Essential Oils: essentially unsustainable?

Essential Oils: essentially unsustainable?

Synthetic ingredients frequently make the headlines as a result of their impact on the environment and/or human health; for example; the effect of microplastics on marine life. As a result, more and more of us are turning to natural products in an effort to improve our own health as well as that of our planet.

But are these natural ingredients really any lesser in terms of their impact on life on earth? Within the natural beauty sector, clever marketing techniques use pictures of pristine ecosystems and beautiful botanicals to sell products, suggesting a light-footed impact on the environment and allowing consumers to arrive at the assumption that by buying these products they are somehow supporting nature.

However, in many cases, these assumptions could not be further from the truth.

Delving into the truth behind the industry of natural products

Here I delve into just one incredibly popular natural ingredient that is used in almost all natural-products; from skincare and fragrance to medicines and cleaning products. I am of course talking about essential oils, and as a distiller and natural product maker, I feel I’m in a good position to honestly expose the truth behind the industry.

The hazardous truth

Now if I was to tell you that a Material Safety Data Sheet (that’s a document that must be supplied by chemical producers) stated that users of a particular ingredient must wear protective gloves and goggles, that if swallowed a poison centre should be called, and that the substance should be disposed of in a hazardous waste facility, chances are most people would assume that this was a synthetic ‘chemical’ ingredient.

However, believe it or not this is the information that’s supplied with an average bottle of lavender essential oil.

When we think about why essential oil compounds (technically called ‘plant volatiles’) are made in nature, the fact that they would be fairly toxic seems fairly obvious; plants use these compounds not only to communicate and protect against environmental stressors, but also to defend themselves.

As a result, it is unsurprising that some of these compounds are fairly hazardous to life, that’s exactly why the plants are making them; the fact that they help humans relax at the end of a busy day is simply a happy side effect!

As a result of the potentially dangerous nature of essential oils, we are encouraged to treat them with caution, by diluting them in carrier oils before use for example. This approach is also reflected in nature, with plants producing these compounds in absolutely tiny amounts. And this leads us to the next environmental issue (and one far less widely discussed), that of the amount of plant matter and water we need to use to extract them.

Plant matter

Over 600,000 hectares of land is currently used to grow crops that we use to make essential oils, and with the market set to grow by an estimated 36% over the next 5 years, the amount of land we’ll need to grow these crops will also increase to around 1 million hectares. However, when we compare this to the 1.6 billion hectares of land that we use to grow food, a mere 1 million hectares is a drop in the ocean, so what’s the problem?

The issue is largely one of productivity. Land used to grow food typically has a high yield; in the case of a high yield food crop such as cabbage, almost 100% of the crop is utilised, but when it comes to essential oils almost the complete opposite is true.

A high yielding essential oil crop e.g. peppermint, may yield just 2% essential oil. That means that 98% of the harvested crop will end up (if it’s lucky) on a compost heap. And the situation is even worse when we look to a low yielding crop, e.g. Melissa, with yields being less than 0.05%, meaning over 99.95% of the harvested crop is technically discarded.

So we’ll be using 1 million hectares of land to produce crops, over 99% of which be discarded. Sustainable? I think not.

Land availability

So, we end up with some fairly large compost heaps, is that really such a problem though? Putting the wastefulness of the industry to one side, it’s the amount of land we’re using to produce these tiny amounts of product that is the real issue. We are currently in the midst of a global biodiversity crisis, with species going extinct or becoming endangered at a rate that is unprecedented in human history.

One of the major factors driving this crisis is habitat loss, and with more and more land previously set aside for nature (e.g. woodlands, forests, meadows, wetlands) being lost or fragmented as a result of conversion to farmland, habitation or infrastructure, the problem isn’t going away.

In the case of food production, we could say that this loss though tragic, is essential if human life on earth is to continue; the population is increasing and we all need to eat. However, when it comes to something like essential oils, can we really say that they are essential to continued human existence?

If we were presented with the decision of land conversion when buying a bottle of essential oil would it make us think differently? For example, it takes just under 1m x 1m of land to make a single 10ml bottle of peppermint essential oil, a price most people would be willing to pay, however a 10ml bottle of Melissa oil would require a 5m x 5m plot of land.

Faced with an area of pristine ancient woodland, or species rich wildflower meadow, would you be prepared to take that away from nature so that you can have your essential oils? Or what about the 7m x 7m it takes to make a 10ml bottle of rose essential oil?

As silly as this may sound, these are real decisions we need to start making, after all land is a finite resource and agriculture can account for the predicament of around 70% of threatened species; in fact latest conservation reports (e.g. WWF Living Planet Report 2020) show that conservation projects alone are not enough to halt the loss of biodiversity, but that we also need to revolutionise agricultural and consumer patterns if we are to stand a chance of reversing species decline.


But all is not lost, and the point of this post is not to make people feel guilty for their use of essential oils, particularly in the case of aromatherapists (who do amazing work I have to add, in fact if only qualified aromatherapists were able to work with essential oils I think the world would be a much better place!). But for the rest of us, let’s explore some alternatives.

1 - Synthetic alternatives

I doubt that this one is going to be very popular, but I’m going to share it anyway. Have you considered a synthetic alternative. Yes, I said it. Synthetic ingredients aren’t all bad. Being made in a lab they don’t require vast tracts of land to make, and going back to the opening paragraph, even if they’re considered hazardous chemicals (which most of them aren’t) they wouldn’t be any worse than some EO’s anyway!

Today clever scientists are able to make nature identical compounds that mimic those made by plants and are often a far more sustainable alternative. And be honest about why you’re using EO’s in the first place. If it really is just because they smell nice, maybe that’s not a good enough reason to rip down that piece of tropical rainforest (I’m being extremist I know).

Similarly, if you’re using them for any of their other properties (e.g. anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial), have a good think about whether there’s another more sustainable ingredient out there that could do the same job. Chances are there really is!

2 - Use Less

In order to benefit from the therapeutic properties of essential oils you don’t need to use very much of them at all, in fact if you talk to a qualified aromatherapist about essential oils they will often tell you that less is more.

However, the current trend, particularly when it comes to natural skincare products, is to load them with essential oils, so that when you crack open that lid, BAM! You’re hit with the most amazing aroma-sensation! As wonderful as this experience is, it’s not a sustainable one and if we all just used a little less, we can reduce the footprint that these products have on nature.

3 - Hydrosols (aka floral waters)

My third solution, which I’d imagine is a bit more palatable to most is it to use floral waters. Also called hydrosols, aromatic waters or hydrolats, these bottles of goodness are about one of the most amazing discoveries I’ve made in my skincare journey.

Floral waters contain the same plant volatiles that are found in essential oils, but in addition they contain a whole suite of volatiles compounds which are never found in essential oils (hydrophobic volatile compounds, just in case you’re wondering), making them packed full of botanical goodness. What’s even better is that they come pre-diluted, meaning that they never come with warnings that they’ll kill all life on earth if you spill them.

Thirdly, they are much more similar to food crops in terms of yield; if I was to plant a hectare of land with a Melissa crop for example, I could use that to produce 5.8 litres of essential oil, which in turn could be used (as an ingredient at a rate of 0.5%) to make over 11,500 100ml bottles of a skincare product.

Alternatively, I could use the same 1 hectare of land to produce floral water, yielding over 16,500 litres of product, which (even when used at a rate of 100%) could be used to make over 14 times as many bottles of product (over 165,000 bottles in fact!). So floral waters are overwhelmingly more sustainable to work with, particularly when the customer base is local and they’re not being shipped half way around the world.

In my humble opinion, the only reason that they are less popular than they should be is that they’re often produced by essential oil distillers as a by-product of the essential oil making process. Floral waters made in this way are often of much poorer quality that those distilled by a specialist floral-water-distiller, frequently smelling a bit off or burnt, and/or being overly diluted.

If I can tempt you to make the switch I’d recommend you take a peek here: (ok, they’re the ones I make!).

4 - Wildlife Friendly Certification

The fourth option is to buy essential oils that are certified as organic (in the very least) or Wildlife Friendly (at the very best). This is because although essential oil farms can do a lot of environmental bad, they can also do a lot of environmental good if farmed the right way.

Many essential oil crops, while in flower, provide the most amazing source of nectar and pollen for our pollinating insects (many of which are under threat/decline), and by adjusting our farming methods, these crops can easily switch from intensively farmed crops to lightly harvested nature reserves.

Organic farming methods which prevent biodiversity killing pesticides, herbicides and fungicides from being sprayed onto the crops allow for this life to exist within the crop itself. This in turn means that populations of wild species (particularly pollinators such as bees) can actually find food and sometimes even a place of refuge within the crop. Wildlife Friendly farms go one step further and ensure that wildlife can not only survive amongst the crops but that they are actually welcomed and able to thrive.

5 - Artisan producers

And finally, perhaps consider buying essential oils from small scale producers. These producers are often growing their crops on marginal land rather than high quality farmland, and therefore do not compete with our need to produce food. Their less intensive approach is often kinder to the local environment than large scale producers that farm much more intensively on higher quality land.

Final note

The complexities of natural ingredient sustainability sit at the heart of Seilich. We strive to consider all aspects of sustainability before making choices about our ingredients and packaging.

For example, we grow our crops within a wildflower meadow, thus ensuring that our crops while in leaf/flower support a huge range of wildlife, but most importantly that after harvest, that wildlife still has a source of food and refuge, and we distil our crops in small batches using traditional copper stills to make floral waters, which form the basis of many of our products. Any ingredients we don’t grow ourselves are UK sourced, vegan, natural, palm oil free and low carbon (whenever possible).

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