Jul 1, 1998

The Benefits and Hazards of Essential Oils

Aromatherapy is one of the fastest growing canons in the "new age" and "holistic" repertoire. Critics have lumped it in with other energy healing practices and laughed it off as magical thinking about fragrances and feelings. Where some formerly marginalized holistic approaches to health have started to gain more mainstream acceptance, such as acupuncture, herbal medicine, and massage, aromatherapy, while gaining in popularity, is only beginning to be understood by the American public.

In Europe, however, aromatherapy is a serious health practice. In England it is an increasing part of standard medical practice as it is in France, where its modern-day rediscovery occurred. The Eastern world has always embraced the medicinal value of aromatics. They are a staple in India's Ayurvedic medicine and in China, aromatics, like herbs, are listed with modern medicine in the pharmacopoeia.

As a schooled aromatherapist, I am both exhilarated by and nervous about aromatherapy's sudden proliferation in the marketplace. Because of its increasing popularity, many serious aromatherapists are going to great lengths to communicate that, while there are numerous upsides to the use of essential oils in a balanced health regimen, there are serious precautions associated with this highly concentrated form of herbal energy. Thus, I am self-publishing this article as a public service.

One myth that I would like to dispel is that aromatherapy is the use of fragrance for its mood altering effects. While scent is directly related to our emotional and physical state, not every fragrance in the world is aromatherapy. Many manufacturers of air fresheners, perfume oils, magical oils, and other fragrancing elements would like us to think so, but that is simply not the case. Unfortunately, the prodigious use of the term "aromatherapy" to market every scented product known to man is only adding to confusion about its true practice.

Aromatherapy can be defined as the responsible use of essential oils for physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. Essential oils are highly concentrated and volatile, meaning they evaporate quickly and are highly flammable, plant extracts. They are extracted from aromatic trees, resins, citrus fruits, flowers, plants, leaves, seeds, barks, and roots. True essential oils are extracted by steam distillation. In the case of citrus fruits, the essence is expressed from the rind in a process called scarification. Anything else you come across, no matter how lovely the scent, is not an essential oil.

Through the years I've encountered a number of "essential oils" out in the market-place. Some of my favorites are: apple blossom (sorry, doesn't exist), mango, peach, green apple, melon, strawberry (only extractable fruit essences are from citrus fruits), musk (true musk is from animal sex glands), ambergris (another animal product, from whales actually), amber, bayberry, and the genuinely laughable coconut rum. "Essential oils" such as these should be a red flag to the consumer that they are not dealing with a reputable, or, at the very least, knowledgeable, vendor.

Another guideline to selecting quality essential oils is price. Prices on different oils should vary greatly. This is because, different plant materials produce differing amounts of extractable essence. Some oils, like orange, grapefruit, eucalyptus, and peppermint, can realistically be in the neighborhood of $4.00 to $8.00 for a half ounce vial. Oils like melissa, neroli, and the ever-popular rose, should never be less than $40.00 to $50.00 for a tiny 2 ml. vial. They could be much more, but if they are much less than that, you can be rest assured they are synthetic.

Jasmine is another expensive oil and is not, in fact, an essential oil. Its fragile petals cannot withstand distillation and the essence can only be extracted by solvent extraction or a process called enfleurage. The resulting product is called an absolute or absolute of enfleurage. "Jasmine essential oil" is a misnomer and is another warning sign of fraud.

Another frequent mis-titling with potentially hazardous results is what often accounts for "rosewater" in the marketplace. Read the label. If it says it's rose oil and water, it's not. The price of real rose essential or rose otto has been discussed. There is an all-to-common practice of suspending synthetic rose oil in water and calling it rosewater. True rosewater, or hydrosol of rose is, in fact, the water byproduct of rose essential distillation. It is a glorious healing tool and an affordable substitute for rose otto when the scent of real rose is desired.

True aromatherapy uses essential oils because of their profound healing benefits, not because they smell good. Some of them do smell good, especially in synergistic blends. Other very effective oils, such as tea-tree, are not exactly perfumy.

Essential oils are the most concentrated form of herbal energy available. They are actually the hormone of the plant. They work on the body in two different, but related capacities. Not surprisingly, the first is scent. The second is application to the skin. The molecules of essential oils are so small that they can actually be absorbed through the skin and into the blood stream. They can also penetrate the olfactory epitheleum in the nose which filters out virtually all other substances and enter the bloodstream that way.

Our sense of smell of is 10,000 times more sensitive than any other sense. It is our first and most primal sense. We interpret smell in the limbic or old brain, also called the rhinencephalon. Our neo-cortex grew on top of the old brain out of a piece of olfactory tissue but smell is not interpreted there. Our sense of smell is one nerve synapse away from our limbic brain. All our other senses go through the neo-cortex first. That is why we have no adjectives that directly describe scent. Our reactions to scent are emotional, not intellectual. The limbic brain also regulates our autonomic systems, so scent also directly affects our physical responses. An example of this is sandalwood, which slows the breathing rate, and has been used for centuries as a meditation aid.

The benefits of dermal application of essential oils are many. Many oils aid in detoxification, lymphatic drainage, hormonal and mentstrual balance, respiration, immunity, cellular regeneration, and much more. There simply isn't room in this article to list the benefits associated with a vast array of essential oils. It seems that information about the constructive use of these oils abounds. I have decided instead, to focus here on some of the precautions as they are not as well publicized and they are important to the safe usage of this remarkable healing tool.

First and foremost, do not apply essential oils directly to the skin or "neat." Essential oils are very strong and should be diluted in some type of carrier. Vegetable oils, such as canola, almond, grapeseed, and jojoba work very nicely. For full body massage, essential oils should not comprise more than 2-3% of your blend. The highest concentration you would ever use would be in the form of perfume oil, which can be up to 50% percent of your blend, because you are only dabbing them onto pulse points. For baths I recommend blending oils in salt, milk or vegetable oil so that the essential oil doesn't float on the surface of the water where it can burn the skin.

Even when properly blended, some oils have toxic properties and should be avoided by people with certain health conditions, or, in some cases, all-together. I have encountered some well-meaning individuals who have suggested that "pure" or "organic" oils cannot be toxic. Nothing could be further from the truth. In the case of toxic oils, the greater the purity, the greater the concentration of toxic elements.

These oils should NEVER be used by anyone as they could cause organ damage, neurological damage, spontaneous abortion, and even death:

  • Dwarf Pine
  • Mugwort
  • Pennyroyal
  • Rue
  • Tansy
  • Thuja
  • Wormwood

These oils should be AVOIDED, and only used by knowledgeable aromatherapists as they have been associated with things like liver and neurological damage:

  • Aniseed
  • Camphor
  • Hyssop
  • Origanum
  • Parsley
  • Sage

These oils should not be used by EPILEPTICS as they can provoke seizures:

  • Eucalyptus
  • Fennel
  • Hyssop
  • Rosemary
  • Sage

These oils should be avoided during PREGNANCY. Many of them mentrual regulators and, while that's usually a good thing, they can cause miscarriage:

  • Angelica
  • Arnica
  • Basil
  • Bay
  • Camomile (first trimester)
  • Carrot Seed
  • Cassia
  • Cedarwood
  • Cinnamon leaf and bark
  • Clary Sage
  • Cypress
  • Fennel
  • Geranium
  • Jasmine
  • Juniper
  • Lavender (first trimester)
  • Lavender Spike
  • Melissa
  • Marjoram
  • Myrrh
  • Peppermint (also contra-indicated during nursing)
  • Rose (first trimester)
  • Rosemary
  • Spearmint
  • Thyme

These oils cause PHOTOSENSITIVITY and should not be applied to the skin before being in the sun:

  • Angelica
  • Bergamot
  • Cumin
  • Lemon
  • Lime
  • Orange
  • Verbena

I hope these lists help you to establish some guidelines. They do not, however, cover everything you need to know. I recommend that you look at a few good books before delving into "at home" aromatherapy. I'm a certified aromatherapist and I still need to consult my library often before making blends for my clients and myself. Using aromatherapy safely and to its fullest advantage requires a little dedication, but the benefits to health, skin care, hair care, and mental/emotional balance make it more than worth the effort.