The European Commission and essential oils: what is going on?

It is not in the habits of The company of the senses to approach on its website social subjects, even less political ones. However, the numerous requests for advice and opinions that we receive every day encourage us, not to give you our opinion, but to present you the situation in its globality: context, facts, risks and hopes for the future.

What is going on between the European Commission and essential oils?

Lately, you've probably seen some disturbing information like "The European Commission wants to ban Lavender essential oil". You've also probably heard conflicting information that it's a little more complicated than that. So what is going on? What are the risks for the essential oil industry, for producers, distributors and customers? Here in this paragraph is a very brief summary of the situation in 6 points, summary that will then be detailed throughout the rest of the page.

  • NO, the European Commission does not want to ban lavender essential oil, but YES, the European Commission is working on a topic that may well cause some harm to the industry.
  • This project is in a preliminary stage, during which a public consultation is being conducted (you can access it here). So if you don't agree with the project being presented, now is a good time to make your voice heard.
  • The project consists of an update of the CLP regulation, which governs the labelling of chemicals, itself governed by the REACH regulation which governs chemicals in general.
  • Among all the updates, one of them is of great concern to the essential oil industry: the one aiming to apply thehazard pictograms related to many essential oils on all products that contain them, whether they are considered chemicals or not: cosmetics, food, therapeutic products, etc.
  • Concretely, for a very questionable gain in safety, this may cause the disappearance of essential oils in many everyday consumer products, to the benefit of chemical fragrances and flavors in particular.Which marketing team will indeed choose the natural in the composition of its product, if it is accompanied by a pictogram with a skull and crossbones?
  • On the other hand, no, essential oils are not particularly on the Commission's radar: they are simply not treated as an exception among chemicals, when it would be important to do so (for multiple reasons detailed below). If essential oils continue over the years to be treated like other synthetic chemicals, it could seriously damage the industry.
Sign the PPAM de France petition on the website

A bit of chronology to put it in context

As you can probably imagine, the European Commission's consultation regarding the update of the CLP regulation that affects essential oils did not come out of nowhere. It is the rather logical outcome of a process that is initially intended to be virtuous. Here is a brief overview of that process:

  • June 1, 2007: Entry into force of the REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals) regulation
  • January 20, 2009: Entry into force of the CLP (Classification, Labeling and Packaging) Regulation, which gradually replaced the classification and labeling recommended by the Dangerous Substances and Dangerous Preparations Directives. These directives were repealed on June 1, 2015.
  • December 11, 2019: Publication of the Green Pact, whose ambition is to make Europe the "first climate-neutral continent."
  • October 14, 2020: Adoption by the European Commission of the "EU Chemicals Sustainability Strategy," as part of the Green Pact.
  • May 7, 2021: Publication of the roadmap on the revision of the REACH and CLP Regulations, as part of the EU's strategy for the sustainability of chemicals.
  • August 9, 2021 - November 15, 2021: Public Consultation on CLP Review #
  • End of 2021: Expected adoption of the revision of the CLP Regulation

We will clarify below what REACH and CLP mean. What is important to understand in this chronology is that the consultation that is currently causing such a stir in the essential oils sector is part of a roadmap within the framework of the EU's Green Pact.

How can such a beautiful intention to be the "first climate neutral continent" turn into a threat to 100% natural products? In this article, we will present this perception gap in detail.

What is REACH?

REACH (an acronym for "Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals") is a European Union regulation that came into force in 2007 to better protect human health and the environment from the risks associated with chemical substances, while promoting the competitiveness of the EU chemical industry.

  • Simply put, REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals)aims to exclude the most toxic chemicals from our daily lives by pushing manufacturers to abandon their production.
  • How can this be done? By providing for cumbersome administrative procedures to keep a dangerous product on the market, with the risk of being refused marketing by the ECHA (the European chemical agency).
  • In other words, since 2007, a great deal of sorting has been done on chemicals. REACH is not perfect (for example, it is accused of causing a significant increase in the number of tests on animals in order to evaluate the dangerousness of products), but it defends a noble cause: that of removing the most worrying chemicals from the European landscape.
  • Does REACH apply to essential oils? Yes, essential oils are not an exception in REACH. This regulation does not differentiate between a natural and a synthetic product: both are considered chemical, and that is probably the crux of the problem.

What is the CLP?

The so-called "CLP" regulation originally published in 2008 sets out the European rules for the classification, labeling and packaging of chemicals.

  • CLP (Classification, Labelling and Packaging) is the logical continuation of the REACH regulation: since not all dangerous products can be substituted with a snap of the fingers (for example: caustic soda is a dangerous product, but how can you make Marseille soap without it?), CLP requires that the danger incurred by using a chemical product be known.
  • Known danger" means "classified danger" according to a homogeneous evaluation method (to be able to compare the danger of 2 products), as well as "communicated danger" to all the links of the chain (from the production operator to the final user).
  • The most telling example of the consequences of CLP: hazardous chemicals now carry safety pictograms (they already existed before, but CLP has redesigned them, as well as the rules for their use), accompanied by risk phrases and precautionary advice, intended to alert the user to the danger involved.
  • These pictograms already concern (with a questionable relevance) pure essential oils that would be marketed as a chemical product, for lack of a more suitable regulation. On the other hand, these pictograms are today reserved for chemical products: if your product is a cosmetic product, or food, the pictograms are not necessary for the moment.

Why is the CLP regulation being updated?

In the framework of the Green Pact mentioned above, the Commission is setting up (among other things) a "strategy for sustainability in the field of chemicals". The declared objective is twofold:

  • "Strengthen the protection of health and the environment from harmful chemicals"
  • "Stimulating innovation for safer and more sustainable chemicals"

This necessarily translates into revisions of REACH and CLP regulations. And this is what is happening at the end of 2021 for CLP. Without listing all the lines of action of this strategy, we can still note that unlike the Green Pact, which it claims, this strategy is more dominantly "user safety" than "environmental protection".

What does the CLP revision propose?

The measures that are currently open for public comment are:

  • The introduction of new hazard classes (such as endocrine disruptors) and the corresponding criteria.
  • Clarification of the classification requirements for mixtures and certain complex substances.
  • The possibility of submitting proposals and setting harmonized environmental and safety values for certain substances.
  • Requiring importers and downstream users to submit information on substances classified for their physical effects or health risks to poison control centers.
  • Authorization of multilingual fold-out labels.
  • The introduction of appropriate labeling rules where there is not enough space on the package.
  • Simplification and reduction of unnecessary administrative costs.
  • But most importantly: the requirement to provide information on certain hazards on the label for products currently outside the scope of CLP (such as cosmetics for example).

It is especially this last point that is problematic in the short term for the essential oil industry, and we will develop why in the following paragraph.

As of today, the draft revision of the CLP is subject to public consultation. This means that everyone (European citizen or organization) has the opportunity to give their opinion on the points that will be discussed soon (here: #).

Why does this point on labeling pose a real problem for the essential oil industry?

The fact that the products catalogued as being chemical products display danger pictograms that are not very engaging is therefore not new. Some of the essential oils of The company of the senses are in this regulatory category, and this does not pose any particular problem, neither to the seller, nor to the final consumer. Everyone knows that essential oils are not very harmless products and even if these pictograms are not precise enough to be really useful, they have the merit to alert on the potential danger linked to an essential oil.

On the other hand, if a product of another regulatory class (cosmetics or food for example) must display these pictograms as soon as it contains a chemical classified as dangerous, whether it is natural or not, then this will pose a real marketing concern for brands creating shampoos, detergents or creams. They will have the choice:

  • or to accept this unsellable labeling;
  • or to favour synthetic molecules, whose risk assessment is much more controllable than any natural product.

The real danger is there: which industrialist will choose the option number 1? The essential oil industry risks being deprived of its biggest outlets, and leaving the field open to synthetic chemistry.

Concrete example: a lavender laundry detergent manufacturer today has a choice between using Lavandin essential oil, and using a synthetic lavender fragrance. Today, the marketing team of this laundry detergent can push the use of the essential oil in order to indicate it on the label and seduce nature lovers. Tomorrow, if this point is adopted, this same marketing team will have a strong incentive to drop the essential oil if they don't want to see their beautiful label spoiled by uninspiring pictograms. Its supplier of Lavandin, often French, will lose one of its biggest outlets.

Why is this considered unfair?

Without a specific regulatory framework, essential oils are therefore assimilated to chemical mixtures by default. However this assimilation is questioned by the actors of the sector on many aspects:

  • First of all, the naturalness of an essential oil, which is in essence opposed to the definition of a "chemical" mixture (in the "synthetic" sense of the term).
  • Then the difficulty to define the contents of each component of the "mixture", an essential oil being often made up of hundreds of molecules in variable proportions. How then to make reliable calculations of dangerousness?
  • And finally because, even if certain constituents of essential oils isolated present not negligible dangers, the total (= combined action of several aromatic molecules) of the essential oil is never taken into account in the evaluation of the dangers. Also it is not taken into account the compensation of the negative effect of a substance by the positive effect of another substance of the essential oil.

All of these elements lead to a reality that has been weighing on the essential oil industry for years: a very unfavorable rating of essential oils by the CLP regulation, compared to a synthetic chemical. In other words, nature is rated poorly by the CLP.

Faced with this desire to extend the consequences of the CLP, the industry fears that essential oils will be restricted or banned in consumer products, in an unfair manner, because of an inappropriate risk calculation approach.

It is also interesting to underline that this project is a direct consequence of the Green Pact, and that it risks paradoxically to reduce considerably the presence of natural products in our consumer goods, in favor of a more conventional chemical industry.

A more fundamental problem than it seems

A more fundamental, long-term problem concerning essential oils must be highlighted here. As they do not have their own regulatory framework, these powerful natural products often find themselves mistreated in unsuitable regulatory frameworks. This is the case here.

Let's be honest, the update of the CLP in the framework of the green pact seems to be going in the right direction as long as it applies only to synthetic products of the chemical industry. It seems legitimate to expect that custom-made chemical products should be fully controlled, declared, filtered, etc. However, we feel that the balance for natural products must be quite different.

For example, you can't expect two feet of basil:

  • that they are strictly identical, contain the same molecules, etc.
  • that they be labelled with pictograms reminding that the methylchavicol they contain is carcinogenic in high doses,
  • that these pictograms are also found on each jar of pesto,
  • etc.

If you do, for safety reasons, it will have two consequences:

  • your pesto jars will no longer contain basil, but synthetic basil flavoring;
  • The basil you can still buy will come from controlled plantations, out of soil of course, in monoculture.

As soon as the regulatory framework for synthetic products tries to apply to natural products, it becomes coercive... towards Nature! More fundamentally, and almost philosophically: as soon as Man wants to totally secure Nature, he eliminates it.

What would it take to make this project more relevant to the reality of essential oils?

It would simply have to be taken into account that the particular case of essential oils, or even natural extracts in general, is an exception to this CLP regulation, which moreover has many advantages for consumer safety, the solidity of the European chemicals market, and for Europe's ecological transition. The inclusion of essential oils de facto in this directive does seem to go against the grain of a greener Europe. It strongly pushes every manufacturer of everyday consumer products to forgo natural ingredients in favor of chemicals.

It is therefore natural that there is a strong reaction to correct this project, which is now in the public consultation phase. At your level, you can :

  • Sign the petition you often see passing by, carried by the PPAM of France
  • Participate in the online consultation, which requires a bit more personal investment. The company of the senses has done it, and it's good that individuals and businesses are doing it.
Sign the online petition Participate in the public consultation

About the online consultation: 70 citizens responded, and 45 businesses. The strong mobilization of citizens is excellent news, and we strongly encourage you to do so. Here is the breakdown of the "respondents":