(January 2015 edit: along with this series, please make sure to read my follow-up post with more info about essential oil suppliers and practices.)
With any herbal remedy, it’s important to remember that just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it won’t be harmful if used inappropriately. In my mind, this applies especially to essential oils since they are so concentrated. With very few exceptions, essential oils should never be applied undiluted to the skin. Many essential oils can burn the skin if not properly diluted with carrier oils such as sweet almond oil, jojoba oil, or olive oil. This does not mean that the oil isn’t “pure enough” or of good enough quality — it just means that essential oils are very concentrated and should be handled with care.
Many essential oil users differ on whether or not essential oils should be taken internally. Personally, I feel that this should only happen in rare cases, and only under the supervision of a certified aromatherapist or the like. (Note: in the vast majority of cases, the MLM rep who may have sold you your oils is NOT an aromatherapist!) Certain essential oils, like eucalyptus oil, are quite toxic when taken internally, even in very small amounts. As such, it’s important to again remember that essential oils are very potent and using them is not to be done lightly.
The reason I emphasize this, and why I decided to devote an entire (long!) post to using essential oils safely, is because of an alarming trend I’ve seen among some people who decide to start using essential oils. Certain prominent essential oil companies make the claim that their oils are “so pure” that they can be used undiluted on the skin or taken internally. Conveniently enough, supposedly all other oils aren’t “pure enough” so if you’ve had a bad reaction to an essential oil in the past, that’s probably because it was adulterated, etc.
Honestly, that kind of reasoning doesn’t even make logical sense! If these certain brands of essential oils are supposedly so pure and therefore so potent, then wouldn’t that mean that extra care should be taken in using them? But as I mentioned in the post on essential oil brands and quality, these claims of “therapeutic grade”, etc. don’t really mean anything and are mostly just helpful for marketing.
Jessie Hawkins, a well-known natural living professional, wrote a blog post called “the post we’ve always avoided“. An interesting title, to be sure, and in it she talks of this trend and details more of the problems with it. I strongly encourage anyone considering using essential oils to read it in its entirety. Below is a telling quote:
These textbooks and experts [from medical establishments where using aromatherapy and essential oils is the norm], backed by large bodies of scientific evidence are able to best tell us how to use essential oils for safe and effective results. One of the things they tell us is that essential oils – with very, very few exceptions – are not to be used “neat” or undiluted on the skin. They are also not to be taken internally, again with very few exceptions, many of which require direct medical supervision or care. These pioneers of the field that have been studying the chemistry of essential oils for decades are not confused about the quality of a good oil. They’re not talking about adulterated oils or low grade oils. And they’re not recommending “therapeutic-grade” or similarly certified oils – designations that are essentially developed by the marketing departments of popular direct-sales brands here in the States. They’re talking about high quality organic oils that are so potent that they must be diluted before use on the skin and should not be ingested due to their chemical purity.
Along with mindfully using essentials oils in general, it’s especially important to be careful during pregnancy. Mimicking their herbal counterparts, certain essential oils are emmenagogues, which means they promote menstruation (therefore being an abortifacient if you’re pregnant) and can stimulate uterine contractions– not something you want happening for most of your pregnancy! Lists as to which oils are unsafe during pregnancy can vary widely, but this one is the most comprehensive that I’ve found. Yes, it’s very long, but especially with essential oils, I like to err on the side of caution when dealing with such a sensitive time.
While not dealing specifically with essential oils, but more generally with herbs, I’ve found the book The Naturally Healthy Pregnancy by Shonda Parker (a certified herbalist) to be very helpful in determining which essential oils are safe to use while pregnant.
The bottom line: essential oils are very concentrated and therefore, should be used with care and caution. Educate yourself about the oils you’re using and don’t fall victim to propaganda designed to promote a certain brand.
Coming tomorrow: a peek into my essential oil stash and how I use them.