I got this email just the other day, responding to recipe I had created using essential oils.
“If you are pushing essential oils, you know nothing about natural medicinal gifts. You are becoming well versed in making money off of uneducated people who do not want to be bothered with using wild plants for medicines. I do not believe that plant poisons should be used in this manner and also if you are aware it takes tons of plant material to make a small amount. A rape of the planet and a quick way to make money all go hand in hand.”
Obviously, there is hot debate in the herbal community about the use of essential oils. As an herbalist who has studied, written and taught about aromatherapy for many years, I think it’s time to address this complicated issue in more detail.
Firstly, though, I’d like to clarify. If you know my work, or me, I hope you know I care deeply for this planet and all life on it. Secondly, I make absolutely no money selling essential oils.
In my opinion, it isn’t so much the use of essential oils that is problematic. After all, humans have been using them for thousands of years and plants have been using them way longer than that. Rather, I think that the excessive and misuse of essential oils is problematic. Like all plant-based remedies, essential oils need to be used with thoughtfulness, care and respect for all life.
Let’s start with what essential oils are not: synthetic fragrances. Synthetic fragrances have either been chemically created (mostly from petroleum), or are modified chemical structures of naturally derived fragrances. They can irritate the skin, respiratory and nervous systems, as well as create problems for those with chemical sensitivities. I actually think of them as air pollution.
Also called volatile oils, essential oils are the scent molecules of plants. Plants make essential oils for various reasons. Essential oils help plants communicate with each other, attract pollinators, compete with other plants, prevent microbial infections and deter herbivores and insects.
Many, but not all, essential oils are healing to the body. They are useful for diverse health issues and can be healing for the skin, respiratory system, mind and mood. Essential oils have a long history of use by humans, dating back to at least 4500 B.C.E. They are used in perfumes, cosmetics, soaps, incense and household cleaning products. They are also used as flavorings for food and beverages.
There is a lot of unreliable information about essential oils out there, both on-line and by word of mouth. I cringe when I see a careless, or worse, dangerous aromatherapy recipe posted on social media. I know people who have been burned by “raindrop therapy” (a practice of dropping full strength essential oils along the spine) and hurt using essential oils internally, without expert guidance.
Essential oils are extremely potent. For instance, there are about 70 petals in every drop of rose essential oil. That is potent stuff! Producing essential oils uses a lot of plants; therefore oils should be used with respect and conservation in mind. If you want to use essential oils internally, I recommend working with a trained aromatherapist.
Most essential oils need to be diluted before being applied to the skin. Exceptions to this rule are lavender and tea tree oil, which are generally safe applied full strength to the skin. To determine if an oil is safe to use externally, do a patch test on the inner wrist, applying the diluted oil and the looking for any redness or irritation for twenty-four hours. Some oils are most appropriate for diffusers, or even for use in cleaning products.
Essential oils are fat soluble, and are best diluted with fixed oils, also called vegetable or carrier oils, such as olive, almond or jojoba oil. For most people, a 2% dilution works well. Simply add 10-12 drops of essential oil per fluid ounce of carrier oil. Essential oils can also be added to products such as massage oils, salves, whole milk, salts, shampoo, conditioner, lotions, whole yogurt and ethyl alcohol.
Be cautious using essential oils with babies (never under 6 months old), small children, elders, people with allergies and with women who are pregnant or nursing. Some essential oils, such as citrus oils, can cause photosensitivity on the skin when exposed to ultraviolet light or sunshine.
There are a lot of poor quality oils on the market, including some offered by multi-level marketing companies. Make sure you purchase unadulterated, pure, therapeutic essential oils. I recommend looking for oils that are tested using gas chromatography. A gas chromatograph will help confirm the authenticity of an oil by revealing its chemical composition. These individual compounds act like a “fingerprint” unique to each botanical species.
This is part one of a two-part article. Here is part two.
© Elaine Sheff, Clinical Herbalist 2016
About the Author:
The author of several books on herbal medicine and healing, clinical herbalist Elaine Sheff has been passionate about sharing herbal knowledge for over 25 years. Her latest book is Naked: Botanical Recipes for Vibrant Skin and Healthy Hair. Elaine is the Co-Director of Green Path Herb School, located in Missoula, MT, where she strives to inspire and empower students and clients to remember their connection to the earth, the plants and their own healing process. As a certified Instructor of the Natural Family Planning and Fertility Awareness Methods, Elaine has helped many couples to avoid or achieve pregnancy naturally. An artist and writer, Elaine has written numerous articles about her family’s journey with epilepsy and a special needs child. You can often find her bent over an herb in her garden or marveling at small flowers in mountain meadows with her husband and sons.