. As an example, in 2014, illegal harvesters located in Albanian mountains near the Greek boarder, were intercepted with over four tones of sage.

It’s also important to keep in mind that adding essential oils in cleaning products isn’t useful. Above a certain temperature (around 30°C), essential oils are stripped of their properties. Furthermore, essential oils are insoluble in water making it hard for water treatment centres to purify the water. This is why in our recipes, we recommend using alternatives to essential oils (see at the end of the article).

To choose essential oils while respecting the environment, we recommend opting for essential oils which grow locally. If not, we recommend at least choosing the organic version which will respect stricter social and environmental norms.

You can also refer to other certifications which guarantee, amongst other criteria, an essential oil’s botanical and biochemical origin. This is the case for HEBBD (Huile Essentielle Botaniquement et Biochimiquement Definie - Botanically and Biochemically Defined Essential Oil) and HECT (Huile Essentielle Chémotypée - Chemotyped Essential Oils). Keep in mind that these certifications are “private labels” as they were created by a private company and aren’t checked by any external organisations.

 

So, what are the alternatives to essential oils?

A couple of options exists to replace or reduce your use of essential oils in household products or cosmetics.

As mentioned above, hydrolat comes from the aqueous phase obtained during the essential oil distillation. It is also known under the name of “floral water” or “aromatic water”. Even though its properties are similar to those of essential oils, including the smell, hydrolat is far less concentrated. It’s therefore a good substitute for those (children or sensitive people) who can’t use essential oils. As hydrolat is water-based, its only limitation is that bacteria can develop faster. Its storage life is therefore reduced, and you must adapt the quantity needed to not waste any. 

Natural fragrances also exist. They are made out of CO2 extracts - obtained through the extraction of supercritical CO2 allowing to keep the plant’s properties - and pure essential oils - where any added product has been taken out (solvent, alcohol, etc.). This removes, amongst other things, controversial products, allergens as well as water. This means they can be used by everyone and be kept longer. Fragrances smell stronger that hydrolat and are also called scented oils or aromatic oils.

 

Even though essential oils are of natural origin, they should still be used cautiously and sparingly for our environment.

You must therefore remember to limit their use in household products as they are insoluble. If you still want to use some to fragrance your laundry or your cosmetics, it’s important to use them reasonably.

However, we still recommend using hydrolat or natural fragrances. 🙂