by Leslie Moldenauer with thanks to Kandace Knudson, PhD for her input
Essential oils are powerful, concentrated substances, and knowing how to use them is of the utmost importance. Essential oils should not be feared but they should be respected and used properly to ensure the safety of the individuals using them. Where do you look to find valuable and reliable information? The internet is naturally the first place you go.
However, because you can find almost anything there, misinformation is also right your fingertips. It can be found in the vast sea of information shared from essential oil company representatives, Facebook groups, blog posts, websites, Pinterest and free eBooks. Misinformation may even be found at your neighbor’s aromatherapy 101 class, taught by a fellow enthusiast who may have little or no background in human biology or essential oil chemistry.
I am not suggesting that everything you find on the internet is wrong, but there are some quite common beliefs that have little or no foundation in fact. You may hear that cilantro essential oil will remove heavy metals from your tissues, that carrot seed essential oil is an effective sunscreen, or that frankincense essential oil is a cure for cancer. However, none of these statements is accurate. The nature of the internet, and especially social media groups, is such that seemingly small untruths or inaccuracies can be repeated and easily become full-blown myths. One reason for this may be that, in the vast community of aromatherapy enthusiasts, which includes many extremely intelligent individuals, there are few that are educated enough in aromatherapy to distinguish fact from fiction. And yet we live in a time when, if something appears on one of our screens, we take it as solid truth. Here are a few of the most prevailing myths:
• If you use essential oils undiluted or “neat” and develop a rash or burn, you are just detoxing
This is not only unfounded, it is a potentially dangerous idea. Applying undiluted essential oils to your skin puts you at risk for irritation and possible sensitization. The appropriate dilution of essential oils significantly reduces these risks. Follow this link to read more about sensitization and the detox myth from chemist, Dr. Robert S. Pappas.
My fellow contributor to the Tisserand Institute blog, Kristina Bauer aka the Untamed Alchemist, addresses this issue in greater detail here
• If an essential oil bottle is labeled “for external use only” this means that it is full of synthetics and is not really safe for aromatherapy use
This is purely a marketing ploy for you to use only specific brands of oils because they are “pure.” What truly matters in an essential oil is its composition. There are other things on the label that are more telling about the actual quality, like botanical name, country of origin and batch code. In 2012 The American Herbal Products Association produced published an “industry standard” guideline for labeling essential oils.
This includes “External Use Only” or “Not for Internal Use” or “Not for Ingestion”. These guidelines apply to all single essential oils, and are not for any particular “grade” of oil. Here is additional information that speaks to essential oil purity and grades.
• If an essential oil is pure, it can be used safely on everyone, including babies and children
Of course, the purity of an essential oil is important. However, this statement ignores a very important piece of information. Oils have specific properties and potent effects (which is why we use them in the first place), there are many essential oils also should not be used in specific circumstances. For example: anyone with history of seizures, asthma or blood clotting disorders, and anyone taking a prescribed medication or who is pregnant or nursing could be harmed by the inappropriate application of specific essential oils. There are certain oils not recommended for children for various reasons. Some oils increase the risk of skin irritation when applied topically, more so for those with sensitive skin, while other oils are phototoxic, which can cause a serious burn. The purity of an essential oil has no bearing on these effects, they apply to all brands.
• Placing drops of essential oil in water and drinking is a safe practice
This is far from safe, and is a very poor way for the body to absorb essential oils, due to the simple fact that essential oils do not dissolve in water. Ingesting essential oils this way can irritate the mucous membranes of the digestive tract. The most commonly recommended oil to place in water to drink is lemon, which is about 70% limonene, an effective solvent. This article by Amy Kreydin, a certified clinical aromatherapy practitioner, addresses of the potential dangers of ingesting lemon oil in water.
These examples cover just a few of the problems with misinformation and safety that we face in the industry. Unfortunately, injuries can and do happen, often because consumers cannot distinguish between good and bad advice. This is not surprising, considering there is much conflicting information, and they do not know who they can trust. The problem is that there is too much information; the consumer suffers from information overload. This can lead some to make unwise decisions, and others to abandon aromatherapy altogether.
Practicing medicine without a license
One major source of misinformation is where representatives of essential oils companies share their testimonials with oils. Explaining what has worked for them is a simple way to share without explicitly “teaching.” A problem with these testimonials is the person is often not just testifying but actually giving specific medical advice. This may be unintentional, but it is considered by the letter of the law, to be practicing medicine without a license. Laws can vary by state as explained here in an article written by Dorene Peterson, president of the American College of Healthcare Sciences.
When communicating the benefits of essential oils, it is acceptable to present training courses and webinars, to write books, blog posts or articles, and to refer to the medicinal properties of essential oils. However, if these activities are linked to a brand of product, then the content changes from being purely informational to being a medical claim for that product. Medical claims can be anything from talking about something simple like preventing or treating a cold, to something complex, like curing cancer or Ebola. Trained aromatherapists will tell you that aromatherapy is meant to balance and harmonize the body, stimulating the body’s natural healing abilities.
When considering a source of information, check to see if it is good quality information by applying these 8 guidelines:
• In what way is the source authoritative?
• Is the source respected in the field?
• How long has the source been involved with essential oils or aromatherapy?
• Does the source have anything to gain from you believing what they are saying such as essential oil sales?
• When was the information published? (This is important as new research is always being published.)
• Is any information provided to back up what is being said?
• Is there scientific research to back up the information being shared? (Scientific references are generally a good sign.)
• If not scientific research, is there any “source information” (i.e. not just other websites or blog posts that have no evidence base) to back up what is being said?
Having a critical eye will help you distinguish reliable information from unreliable. Note that the fact of someone being a medical doctor, nurse, chiropractor or chemist does not in itself guarantee that he or she knows very much about essential oils. However, these are trained professionals who know how to interpret and apply scientific information and who could be valuable sources.
As you can see, there are many safety concerns associated with the improper use of essential oils. Finding quality information from reputable sources is vital for the safe use of these healing catalysts; beware of mistaking information for education. When armed with trusted information, you can make an informed decision about how essential oils can benefit you and your family.