Colleen Quinn: Appreciating The Beauty Of Essential Oil Chemistry

CBW 7 | Essential Oil Chemistry


Essential oils are something many people fall in love with thanks to their aroma and health benefits, but studying them closely is a whole other spectrum. In this episode, Amy Galper talk with Colleen Quinn, the Founder of LabAroma, an innovative online platform that simplifies educating about the chemistry of essential oils – and they geek out about Essential Oil Chemistry and why aromatherapists understand CBD and Terpenes better than anyone else. Colleen also shares some tips on how she keeps her focus and inspiration amid the chaotic setting caused by the pandemic.

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Colleen Quinn: Appreciating The Beauty Of Essential Oil Chemistry

I am excited to have Colleen Quinn with me, a good friend and a visionary behind LabAroma. I can’t wait for you all to meet her. We’re going to have a great conversation about her work and her inspirations, and some of the new and exciting work that she’s doing with CBD and essential oils. Thank you, Colleen. Let me share with everybody a little bit about her background. Colleen is a highly experienced, celebrated clinical aromatherapist, cosmetic formulator, and researcher committed to delivering functional therapeutic plant-based products. Colleen has traveled the globe on a quest for knowledge, innovation, and the best quality ingredients from dedicated sustainable farmers in order to create therapeutic benefits in skin and healthcare. Colleen specializes in cannabis research, formulations, and sourcing.

Thank you for being here. I’m excited you’re here.

It’s so weird to be on the other side of the mic.

Colleen is Irish. She’s broadcasting with me here from Ireland. I would love everyone to get a little more of an idea of Colleen’s fascinating and inspiring background. I thought it would be great. If you could share with us a little bit about your background, how you got involved in essential oils and doing the work that you’re doing, and then creating this phenomenal platform. Colleen is the visionary behind this extraordinary platform that I would like her to talk about called LabAroma. Colleen, how did that journey begin?

My aromatherapy journey wasn’t conventional but then I don’t know if anybody’s aromatherapy journey is conventional. One thing that wasn’t typical is I was young. I was about fifteen, grew up in Ireland, and I grew up in a pub. We’re all publicans. There are five kids in our house and I’m the second eldest. Mom and dad had a bar but they converted it into a restaurant, it became a humongous busy business and we lived above it. The lovely thing about that childhood is that you meet so many people. At some point along the way, I don’t think it was a staff member, but some customers must’ve talked to me about essential oils because mom and granny never used them.

It wasn’t a family thing. When I first learned about them, I found them fascinating. From about fifteen, I knew I wanted to work with the plants. There were no courses. There were no university degrees in it. I grew up in a place where there’s value in third-level education. Going to university was going to have to happen whether I wanted it or not. Mom and dad were the types of parents that were very much like, Don’t go to university if you don’t want to. We don’t care as long as you’re happy. I felt like I had to go.

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I started a degree in Psychology, which makes a lot of sense. I’ve done the first semester. I was bored. I loved the topic and I read all the books within the first couple of weeks and I thought, I’m not going to waste a couple of years doing a degree I’m never going to use when I know I want to work with plants. It wasn’t easy to lose a typical educational path. There wasn’t a typical career path. How do you build a career in aromatherapy? In Ireland back then, it was seen as a hobby. It was not seen as a scientific therapeutic tool. I came home and I have done a six-week evening course in aromatherapy because I knew nothing about it. All in the book I read for a few years. I thought, This is my path.

I worked part-time and I went to my first proper education in aromatherapy. It was with a lady in Belfast called Mary Grant. She was an older lady and she was a retired nun which is bizarre. To learn aromatherapy from an Irish retired nun was weird. It’s quite ironic. She taught us the mystical side of the plants and everything that I don’t focus on. She did not teach me chemistry in any way, shape, or form. I remember the night before our exam, she handed us the chemistry page out of the paper with the answers on it.

She never taught us chemistry for the whole year. That whole year, I had been the curious annoying student that kept asking, Why do lime and orange work together? What do you mean by synergistic blending? Where’s the evidence? I knew there was more to what I learned, and I got my qualification and felt under-qualified to work with the plants. I never mind to work with humans and the plants and then I find Rhiannon Lewis. She gave me the answer to my why and the answer was chemistry.

I met Rhiannon and done a weekend workshop with her quickly within months of finishing my first qualification. I spent years going back and forth to France, learning everything I could learn about the plants. From Rhiannon, from the stellar in France, from anyone who is willing to talk to me about them. The educational part for me was 50% self-learned from a lot of books and a lot of clinical practice. The rest of my education was provided in whole by Rhiannon. Being in France with essential oils and aromatherapy are so different from where it is everywhere else in the world. It wasn’t straightforward and conventional, and it forced me to understand it a lot more. That was my weird path through understanding the plants.

Where did LabAroma start? How did you get that going? Why don’t you let people know a little bit about what LabAroma is? For those of you who have no idea, it’s an amazing platform. I’ll let Colleen describe it a little bit and I’d love to know the genesis. What made you decide to start?

Considering I was never taught chemistry and it became my life’s passion. LabAroma is a blending tool that does two things. It helps the aromatherapists and aromatherapy students become confident with the chemistry of the plants. My entire theory in life is that, Unless we know the science behind the plants, we don’t know how they’re going to work. We don’t know how they’re going to benefit our health or how they can damage us either equally. We need to be confident. It’s our job, as aromatherapists, to be confident in science. They smell beautiful, mystical, and spiritual, but they’re science. They’re built on chemistry. I need and want people to be confident and love that need but it’s a formulating tool.

Be strategic with your essential oils and identify them properly to work with synergy strategically. Click To Tweet

If you’re there, you’re confident with your chemistry, you want to formulate, make sure what you’re making is going to work, and it’s going to be compliant. LabAroma runs all of the mathematical and problem-solving for you. That’s what it does. How it came around was out of a need. I was a complementary therapist for years, I still am technically but for years, I was practicing. I had my own clinic. I had done reflexology and multiple modalities of massage as well as beauty and loads of other things. I always made bespoke formulations for my clients. Every client, the comfort treatment got a bespoke formulation.

That grew into Lucy Annabella. It was my brand that I launched when I was 28. When I was launching Lucy, there were 23 different essential oils through at least Lucy’s product line. They were all compliant, but I needed to get them compliant. They have to be legal. I knew I wanted to be sold in space. It was always my dream. In order to do that, they had to be compliant. Compliance is boring and it is not a sexy topic you’ll ever discuss in your show.

I didn’t want the feel of having to understand every intricate part of it. I wanted a software tool that could do my compliance for me and it didn’t exist. I created LabAroma. I needed to make sure Lucy was going to be compliant. A dear friend of mine and me coded the first version of the LabAroma which was the crudest code ever but it worked. Lucy Annabell’s products all passed the cosmetic compliance tests and assessments on the first goal, which is unheard of on cosmetics.

We thought, That’s great. This tool is going to sit in my back pocket and it’s going to make me efficient, smart, and compliant. That lasted for two weeks. A lady called and found out about it and Rhiannon found out that I’d coded this. They said, This needs to become a tool for aromatherapists because we need this. LabAroma was born. I turned it into an actual software tool that everyone could use. It was basic at the start. It’s a different monster now.

It’s grown. Can you talk about how much it’s grown now? How many users, schools, and aromatherapists?

At our last count, we had 3,700 active users on it. We’ve had over 12,000 users use it. Some people need it for their studies. Some people want to make sure as they’re studying and they don’t need it for life. They may never go to make a product but they want to understand the chemistry. I don’t know how many countries we’re in but we’re in four languages. LabAroma was in Japanese, Portuguese, French, and English, which is amazing. We have 92 approved schools. A school will come to us and we give them discount codes for their students. It’s a business, but ultimately I want every aromatherapist that ever qualifies to use LabAroma because I need to make sure they understand the chemistry. We strategically aligned with schools that want to help their students get confident with chemistry.

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The chemistry is hard to pronounce. How can we make it easier for aromatherapists to be confident in that? I’m sure you’ve seen this as well, aromatherapist becomes a lot more credible and the medical environment pay a bit more attention to it, especially France. If we can’t come with evidence to back up what we know about lavender helping burns, inflammation, or skin irritation. If we can come with the evidence to back that up and that evidence-based on chemistry, it’s hard for us to stand beside medics. If LabAroma can’t give you that confidence as you study, you will grow as an aromatherapist without confidence and not as what we aim to do.

It’s an amazing tool. I encourage anyone interested in essential oils and interested in learning about this to check it out for sure. Let’s pivot a little bit and it’s in the same direction about what your work is now with cannabidiol with CBD. Anyone who is reading this knows a little bit about CBD, I’m sure you’ve also heard the words terpenes thrown around. A lot of people are using the word terpenes not knowing anything about what that word means. It is now becoming quite a trend to create plant-based on skin, body care products, and tinctures that people take internally.

One of the marketing tools and people are talking about is, We have CBD and terpenes. I would love Colleen to break that down and explain a little bit to someone new at this. What is it about CBD and terpenes in a simple way that brings them together? Terpene is also a way that we identify aromatic molecules. There’s a big literally and figurative synergy here. I would love Colleen to talk a little bit about how you started to get involved in the cannabis space. Where is your work evolving now with that?

Terpenes has become a buzzword and people are so excited about it. It’s crazy. I remember having a conversation with someone a couple of years ago. He specialized in cannabis and he was a chemist. He said, Aromatherapists know this world inside out and it’s only become trendy because of cannabis. It must be so frustrating for aromatherapists. I said, It is nearly like the cats, the secrets of the bike. Now they all know that we can fit on all those chemistry for so long. It was a very interesting conversation I had with him about that. It was so true. Terpenes are part of what we do every day.

They’re amazing, but they’re not a novelty to us, either as the ketones, the esters, the phenols, or any of that chemistry because it’s what we do every day. The hemp and cannabis botanical family is made up of phytochemicals like all plants are. The main phytochemicals in the cannabis and hemp plant are cannabinoids which is your CBD and THC. Your terpenes, which are things like limonene, pinene, linalool, and then flavonoids. When you started working from a scientific or a formulary point of view within cannabis, the thing you generally focus on is the cannabinoids, but it’s only one piece of the puzzle. It makes so much sense that this is how I got into cannabis. It’s so simple.

Years ago, we had a company in California but a subscription to LabAroma, and straight away, they rang me and said, The software is great and all the terpenes are in here. It’s amazing. There are thousands of terpenes. We thought it was only six, but how do I work the software? I said, Are you an aromatherapist or a chemist? They said, No. We’re a vape company. We want to use terpenes to make the vape smell and taste better because the cannabis was smelling earthy and skunky. I said, The terpenes will do that. If you tweak your profile and make sure you understand what’s in your plant by getting GC data, then you can easily do that. I can walk you through it.

Identify the essential oils that work best for the plant and have a smaller cannabis kit. Click To Tweet

He said, No. You need to come to California and do this. We understand cannabinoids but we never knew terpenes existed. Is there any research on them? I said, Terpenes have been around forever. There’s so much research on them. We don’t have a massive amount of research in cannabinoids but we have a lot of research on terpenes because your aromatherapy dudes has had this for years. I was in a position where I could go to California.

I went to California for it. It was meant to be two weeks and I worked in their lab beside their chemists, day and night. We formulated a line of vapes and a huge wellness lane of over 100 different products, all focusing on buying hemp and cannabis from different parts of the state where the waterfall was higher up North, or it was dryer land in the South. Seeing how different the chemical profile of those plants was, and then how we could use those plants to be more effective for different needs, like sleep or pain or whatever it was.

That was my first exposure to the cannabis world. I got hooked to be in a position where someone will say to me, We will work with you consistently if you teach us terpenes and work with us. Terpenes is the dream job for me. I stayed in the cannabis space and that lack of terpene knowledge in the cannabis space is not as big a problem. Terpenes get a lot more attention, which is amazing but back then when I started, they didn’t even know what they were.

I understand the cannabis space too. I found that same experience and still many of the companies are learning, but they’re still lagging behind quite a bit in understanding. Are you mostly doing product development more or less for more cannabis body care? Are you still doing vaping internal, like tincture stuff? What types of products now do you find people are more moving towards?

That was my only vape role. I understand the purpose for vapes and I see that they have a place in the world. I don’t want to be the person making them. It doesn’t like me. I don’t want to be the person behind that. I’m a massive fan of working authentically and that doesn’t sit with me. Since that job, that company stopped doing vapes. Shortly after I worked with them, they focused on wellness where I formulate wellness. A lot of the time it’s tinctured now. I’ll do topicals and I love topicals, but the CB1 and the CB2 receptors from what we know, tend to work a lot better with internal, with ingested cannabinoids whether it’s an isolate or from the plant directly.

For that reason, I’m more interested in working with hemp internally. I like internal and external applications. I think I’ve become known for internal, so that’s where I sit these days, but I formulated heavily for years. No matter what state the company was in, whether it was a one-man startup, a fourteen-person team, or heavily funded 50-person team, I was being asked the same questions all the time. It was things like, What’s the difference between hemp and cannabis? How do we know what works? Why would we use limonene over pinene? It was consistently the same questions and I have seen this need for education. The way I can operate is I can write everything down. I have tried for years to learn new languages and I can’t get my head around them because it hurts my brain.

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Every time someone would ask me the questions, I would write it down. I ended up with newly created training manuals for every client I went into, even manuals that they could present to the press or they could treat, and everyone in their team too. They knew the social content they were writing was correct. What they were saying to the press was correct, and that need for education became something that I couldn’t ignore anymore.

I formulated at night and educate in the morning. I build Lab Cannabis, which is our botany science formulation course. We launched it in January 2020. It’s for anyone. You don’t have to be in space. We have a lot of people that take it that want to make their own medicine, want to understand the plant, or the early-onset osteoporosis. They want to understand how to use the plant to prevent it from getting worse or deal with the symptoms. Sometimes it’s aromatherapists and herbalists, and we even have nurses on it. Educations took over my life a bit and I formulate a lot less.

For someone who’s interested in the cannabis, they want to start playing with using it topically or doing tinctures or something, what would you recommend is the entry-level product to look for as far as understanding the labels? What should they be aware of? I would even like to know. What do you think would be a good entry-level product for someone interested in incorporating CBD and essential oils in that synergy into their wellness routine?

There are a couple of simple tips. If you’re an aromatherapist or not but you like essential oils and you use them, there are certain essential oils that work better with cannabis because they’re terpene aligned. As you talked about synergy, if you’re working with essential oils that are naturally high in the terpenes that are naturally found in cannabis, they like each other. When you blend them together, they recognize each other, and they play better together. Oils like citruses, grapefruit, lemon, lime, orange, and then your pains, or some beautiful ones like blue tansy, copaiba balsam. There are a couple of beautiful ones that are high in b-caryophyllene that worked brilliantly with the plant. You may have a huge essential oil catalog. You may have a lovely big box of products, identify the essential oils that work best for the plant, and have a smaller cannabis kit, as I call it.

If I have a hundred essential oils, there would be 25 that I would use often with cannabis. In saying that, they’re all plants. All the plant material will work together and that’ll be great, but to be strategic about it and to work with synergy strategically, identify those oils. The ones I mentioned are great options. Frankincense is brilliant. Palo Santo is also very good. Those are my first tip. My second tip, which is a more challenging situation, is finding the ranked CBD material. Depending on what state you’re in or where you live, that’s your first decision. What is legal where you live? Let’s say you’re in the UK and hemp is a gray area. You think, I’m going to use CBD because that’s safer. That’s an option. You can get CBD and that’s fine.

If you live in a state where hemp is legal, and as long as your THC is 0.3 or below, then using a full-spectrum oil is amazing. Full-spectrum oil means that the oil is extracted directly from that hemp plant. It means that you get all of the cannabinoids, a real nice rounded terpene profile, flavonoids, fatty acids, and all the juicy, nice natural chemistry, but your THC, which is the cannabinoid that is psychoactive and can impair you. As long as it’s a 0.3 or below in your legal state, then you can use that. If you’re in a situation where you have a medical card or you’re in California or Colorado, then you can use cannabis. That means your THC can be higher.

That’s a whole different ballgame because of the psychoactive ability of THC that may not be relevant to you. You may not want to be impaired. You may want THC for pain but don’t want to be impaired. It’s a matter of finding out what exactly is in your oil and how you do that ideally asks your dispensary or your supplier for that information. I’m a bit sticky about this. If you’re buying from a dispensary and they can’t give you that data, I’m reluctant to buy it because without knowing what’s in it, you don’t know what’s working or not working for you. You can’t be blamed. You don’t buy a lasagna without knowing what’s in the lasagna because if you’re allergic to tomatoes, you’re not going to buy the lasagna.

Moving your body will change your state. Click To Tweet

That’s a basic analogy. If you don’t know what’s in it, you’re not informed with what you’re taking, so you don’t know what works and what doesn’t. One of the biggest things to be aware of is their CBD dose in your bottle. This is getting better in terms of labeling. It used to be that your CBD dose could be less in percentage, grams, or mills. It was all in loads of different metrics. Generally, it’s no less than in mEqs, which is how it should be. It’s the best way to measure it. In a typical 1-ounce product, if it’s a topical facial serum or massage oil, the 1-ounce bottle will have between 300 mEqs or 250 mEqs up to 1,000 mEqs of CBD. That’s standard and normal. That will cost you anywhere between $40 to $100, depending on what else is in that product.

If you are seeing a 1-ounce bottle that says it’s got 1,000 mEqs for CBD for $10, there’s something wrong. Apply common sense. If you’re going to buy a 1-ounce orange essential oil for 2, that is not an essential oil. CBD is the same. If the mEq concentration is not on the label, chances are there’s no CBD in that. Be aware of that. One other thing to note, and this sounds so basic, but I am still being asked this question, hemp seed carrier oil does not contain cannabinoids. Hemp seed carrier oil is not an inferior product. It’s a beautiful product with so many wonderful functions. It’s just not CBD oil. It does not have cannabinoids, and hemp seed oil has got more expensive. I feel like that is dishonest marketing. I don’t think that’s very fair.

That’s a very good tip to end on for sure on that cannabis because I get that question a lot as well. Thank you for that, Colleen. That’s some good information as people try to navigate what they’re looking at, what they’re buying, and what works for them. I have a couple of questions before we say goodbye. I thought it would be nice to get your take on a few things. We were chatting and we’re all experiencing a bit of pandemic fatigue. It doesn’t look like there’s much end in sight at this point. I would love to know how you are managing the stress. How are you doing? What’s going on? What are the three things that you do every day that helps you deal, whether it’s using essential oils or whatever it is to make sure that you keep healthy, strong, and in a positive state of mind?

It is a challenge. I spent the start of COVID in LA for months and it was a beautiful bubble. It was divine, but it was still a COVID bubble. I was fine and we all worked because we didn’t think it would go on for so long. The fact that I didn’t have to say no to social obligations, they weren’t an option. I like the peace and quiet. That wore off quickly. At some point, that bubble burst and I had to make sure that there were routines and habits in my life that kept me healthy because I have a team and we’ve always been a remote team. We have been for years and that’s great. I didn’t think it would affect us, but it does because the people in our lives are so stressed.

Their lives are affected even though our work life isn’t. I have to stay healthy and well from a leadership point of view and give them the motivation and inspiration to do it too. The three things for me are things that I’ve always done but I consistently do. One of them is meditation. I was a hobbyist meditator before COVID. I’m working towards my Buddhist state. Meditation is a thing and it is non-negotiable with me. A lot of days, I meditate 2 or 3 times, which I used to meditate in the morning and I was proud of myself all day, whereas I see it as a companion as opposed to achievement.

If life is getting tough during the day, I’ll go back to that meditation and sit in the same place. That is my one type of meditation. I have the one place I go to and that works for me. The other thing is I bathe a lot more now. Most nights I have a bath, which is not great for the water situation in the world, but I’m in Ireland. My attitude is we have lots of rain so I’m okay. I bathe every night and creating a bedtime routine. The reason this becomes a thing, and that hasn’t been a thing for me for a long time, I was watching my sisters pop my nieces and nephews to bed. Kids have the most delicious bedtime routine.

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There’s no TV for a while before bed, they’ll get warm milk, brush their teeth, get stories, and it’s so peaceful. I thought, I want that. I don’t have digital after 8:00 PM. There’s a nice long bath with candles and a book. Even for fifteen minutes, that helps me close my day calmly. The third thing is exercise, which I know is hard because the last thing you want to do when you’re not feeling great and motivated is to move your body. Moving your body will change your state. I move my body every day. For example, I haven’t felt like it, so moving my body is to walk in a park as opposed to a run or the exercise, bike, or yoga. It’s a big coat, hiking boots, and a walk in a park. It doesn’t matter what you do. Moving your body every day is important for your mental health.

I love everything you said. I can agree. What essential oils have you been carrying around with you? Has there been a few that you’ve been connected to more than others?

Palo Santo has been my buddy ever since it started COVID. I’ve had it for years but I don’t know why it’s my companion. I burn incense every morning. I had to go on to find Palo Santo wood to burn because I needed it. It felt like a need and that hasn’t wavered. The other one that I’ve become obsessed with is Fragonia. I’ve had it for years. I burn an antiviral diffuser every morning, I made a new one, and I thought this need to use Fragonia. Even though I’m in aromatherapy, I do lean into my intuition with the oils a lot. They are spiritual as well. Fragonia jumped at me and I’ve been using it. I sit at my desk and I smell it, which I don’t typically do if I blend my oils a lot, but Fragonia sitting on its own, it’s doesn’t need any company at the minute. It’s resonating for some reason.

Thank you so much, Colleen. How can people find out about you? Do you want to give us your website or social? If anyone wants to connect with Colleen, her team, and our work, you’ll know where to find her.

The website is the most informative place. It’s LabAroma com. My email is, you’re welcome to reach me there. We’re on Instagram. We’re on all the social platforms, but I would say I’m most active on Instagram. That’s where I do my story. If you want to see what’s going on or get quick, handy tips, Instagram is the best place to grab me.

This was wonderful and inspiring. It was great to learn more details about your story, your work, and all of that. Thank you for joining us.


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About Colleen Quinn

CBW 7 | Essential Oil ChemistryCommitted to delivering functional therapeutic aromatherapy to us all, I have traveled the globe on a quest for knowledge innovation and the best quality ingredients from dedicated sustainable farmers in order to create therapeutic luxury in skin and health care.

I have 16 + years experience in creating plant chemistry-based solutions for the challenges we all face every day. As a complementary therapist, I utilized Aromatherapy in a clinical setting to treat clients and develop formulas to deal with various health impairing hurdles. I soon realized that being organic is as much about what we put on our body as what we put into it.

Coupled with my clinical experience and my passion for being an organic health enthusiast I was inspired to design and launch Lucy Annabella Organics, a certified organic luxury bath and body brand. Soon followed by LabAroma, an Aromatherapy focused software tool with a purpose for constructing accurate and analytical essential oil blends for professional aromatherapists. I also work with innovative imaginative brand to develop their own inspired cosmetically compliant skincare and healthcare collections.

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