Essential Oil Quality: Confabulation


Hi everyone,

Are you ready for a discussion on essential oil quality and related topics? I thought you might be. This discussion is on an aspect of essential oil quality, “quantified” in this term: confabulation. It has had a heavy influence in the development of aromatherapy in North America, particularly over the past 25 years.

Confabulation is a term more in the behaviour science field rather than the aromatherapy world, but it has helped shape how aromatherapy is viewed by people participating in it. Following is a cut-and-paste from Wikipedia with the definition, so you can verify from a commonly available source:


“Confabulation (verb: confabulate) is a memory disturbance, defined as the production of fabricated, distorted or misinterpreted memories about oneself or the world, without the conscious intention to deceive. Confabulation is distinguished from lying as there is no intent to deceive and the person is unaware the information is false. Although individuals can present blatantly false information, confabulation can also seem to be coherent, internally consistent, and relatively normal. Individuals who confabulate present incorrect memories ranging from “subtle alterations to bizarre fabrications”, and are generally very confident about their recollections, despite contradictory evidence.”



I want to focus on this area: How to determine essential oil quality. Many people have been taught by the … the … crowd that does this one thing. What shall we call them? Confabbers. OK, lets go with that. They have been taught that certain concepts have to be met for an essential oil to qualify as a high quality oil.

One of the concepts is this, the higher the number, the higher the quality the oil is. So they use evidence that is usually in a GC/MS report*. Why? Because they have been taught by someone that was taught by someone that was ... and that idea/concept was originated by a Confabber. So they are all Confabbers, or so it would seem. Does that make them a bad people? No, it just means, and I think Mark Twain said it best...

“It’s not what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

— Mark Twain



Just think, all that has been done in the world of Aromatherapy and a lot of it is based on confabulation. I'll get to the root cause later.

For example, a Confabber would say: Everyone knows that a high quality oregano essential oil has to develop third-degree burns on your skin to be a good oregano essential oil. I mean, who doesn't know that? If it doesn't cause third-degree burns then it’s not a high quality one, right?  The active compound that causes the oil to burn is carvacrol. Most of these hot oregano oils will test in at the mid 70% to mid 80% range on this component.


Now for the non-Confab reality: Unfortunately the content of these oils is a zero sum game, meaning the higher the amount of one element, the less of others. To avoid third-degree burning, oregano essential oil has to be diluted. Some companies dilute with another essential oil and some use a carrier oil. Does that make it bad? No, not unless they use a low quality fixed oil that goes rancid quickly and use too much of a fixed oil to essential oil ratio. Or in the case of using another essential oil, it depends if it will work in harmony with the oregano.

The Confab concept has permeated the whole aromatherapy world. Well almost all, except for about maybe 20 or so percent of that world. Those of us in that 20% group see it differently. For example I have worked with a number of different lower carvacrol oregano oils over the years and have found that those at the low 60% range work very well. So well that in a worst-case scenario, a sensitive skinned person might end up with a first-degree burn. Normally they would just have skin irritation.

If oregano is in the low 60% range, what else was in this effective blend? Thymol, also an essential oil. I observed another factor, that the thymol level came up from almost nothing to an amount that can affect the composition of the oil. This somewhat fits into the zero sum game – let’s say 100 units total, think percentages, OK? The lower the carvacrol amount, the more room that exists for another component. It is almost as if you have the carvacrol level at, say, 80%, then there is only room for say 1/2 of 1 percent for the thymol to fit in. But if you drop the carvacrol amount down to, say, 62%, then with all things considered, it will allow room for the thymol to have maybe 5% of the leftover room.  It isn't a one-for-one trade off, because by moving the carvacrol level down, it allows other components to have some room to grow too. This might make for a better oil, depending on the end use purpose.

So you see there is a difference of opinion as to what constitutes a safe and effective oregano essential oil – and it seems to be personal opinion. I have no idea on what the others base their opinion, other than the generational confabulation. Why? Because that is essentially how the Confabbers describe the differentiating quality aspect to me.

My experience with Confabbers is this: a lot of stories have been built around some events that have taken place, and those stories are used to sell oils. Some companies are massively large and a considerable amount of their success is built around the concept of confabulation. As a side note it scares me to consider the number of people that sign on to ideas based on that concept. Nonetheless they do.

What makes an essential oil effective? Personally I base it on actual usage and experience over time and number of people observed. I hope you choose to learn from experience. I hope my experiences can give you positive and realistic ideas to work with.

Best Regards,

Kent King

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