Aromatherapy is the art and science of utilizing naturally extracted aromatic essences from plants to balance, harmonize, and promote the health of body, mind, and spirit. It unifies an individual’s innate healing process. –National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy
You will be able to find a plethora of articles on the internet regarding essential oils, consequently there are many myth’s surrounding them. This article will speak to some of those and provide links when appropriate for further reading.
The widespread marketing of two popular brands of essential oils has introduced many people to these powerful tools for health which is a blessing. What is of great concern is the unsafe recommendations for use that is seen on blogs, Pinterest, as well as Facebook pages. Essential oils are not to be used carelessly, and misuse can lead to injury.
Just as you would (or should) exercise caution and research when using pharmaceuticals, you should practice the same careful research when using essential oils. Essential oils are profoundly powerful, which makes them capable of both great good and great harm. Overuse and misuse can and does lead to injury. Many have jumped in with both feet without fully exhausting the scientific research (not biased blog posts), then only after beginning their journey find out what they thought was true may not be accurate at all.
Believe what you like, but do not believe everything without questioning it. –Pauline Baynes
So what are essential oils???
Very briefly, essential oils are derived from the true plants (leaves, stems, flowers, bark, and roots), most often by steam distillation. Essential oils are the true essence of the plant (not the life blood of the plant), and are highly concentrated extracts. The chemical composition and aroma of essential oils can provide valuable psychological and physical therapeutic benefit. Most benefits are achieved through methods including inhalation and application of the diluted oil to the skin.
Essential oils are not the same as perfume or fragrance oils. Perfume oils are artificially created fragrances and contain artificial substances that do not contain any therapeutic benefit like essential oils do.
Essential oil Dilution
Essential oils are super-concentrated extracts, typically 100 times or more concentrated than the plant material that it derived from. Since they are so concentrated, they need to be diluted before they are safe for children and adults.
When used undiluted or what some call “neat” there are two risks involved:
1-Irritation which is direct result of contact with a material and is localized. Healing occurs once material is removed. Removal is best with a carrier oil (almond, jojoba, etc.) or milk. Healing may not occur immediately, but you should see improvement after proper removal.
2-Sensitization which is systemic response involving the immune system. According to Dorene Petersen of ACHS, “Sensitization occurs once the offending substance has penetrated the skin, been picked up by proteins in the skin, and mediated by the IgE response that produces histamine and other irritants.” (1) This is an allergic reaction. Some oils are more likely than others to elicit this sensitization response, such as lemongrass and cinnamon bark….but it can happen even with oils such as lavender. Once this immune system response is triggered, that may mean you can never use that oil again. Never! Compare this to a nut allergy. Not worth the risk!
Please do not subscribe to the “detoxing” explanation where skin irritation is concerned, this is simply not true. If you get a rash or a burn from putting something on your skin is it because it is irritating your skin.
Check here for a detailed explanation on this topic. (Aromatic Wisdom Institute)
Oil and Water
Essential oils are not water soluble. Oil and water does not mix/blend. They need a disbursing agent before adding to your bath water (carrier oil); epsom salts alone is not enough.
Please do not add essential oils to a glass of water and drink it.
When you add a drop of oil to a glass of water it doesn’t mix with the water. The risks are not worth the practice. There have been reports of people having permanent esophageal damage as well as liver damage due to putting oils in water (2). Oral dosing may interfere with medication or aggravate other medical conditions. Read more here.
Take a moment to see the injuries that have been reported. Atlantic Institute of Aromatherapy Injury Reporting
You may hear something like “our oils are pure therapeutic grade and are safe for internal use” or “certain oils are GRAS” (generally recognized as safe for consumption), but this applies to consuming in food (food additives); not in water. Follow the link here for an informative new article by Amy of Barefoot Dragonfly about what GRAS really means. I have also recently written an article that goes into the meaning/purpose of GRAS here. Essential oils can be safe for internal use under certain circumstances when under the care of a professional; someone who has been trained, ultimately over 200 hours of training, and has understanding of how these oils react inside the body, if it is necessary for your condition, and most of all if it is safe and indicated for you and your situation (medication, medical conditions, allergies, etc.).
More on Internal Use…
Many are educated in this area and there are instances where internal use is warranted. It is not meant to be an everyday practice. It is not to lose weight, ease indigestion, or rid yourself of chronic pain. Most of all it is not a preventative measure to maintain health. That is where healthy eating, exercise, sleep, vitamins and minerals come into play when you are deficient. Essential oils have no “nutritional value”; another myth. Read more here.
By far the most common method for using essential oils is via inhalation. The inhalation of aromatic molecules in oils affects us on a variety of levels – physical, emotional and spiritual. When inhaled, aromatic molecules enter the nasal passages where they stimulate olfactory receptor sites and trigger nerve messages to the limbic center brain. The limbic brain has pathways that in turn stimulates physiological responses within the body via the nervous, endocrine or immune systems, affecting sensations of pleasure, pain centers of the brain, emotions, memory, sleep, appetite and sex. –AIA (Alliance of International Aromatherapists)
Inhalation is THE QUICKEST route to the bloodstream. You can achieve this by using an aromastick, using a diffuser, using a steam bowl, or spritzing into the air.
Inhalation is extremely powerful when it comes to essential oils as is illustrated in the image below. –Photo courtesy of Marge Clark Owner of Nature’s Gift
When used topically (on the skin), in a suitable dilution, essential oils have a multitude of applications for health, beauty and well-being. Methods include massage, skin care, and first aid remedies. Essential oils can be added to many personal care products. Applying to the skin also induces inhalation, therefore benefiting multiple systems of the body at the same time. Use the image below for proper dilution.
There are a number of oils that cause photosensitivity or phototoxicity. This can occur when certain essential oil constituents, particularly furanocoumarins, (chemicals found in essential oils) react when exposed to ultraviolet light. Inflammation, blistering, and burning of the skin is common. These particular oils can be used on the skin, but use caution. It is advised not to go out into the sun for 12-24 hours after exposure. Just to be clear, this applies to the skin that has been exposed to the oil, not your body as a whole.
Here is a list of oils that should be used topically with caution, and their maximum use levels according to IFRA standards (3):
Angelica Root Angelica archangelica 0.8%
Bergamot Citrus bergamia 0.4%
Bitter Orange (Cold/Expeller Pressed) Citrus aurantium 1.25%
Cumin Cuminum cyminum 0.4%
Grapefruit (expressed) Citrus paradisi 4.0%
Lemon (Cold/Expeller Pressed) Citrus limon 2.0%
Lime (Cold/Expeller Pressed) Citrus aurantifolia 0.7%
Mandarin Leaf Citrus reticulate 0.17%
Rue Ruta graveolens 0.15%
Taget Tagetes minuta 0.01%
Always use extreme caution when using any of these oils topically. Bergamot is by far the oil with the highest risk, and it is possible to have a reaction within up to 12 hours after application.
It can be assumed that if someone is taking moderate amounts of a phototoxic oil internally that a phototoxic reaction can occur. If you use any of these oils, utilize caution.
The term therapeutic grade provides marketing weight rather than signifying that the oils meet a regulated quality standard. (Essential Oil University), a helpful website unaffiliated with any oil company, is dedicated to busting essential oil myths like this one. The author of the page, Dr. Robert Pappas, explains:
“There seems to be a misconception that there is some kind of independent body that certifies oils as therapeutic grade, but to this date there is no such body, at least not one that is widely recognized. Does this mean there is no such thing as therapeutic grade? No, but just realize that any therapeutic grade standard out there right now is an internally derived company standard. Now this standard may be an overall great standard and perfectly acceptable to me or any other analyst or aromatherapist out there but it just needs to be noted that it is not an independent standard” (4).
Basically any company can put whatever they want to on a label…..any company. So do your due diligence and do your own research. At the risk of repeating information; please do not use biased blogs for your research. There are a couple companies that state they have the “only” pure oil. Please know that this is simply not the case.
There are many companies in the world producing pure essential oils, and there are plenty that are not recommended and others still that adulterate their oils. The important thing to remember is there is more than one company that sells high quality essential oils, at a reasonable price. The best ones are happy to provide you with what is called their GC/MS testing for each batch, and the results are posted for public viewing on their website. For all you techies out there; here is a great resource to understand what GC/MS means.
All aromatherapists, vintage or up and coming, as well as other pioneers in the field of aromatherapy can agree on one thing; safety is our #1 goal. When it comes to conventional medicine and natural remedies: first, do no harm. Our 2nd goal is to continue to change the lives of our clients in helpful, healthy ways. Essential oils should not be feared they should be respected and used properly to ensure the safety of the individuals using them.
(1) American College of Healthcare Sciences, (2012) Aroma 101
(3) IFRA standards. Retrieved from http://www.ifraorg.org/en-us/standards-library/s/phototoxicity#.V9VaSpMrJn4,
Please note that I am not a medical practitioner. The content of this website is provided for general informational purposes only and is not intended as, nor should it be considered a substitute for, professional medical advice. Do not use the information on this website for diagnosing or treating any medical or health condition. If you have or suspect you have a medical problem, promptly contact your professional healthcare provider. By using this website, you assume full responsibility and liability for your own actions.