Guest Post: An Introduction to Essential Oils by Julia Lawless, Aqua Oleum

A Family History

Aqua Oleum is a company with a heritage spanning over three generations, based on expert family knowledge of essential oils. For over 30 years, we have built our market reputation based on outstanding product expertise and high ethical standards together with a real commitment to providing top quality oils at a fair price. Aqua Oleum was one of the first aromatherapy companies to be established in the U.K., having been initially set up by my mother, Kerttu, a Finnish biochemist with specialist knowledge of essential oils and now I run the company alongside my daughter, Natasha Lawless, our Creative Director.

Our philosophy at Aqua Oleum is based on a profound respect for nature and the planet on which we live.

We formulate and produce new products in our artisan laboratory. The work of creating a new blend is such an exciting process: even a single drop of a particular essential oil can transform the overall fragrance and effect entirely. It is certainly a modern alchemy. Aqua Oleum’s blue glass bottles and gold embossed labels were inspired by the original apothecary shops, whose shelves were lined with deep blue bottles and gold labels to identify the natural remedies within. We are inspired by the wisdom inherent in the natural world and especially by the beauty and healing potential of aromatic plants in all their diversity; indeed, all of our products are derived directly from a botanical source.

Essential Oils

All essential oils are extracted from the plant kingdom, from flowers, herbs, trees, vegetables or spices. They are organic compounds that occur naturally in a wide variety of different species and can be found in leaves (rosemary), bark (cinnamon), blossoms (neroli), fruit (orange), wood (cedar), resin (pine), roots (vetivert) or buds (clove). They are called ‘essential’ because they not only capture the plant’s fragrance but also it’s healing properties in a very concentrated way.

The main method of extraction is by steam distillation. This applies to the majority of herbal essences including lavender, thyme, rosemary and marjoram. Most citrus oils such as bergamot and orange are extracted by simple expression or pressure to the peel of the fruit. The more delicate perfume essences require a more complicated technique; jasmine, neroli and rose for example, are extracted using volatile solvents. Essential oils are the tools of the modern healing practice known as ‘Aromatherapy’.


The term ‘Aromatherapy’ was first used in the 1920s but the knowledge of how to extract and apply essential oils is a very ancient art. Aromatic plants and oils have been used for thousands of years as perfumes, incense and cosmetics as well as for their medicinal and culinary applications. Today the professional practice of aromatherapy in the U.K. is generally combined with the therapeutic effects of massage, as well as being increasingly utilised in spas and health centres but the beneficial effects of aromatherapy can just as well be enjoyed at home in all sorts of ways. These include using essential oils for bathing, in skin care, to scent a room, as well as for a wide range of remedial purposes.

The ancient Egyptian, Persian, Indian, Chinese and Arab cultures made use of many aromatic oils, as did the early Greek and Roman civilisations.

Providing comprehensive practical material, education and clear guidelines for the beneficial and safe use of essential oils by members of the public has always been central to Aqua Oleum and motivation for the books I have authored that make the subject more accessible to both professionals and the public alike. By providing in depth and up to date information on aromatic plants on our website and blog we aim to inspire others to become involved in this fascinating area of study via firsthand experience.


In Aromatherapy, essential oils are used both for their scent and for their healing properties. Since the oils are absorbed readily through the skin and into the bloodstream, the use of massage is an important aspect of the treatment. This is beneficial for a wide range of physical conditions such as arthritis, high blood pressure, skin disorders or muscular pain. A combination of oils can be more potent therapeutically than the use of individual oils if they are blended skillfully to make a ‘synergy’, in other words, the resulting blend is more effective than the sum of its individual parts. In this case, the chemical constituents of the different oils combine in a harmonious way to make a new and more effective remedy.

The volatile nature of each essential oil also plays a vital role in its overall healing quality because it acts upon the individual in a physiological manner, with a very rapid effect. This is because when we breathe in the aroma, the molecules of the essential oil are quickly absorbed into our bloodstream via the delicate tissues that line our lungs. So every time we breathe in their aromatic vapours via a room diffuser or even as a perfume, they are simultaneously exerting a therapeutic effect.


There is a real and potentially dangerous trend today initiated by certain companies who advocate taking their essential oils internally. I myself consider this a very dangerous trend and would like to ensure that this practice is not adopted in the U.K. despite the internet and other sources, especially in the U.S., publishing misleading information in this field.

I want to make absolutely clear that the U.K. official Aromatherapy policy as supported by Aqua Oleum does not support taking essential oils internally in any manner by members of the public, as stated clearly on our labels.

In my Encyclopedia of Essential Oils, which is still used as a textbook for training aromatherapists on an international basis, I also list the essential oils which should not be used for aromatherapy purposes. Under the Safety Data entry for Tansy (T. vugare), I note: “Oral toxin – poisonous due to high thujone content. Abortifacient. Should not be used in aromatherapy whether internally or externally […] The oil used to be used in alcoholic beverages – it is no longer used for flavouring.” In other words, this oil does not even have a GRAS (Generally Regarded As Safe) status due to its toxicity levels. I specifically decided to include such oils in my Encyclopedia as a form of education to outline the reasons why such an oil can be dangerous. Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) falls into the same category due to its high thujone content. It is not that essential oils cannot be used internally under any circumstances, such as under the guidance of a medical herbalist qualified in this field but the vague, inaccurate, contradictory and blatantly dangerous messages being communicated to the public regarding safety issues via all sorts of media sources these days, including the internet and YouTube, is of very real concern.

Skin Care

Essential oils are quite simply some of the best skin care agents available to humankind. However, due to their high potency, they always need to be blended with a ‘base’ or carrier oil before being applied to the skin for cosmetic purposes which in many ways further increases their effectiveness as most of these vegetable oils, like jojoba, coconut and argan oil, also have remarkable properties. Remember to keep all essential oil blends well away from the eyes and use essential oils in lower dilutions on the face (3-4 drops of essential oil to 10 ml carrier oil) than as a general purpose body oil. Our Blending Notebook contains a comprehensive guide on how to apply essential oils to the skin and in what proportions, and recipes to suit all skin types and desired effects.


It is an uncomfortable truth that there is no ‘fool proof’ reliable test for the purity of essential oils. It is, therefore, important to always buy essential oils from a reputable supplier who sources their products from precise botanical species and where possible, organically grown plants. Essential oils, like all other natural products, will vary from one year to another. In some cases, like geranium, there can be extreme variations in oil extracted from plants growing in different parts of the same field, as well as variations within the same area from one year to another. The plant, the soil, the weather and the micro climate all affect the odour profile and the constituents in the oil.

So how do we define and measure the quality of an essential oil? One way of trying to define quality is to identify a characteristic odour profile, against which you can compare the oil. But how do you determine what that odour profile should be? For example, bergamot oil from Sicily has a completely different profile to that of bergamot from the Ivory Coast: so should there be one standard for both or two different standards for bergamot? Lavender is a Mediterranean species and as such it needs hot sun and well drained soil. If lavender oil doesn’t get enough sun the camphor content in the oil remains too high and the floral characteristics do not develop: it will also have different therapeutic properties. Conversely, peppermint likes moisture and grows well in damp conditions.

At Aqua Oleum we have created our own high quality standard criteria as we believe that climate should be taken into account when defining characteristic odour.

At present, international standards do not recognise the origin of an essential oil as a factor. Due to the difficulties described, quality parameters for essential oils are very wide. It follows that the wider the parameters are, the more scope there will be for adulteration. We have, therefore, developed our own strict definition of characteristic odour using our own company records and having had over 30 years of experience in the field. We also work closely with trustworthy suppliers and growers to ensure the quality of our oils, which includes examination of their GC/ MS traces Thus, we ensure that all our oils meet the following criteria:

  1. The plant must be the mother species.
  2. The plant must be grown in an area where the species is indigenous.
  3. The oil must be extracted from 100% named botanical species.
  4. The extraction technology should extract the complete oil rather than a fraction (as shown in the GC/ MS trace).

The safety aspect of essential oils is a very important issue Some oils, such as pennyroyal, should never be used in aromatherapy due to its high toxicity levels, while certain other oils such as white camphor, should be used in moderation only. However, the potential hazards or danger of any essential oil depends entirely on its level of purity, how much is used and under what circumstances. Precise instructions and information on usage, exact botanical origin and up to date safety data on specific essential oils should always be taken into account.

Remember, it is important to always use high quality essential oils from a reputable supplier at home if they are to be effective and safe. Before using any essential oil, we recommend you take the following simple precautions:

  • Always check specific safety data before using an essential oil.
  • Do not take essential oils internally – they are extremely concentrated and can be harmful.
  • In general, essential oils should not be applied undiluted to the skin, although there are a few exceptions to the rule.
  • Do not use essential oils on newborn babies and note that some oils are contraindicated for infants (children under six). Always use the essential oils at half the recommended dilution for children under twelve.
  • Some oils should be avoided during pregnancy, others during the first four months only. Always use the essential oils at half the recommended dilution during pregnancy.
  • Some oils should be avoided when in combination with drinking alcohol or using homeopathic remedies, and in cases of high-blood pressure, epilepsy or allergies.
  • Do not use essential oils at home to treat serious or long standing medical or psychological problems – if in doubt consult a doctor or qualified therapist.
  • Store in dark bottles, away from light and heat and well out of reach of children.
  • Avoid contact with eyes and delicate areas of the skin. Rinse immediately with plenty of cold water in cases of irritation.
  • Follow the safety instructions on the label.


Finding a reputable supplier of essential oils is very important as unfortunately there is a great deal of adulteration carried out within the aromatherapy industry. In recent years, there has also been a large shift in the essential oil market as commercial interest in this field has escalated. The now mainstream popularity of the benefits of aromatherapy products has attracted the interest of commercial companies who have no in depth knowledge of aromatherapy or long term dedication to this field. The more recent explosion of internet sales has also further led to a diminution in the quality of readily available essential oils, many of which are adulterated.

Quality control of essential oils is the single most important issue for any reputable company trading in aromatics.

Every company likes to make claims about the purity of their oils but the uncomfortable fact is that there are a number of unscrupulous suppliers who are willing to adulterate their products. Simply using the price of an essential oil as a guide to its purity is no guarantee; it is not true that a high price will ensure a high quality product. This is because there are many other factors to be considered: how well sourced an oil is, the quantities bought, the overall efficiency of a company, their marketing and advertising budgets and their ethical standpoint to name but a few.

Aqua Oleum uses all the legally and officially recognised methods of testing available for essential oils, primarily gas chromatography and mass spectrometry. In other words, every batch of all Aqua Oleum essential oils produced or purchased are verified as being 100% pure via precise GC and MS testing. Plus all our oils are subjected to intense organoleptic testing by me personally, i.e. verification of quality based on long term experience of a recognised and designated grade/ scent. Moreover, all our organic oils are verified by the Soil Association, which has an extremely rigorous purity and independently verified qualification procedure. Each oil requires being tested for any exposure to heavy metals, adulterants, infestation, bacteria or pesticides at all stages of the production process as well as requiring strict manufacture and storage compliance in order to gain their officially and independently recognised stamp of approval. The only real way to know that an essential oils supplier is reputable is to assess a number of factors:

  • The quality of the oils themselves
  • The expertise and knowledge of the company
  • The ethical standing and viewpoint of the business

Apart from selecting pure essential oils at source, it is also very important to have the ability to check the purity and the quality of each product ‘in house’.

Aqua Oleum has its own laboratory where each new oil is meticulously assessed with reference to a comprehensive data base built up over its 30 year history.

This tight quality control check is furthered by assessing the scent of each oil using both direct experience and via their precise chemical make up, using a gas chromatography (GC) reading. I personally select top quality essential oils and check the quality of all products that are sold. I am also in charge of the formulation of all new products as this is a guaranteed way of assuring the purity of all the ingredients in any given item. At Aqua Oleum we now manufacture a growing range of our own products, including our best selling flower waters.


Organically produced products, including organically produced essential oils, are by far the most ecological and environmentally friendly when compared to non organic products, as well as providing a guarantee of purity. However, when talking about the word ‘organic’, we need to remember that it has become a very fashionable term in recent years and a growing number of beauty products are now being produced with organic ingredients. Unfortunately, unlike organic food, there are no legal standards for organic beauty products. So as a result, some companies choose to label a product as ‘organic’ even if it only contains 1% organic ingredients or if it contains potentially hazardous substances. To safeguard the consumer, the Soil Association provides a certification to products which fulfil their strict organic guidelines.

All Aqua Oleum organic essential oils and skin care products are certified by the Soil Association. This provides a guarantee of quality and high organic standards: thus their symbol is shown on our organic packaging. Their comprehensive standards mean there can be a large difference between a beauty product that has been certified and one that is merely described as ‘organic’ on the label. To ensure a product is guaranteed organic, look for the Soil Association (or Cosmos) symbol on the product before you buy. When you see the Soil Association symbol on a skin care or cosmetic product it means that:

  • The producer has had its manufacturing facility inspected annually by the Soil Association or another certifying body
  • All product formulae and labels have been approved
  • It will be clearly labelled so that you can make an informed choice about the product you are buying
  • Any non organic ingredients are being used because no organic equivalents were available
  • All ingredients are GM free – non-organic ingredients can only be used if their suppliers has submitted a declaration that it is non GM
  • It has used minimal non organic additives and only those from a restricted list. These must be non GM and can only be used if the organic version of that ingredient is not yet available
  • Any processed ingredients  are processed by ecologically sound means.

Our company also belongs to the Vegan Society since we never undertake any animal testing for our ingredients or products, as well as being a member of the Aromatherapy Trade Association.

It is also important to mention a newly invented ‘standard’ which has been introduced by some companies called CPTG or ‘Certified Pure Therapeutic Grade® oils’. However, this ‘CPTG’ standard is simply a registered trademark term that has been created internally and which has not been recognized by any external authorised body. So this cannot be considered to be an objective verification of quality, rather it is a trademark term that has been constructed as a way of validating oils for ‘therapeutic’ use and particularly for internal consumption.

From a legal point of view, there is no validity for such ‘guarantee of purity’ statements and I emphasise again that I consider this self authorised claim for selling ‘therapeutic grade oils’ or CPTG oils (a term which is unrecognised by any official body) to be actually a very dangerous trend from a safety perspective, in that it appears, to the person off the street, to give credibility for selling essential oils for oral use. Moreover, companies who recommend oils for internal use and say that their oils are the only ones ‘certified for internal use’ due to being of ‘therapeutic grade’ are making unsubstantiated claims. This is really very misleading and worrying from a public health perspective, since advice is given by such companies to simply add essential oils to water, smoothies, milk  or other drinks, for internal consumption, often without even specifying the dosage. I know from researching this dangerous trend that most people simply use water or fruit juice to take essential oils orally but essential oils and water do not mix. Therefore, when essential oils are put in water the two remain completely separate (unlike alcohol or oil based solutions) and when they are consumed, the raw essential oils directly impact and can damage the delicate mucous membranes of the digestive tract, with sometimes tragic results.

Such claims generally come from companies based in America, where the ‘safety net’ or overall governing authority, which could act to regulate alternative medicine and its products, is pretty much absent. This is why in the U.S. you can buy aromatherapy books off the shelf which commonly advise taking essential oils internally by putting ‘a few drops’ in water, why U.S. companies or those which lean in the U.S. direction because of its lax legal and regulatory rules in relation to alternative forms of therapy are able to follow suit and why the internet is now full of unsubstantiated claims of this kind.

Fair Trade and Sustainability

In his book, Artisan Perfumery: Being Led by the Nose, Alec Lawless outlines the key factors in discerning how to assess that essential oils are being produced in compliance with fair trade standards as well as supporting local communities. The ability to obtain pure essential oils from sustainable sources is vital and to work directly with the growers right through to the production of the final oil. Alec Lawless dedicated much of his time at Aqua Oleum to sourcing pure and high quality oils from ethical and sustainable sources. As Alec said: “This is a very important aspect of any business today, especially since we are faced with the unknown spectre of ‘global warming’ and its implications. Supporting the cultivation of plants in a sustainable and eco friendly manner, indeed creating and maintaining any areas of living green on the planet, is a direct way of helping to counter the effects of climate change. I cannot emphasise enough the importance of using authentic and diligently sourced oils if they are to have any real therapeutic benefit”.

At Aqua Oleum we are committed to creating a world that is environmentally conscious. 

We ensure that we only use the purest, natural ingredients in all of our products and utilise organic materials whenever possible in order to support the fragile ecology of our planet. We also ensure that our packaging, production and distribution are carried out with respect to the natural environment: thus we use the highest percentage of recyclable and recycled materials possible. Since sustainability is at the heart of our philosophy as a company, we are naturally committed to the highest standards of ethical business practices to ensure that all our activities are carried out with respect to nature and humans alike.

We strive to provide our customers not only with the best quality products for their overall wellbeing but also to support the social and natural environment in which we live.


Essential oils can be used at home in a wide range of different ways. The following list gives some indication of their numerous applications and the type of conditions for which they are particularly effective when used on a personal basis:

Stress: To help relieve stress related complaints such as headaches, nervous tension and insomnia. Certain oils can also help with travel sickness and jet lag.

First Aid: To treat minor first-aid cases such as cuts, burns and insect bites.

Skin Hygiene: As skin care agents in the treatment of conditions such as eczema, acne, stretch marks and dry skin.

Face and Body Care: As everyday cosmetics to cleanse, revitalise, nourish and normalise the skin. They are especially valuable to help prevent the skin ageing: this is one of their most traditional applications since early times.

Common Complaints: To help prevent and relieve common complaints such as colds, coughs and period pains.

Sports and Muscular Pain: For the treatment of sports injuries as well as general aches and pains, like muscular tension, back ache and rheumatism.

Immune Support: As a preventative measure, to help maintain health and vitality and ward off infections or illness.

Environment: To create a fragrant environment by using the oils to scent the office, home, linen, clothes, potpourris, note paper etc.

Wellbeing: Purely for pleasure by making fragrant gifts, or blended together to create individual personalised fragrances for the body or home.

Perfumes: Many essential oils can be used as natural ‘pulse-point’ perfumes directly. Oils such as rose, neroli, ylang ylang, patchouli and sandalwood are classic scents in their own right.

Getting Started

A basic starter kit could include lavender, rosemary, geranium, peppermint, tea tree, lavender and chamomile essential oils as well as a multipurpose carrier oil, such as sweet almond oil. A mini starter kit is available on the Aqua Oleum website which includes an empty bottle, stirring rod, ceramic mixing dish and glass measuring beaker needed to get hands on with making your own blends. To help people get started, we will soon be releasing a new video series which outlines the best ways to get started with aromatherapy and the best oils to use.

Julia Lawless is the Managing Director of Aqua Oleum, a highly respected authority in the field of aromatic plants and oils, media expert and lecturer. Aqua Oleum is based in the Cotswolds, in Gloucestershire, where all orders are produced and packed by an experienced and dedicated team, many of whom have been with the company for over 20 years.