Lavender at Wal-Mart: Waltzing through the minefield of essential oils.


In the course of conversation, friends often ask me about an essential oil brand or mention they picked something up in a sale bin. I often have to bite my tongue. It is an interesting market to look a, especially as it is largely unregulated and lacks consistent self-monitoring.

Dr. Robert Pappas is a professor of chemistry at Indiana University where he teaches essential oil chemistry and runs the lab for GC/MS analysis. Gas chromatography–mass spectrometry shows the chemical constituents of essential oils. These constituents determine their function. They vary, but only within certain parameters.

Wal-Mart advertised this week three essential oils and a difuser for $20. Screaming deal for essential oils. I’d buy those oils for no less than $50 and have not found a worthy difuser that lasts for less than $50 also. Dr. Pappas is a colorful character who leads the charge for detecting fraudulent oils on the market. He lost his marbles over this. (My kind of solid citizen, protector of truth) Let’s look at the market before we look at the results he found for the lavender from Wal-Mart.

Essential oil versus fragrance – Synthetic

Essentials oils are not just fragrance. If they were, you might as well just rub a Glade plug in strip on your kid’s boo boo and call it good. Aroma gives away the chemicals of oils that are therapeutic. Labs can replicate the smell. Most people who react to fragrance react to the synthetic versions. Of course those with very sensitive bronchial reactivity can also react to oils, but the majority of people with issues it is because of the flood of synthetic fragrance on the market. The synthetic replica is far less expensive than the natural essential oil and can be used to replace or cut essential oils on the market. The chemistry of it is pretty sophisticated. I have visions of the big bad black market of essential oils being some mix of Breaking Bad and Hello Dolly – but I digress.

Guess what the best perfume houses use? Quality, tested, expensive oils. This is a huge, highly profitable industry with a lot of cash. Their monitoring of adulteration is far more pervasive than the side of oils I am dabbling in and they have the funds to scrutinize their inventory. High priced perfumes and colognes reflect this cost passed down to the consumer.

Good wine – Quantification and qualification

At this point, I can smell the difference between a good lavender or peppermint and a lousy one. I can smell certain chemical components like 1,8 cineole, menthol, limonene, or camphor. Dr. Pappas, however, is a sommelier for oils. He took one whiff of the Wal-Mart oils and went public that they were a fraud. He did this before even testing.

I had pancreatitis from lupus when we were living in Spain. I had drank sangria at a tapas bar the night before the worst attack. My doctor told me that the cheapest wine in town was used in sangria and to NEVER to drink it again. (I wasn’t completely fluent in Spanish, but I am pretty sure that is what he said and not just my optimism). He said I was only allowed to drink €9 and above wine {still cracks me up}. For sure I can get a $6.99 bottle of Cabernet from Safeway – but it might taste like socks had been soaked in the cask rather than grapes. There are some oils on the market that are not synthetic. They test correctly, but they are just not high quality. And like my protection of my pancreas, one might want to use a better quality to support wellness. These “lower quality” essential oil are the ones you might find at a health food or drug store. You can get 15ml of lavender for $5.99. I would use the wine budget analogy, don’t go below $14 for anything close to worth using. The best stuff will be $20 and the artisan ones more (and delicious). The difference is not necessarily quantifiable in a GC/MS test, but it is easy to determine when sampling. It’s like going to a wine tasting – this is the art rather than science. Quite honestly this is where lies the hocus pocus, a well. For example, this summer I was trying to see if I could lower my oil bill (he he) and used a lower quality peppermint (even though natural and tested) on a bug bite. Nothing happened and peppermint generally works pretty quickly for us. I gave up and used my better quality oil on it and the itch went away. One oil was like putting a candy cane on it, the other like Cortaid. The difference is not something you can quantify if a lab result, but you can observe it and document it strictly empirically.

Back of the turnip truck – Sale rack

I have been tempted to buy some other know name brands at Home Goods and Ross. I use them to clean or for different chores. But like the dents and dings section at the grocery store or last day before expiration sale items in the deli, they have lost value and have limited time to use. They might have been stored in the heat, which hurts oils. They might not have been protected from people opening and oxidizing the oils (again, damages the oils or can even make them more likely to cause a reaction). They might be old (less potent and in some cases more likely to cause an adverse reaction). They are on the sales rack for a reason. If you buy from there and hope to see the neat results that I have seen, you probably will be disappointed.

So back to the story ….. the $20 Wal-Mart lavender was tested by Dr. Pappas. He found them to contain synthetic and a different oil than lavender. The chemical constituents for the lavender normally seen on the market shelves called Lavandula angustifolia/officinalis/vera are: Linalol, Linalyl Acetate, Lavandulol, Lavandulyl Acetate, Terpineol, Limonene, and Caryophyllene. A cheaper hypbrid Lavandula x intermedia contains the chemical constituents: 1,8 cineole and camphor (plus others). Dr. Pappas found both in the GC/MS. Both are very therapeutic but also to be used with caution and not present in lavender. Of the bronchial reactivity that occurs, these chemicals together with menthol cause the most problems. When looking at what is safe for ages (babies and elderly), stages of life (pregnancy) or health (epilepsy) one should look to perhaps avoid some of those chemicals. (Get the App) Further, he found the chemical dihydro-lunalyl acetate which does not occur in nature. It is synthetic, like buying USDA surplus boxed American cheese when hoping for solid, creamy Tilamook cheddar.

What does this mean?

  1. It won’t have the therapeutic value someone was looking for
  2. Someone with breathing issues is getting a double whammy of potential problems
  3. Quite honestly it won’t smell as good if that is why one buys it

I really love this vocation but I am terrible at sales. I would like to steer my friends and family clear of bad oils and poor investment. I would also like to make blends and sell oils. But I am more like Macy’s Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street suggesting that others go to Gimbles for a better all around deal. I guess my biggest suggestion is don’t buy too low (Whole Foods, Amazon, Wal-Mart, CVS) nor too high (unless it is an artisan distillation). Get an account (I have a doTERRA one – price ends up just about the same as the other “good” spots and I get freebies. Dr. Pappas tests their oils.  I also have one with Neal’s Yard Remedies.  I consider it like a Costco Membership. More than willing to help someone set that up, just let me know. AND clearly I am someone who cares about safety and education), order from known vintage aromatherapy boutiques (Nature’s Gift, Stillpoint Aromatics, Aromatics International to name a few), and buy a little at a time in affordable doses. I really enjoy helping friends and family waltz through this minefield and perhaps find some sweet smelling treasure on the other side.

Photo Credit: Dr. Robert Pappas, Essential Oil University