With the proliferation of essential oil companies, and especially MLM companies, aromatherapy has become a booming business these days. As a natural health care practitioner, I am excited to see this effective, natural modality becoming so popular.
However, there is a down side as well. With so many people selling, purchasing and using essential oils so casually, education has gone by the wayside and unfortunately there are a large percentage of essential oil users who have only a sales representative’s marketing materials to guide them.
Unfortunately, more and more avoidable injuries and reactions are occurring on a regular basis with this new surge of essential oil enthusiasts. However, with a little bit more information and education, this can be largely averted and the genuine efficacy of aromatherapy can be truly uncovered.
There is so much more to the practice of aromatherapy than most people realize, unless they have made an in depth study of the modality. It is an art as well as a science, with nuances of aroma, notes, blending and medicinal qualities woven throughout.
However, a strong foundation of safety is the first thing to be laid down for a thorough understanding of how aromatherapy works and how to use essential oils properly.
So, in this first part of this series, we are going to take a look at the basics:
What is aromatherapy?
What are essential oils?
How can they be used safely?
WHAT IS AROMATHERAPY?
Aromatherapy is a natural, healing modality employing essential oils extracted from aromatic plant sources to treat and balance the body, mind and spirit.
WHAT ARE ESSENTIAL OILS?
Essential oils are extracted from botanical sources by means of steam distillation, expression, solvent extraction, maceration or enfleurage. They may be extracted from every part of the plant: flowers, leaves, fruit, seed, root, bark, gum, etc. They are volatile and evaporate quickly.
PURE VS. SYNTHETIC
Only pure natural essential oils have any therapeutic benefits. Fragrance oils and other scented oils are synthetic unless they specifically state that they are pure essential oils. Otherwise they are chemically formulated in a laboratory and not only contain no natural healing properties, but may cause allergic reactions or irritations in some people.
One of the unfortunate deceptions plaguing the aromatherapy trade is adulteration. Many essential oils are cut with synthetics, or cheaper essential oils, to cut costs. Care must be taken to ensure that the essential oils you purchase are not adulterated.
This term has been floating around in the aromatherapy market for a long time. It is important to understand that it is purely a marketing term. That is, it was made up, to market a product. It has no real meaning. There is no such thing as a therapeutic grade essential oil.
STORAGE OF ESSENTIAL OILS
Essential oils are volatile and very sensitive to heat, light and oxidation. They therefore should be stored in dark glass containers with tight fitting lids away from any heat or light sources.
USING ESSENTIAL OILS
Essential oils are extremely concentrated. They need to be diluted before use. Although it has been said that oils such as Lavender and Tea Tree may be used neat (undiluted), this is not recommended. All oils need to be diluted in a fixed oil (also called base or carrier oils) or water, milk (or some other medium) or diffused into the air. Some good choices for base oils are: almond oil, apricot kernel oil, avocado oil, grapeseed oil, jojoba oil, walnut oil, wheatgerm oil or even olive oil.
WHAT ARE FIXED OILS?
Fixed oils are extracted from vegetables, seeds or nuts by expeller or cold pressing. They can also be found in refined or unrefined forms. These oils are not volatile and do not evaporate.
METHODS OF APPLICATION
There are several ways to enjoy essential oils, including: massage, compress, baths (full, foot and sitz), steam inhalation and diffusion. Avoid contact with eyes and again be sure they are properly diluted.
DILUTION OF ESSENTIAL OILS
A common dilution for adults is 2 % – which would equal approximately 10 drops essential oil to 1 ounce or 2T carrier oil. For an aromatherapy bath add 6-10 drops essential oil to the tub and mix well before getting in. A bath alternative would be to mix your 6-10 drops essential oil into an ounce of milk and then add that to the bath water. 3-6 drops essential oil in a bowl of warm water wrung out in a washcloth works well for a compress. Use the same dilution in a bowl of steaming hot water for a steam inhalation.
There are two main schools of thought on aromatherapy – the French Model and the English Model. The English Model focuses on the implied meaning of the term “aromatherapy” – signifying the breathing in of the aroma through the olfactory organs, as well as diluted topical application. On the other hand, the French Model includes what are considered more controversial methods of application, including minimal undiluted use and internal use.
While I am firmly rooted in the English Model and strongly believe in the precautionary principle, I certainly respect those who follow the French Model. However, in either case, there are a few crucial points to be considered that can help ensure safe and sensible usage of essential oils:
- Trusted Supplier – Make sure you get to know your essential oil supplier well. You should be able to feel confident in asking where the oils come from, how they are processed and asking for a GCMS (Gas Chromatography and Mass Spectrometry) report. This helps ensure that no adulteration has taken place. A reputable company will provide you with a GCMS report for each oil. If yours doesn’t, look elsewhere.
- Less is More – Since essential oils are so concentrated, only the tiniest amounts are needed to see big results. We live in a culture where we are conditioned to think that if a little is good, then more must be better. When it comes to aromatherapy (and most other things), the opposite is true. “The dose makes the poison”, the old adage attributed to Paracelsus, applies here. Using too much essential oil, too often, for too many things, is often at the root of the reactions we see happening. This leads into the next point…
- Moderation – Many people new to aromatherapy are so excited with the results that they are getting with essential oils, that they start using them in every part of their life, every day, everywhere. The adverse reactions that some people experience with essential oils, often are from cumulative exposure. If you are using essential oils in your toothpaste, mouthwash, facial cleanser, moisturizer, shampoo, deodorant, room spray, laundry detergent, air diffuser, massage oil, cough syrup, first aid supplies, household cleaning supplies, drinking water, soups, smoothies, tea, etc….you are getting FAR more than the 1 or 2 drops a day that is recommended, even if you subscribe to the French Model of aromatherapy. Remember, these are very potent remedies, and even though they are natural, it does not mean they do not have the potential to be toxic!
- Ecological Awareness – one of the most vital pieces to remember in this discussion is respect for nature. Most of us come to aromatherapy because we are looking for natural remedies or gentle ways to heal ourselves and our families. While nature has provided us with this wonderful healing tool, it is important to show respect by being judicious and using it wisely. It takes 2 tons of rose petals to make only 1 ounce of rose essential oil! While not all essential oils require THAT much, they all require a massive amount of plant material from which to distill the oil. It makes sense to me that when we have the option of diluting essential oils to make them go further, we should, for this reason alone. When added to that, the fact that they often are shown to work better and more safely when diluted, it seems a no-brainer.
- Interactions – Before using essential oils, especially if you are considering using them internally, you MUST know whether the person who is the recipient is taking any medication or using a topical prescription that may have an interaction with the essential oils. Again, ignoring this is one of the root causes of resulting injury.
Just a little bit of research, education and informed decision making in the beginning can save you a lot of heart-ache in the end and can help facilitate a beautiful journey through the exploration of aromatherapy.
The next post in this series will focus on the art of blending essential oils for balance and aroma.
What questions do you have about essential oils? Let me know in the comments!