A particular realm of holistic health has taken the world by storm. That storm is “essential oils” and as a practicing herbalist for many years, it’s about time I weighed in on the topic. I refer to essential oils as a storm because like a storm, it has the potential to bring renewal, but it also has the potential to bring harm and strike in unpredictable ways, especially when you lack experience.
Essential oils (EO’s) are nothing new. In fact, EO’s would easily be considered old earth knowledge, having been around for thousands of years. But first, what are they?
We’re basically dealing with a branch of herbal medicine here. Medicinal plants contain volatile oils among other constituents which can assist in healing our bodies from various ills. We can obtain these healing benefits by ingesting the plants themselves, or by extracting their constituents through various methods such as infusions, decoctions, tinctures, and in the case of most EO’s, distillation. EO’s are plant extracts, obtained by distilling raw plant materials (roots, leaves, flowers, barks) via steam or water distillation. In this method, heat, water, and steam are being used to extract the volatile oils from the plant material. Once the steam is collected and condensed, the oil is filtered out from the water leaving the pure (or near enough) oils behind. So how are essential oils used?
Essential oils can be used in three ways. They can be applied topically through various means. They can be inhaled. Or they can be ingested.
By far the safest and most practical way to use EO’s is through aromatherapy, that is, via diffusers (inhalation) or topically (applied to the skin). When applied topically, whether or not an oil is diluted depends largely on the specific one being used. But in most cases, the oils should be diluted in any number of carrier oils, grapeseed oil as one example. They may also be diluted into soaps and salves. This is done for safety reasons, because reactions can and do occur regardless of how “therapeutic grade” they are. Ask a professional aromatherapist, or massage therapist, and they’ll tell you that before an EO is used on a patient, they’ve learned to do a sensitivity test. That entails dripping a small amount of the diluted EO in question onto the wrist or forearm of the patient and waiting for a bit to see if there is irritation first, before it is applied to the body overall. They also dilute most of their oils before applying them. Remember that your skin is not only the largest protective organ of your body, but it’s also a giant sponge that absorbs liquids that come in contact with it to varying degrees. This is why you wear rubber gloves when handling certain cleaning agents, lawn chemicals, or pesticides. There is still some debate about whether or not EO’s pass through the skin and into the blood stream, though this indeed seems to be the case with certain ones.
When used correctly, EO’s have such amazing applications for healing via topical use. But when the potency of EO’s is not respected, harm can be done as well. (particularly with children) Even in aromatherapy, it shouldn’t be a surprise that while many people find lavender to have a very soothing/calming effect against anxiety, the lasting impression for some people may be itching and/or a sneezing fit. It all depends on the person. Imagine if someone with an allergic sensitivity to lavender put the pure oil into a capsule and ingested it. That might not go very well to say the least.
This brings us to ingestion. THIS is where we herbalists really cringe at how often we see multi-level marketing (MLM) distributers marketing their oils for internal use without instilling the proper respect for what EO’s can do. Yes, some EO’s have applications for internal use, but only under the right circumstances, and they should only be administered by someone very educated and experienced in human physiology and herbal medicine.
Whether or not EO’s should even be ingested under any circumstances is still a hot-button issue in the professional herbalist community. As far as ingestion is concerned, many professional herbalists believe that’s what teas, tinctures, and dried herb capsules are for.
As a general practice, I personally do not ingest refined essential oils. Many of the herbs that I collect and use have very potent essential oils in them, but taking them as teas, tinctures, and dried capsules is naturally safer because of the lesser content, not to mention that the whole herb contains other constituents that act along WITH the oils they contain. In many cases, additional alkaloids within the herb balance the effects of the oils, making them gentler on the body. Also, there are some legitimate concerns that some essential oils may interfere with, or kill our natural gut flora. We’re talking probiotics here; the natural microorganisms present in our digestive tract that play a huge role in our ability to assimilate nutrients while digesting our foods.
What most people do not realize, is that EO’s are only present in plants in very small amounts. It can take up to 20 pounds or more of plant material to extract just one ounce of oil. (hence the high cost) So when dealing with EO’s, we’re talking CONCENTRATED plant medicines here. Regardless of what clever (many say reckless) marketing may tell you, natural does not necessarily mean safe. It means natural; as in, the earth made it without human interference. Allow me to drive this point home. There is a natural element found in most soils and absorbed to varying degrees by practically all of our most common fruit and vegetable foods. We eat tiny amounts of it daily. It’s natural, organic, non-GMO, gluten free, BPA free, hormone free, nitrate free, sugar free, fat free, and yet it can render you dead. It’s arsenic. The reason we’re all still living is because it’s not harmful until it’s concentrated enough. However, we do know just how deadly it can be when in its pure form. Relatively new research even indicates that arsenic may actually be an essential nutrient in our physiology, albeit in extremely minute amounts…. like those found naturally within our food plants. It seems “everything in moderation” applies to more than just lifestyle choices.
Make no mistake, herbal medicine has the power to heal or to harm and EO’s are NO EXCEPTION! Injuries, illness and allergic reactions can and do occur with the misuse of essential oils. There are documented cases where death occurred when essential oils were used undiluted on children. While the quality of the oils used is always a factor, again, pure does not mean harmless.
On that note, many EO companies tout their oils are “therapeutic grade” or even going so far as to say that their brand is the ONLY one you can use without fear of doing harm. (Now THAT’S marketing!) There is in fact, no independent organization that measures or regulates the quality of essential oils. Period. Like anything where there’s money to be had, buyer beware. And if you do a little digging into company policies, you’ll find they all disavow any and all responsibility for how their oils are used regardless of what their distributers claim or advise. Keep that in mind when taking advice on how to cure your, or someone else’s ills with EO’s.
What’s the bottom line here? It is not the goal of the Old Earth Project to be the “buzz kill” of the excitement surrounding essential oils. We believe that EO’s as a form of holistic healing are indeed an old earth blessing that should spread, but it must be done right, with the proper respect for their potential to heal AND to harm when used irresponsibly. That’s why there are extensive education/certification programs and schools devoted to herbalism and aromatherapy. Some pamphlets and a Saturday sales party do not make an expert. Research and tested experience do. There’s a lot of knowledge to take in before you start concocting remedies all willy nilly. What also concerns us here at OEP is the reckless way MLM companies and many of their distributers are marketing this potent form of herbal medicine. Here’s an excerpt from one such distributer found in the comments section of a news story on EO’s…..
"I use (Brand withheld) Oils and there are no side effects, allergic reactions and etc as stated by the dermatologist. Some of what she described as 'side affects' is just your body's way of detoxing from all the garbage you put in it for years. Also, no oil is safe to take internally EXCEPT (Brand withheld) Oils! And this is important! Also one way to see if a oil is pure is to look for an expiration date. If it had an expiration date, it's not pure and can be harmful. These oils change lives every day! Many peoples lives became amazing after these oils! Including mine:) feel free to message me for more information! I'll be happy to answer any and all questions!" (Name withheld)
Now of course this statement does not reflect all MLM distributers, as we personally know many who are quite responsible and take EO education and distribution very seriously. However, the example above represents the type of marketing we've encountered much too frequently.... frequently enough that we feel strongly compelled to circulate this message of caution. Undoubtedly, the companies turn a blind eye to distributers making these types of claims because of the revenue generated by the hype. The way they disavow any responsibility for how their products are marketed or used is very telling.
Another danger in exaggerated claims like these, is in marketing EO's as cures. While many have demonstrated AMAZING abilities to treat and even cure various ailments, chronic illness is another story. There's a big difference between curing the disease and just treating the symptoms. Where chronic illness is concerned, more often than not EO's by themselves tend to fall into the treatment category. Don't get me wrong. I'm not trying to play down the healing power of EO's. What I'm saying is that while they are often very effective at treating symptoms, you must not forget to address the cause of the symptoms. This is where a solid knowledge base of anatomy and physiology come into play. When dealing with chronic illness, you can often keep your symptoms at bay as long as you keep shelling out the cash for that particular oil. But the object is to cure the illness, right? So while the EO's treat the symptoms, looking for the cause must also be a top priority. Lifestyle and diet are key areas to examine, but so are individual physiology and genetics. As you can see, there's a lot more to consider than oil vs symptom.
In the modern world, herbal medicine and many other old earth forms of healing have become heavily marginalized by “big pharma” and modern medicine. So it’s very good to see the interest in holistic healing on the rise. However, if these natural forms of healing are to gain a foothold and be respected in the mainstream, we’re going to have to take it a bit more seriously. If we’re not careful, this storm of popularity could be viewed as nothing more than a fad, and a potentially dangerous one at that. Not only that, but in the hands of any Jane or John Doe attempting to practice herbal medicine, there is the potential of reducing the integrity and reputation of holistic healing as a whole.
So where does OEP stand on the subject of essential oils? We love them! We use them and have seen firsthand their healing attributes at work. But with experience we’ve learned to respect them as well. Can some essential oils be ingested? The long answer would be yes, with a whole lot of educated “ifs”, “ands”, “buts”, and “unlesses” to back up the decision to do so. The short answer (which is the safest answer) would be no….. Stick to using them in soaps, lotions, salves, ointments, and diffusers and you should be alright. If using pure EO’s directly on the skin, research whether or not the particular oil in question should be diluted first, because for some, it’s definitely NOT appropriate.
We must tread carefully as this essential oil storm continues to roll over the country, because without the proper shelter of knowledge and experience, it’s inevitable that some people are going to get struck by lightning.
Journey well and in good health, people!
***For additional reading on the subject, please check out the links below to articles written by experienced professionals on the safe use and potential dangers of ingesting essential oils……
An excellent article on essential oil safety, with sited scientific research and documented cases of injury or side effects caused by misuse of essential oils…. http://leetea.hubpages.com/hub/Essential-Oil-Safety-Documented-Side-Effects-Injuries-and-Deaths-from-Essential-Oil-Ingestion
A certified professional nutritional therapist weighs in here….
A certified professional aromatherapist weighs in here with additional research sited at the end….