What are essential oils? In short, they are liquid aromatics that have been distilled from different parts of a plant, such as the flowers, leaves, stems, roots, and bark of trees.  Citrus oils such as lemon, orange, grapefruit, and bergamot are expressed from the rinds.  Essential oils are products of nature, and are compositionally very complex, lending themselves to a variety of uses. They support many of the systems of the body such as the circulatory, endocrine, and digestive systems.  They can be very effective in helping relieve physical aches and pains.

The simple inhalation of an essential oil can have a profoundly positive effect on our emotions.  They also support the body by creating a hostile environment for bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites that compromise our health, much in the same way they protected the plants they were extracted from.  Unlike chemical drugs, the more you use an essential oil, the stronger your immune system becomes.  They are intuitively smart, in that they can discriminate between “friendly” bacteria and hostile bacteria.  Essential oils will respond according to the needs of your body at that particular time.

How safe are essential oils to use? A lot of hype about the dangers of essential oil use was originally fanned by the fragrance industry in the 70’s and 80’s, where tests were done on isolated compounds of an oil.  The supposed safety of essential oils was determined by testing isolated compounds of an oil – in the same way they would test skin care or perfume products. These tests were, however, inconclusive, with a lack of understanding of the complex nature of essential oils.  Take the essential oil of myrrh.  According to aromatherapy expert Dr. David Stewart, myrrh contains many compounds that if looked at individually, are toxic.  However, the complete oil itself, is gentle and safe to use and because of its many therapeutic properties, it’s an oil that has commonly been used for centuries.

Disclaimers state that ingestion of essential oils should only be done under the supervision of a physician, knowing that there are only a handful of conventional doctors who know anything about essential oils.  There are warnings against using essential oils undiluted, when, in fact, many oils can be safely used neat (undiluted).   The French school of aromatherapy, pioneered by medical doctors, has emphasized these methods of application for decades.

Other warnings caution against using essential oils during pregnancy, despite the absence of reports of adverse effects in common sense applications.  Essential oils such as cinnamon, clove, wintergreen, tansy, and rosemary are labeled with dire warnings of their use, when, in fact, a drop or 2 of cinnamon oil taken internally can effectively eliminate a bacterial infection of the intestinal tract, and certain types of rosemary oil is very beneficial to the lungs.  Interestingly, most warnings, or even suggestions of safe use rarely mention the importance of understanding the chemo-types of an oil.  This is where plants of one botanical species can have distinctly different compositions, hence its therapeutic properties and use would vary.  Two important examples are rosemary and thyme.
Rosmarinus officinalis can vary depending on whether it was grown close to a seashore or inland.  Geographic location and climate are obvious factors, but genetic factors also contribute.  This phenomenon is not yet clearly understood.

Kurt Schnaubelt, a leader in aromatherapy research, states,” Most warnings are derived from industry funded dermatological tests with limited relevance for aromatherapy.”  If you are choosing essential oils for therapeutic purposes, caution is best used in choosing only high quality essential oils – for which there is no substitute.

Before getting into the importance of purity, let’s look at some safety guidelines in using essential oils.

  • Essential oils should never be used in the eyes or ears.  They will burn!  I’ve never heard of permanent damage if mistakenly used this way, but your experience will surely be unpleasant.  If, by chance you happen to get an oil in the eye or ear, simply flush it out with a fatty vegetable oil.  That will take away the discomfort almost immediately.
  • It’s always a good idea to test the skin for sensitivity.  You can do this by applying a drop of oil on the soft skin on the underside of an arm.  If you are sensitive to that oil, within minutes, an irritated looking rash will appear.  Once again, diluting the area with a fatty vegetable oil will alleviate that discomfort.  “Hot” oils such as oregano, thyme, mountain savory, clove, and cinnamon are best used in dilution with a carrier oil, and/or in combination with a mild oil such as lavender, myrtle, tea tree, or chamomile.
  • Citrus oils are photo toxic and can cause a burn if applied to the skin and then exposed to direct sunlight within 48 hours of application. It is also recommended that peppermint oil not be used on the chest or neck of a child under 2.  It can be overly stimulating.
  • Someone with asthma or epilepsy should use caution around direct inhalation.

Using common sense and some basic safety precautions, there are numerous ways to use essential oils, depending on which school of thought you might adhere to.  The English school focuses on the use of essential oils diluted in a carrier oil and used in massage.  The German school predominantly focuses on inhalation, while the French school incorporates the use of essential oils undiluted, and taken internally.  How you use essential oils is a personal choice and would most likely depend on your current comfort level.

Before exploring the many varied uses of essential oils, lets first talk about purity.  Essential oils consist of a vast array of naturally occurring chemical components that exist in different parts of the plant, at different times of its life cycle. Producing a genuine, authentic essential oil is both a science and an art.  For proper production from seed to bottle, there should be no chemicals used at any stage.  Plants should be from the proper botanical species, distilled at low pressure and low temperatures over a long period of time.  This allows for the many, varied molecules of a plant to distill over, making it a complete oil.  Essential oils that are left as close to nature as possible are referred to as genuine and authentic, or therapeutic grade.

Take the example of lavender oil.  The bulk of the total yield of lavender oil distills over in about 25 minutes.  However, the natural coumarin content of lavender, a key component to the quality and healing benefits of this oil, takes an extra 50 – 80 minutes to distill over, making it a complete oil.  However, this adds little to the overall yield.  In the production of standardized oils, manufacturers are paid by volume, putting profit before quality.  Therefore finding genuine, complete essential oils is a challenge.

While the use of inferior, adulterated oils can have some limited health benefits, if using for therapeutic purposes, nothing compares to the healing powers or sophisticated aroma of an authentic essential oil.  One could compare it to the complex bouquet and experience of a fine bordeaux as compared to the one dimension of an inexpensive fortified wine.

Using essential oils in the shower is a great way to begin experimenting with essential oils.  It’s both refreshing and therapeutic. The lipophilic nature of the skin provides a perfect environment for the oils to escape the water and penetrate the skin.  Placing 4 or 5 drops of Eucalyptus (eucalyptus radiata) oil into your hand, and rubbing it on your body during a shower will open up the sinuses and give you an overall sensation of well being.  Myrtle (myrtus communis) and Lavender (lavendula angustifolia) are a couple  other refreshing alternatives.

When it comes to essential oils for aiding and supporting digestion, ginger (zingiber officinalis) takes top rating!  It helps increase the peristalsis of the small intestine, thereby improving digestion, reducing inflammation, and preventing intestinal gas formation.  It also relieves nausea and motion sickness.  A couple drops applied topically on the stomach can do wonders.  Because there is more nervous tissue in our gut than in our brain, the calming oils of Lavender (lavendula angustifolia) and Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) essential oils have a powerful influence on symptoms related to stress and digestion.  Other essential oils that are supportive to the digestive system are spices commonly found in Indian food such as tarragon (artemisia dracunculus), cardamon (elettaria cardamomum), and coriander (coriandrum sativum).

These are just a few tips of the limitless ways to use essential oils.  For more in-depth knowledge on their properties and uses, check out the “Continuing Education” section of our website for upcoming classes.

This information is for educational purposes only, and is not meant to be a substitute for proper medical care.