Essential Oil Uses and Safety
I discovered essential oils for the first time at a health food store in 2000. Tiny amber glass bottles lined up by plant species - lavender, rosemary, peppermint, orange. I picked up the lavender tester, sniffed and could think only one thing, where have you been all my life? I dropped perfumes like a hot potato and began my first collection of essential oils, which grew into an aromatherapy-based skin care line. However, essential oils are very potent, and sometimes even dangerous, so it’s important to keep education front and centre. Many are getting advice from sales representatives and bloggers rather than certified aromatherapists, so misinformation abounds. Understanding the nature and potential of essential oils will help you get the most out these fragrant essences!
Aromatherapy is the use of essential oils for wellness and beauty. These liquids are the aromas of plants extracted through distillation or by pressing the peels of citrus fruits. They are composed of unique blends of therapeutic chemicals such as esters, alcohols, phenols, and ketones that are determined by species, location and season.
There are numerous ways to use essential oils. They can be added to baths, used in massage, combined with personal care and house cleaning products, worn like perfume, and diffused in the air. They also make great additions to your first aid kit.
You can find many different gadgets that can heat up oils and speed up their diffusion into the air. Use electric or candle-powered diffusers, rings that go around light bulbs, a pot simmering gently on the stove, or a humidifier. The purpose of diffusion is to purify air and allow inhalation in order to benefit from the essential oils used.
Relaxation and sleep
lavender, petitgrain, jasmine, clary sage, bergamot, Roman chamomile
eucalyptus, ravensara, hyssop, cedarwood, rosemary
peppermint, lavender, marjoram
Essential oils can benefit the skin by providing soothing, healing, and balancing properties. They also contain antioxidants which can reverse damage caused by the sun, pollutants and stress. Some chemical components of essential oils enter the bloodstream by way of skin absorption and provide the body with therapeutic properties in this manner as well.
Healing bruises and cuts
lavender, helichrysum, sandalwood, German chamomile, yarrow
tea tree, myrrh, lemongrass
rose, neroli, sandalwood, frankincense, carrot seed
carrot seed, palmarosa
Muscular or joint pain
peppermint, thyme and rosemary
Aromatherapy is a term coined by René-Maurice Gattefossé in 1928 to describe the therapeutic use of essential oils as whole substances rather than broken down into chemical components or ‘actives’. Gattefossé recognized that the intelligence in nature rivals what gets isolated and standardized in modern pharmaceuticals.
Essential oils are ideal for cleaning your house because many of them are antibacterial, antiviral, and antifungal. Not only do they put unwanted germs in their place but they also offer aromatherapy benefits and make your space smell like a spa. Add them to your mop bucket, cloths, and all your cleaning products. Some great choices are peppermint, orange, grapefruit, lemon, lemongrass, rosemary and pine.
Essential oils and bath time go together like bees and honey. They can take an already relaxing experience up a few notches with calming oils such as lavender, chamomile or geranium. If you're looking for muscle or joint pain relief, oils such as rosemary, cypress or peppermint will do the trick. A couple drops are all you need because if you use more than that, you could risk an unpleasant stinging sensation. Your best bet is to add the essential oil to some unscented bath salts or olive oil before pouring it the into bath. That way you get the skin softening benefits of minerals or emollients along with the soothing, healing properties of the aromatics.
Lately, I’ve been hearing people talk about taking essential oils internally by putting drops in water. This concerns me as they can tax the liver and damage mucous membranes (such as the mouth). You would be hard-pressed to find a professional aromatherapist that will recommend it so be cautious about who you take advice from. The safest way to ingest medicinal plants is through infusions, capsules, tinctures or the like under the supervision of an herbalist or naturopath.
One time I splashed white thyme near my eye and it was very painful. That small area of my skin was traumatized for a couple years following that incident where it would become red and inflamed if it came into contact with any other essential oil. Before you apply essential oils to skin, always dilute them in a carrier oil such as grapeseed or olive oil or water shaken before use. The recommended dosage for babies is .1% up to 3 months and .25% from 3 to 24 months. For children it is 1% for ages 2 - 6 and 1.5 % for ages 6 - 15. Everyone else can use up to 2.5%.
As the Canadian Federation of Aromatherapists states on their website, “Application of undiluted essential oils or ingestion of oils is considered a breach of the Code of Ethics of the CFA. Essential oils can be irritating and sensitizing and some chemical constituents have the potential to cause systemic toxicity if used improperly. Therefore safe use is absolutely critical.”
Keep essential oils away from children
75% of accidents that occur with essential oils involve children, some even ending fatally. Store essential oils in a safe place that children can’t reach and make sure that the bottle has a secure dropper so that even if they try to drink it, it will be small amounts at a time.
The best oils to be used on children are gentle and non-irritating. Their skin isn’t as developed and they will absorb chemicals more easily. Good choices are lavender, chamomile, mandarin and rose.
Being wary of essential oils while pregnant or breastfeeding is valid because components get absorbed into the bloodstream through the skin and can easily pass through the placenta to the developing fetus or cross into breast milk. The question is whether these components are harmful or disruptive. Most essential oils are safe to use, but there are a few that should not be used during pregnancy and breastfeeding. According to Robert Tisserand’s book, Essential Oil Safety, the following should not be applied topically or ingested internally during this time:
Anise, birch, carrot seed, cassia, cinnamon bark, cypress, dill seed, fennel, hyssop, myrrh, myrtle, oregano, sage, star anise, tansy, and yarrow.
If you are going out in the sun, you need to be careful about what essential oils are on your skin because they may be phototoxic, meaning they can leave you more vulnerable to burns. Avoid most citrus types like bergamot, sweet orange, grapefruit, lemon and lime.
I hear the term “therapeutic-grade” being thrown around quite a bit these days and I want to clear up some confusion. This is a marketing term created by companies to describe their oils and it is not recognized by professional associations nor is there a certifying government body or organization regulating it. The only genuine certification currently in place for essential oils is “Organic”. These are by far some of the best quality oils you can purchase and are widely available at health food stores. Look for certifications such as USDA, Quality Assurance International, Ecocert, Oregon Tilth, and BioSuisse.
Quick buying tips
- Verify that it is actually essential oil by looking for the Latin name on the label. For example, Lavender is Lavendula angustifolia.
- Check ingredients to see if it has already been diluted in a carrier oil such as coconut or almond oil.
- Research the companies that you are buying from. What are their values? Do they have ethical standards for purchasing?
- Find a store that you trust to bring in the highest quality essential oils.
Essential oils are a wonderful addition to the home and have countless uses and applications. We often think “natural” means “safe” but when it comes to these potent, highly concentrated substances, we must exercise caution. Always dilute, never ingest and respect the power that plants contain.