Setting the Record Straight Concerning AFNOR
Correcting the misinformation perpetuated by some aromatherapy companies
Let's face it: It's a jungle out there. And the more aromatherapy becomes mainstream in the minds of marketers, the more likely you are to see junk oils on store shelves.
This is a serious issue for you, and anyone looking for the many wellness benefits offered through aromatherapy.
What's the big deal here?
One of the main issues here is that many oils on the market today are totally synthetic — lifeless. Others, that have real essential oil in them, are doctored with synthetic chemicals, to extend them or punch up their fragrance. (Not to mention the problems of chemical contamination, in either the growing or processing of many oils.) And, while it's true that chemists have successfully recreated the main constituents and fragrances of some essential oils in the laboratory, they simply cannot fabricate anything with all the properties of a therapeutic-grade essential oil.
Why is that?
These Franken-oils lack therapeutic benefits for two primary reasons:
- Many true essential oils contain molecules and isomers that are impossible to manufacture in the laboratory. And, while their absense might not significantly affect the fragrance of the oil, it does impact their therapeutic properties.
- It's impossible to create the frequency of a therapeutic-grade oil in the laboratory. (Frankenstein was, after all, just fiction.)
But, whether it's a synthetic oil or just a junk oil, you will not get the amazing wellness benefits from them that you would from a truly therapeutic-grade essential oil; and you could even face significant risks.
Because the chemical constituents found in a quality oil form an intricate mosaic, and play important roles in enhancing and balancing the properties of one another. Disturb this balance, and you have something that either won't provide significant support for your health and wellness goals or something that can be quite harmful.
So, just how are you — assuming you don't have an advanced degree in chemistry and a high-tech lab at your disposal — to know which oils are therapeutic-grade?
The answer is: There is no easy answer
Here is where the record must be set straight. For years, I was taught that the answer to "How do you know … ?" was AFNOR. When I was first getting started with aromatherapy, my mentors told me that AFNOR certification is the most reliable indicator of an essential oil's quality. The only problem is: there is no such thing as AFNOR certification; AFNOR has no such program for certifying essential oils, based on its standards. Its standards cover all specifications for essential oils, specifically for use in the cosmetic industry, but do not include any reference to therapeutic-grade.
AFNOR (the Association French Normalization Organization Regulation) acts as a standards-setting body for a variety of products and services — not just essential oils. Contrary to what I had been led to believe, it is not a government agency — something like the USDA; it is a private company, and the name AFNOR is a registered trademark; and, as such, protected property.
The true meaning of AFNOR
AFNOR is an agency that sets minimum standards by which the quality, safety, reliability and performance requirements, described in French, European and International Standards, can be validated. With regard to essential oils, it exists mainly to dictate the standards to which essential oils are held in laboratory analysis, specifically with regard to their fragrance, as required in the cosmetic industry.
A word about certification:
The act of certification designates that a recognized body, independent of the interested parties, gives written assurance that a product, process or service conforms to specified requirements. AFNOR does not do that.
AFNOR merely provides reference documents, used by professional and commercial buyers and sellers, that indicate the "norm" for a product.
Hence, AFNOR standards for essential oils only gauge their conformance to standards set and agreed upon by the participating parties.
However, this is not the same as certification of a product or service, and it doesn't mean that any oil, meeting the AFNOR standard, is really all that suited for use in aromatherapy.
The typical AFNOR standard for an essential oil usually lists only the primary chemical constituents; the ones that provide its taste and/or aroma — the minimum chemical profile set by the industry. So, while an essential oil may have from 80 to 400 chemical compounds, the AFNOR standard might set the minimum concentrations — or percentages — of only five or six of them. In some cases — as with peppermint (Mentha piperita) oil — the standard for a species of oil might be defined by only one compound (menthol). Thus, the hundreds of beneficial compounds that comprise a therapeutic grade of oil are not considered at all.
Therefore, AFNOR standards simply do not address the therapeutic aspects of an oil. That an oil tests within AFNOR parameters means only that it fits a certain minimum chemical profile, as set by the cosmetics industry. And so, the mere fact that an oil meets AFNOR standards says very little abouts its suitability for use in aromatherapy.
AFNOR and therapeutic-grade oils
And so, contrary to what I was taught, as I began my adventure into aromatherapy, the appearance of AFNOR on a label does not prove its therapeutic quality, nor does the absence of AFNOR indicate that an oil is not therapeutic. An essential oil could fulfill all the AFNOR criteria, and still not be therapeutic. In fact, many commercial oils do meet that standard, and the are not.
Unfortunately, the existence of AFNOR standards — such as they are — causes many companies, who wish to sell their oils to the food or fragrance industries, to compound, manipulate, refine, denature and adulterate oils, to make them comply with the "norm". To the untrained nose, these oils might seem fine, but they will not give you therapeutic effects.
Factors involved in essential oil quality, and how they are tested
The basic issue is chemistry.
Because of varying conditions — such as soil or temperature, even latitutde and altitude — a lavender oil produced in one region of France might have a slightly different chemistry than that grown in another region. As a result, it may not have the chemical profile necessary to make it suitable for use in aromatherapy. Or, if the lavender was distilled when it was too green, it may have excessive camphor levels (1.0% instead of 0.5%). Or, the levels of lavandulol may be too low, due to certain weather conditions at the time of harvest.
For example, the standard for Lavandula angustifolia (true lavender) dictates that the level of linalool should range from 25-38%, and the level of linalyl acetate should range between 25-34%. As long as the oil's marker compounds are within this specific parameter, it can be recognized as a therapeutic-grade essential oil.
However, not all lavender is really lavender. Sometimes, marketers try to sell lavandin (a lavender hybrid) as true lavender. But, by comparing the gas chromatograph chemistry profile of a lavender essential oil against the standard, lavandin can be distinguished from true lavender. Usually, lavandin has high camphor levels, almost no lavandulol, and is easily identified.
However, Tasmania produces a lavandin that yields an essential oil with naturally low camphor levels that mimics the chemistry of true lavender. Only by analyzing the chemical fingerprint of this Tasmanian lavandin, using high resolution gas chromatography, and comparing it with the standard for genuine lavender, can this hybrid lavender be identified.
Assuring an essential oil's therapeutic quality
In North America, aromatherapy is just coming out of its infancy. And, despite the fact that a growing number of healthcare professionals are using essential oils in their practices, and some use of the oils is even making its way into some hospitals, aromatherapy is still not taken seriously by the powers that be. As a result, there is currently no agency responsible for certifying the therapeutic quality of an essential oil.
In France, a government-certified botanical chemist named Hervé Casabianca, Ph.D., headed up a team that worked with several analytical laboratories throughout the country to develope standards for essential oils. Dr. Casabianca recognized that the primary constituents within an essential oil had to occur in certain percentages in order for the oil to be considered therapeutic. He combined his studies with research conducted by other scientists and doctors, including the Central Service Analysis Laboratory, certified by the French government for essential oil analysis. Because of this work, many oils that are listed as therapeutic-grade — such as, frankincense or lavender — can now be checked against objective standards. If some of the oil's constituents are too high or too low, it can't be recognized as therapeutic-grade essential oil, even though it is still Grade-A and of relatively high quality.
dōTERRA®: Assuring you of the highest standards in essential oil
For many years, Young Living was the only essential oil company in North America that had been collaborating with government-certified analytical chemists in Europe, to ensure that its essential oils met the highest standards. For that, we owe these people a debt of gratitude. They set a very high standard for the industry to follow.
At that time, in the United States, very few companies even used the proper analytical equipment and methods to properly analyze essential oils. Most labs used equipment that is best suited for synthetic chemicals — not for essential oil analysis.
Here is part of the problem.
Analyzing an essential oil by gas chromatography is a complex process, and takes skill to perform properly. The injection mixture, film thickness, column diameter and length — and oven temperature — must fall within certain parameters.
The column length should be at least 50-60 meters. However, most labs in the United States use a 30-meter column. This simply isn't long enough to achieve proper separation of all the essential oil constituents (instead, their peaks on the graph overlap, leaving some constituents hidden). While 30-meter columns are adequate for analyzing synthetic chemicals and marker compounds in vitamins, minerals and herbal extracts, they're far too short to properly analyze the complex mosaic of natural chemicals found in an essential oil.
A longer column also enables double-phased ramping, enabling constituents that occur in small percentages to be identified, by increasing the separation of compounds. Without a longer column, it would be extremely difficult to identify these molecules, especially if they're chemically similar to each other or the marker compound.
And gas chromatography (GC) has some limitations. Dr. Brian Lawrence, one of the foremost experts on essential oil chemistry, has noted that it can be very difficult to distinguish between natural and synthetic compounds using GC analysis. For example: If synthetic linalyl acetate is added to pure lavender, a GC analysis can't tell whether that compound is synthetic or natural, only that it is linalyl acetate. However, adding a chiral column can help to distinguish between synthetic and natural oils. This addition allows the chemist to identify structural varieties of the same compound.
This is why oils must be analyzed by a technician specially trained on the interpretation of a gas chromatograph chart. The analyst examines the entire chemical fingerprint of the oil to determine its purity and potency, measuring how various compounds in the oil occur in relation to each other. If some chemicals occur in higher quantities than others, these provide important clues to determine if the oil is adulterated or pure.
Sometimes, other testing is needed, as well. In the case of frankincense, some marketers will extend the pure oil with colorless, odorless solvents like diethylphthalate or dipropylene glycol. The only way to tell if it's a therapeutic-grade oil or an adulterated oil is to thoroughly test it. Such analysis requires not only state-of-the-art gas chromatography and mass spectroscopy, NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) is also required.
dōTERRA®: Your assurance of quality
dōTERRA® has now taken up the torch that was so long carried by Young Living. Its scientists are trained as to the chemical profile needed for effective aromatherapy, understanding that we need to move beyond the standards set by AFNOR.