The Untapped Potential British Essential Oils February 8, 2021

Marianne Martin is a commercial perfumer, who has been working with essential oils for over four decades. We had an opportunity to have her inputs on the British essential oils landscape.

Please tell us about yourself with regard to your experience in the essential oils industry and what inspires you to use them?

I joined the industry in 1974. The day of my interview, I was seduced by the smells of spices around me. I had no idea that this industry existed, but it has been part of my life ever since. I started to train as a perfumer in 1976, and am still working as a (semi- retired) commercial perfumer. My passion is working with naturals; choosing to add a drop of jasmine absolute into a ton of an inexpensive fragrance for a shampoo is thrilling. For me, this drop gives a life and a lift which no synthetic could provide.

Since 2010 I have taught the perfumery unit for the MSc in Cosmetic Science at the London College of Fashion. Introducing essential oils to a younger generation is a privilege. They write an odour recognition journal, and reading their responses to the aromas is fascinating. They come to London from across the globe and their childhood memories live in their descriptions. I have also been teaching various courses for my local council in Northampton in their nationally recognised programme Learn2be. This is a part of their adult education delivery, aimed at supporting mental health and wellbeing. I have taught many sessions involving fragrance and essential oils.

I am in the process of becoming a qualified mindfulness teacher, and am starting a pilot programme to teach mindfulness with essential oils. I believe the sense of smell is a powerful tool that connects us to our feelings.

I feel lucky to have taught creative perfumery in other contexts, such as the fragrance workshop for IFEAT (International Federation of Essential Oils and Aroma Trades) at Cartagena and Bali. Also for the Design with Scent short courses for University Arts London.

When did the essential oil bug bite Britain? How did the industry evolve thereon?

I believe the love of aromatic plants is in the human DNA. Essential oils have long been used in the UK by the trades making pharmaceuticals, flavours, and fragrances. If you ask about the essential oil bug, I think you mean the use of oils by aromatherapists and by individual consumers.

I remember my mother gave us eucalyptus oil as a decongestant, and clove oil as a relief for tooth ache. But, before aromatherapy, home use of essential oils was very limited. I would say that aromatherapy hit the UK in the 1980s. The Aromatherapy Organisations Council was set up in 1990, as the number of therapists blossomed, there was a need to create recognised professional standards.

What are the milestone changes over the past decade?

From the point of view of a perfumer and a mentor for trainee perfumers, the Internet has made training about the origin of oils and their production more accessible. Before, we relied on books such as Gunther and Arctander. They were our bibles.

There is nothing to substitute smelling the oils and memorising them. This has not changed over the centuries. We understand more about the neuroscience of olfaction, which has only developed in the 21st century and informs our experience of the sense of smell.

There has been continuing development of extraction techniques and refinement techniques with a variety of drivers, broadly:

  • Hedonism
  • Regulatory restrictions
  • Sustainability

Which essential oils are produced locally in the UK?

The one British oil that I have enjoyed my whole career is the English Chamomile oil, grown and distilled by the Starke family in Suffolk since 1925.

One ton of oil is produced each year making it a product that perfumers can safely add to their formulations in the knowledge that there is a consistent supply.

Another famous producer in the UK is Norfolk Lavender. This business is based in a beautiful garden, where the public can visit the lavender fields. The essential oil is produced there and a number of toiletries are sold containing the English lavender oil. Back in 1995, Sir Michael Colman (of the mustard empire) set his sights on America to track down Black Mitcham peppermint. This variety was established and grown extensively in Mitcham Surrey, along with lavender, through until the early 20th century. Because of Sir Michael’s efforts, Black Mitcham mint was reintroduced to the UK and has been grown in Hampshire since 1995 at Summerdown Farm. Currently, they have a hundred acres under production.

Is there a regulatory authority for essential oils in the UK?

All essential oils need to meet GHS (Globally Harmonised System) legal requirements for manufacture, handling, and transportation. IFRA ((International Fragrance Association) is the body that gives standards for the use of many essential oils in fragranced products.

What could be the future of essential oils in the UK?

There are lots of possibilities for essential oils as a number of aromatic plants could be grown in the UK. Naturally, the character of these essential oils will likely be different from those grown in other locations. Climate change has given rise to vineyards creeping further north in recent decades, I am sure there would be scope for growing aromatic crops not previously suited to the UK climate.

There are some wild plants that have aromas that have not been exploited so far for essential oils, but might be suitable especially if modern extraction techniques were employed:

  • The unexplored mugwort or Artemisia vulgaris
  • Hogweed seeds with their amazing citrus flavour
  • The surprising grapefruit qualities of herb-robert (Geranium robertianum) stems
  • Elderflower and blackcurrant buds could be used to make absolutes, as they are currently in France


The UK holds much possibility and potential for this industry, it is just waiting to be explored. Exciting times lie ahead.