It’s hard to tell how many essential oils are covered in Skin Deep, the Environmental Working Group’s database, because if you put “essential oil” their search box, the results are pretty hit-and-miss. When I tried it, only 16 of the first 50 items listed were essential oils. Lemon oil, interestingly, was listed twice: CITRUS MEDICA LIMONUM (LEMON) OIL (hazard rating 0) and CITRUS MEDICA LIMONUM (LEMON) PEEL OIL (hazard rating 2). The second one is defined as: “volatile oil obtained from the fresh peel of of lemon, Citrus medica limonum.” The first one is not defined at all, but is also listed as “Lemon essential oil, Citrus limon (lemon) essential oil..” etc.

What were they thinking? Is one of these lemon leaf oil? Clearly not. Lemon flower oil? No again, and anyway it does not exist. Lemon essence oil? That’s theoretically possible, but I doubt that the authors of Skin Deep are familiar with essence oils, which are almost entirely used in food flavorings, and there’s no way that lemon essence oil is used in 618 personal care products. So, we have two different lemon fruit peel oils, from the same plant, but with different hazard ratings.

This is not an isolated example – you will also find separate pages for ANIBA ROSAEODORA (ROSEWOOD) and ANIBA ROSAEODORA (ROSEWOOD) OIL. (Note that rosewood essential oil is the only product of this tree.) But for ultimate strangeness, nothing beats: ANIBA ROSAEODORA (ROSEWOOD) FLOWER OIL. Ironically, the only concern for this item is listed as “Data Gaps”, but the real data gap is simply that rosewood flower oil does not exist! Except on the Skin Deep database, and once they have read this blog, I imagine not for much longer. Try this exercise – do a search for “rosewood flower oil” and let me know if you find any reference to such an oil.

Aniba rosaeodora is a very tall tree that grows in South American rainforest (see pic). Yes, it has flowers, but they are, tellingly, not fragrant. Distillation is typically carried out by the felling of a single tree, and the oil comes from the wood. I cannot imagine what rosewood flower oil, if it did exist (and if the flowers were fragrant) would cost. Well actually I can imagine, it would be hugely, massively expensive and again, you would not find it in too many personal care products.

Rosewood Flower Oil

The Environmental Working Group seems to know little about essential oils, and by the way they do not mention that Aniba rosaeodora is an officially threatened species. But, perhaps the word “environmental” in their title has nothing to do with sustainability. That’s not a sarcastic comment, I am genuinely wondering.

Returning to lemon oil, two pages and two hazard ratings for the same essential oil is odd. Very odd. Adding to the confusion, Skin Deep gives limonene a hazard rating of 6 (their scale is 0-10), and yet lemon oil consists of up to 76% limonene. So here’s what I’m wondering – when rating a product containing lemon oil for its hazardous-ness (the word “risk” is inappropriate here, for reasons I will discuss another day) should we go by lemon oil, or limonene? Perhaps it depends what’s on the product label. If it mentions “lemon oil” it’s a 0, if it mentions “lemon peel oil” it’s a 2, and if it mentions either one but also limonene (which has to happen for a product containing lemon oil in Europe, as you may know) then maybe it’s a 6?

The Skin Deep number game doesn’t really matter too much at this point. It’s only a website. But, if people were to start taking this seriously, we would be in a world of confusion.

Rosewood flower oil has a hazard rating of 0, which seems appropriate for a non-existent oil. It’s also listed as appearing in “0 products”. At least they got that part right.

Note to EWG – my consultancy services are available if you want help cleaning up. I’m just saying…

Author

Robert Tisserand has been instrumental in bringing widespread professional and public recognition to aromatherapy. During his 15 years as a massage therapist, he wrote one of the first books on aromatherapy in 1977. The Art of Aromatherapy is now published in twelve languages. In 1974 he established The Aromatic Oil Company (a predecessor of Tisserand Aromatherapy) and in 1988 he founded The Tisserand Institute, setting new standards for vocational aromatherapy education. Also in 1988, he launched The International Journal of Aromatherapy, which he published and edited for 12 years. In the 1990s, Robert orchestrated three international AROMA conferences at British Universities, each attracting some 300 attendees. Robert tracks all the published research relevant to essential oils and collaborates with doctors, herbalists and pharmacologists, integrating scientific data with traditional medicine and holistic principles. He is familiar with the foundations of oriental medicine, and Western herbal and naturopathic traditions, with their emphasis on cleansing, protecting, strengthening immune function and aiding natural healing processes. Robert also has 40 years of experience in essential oil blending and aromatherapy product development, and has an expert knowledge of essential oil safety. Robert is on the International Advisory Board of Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, and is a member of the Natural Perfumers Guild. In recognition of his pioneering work, he has been awarded Honorary Lifetime Membership of the International Federation of Aromatherapists, the International Federation of Professional Aromatherapists, and the Alliance of International Aromatherapists. He was privileged to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the AIA in Denver in 2007, and is the current chair of the AIA Research Committee. Books: The Art of Aromatherapy (1977), Aromatherapy for Everyone (1987), Essential Oil Safety (1995) co-author. Books chapters: “Essential Oils as Psychotherapeutic Agents”. In: Perfumery: The Psychology and Biology of Fragrance (1988). Books edited: Gattefossé’s Aromatherapy (1993), The Practice of Aromatherapy, Dr Jean Valnet (1982)

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