Counterfeiting essential oils

From simple mixing with vegetable oils, ethanol or cosmetic additives to complex forgeries done by a team of chemists, the effort depends on the price of the oil. For the most expensive one, it’s worth the effort, isn’t it? Some oils like citronella are so cheap that it is almost not worth forging them. Some that are not expensive are still being forged, such as lavender and rosemary. This is mostly done by adding cheaper oils, for example lavender is forged with lavandin and rose with geranium. They are often counterfeited by adding synthetic or natural compounds, and by chemical treatment.

Forging essential oils

Forgery of essential oils means that part or all of the original essential oil obtained by distillation or pressing of a certain species is replaced by other substances of natural, semi-synthetic or synthetic origin, and is declared as the original essential oil. There are several reasons why essential oils are counterfeited, and counterfeiting can take place at the manufacturer and in the distribution chain. The main reason is price, that is money. Sometimes the reason for the forgery is a lack of raw materials or a bad harvest. This is an example of sandal whose forests are becoming increasingly scarce due to intensive tree cutting, and production restrictions have been introduced to protect the habitat ecologically. High demand and low production can be one of the motives for counterfeiting.

Forgery of essential oils can occur in two places.

Location and causes of tampering

Counterfeiting by the manufacturer. Big buyers are constantly putting pressure on manufacturers to lower the price of their product. At the same time, we are experiencing a growing trend in the retail price of essential oils. Thus, lavender essential oil achieves a purchase price of 20-30 euros per kilogram, which does not allow the manufacturer to return even a part of the effort. I heard a couple of years ago how producers of lavandin essential oil in Croatia complain about the low purchase price. Today, producers cannot cover the basic costs of growing plants if they want to sell wholesale, while their grandparents have been feeding their families with the production of the same essential oil. The problem is that the price of essential oils has remained at the same level, while other prices, such as real estate, have risen a dozen or more times compared to forty years ago.

patvorenje eteričnih uljaThe important question is why. In general, distributor costs have increased significantly compared to 40 or more years ago, primarily due to higher prices of quality control systems. Thus, the cost of quality control is built into the price of the product, and part of the price of the raw material itself must decrease proportionally. This is justified because it allows the user to confirm the quality of the raw material, but it is not justified if it is a control system that is cumbersome and inefficient. It is my experience that today everyone is looking for “certificates”, but very few people can really analyse it with expert eyes. The world system is becoming such that “paper” is sometimes more important than content, and we find this phenomenon everywhere, from the textile and food industries to the pharmaceutical industry.

Another important part of the story is marketing. In almost all companies, there is always a budget restriction on raw materials, but often the cost of marketing is not questioned. Some “brokers”, as I call this newly formed class of businesspeople, were willing to pay a few hundred euros for the formulation of the final product, but they were willing to pay, I’m not exaggerating, almost three hundred thousand euros for the initial marketing cost. I understand that the world has become like this and that most people have become a commercial hypnotized mass. Herbert George Wells wrote in 1895 in the book The Time Machine about Eloi, a part of the evolved human species that at the sound of syrens rushes hypnotized and without resistance to the shelters where they are eaten by Morlocks, the second part of the evolved, i.e. degenerate human species. Aside from a bit of irony, there are two types of marketing, one is drumming and advertising, and the other is creating lasting value. Every manufacturer should have the desire to create the highest quality product, and the quality of the product often depends on the quality of the raw material. Therefore, this is a call to create a pleasant balance of marketing and raw material budgeting. A visionary can also be the one who changes the tendency of the modern world to not create a quality product.

In Croatia, I came across various ways of counterfeiting at the manufacturer, but such counterfeiting would usually be “simple”, such as adding vegetable oil to olive and rapeseed. More complex forgeries require a lot of knowledge. I once received a sample of “lavender essential oil” that contained over 70% linalool, which lavender can NOT contain at all. Apparently the manufacturer procured the synthetic linalool and added to the essential oil.

Sometimes a fake can take a completely different turn. “Homemade” sweet orange oil, “Brač” or “Hvar” orange can be found in our shops and family farms, although we know very well that no one in Croatia produces pressed citrus oils. Sweet orange is cheap in wholesale, so the “producer” may have purchased an extremely high quality orange, completely unadulterated. This is important to emphasise because the false declaration of the location of production is a gray zone that in a broad semantic sense can be called a forgery.

It is not only the domestic producers that are to blame. A very reputable European distributor of essential oils sold a few years ago the essential oil of a fir tree on which the country of origin “Österreich” was declared, and an examination of the material flow showed that the oil was procured from an Austrian wholesaler who bought the essential oil in Romania but through a game of bureaucracy he managed to cite Austria as the country of origin.

Every jasmine brought to me by tourists who have visited the picturesque markets of Tunisia, Morocco or Egypt, it seems to me, came straight from the Indian or Chinese chemical industry. How is it for those who really sell there the real absolute of jasmine?

Counterfeiting by the distributor Essential oils pass through several “hands” until they reach the end customer. Of course, everyone here wants to get their share of the cake, and some want that part of the cake to be enormous. Sometimes this can be similar to a drug dealing system, where each dealer, from large to small, adds other substances to the drug to increase the volume of the “product” and earn more. Distributors can sometimes “proactively” add synthetic substances, organic solvents and other essential oils to increase volume and earnings.

Sometimes a deliberate name change in the distribution chain can happen. I have seen several times that a domestic distributor has procured “ylang scent” from an external distributor. The external distributor described it as “fragrance” in a completely fair way, but the domestic manufacturer replaced it with the name “ylang ylang essential oil”. Likewise, the “lavandin” of the first distributor is converted to the “lavender” of the next distributor in the chain. It’s almost fascinating how creative the human imagination is when it comes to scams.

The distribution chain is a far more complex story than ordinary resale, as perceived in Balkan circles. The distributor should take care of the essential oil, pay attention to storage temperatures, oxygen, contact material, ensure quality control to make sure that he does not buy “cat in a bag” from another distributor. Unfortunately, the austerity of the pharmaceutical industry that should sometimes be emulated has not yet been fully implemented for something like essential oils.

There are two causes of counterfeit sales in the distribution chain. One is ignorance, a very popular and planetarily praised phenomenon, especially in Croatia (except for a few exceptions). The distributor simply does not know what the quality requirements of the essential oil are and even, perhaps, his motive is not unrealistic earnings. Another reason is inexperience. When a man smells a few hundred samples of the essential oil of real lavender, no one can sell him lavandin anymore. Of course, the nose has its limits of sensitivity and good fakes of expensive essential oils can deceive even the most experienced noses. However, it is also an important factor in working with essential oils, just like with perfumes. Another cause is deliberate (conscious) sale of counterfeits. Then the motive is mostly earnings. When I started aromatherapy, I was amazed at the great resistance to the oral application of essential oils, when there are a number of medicines and dietary supplements based on essential oils in the world. Of course, some had quite scientific arguments contra, which could later be pleasantly discussed. But some were against knowing they were selling counterfeits and yet they feared the consequences.

snobThe causes of counterfeiting based on the psychology of the general population, i.e. customers, is very interesting. In today’s world of value inflation, everyone would like to have “sonorous values”. And it is offered to at a cheap price, but not content. This at least partially alleviates the vanity and compulsion of buying. It is a good analogy with the Aceto balsamico vinegar that is sold in all stores. Is that really real? Not! The real original Aceto balsamico is obtained from grapes by a slow reduction in volume over several years (for Extra Vecchio over 25 years!), by transferring it to barrels made from different wood to give it its own aroma. Of course, it also comes at a high price. So we buy (again) a colourful caramel-coloured lie, bureaucratically allowed, because it is not called by the trademark Aceto balsamico di Modena. And that’s all right, but it’s not the original and its taste just can’t compare to the original. It is a matter of personal opinion whether we want to have a value that is not a value, or whether we will afford the right value several times a year. Not all essential oils are royally priced, but the same story is whether we can afford real rose or neroli essential oil, or we will reach for counterfeits that cost around 4 euros. There is no need to judge anything and everything is allowed. Some people simply prefer synthetic fragrances over natural ones and we can’t blame anyone for their personal taste. To paraphrase the words of one colleague, there will always be more people who prefer ham hock than the finest prosciutto. Some people will eat prosciutto just because of the notion of prosciutto. Sometimes it is the nose that betrays the true nature: in the symbolism of sensation, the nose symbolizes a subtle but strongly penetrating truth. One “lady of the night” from elite prostitution loved expensive things, nice company, nice clothes and top restaurants and it was very difficult to guess her true essence (with of course respect for every profession). She bought a natural n-hexane jasmine extract from me. After a while, she bragged to me that she refined it into a perfume. She “perfected” it by adding an unpleasant synthetic perfume that was blandly “fighting” with jasmine. The truth is relentless. We don’t have to be ladies of the night. In one documentary, average people were given natural vanilla ice cream and ice cream made with a synthetic flavour. You guessed it, everyone preferred the synthetic variant. This was caused by the continuous dulling of our senses. And it also affects the chain of adulteration of essential oils.

Ways to counterfeit essential oils

Counterfeiting essential oils is a science in itself. Some are crude, and some are so skilful that even the most experienced distributors don’t recognize the fake by the smell. An employee of Pranarom told me on one occasion how they got a sample of rose essential oil that was a fake. This was not recognized even by the man who had been dealing with it for decades and knew how to unmistakably recognize (until then) the forgery from the original. A colleague from Bulgaria told me how in the eighties the Bulgarian mafia came up with the original idea: they sold rose essential oil in a litre container. But on top they put a bowl of very thin glass. There was a small volume of real rose essential oil in that container, so anyone who sampled the essential oil would use analytical techniques to determine that the oil was right. But beneath that thin glass was a counterfeit. The complexity and effort involved in counterfeiting is directly proportional to the cost of the oil. Some oils are so cheap, like palmarose, orange, or citronella, that it would be a more expensive to adulterate it. Already for lavender it is worth the effort, and especially for rose, neroli or jasmine.

An extremely informative review article on the adulteration of essential oils can be found on the Cropwatch website, written by Tony Burfield under the title The Adulteration of Essential Oils – and the Consequences to Aromatherapy & Natural Perfumery Practice..

In short, essential oils can be forged in the following ways:

  • Forgery with organic solvents and vegetable oils. This is a very cheap way of counterfeiting, but extremely common. Adding olive oil to lavandin from Hvar is the practice of some sellers from “stands” on the Adriatic coast, but in a similar way other distributors add cheap rapeseed oil. The problem with such forgeries is that it can deceive even an experienced analyst, because on gas chromatography, one of the analysis techniques, such oils and solvents are not detected. However, they are therefore revealed by other, very simple techniques (solubility testing in ethanol). Some other organic solvents are “seen” in gas chromatography analysis, such as isopropyl myristate, benzyl alcohol, phthalic acid ester, transcutol (diethylene glycol monoethyl ether), PEGs (polyethylene glycol) and many other solvents.
  • Adding chemically treated essential oils. Cheap essential oils (Ho-oil, lavender…) can undergo the process of acetylation. This chemical process produces ester compounds, increases their volume and makes their scent “softer”. They create oils rich in esters, such as real lavender and bergamot.
  • Adding cheaper oils to more expensive oils. Instead of real lavender, lavandin oils are sold, especially lavandin clone “super”, geraniums instead of real roses, citronella instead of lemon balm. Such examples have already become known to everyone who has been dealing with aromatherapy for a long time. But even professionals do not doubt some oils. Thus, the oil of the relatively cheap Virginian juniper (Juniperus virginiana) can be counterfeited by even cheaper Chinese weeping cypress (Cupressus funebris) /em>, and the oil of the completely affordable peppermint (Mentha x piperita) is falsified with corn mint (Mentha arvensis).
  • Adding isolated natural compounds in essential oils. 1,8-cineole, a compound obtained by purifying eucalyptus globulus essential oil, is added to rosemary essential oil of various chemotypes. Sometimes some people know how to use it in a very “wise” way: adding cineole to the essential oil of rosemary chemotype camphor (from Spain and Dalmatia) increases the content of cineole and classifies it into the chemotype cineole (relatively more expensive chemotype from North Africa). In the professional literature, this is called chemotype conversion by forgery. Linalol purified from Ho-oil is used in forging bergamot and lavender essential oils.
  • Adding synthetic compounds to identical natural substances. Thus, the expensive anise oil (Pimpinella anisum), in addition to the cheaper star anise oil (Ilicium verum), is forged with synthetic anethole, the cinnamon bark is often forged with cinnamaldehyde, and even relatively cheap thyme oil of the chemotype thymol is forged with synthetic thymol. By adding synthetic linalool to the basil chemotype methyl-cavicol, the conversion of the chemotype by counterfeiting into “basil linalool” occurs again. Unfortunately, the addition of such naturally identical substances greatly increases the harmfulness of essential oils.
  • Adding synthetic compounds with a similar odour. The artificial fragrance ylang ylang contains a complex mixture of synthetic compounds of geranyl acetate, benzyl benzoate, benzyl cinnamate and a whole range of compounds that may look like real essential oil from afar, but immediately cause repugnance in an experienced nose.
  • Combination of the listed counterfeiting methods. The best example of this is bergamot. This highly sought after and relatively expensive essential oil contains coumarin compounds that are highly UV absorbing. This UV absorption property is sought after as one of the quality criteria proven in the laboratory. If bergamot is diluted with solvents, synthetic linalool and linalyl acetate or acetylated Ho-oil or lavandin, the absorption of UV radiation is reduced, and even an inexperienced analyst would detect fraud. But bergamot counterfeiters then add a certain amount of synthetic coumarins or cheap lime essential oil (which, like bergamot, strongly absorb UV rays), and thus manage to deceive inexperienced suppliers. Surprisingly, even relatively cheap lemon oil is forged in a similar way.
  • Selling essential oils derived from conventionally grown plants as organic ones. In the last twenty years, the trend of using organically (ecologically) grown oils has been on an upward trajectory. Organic essential oils are usually more expensive due to greater cultivation effort and (often) lower yields of plant material. That is why such forgery increases the profit margin. It is difficult to know how widespread this is, especially in countries prone to corruption where agencies that issue environmental certificates are simply bribed to issue without cover. Furthermore, agencies cannot monitor the work of each grower 24 hours a day. And in Croatia, sometimes true stories circulate about eco-producers who are everything but. In the end, it all depends on the personal ethical values of the manufacturer himself. As early as 1998, a report was published (Organic produce. Consumer Reports 63(1):12-18, 1998) in which it was shown that 25% of organic products contain pesticide residues. The measurable effects of the benefits of organically grown food are also discussed, and a review paper has been published. However, the organic certificate at least partially guarantees a different way of cultivation and has a good perception in the general population.


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