It may be an understatement to say that the internet is a bottomless well of misinformation, exaggerated claims, and outright falsehoods. In an age of social media and viral posts, such misleading tidbits get tossed around as truths and become accepted as viable material on which to base a decision. A popular topic entangled in this unfortunate situation is that of essential oils.
Type the term “essential oils” into a Pinterest search bar and violà! Flashy infographics and bold headlines abound. While morsels and grains of truth are certainly available, false and potentially dangerous information stick to practically every available surface of the internet.
What are essential oils?
Essential oils are captured during the distillation of botanical materials such as leaves, flowers, roots, fruits, barks, and resins. Not actually “oils” like that of olive, coconut, or similar expressed oils, they are highly concentrated, volatile, aromatic compounds with varying degrees of viscosity and solubility.
They are wonderfully fragrant and possess a wide array of therapeutic actions and medicinal potential. However, they should not be used freely and without careful consideration. Powerful and concentrated, these oils should be a respected tool in the holistic medicine chest, used sparingly and according to appropriate safety and dosage protocols.
Here are a few considerations that one should contemplate when using essential oils.
1. Essential oils are highly concentrated.
Just because essential oils are natural, doesn’t necessarily mean that they are safe for everyone. Special consideration needs to be given before using them with small children, pregnant and nursing women, the elderly, and people with certain health conditions. Due to their strength, their therapeutic actions may negatively impact certain individuals.
2. They should be properly diluted for safe application.
Very few essential oils can be applied “neat” (without dilution) safely. The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy recommends that they should not exceed 5% of any preparation. That said, certain essential oils with potential for toxicity, such as wintergreen or birch, should only be present at much lower dilution ratios. Certain populations such as young children and pregnant women also require increased dilution, if not outright avoidance.
3. They do not possess the identical constituent profile as their source material.
The distillation process captures some, but not all of the active constituents represented in the source material. Constituents such as carboxylic acids are often not present in meaningful amounts in essential oils, usually locked up in the distillation water byproduct, hydrosol.
Such is the case with boswellic acid and frankincense. You may have seen a few articles circulating over the years touting the miraculous anti-cancer benefits of frankincense essential oil. While certain studies have demonstrated that the frankincense constituent boswellic acid has certain anti-oxidant, and therefore anti-cancer, benefits, the actual essential oil will not contain any therapeutically profound amounts of the substance.
Certain heavy phenolic compounds such as curcumin (the bright yellow-orange pigment of turmeric) will also not make their way over during the distillation process.
All this is not to say that essential oils lacking some of the valuable constituents present in the source material aren’t useful in their own right. Rather, it is to state that they and their source material may possess different, non transferable, therapeutic actions.
4. Essential oils may not be safe for internal use.
As previously mentioned, these powerful oils are extremely concentrated and are only marginally soluble at best. Mucous membranes exposed to these powerful oils may become irritated or damaged.
While it has become increasingly popular to flavor one’s water with these powerful oils, this practice is not recommended, as most of them will not disperse readily. Instead of reaching for an expensive bottle of essential oil, a better alternative might just be an inexpensive slice of lemon, twist of grapefruit peel, or sprig of mint.
If it is decided that internal use of an essential oil is warranted to address a concern, it should be done so only under the supervision of a qualified healthcare practitioner.
5. Marketing terms mean nothing.
Terms such as “natural,” “pure,” and “therapeutic grade” mean virtually nothing. These terms are applied by marketing professionals and do not imply quality or grade. There are many instances where companies boasting such purity claims have later been found to be selling adulterated oils.
Look for certifications awarded by independent bodies, authenticity records, and scientific analyses to better determine the quality of your essential oil.
6. Not everyone responds the same to every essential oil.
Just as each person is unique, so too are our reactions to these powerful oils. Allergy, sensitivity, health conditions, and cultural values all play a role in the way they affect an individual. As scent is processed in the same regions of the brain as memory, even memories can impact one’s experience with an essential oil. There is simply not one universal response to each essential oil.
7. Know your species and chemotypes.
Just like siblings, essential oils in the same family are not necessarily identical. For example, Lavandula angustifolia and Lavandula intermedia might both be sold as “lavender” but each possess somewhat differing therapeutic actions.
Beyond species, chemotypes of certain botanicals exists. Rosemary is one such botanical with several chemotypes offering different medicinal benefits.
Always look for bottles labeled with both common and Latin names and chemotypes designations when applicable.
8. They require a GREAT deal of source material.
Even the highest yielding botanical matter still offers very little essential oil, by comparison. For example, it is reported that it takes 5,000 pounds of rose petals to produce a mere pound of rose essential oil. Furthermore, native stands of certain botanicals such as sandalwood have been virtually devastated in the name of essential oil production.
To truly appreciate essential oils, one should learn about country of origin, harvesting practices, and production methods, and buy only from companies that offer this information to the consumer.
Essential oils are a natural extension of herbal and holistic practices. With prior knowledge, special considerations, and informed buying decision, they can be safely and appropriately utilized as a part of a well-rounded wellness plan.
Bowles, E. J. (2003). The chemistry of aromatherapeutic oils. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin.
Safety. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://naha.org/explore-aromatherapy/safety/