Essential Oils Usage and Safety: Myth busting and Misinformation

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Essential oils are the new health and self care buzz: use them on yourself, your family, drink them and do whatever you like! Splash them around! I have two words in response to these suggestions: just don’t.

I’ve been involved in the essential oil industry for more than two decades. As an interested layperson, staff (head office and sales) and then trainer for essential oil and skincare companies, and now cosmetic formulator for my own brand, I’ve certainly been in a position to observe the transitions in awareness and interest in essential oils.

Over the last 5-10 years in particular, there has been a huge upsurge in interest and usage in essential oils. Some of this has been good, absolutely, but most of it is more misinformation and PR than substance, and some of it just outright lies disguised as branding. While every brand needs a ‘point of difference’, when the lies start being dangerous to public health, its time to cut through the crap and get real.

Its well past time we get some common sense and clarity so I’ve decided to add mine to the voices of reason (and there have already been many excellent ones) in this situation and dispel a few of the myths.

Lets start with: what are essential oils?

Essential oils are highly volatile, concentrated compounds isolated from plant materials. Some of them will be from leaves, some from flowers and root substances, some from fruit peels, and some from the resins of trees. While exact measurements can vary, it usually takes several kilograms of raw materials to make a much smaller volume of essential oil. In the case of some essential oils, like rose, it may take 100 kilograms of rose petals to make 1 kilogram of essential oil.

These levels of concentration ore obviously far higher than what you would find easily in nature. 1 drop of essential oil could easily be the equivalent of the rind of several oranges or lemons, or a kilo of peppermint leaves. If you wouldn’t eat a kilo of peppermint why would you ingest the equivalent in essential oil?

Therapeutic/ food grade

Some of the MLM (multilevel marketing – pyramid) companies have created and patented this term. In simple marketing terms, this is great PR. If your product sounds more highly regulated then its quite natural for potential customers to think its higher quality, safer and better. A reasonable assumption, aside from the fact that it just isn’t true.

What the label ‘food grade’ refers to is the use of essential oils as a flavouring in commercial food. Its incredibly common, with the use of essential oils in commercial food production second only to the perfume industry. This does not mean that you can use them as medical supplements! It means that a tiny percentage – less than 1% – is permissible for use as a flavouring agent. If you’ve had a cough lozenge or a commercial cake mix, you’ve eaten essential oils. That’s not scare mongering, its just fact.

This is a loophole which some companies have utilised to make more claims for usage of their product – for better sales.

Although its been shown that most environmental toxins from plant material are eliminated during the distillation process, your best bet is to purchase certified Organic essential oils, in which situation the supplier and process is independently audited. Australian Certified Organic is the standard in Australia and there are many essential oils suppliers offering this.

Ingestion

The idea and suggestion of essential oils is quite a new one in popular culture and actually something that is directly warned against in aromatherapy training. This is because the high levels of volatile plant compounds in many essential oils are difficult for the liver and kidneys to metabolise: and yes, there have been several cases of kidney and liver failure associated with essential oil ingestion.

Not only is it illegal to recommend in Australia, but in countries where essential oils are prescribed have stringent training: their use far from casual. In France Medical Doctors do another 2 years of study to recommend essential oils diluted at 1-2% in carrier oil (such as coconut) and then swallowed in a vegetable gelatin capsule. Even in this scenario, this prescription will be for a set period of time, while appropriate for the condition being treated. If you wouldn’t take cold and flu medication when you didn’t have one, pain killers without a pain condition, or just randomly pick up someone else’s heart medication and take it for prevention, then there’s simply no reason for you to be ingesting essential oils ‘medically’.

I hope its obvious in any case that this kind of use is a long, long way from dropping essential oils in water and swallowing!

I have 20 years in essential oil training and usage, a health science degree and am currently completing a masters of applied science in herbal medicine: and I wouldn’t feel comfortable ingesting essential oils myself (much less someone else, even if it was legal).

Dilution

1. One more time: Oil and water do not mix.
Remember those experiments in primary school when you would put oil and water together, shake it, and then watch the two substances separate again? Same same. This does not take advanced biochemistry to understand, its really pretty simple.
2. There are clear parameters for the use and application of essential oils which have been tested and applied for many years: the general rule is .5- 1% for babies and sensitive areas (such as the face), 2-3% for larger areas of the body, and up to 30% for concentrated products for small areas, such as liniments and balms.

Essential oils also, like herbs, have varying chemical compounds and alkaloids which, of course, is what gives them unique profiles and properties. Its also what makes a particular oil appropriate – or inappropriate – for different uses.

Essential oils have differing safety profiles and recommended dosages for concentration within a blend. Some of them are well known dermal sensitisers and should not be used on sensitive patients, or at high concentrations within an essential oil blend. Cinnamon and clove, for example, should be no more than 1% of a blend to then be diluted in carrier oil for application to the skin. Some of them are contraindicated for conditions such as high blood pressure or epilepsy, and many of them are photosensitive (reactive with sunlight) or contraindicated in pregnancy.

When I worked for an essential oil company -about 15 years ago now – we would quite often see people coming in with burns due to direct application of a particular essential oil. (yes, despite the warnings on the label to dilute them). Some of these where quite dreadful and clearly very painful for the person affected. Skin reactions and burns are NOT a detox effect – and fainting and dizziness are not a ‘spiritual gateway’. This is toxic overexposure.

The topics of photosensitivity and essential oils in pregnancy are considerable issues in clinical practice so quite honestly if you don’t know which essential oils these are then I strongly recommend you steer clear. Many great organic skincare companies sell products specifically for pregnancy and babies and they will be your best bet.

All about the money, money, money

Unfortunately when all these pieces of information are collated its obvious that this is really about one thing: profit.

If all you need is 2-3% essential oil in a blend of carrier oil then its not hard to work out that a bottle of essential oil is going to last you a long, long time. If a 12ml bottle has approximately 240 drops then that one bottle could last you years. No company is going to make significant money from something that has that kind of use, and therefore alternate, more expansive use has been manufactured.

While I’m sure many of the sales representatives for these companies truly love the essential oils and don’t mean for harm for any of their customers (which is truly the operative word here) ignorance is not bliss, and neither is it an acceptable excuse.

The advice of ingestion and direct application is in direct opposition to what trained Aromatherapists recommend. This is more than simply a different train of thought, its both negligent and irresponsible.

If you are interested in using essential oils I highly recommend you talk to an Aromatherapist for advice. Or do some research with reputable sources (ie, not an MLM company)


Health Practitioners Beware:

I’ve spoken to many Natural health practitioners over the last few years who have been approached to sell these oils. If you are not qualified in this area I urge you to tread with extreme caution. If this isn’t legally within your scope of practice then you are legally liable for any and all negative consequences and you will not be covered by your insurance.

Don’t take my word for word for it! Have a look at some other sources.

http://roberttisserand.com/
http://www.amykreydin.com/
http://www.atlanticinstitute.com/
http://essentialaromatherapy.org/

About Jade

Jade is a Registered Acupuncturist with a Bachelor of Health Science in Acupuncture, currently completing a Masters in Applied Science in Chinese Herbal Medicine. She has passion for mental health and recovery, having recovered from Post Traumatic Stress herself, and has a clinic space in West End, Brisbane with a focus on chronic health, pain and mental health disorders. Jade loves good food (cooking and especially eating), tea, and thinks you are never running too late to greet a cute furry animal. She does not believe in Magic Bullets.