Essential oils are enormously popular - as they should be! Unfortunately, like most interests that enjoy a surge in popularity, there is also a lot of misinformation out there. Wild claims about the benefits and applications of essential oils, that are not only wrong but even downright dangerous make their way into the mainstream public, often in an effort to promote sales and increase profits.
If it’s on the internet, and on more than one site, it must be true, right?
Sadly, this is not the case. Here is a little Essential Oils 101 – a crash course on where they come from, and what they can and can’t do. In other words, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Looking for more information? See our expanded guide on essential oils.
What is an essential oil?
Let’s start by defining what an essential oil is. Essential oils are volatile (meaning they evaporate easily) aroma compounds produced by plants. They may be found in various parts of the plant, including the flowers, leaves, bark, roots, seeds, and fruit peels. You are probably familiar with many of them, for example, lavender, peppermint, lemon, orange, and eucalyptus.
So essential oils are made by plants, but not all plants make essential oils. For instance, if you see ‘essential oil of apple’ or ‘essential oil of blueberry’ you are being led astray. Those plants don’t make essential oils and if you find something labelled as such, you are certainly looking at a synthetic fragrance oil and not an essential oil. You can always google whatever oil you are considering to ask if that oil exists as a genuine essential oil.
The plants that do make essential oils do so for a purpose. Plants don’t have storage closets, where they can keep things until needed. If they are making an essential oil, it’s because it serves a particular purpose – whether it is to protect and defend themselves against predators, to serve as antimicrobial/antifungal agents, or to heal. Mother Nature has had millennia to evolve and perfect what plants need. Interestingly, the benefit an essential oil provides to the plant is often the same benefit it can provide to people. Frankincense essential oil, for example, serves as a wound healer and protector for damaged frankincense tree bark, and is a superb oil for skin regeneration in people.
How do we get essential oils out of the plant?
There are a few methods, the most common of which is steam distillation.
In this process, steam is passed through the plant material, the volatile essential oil is vaporized and collected downstream as a pure condensate. Another common method is cold pressing, which is basically just squashing the plant part until the oil runs out. This is done most often with the citrus oils. In every case, the aim is to get the oil outof the plant in the same condition in which it exists inthe plant, so it can perform its purpose equally well in both places.
How to use Essential oils
So we have the oil out of the plant. How does it get into the body and what can it do for us? Essential oils can be inhaled or directly absorbed by the skin, and the method of intake is related to its impact. Here we come to the “good”. For centuries, essential oils have been used to improve physical and emotional well being. This ancient art evolved into what is often known as aromatherapy today.
Modern medicine is also beginning to recognize the amazing powers of essential oils, focusing on the specific chemical compounds which produce the desired effects. At eScential Wellness, we have been hard at work developing natural wellness products that are strongly grounded in the proven efficacy of essential oils for various applications. I’m excited to share with you my passion for essential oils and to introduce you to some of these products.
Applying Essential Oils Topically
eScential Wellness has elevated the lowly hand sanitizer to a new improved standard. Our Hand Cleansers do contain alcohol, which is actually a magnificent bacteria killer. eScential Wellness uses ethanol, the same type of alcohol you would fine in wine, not the inexpensive, drying isopropyl alcohol. To counteract any drying effects, aloe vera and glycerin is added.
To thicken the cleanser, instead of carbomers or synthetics, we use natural wood cellulose. Instead of drying your hands, you feel like you have applied hand lotion! It does come unscented, or, for use in the fragrance free world of ours, we have two cleansers delicately scented with essential oils. Choose lavender/mint for a fresh linen scent, or lime for a bright clean whiff of fragrance that is natural.
Physically, essential oils applied topically (always diluted!) can disinfect small cuts and abrasions, provide some relief from muscle and joint pain, and offer temporary improvement of cold and flu symptoms. eScential Wellness uses these healing abilities in its Skin Rescue Ointment. Essential oils can disinfect, soothe and calm irritated skin and even promote healing.
I like to think of Skin Rescue as a natural alternative to those commercial creams with antibiotics in them. Dermacare by eScential Wellness also takes advantage of the moisturizing and skin soothing qualities of several essential oils to promote growth of healthy skin in people who have mild eczema.
Inhaling Essential Oils
The “good” doesn’t stop there. Essential oil inhalation has been proven to help with stress reduction, general sadness, jet lag, and improved focus such as for an exam or tough presentation. The oils can improve memory! How about providing a “grounded” sensation to enhance meditation? In fact, inhalation has been proven to be so effective for so much, it is possible that you will see future remedies provided by this method.
One of the more remarkable abilities of essential oils, when inhaled, is the ability to affect our emotions and physiology. It’s true! Think of how that smell of popcorn in a movie theatre can inspire you to buy a bag even though you just ate a big meal not a half hour before. Smell is the most ancient of our five senses, and, inhalation through the nose sends the aromatic essential oil vapours directly to the midbrain, where memories and emotions are determined. We can exploit this ability to affect how we feel in many ways by selecting the correct essential oil (or blend of essential oils.)
There is a lot of research supporting the idea that inhalation of certain essential oils (such as ginger or peppermint) can calm queasy stomachs. Think: nausea from surgery, motion sickness, too much holiday turkey, or too much greasy food. Other essential oil blends have been proven effective in calming anxiety, and reducing food cravings. eScential Wellness is trying to bring such inhalers to you!
Headaches can be relieved by harnessing the power of peppermint, eucalyptus and lavender oils to both inhale the scent, and provide topical sensations that have shown in clinical studies to dispatch that nasty tension headache very quickly! Other uses for topically applied, diluted oils include: relief from bug bite itching, pain management and accelerated healing for tiny burns (smaller than a loonie), set the stage for a restful sleep, and possibly improve eczema and rosacea.
Essential Oil Cautions
Yes, essential oils are pretty amazing, but they are not a cure all. Here we come to the “bad”. And by bad, I’m referring to the wealth of unsafe and/or misleading information promising essential oils as a panacea for any and all medical ailments.
Essential oils cannot cure cancer. All that talk about frankincense and breast cancer? Well, if there ever was awell disguised bit of information, this is it. Yes, researchers are indeed doing research on frankincense and breast cancer.
But here’s the thing: they are using frankincense resin, notthe essential oil. The resin component that is of interest is called boswellic acid. Although there have been some positive results on this, all testing has been done on cells in petri dishes, not on people. Let’s cross our fingers and hope for this one! Until then, if anyone tells you that theirfrankincense essential oil does indeed have boswellic acid in it, well – they’re just out and out lying.
Sometimes, you just should not use essential oils at all. Baby Bum Butter by eScential Wellness is a healing blend of natural oils and waxes, without any fragrance at all. Delicate skin on new babies should never be subjected to fragrance
– natural or otherwise. While the scent may make mom happy, it does absolutely nothing for baby and may, in fact, be an irritant.
Other shortcomings: essential oils cannot cure asthma. In fact, they may make it worse! Although essential oils have been used by some to temporarily alleviate symptoms, they cannot cause the condition to disappear. They will not improve your cardiac profile in any way. Nor will they work for appendicitis, or other conditions that are acute and likely in need of surgery. They can’t do anything for osteoporosis.
A broad generalization is that essential oils are not very good at helping us with acute or severe medical situations. So be wary of any literature or products that make health claims to that effect. However, they can often ease discomfort from chronic conditions – something that Western medicine does not excel at. How nice if both these approaches could work together!
The Dangers of essential oils
Now to get to the “ugly” with respect to misinformation on essential oils. Here I want to focus on the means of administering essential oils – which if done incorrectly, can be unsafe. NO qualified aromatherapist would say it is safe or advisable to ingest essential oils, ever. I will note that in France, where aromatherapists must also be trained medical doctors, exceptions apply. But these situations require extensive calculation taking into account body mass, medical history, drug contraindications and the percentage of the active component in the essential oil. Then the oil is often administered by rectal suppository so as to bypass the stomach and liver. These situations require a lot more education than the vast majority of certified aromatherapists in North America have. Although I have taken a course in how to do this, I can assure you that I would never try it, even for family and friends. These are powerful, concentrated substances that can be extremely damaging if ingested directly.
Take lemon essential oil for example. It will dissolve rubber and Styrofoam with shocking speed. Try it! Do you really want something that can melt Styrofoam to come in contact with any sensitive mucous tissue? Moreover, it doesn’t contain a single vitamin, mineral or nutrient. If you want lemon in your water, put in a squeeze of real lemon.
Bad reactions to essential oils
Another myth that needs to be busted is that essential oils should be used undiluted. These are incredibly concentrated liquids! The Atlantic Institute of Aromatherapy actually keeps records of people who report adverse reactions to essential oils. Most common among these are skin sensitivity reactions. These can range from a minor rash or redness, to skin problems serious enough to require hospitalization. Rare? Yes, they are. But not unheard of.
The more often you apply essential oils, the greater your chances of having a reaction to them, as your immune system becomes overly sensitized. But the good news is, you don’t need to use an undiluted oil. More is not better! A 4% dilution of essential oil in a carrier oil (like jojoba, or sunflower, or grapeseed) will get the job done and is much safer. It is never recommended to use essential oils, diluted or otherwise, on pregnant women. To be fair, no harm done has ever been reported. But pregnancy is a complex process, and the aromatherapy profession will always want to err on the side of caution. Seniors often have more sensitivity to, well, everything. So, for frail seniors, a 0.5% dilution rate is recommended.
Last but not least, times are changing. As the science of aromatherapy evolves, there is new thought regarding the use of essential oils on infants and young children. It is no longer considered best practice to use any oils on small ones under two years of age. With great caution, a low dilution (0.5%) on children under six may be used. Kids are smaller than adults, with less body mass, and their immune systems are not fully developed. They also process chemicals differently.
So there it is! I hope you enjoyed this article. As a final thought, here are some things that can help you navigate essential oils. Purchase oils from a reputable company that offers gas chromatograph test results for you to see. That way, you know the company is verifying purity and allows you to see for yourself. Buy small quantities of oils, store them in a refrigerator to extend their life span, and use proper dilutions for any topical application. When in doubt, contact a certified aromatherapist to answer your questions, and a medical professional if you are using essential oils for a medical condition. Aromatherapists are not doctors, and should not diagnose or prescribe anything. Always consult your own physician and follow his or her advice. All of the products at eScential Wellness are Health Canada registered, and have Natural Product Numbers when required. They are backed up by years of traditional medicine as well as scientific studies.
I’d like to leave you with a few terrific seasonal essential oil blend recipes appropriate for fall and for the upcoming holiday season. Diffusers are popular for good reason! Goodness Me! carries several excellent quality cold air diffusers.
Why not package one up with your own essential oil blend and give it as a gift? Or maybe, get one for yourself.
Remember: add 4-6 drops of the blend to your diffuser and run it for an hour, then shut it off. You can run it a few times a day.
14 drops Sweet Orange
6 drops Ginger
2 drops Patchouli
9 drops Frankincense
6 drops Pine
5 drops Cedarwood
4 drops Frankincense
4 drops Cedarwood
6 drops Orange
3 drops Peppermint
2 drops Cinnamon
1 drop Clove
9 Drops Balsam Fir
7 drops Spruce
2 drops Clove
4 drops Peppermint
Nancy Scott, BA, CAHP
CEO & Founder, Escential Wellness Inc.
Nancy Scott's first career was as a Canadian Medical Laboratory Technologist, spending most of her time in clinical chemistry but also performing rotations and exams in microbiology, histology, blood bank and hematology. She also has a BA in Psychology. However, Nancy’s youthful passion for essential oils ultimately led her to pursue a Certified Aromatherapy Health Practitioner designation and launch a second career. She has been fortunate enough to study with Andrea Butje, Mark Webb, Rhiannon Lewis, Robert Tisserand and Gabriel Mojay as well as continually updating her education online. Nancy has combined her strong medical and chemistry background with her desire to design and use products that are effective, yet safe and toxin-free. As the founder and CEO of eScential Wellness she is committed to developing first-aid products that are good for you, and made of pure essential oils and simple waxes, butters, and oils from nature. Her product line includes various products with medical claims, as she has applied for and received several Natural Product Numbers which are necessary for the sale of such products in Canada.