I love, love, love essential oils. They smell wonderful and are a great tool for supporting wellness. The most common methods for using them include topical application, inhalation, and internal use.
What is an essential oil? Essential oils are the volatile oil distillates of plants. They are extremely concentrated, potent extractions of the oil soluble constituents of a plant. Sometimes the oil is distilled using steam, other times it is a chemical process. When using a plant therapeutically, it is important to know when to use an essential oil, and when to use the whole herb. Some constituents of a plant are only water soluble, and will not be present in an essential oil.
There is enormous variation in the brand, quality and potency. Some companies make preparations from a less potent part of the plant, or from a different species than the therapeutic species. One example of this is lavender essential oil. It can be made from Lavandula angustifolia, Lavandula officinalis, and Lavandin, and still be labeled lavender essential oil. Some companies make preparations from just the flowers (the most potent therapeutic part), and others do leaf and stem extractions (less expensive but less effective). L. angustifolia essential oil made from the flower is the most effective for therapeutic use. Essential oils made from the leaf and stem, or from L. officinalis and Lavandin are often less expensive and can still be used, but have less therapeutic value. They are still effective for fragrance or scenting other products (soap, laundry, perfume).
Essential oils can be applied topically, but they should be diluted with a base carrier oil. Examples of base carrier oils include almond, olive, and jojoba oil. Undiluted essential oils can cause irritation, blisters, rashes, or allergic reactions. In some people they increase sensitivity to the sun. If you use essential oils on your skin, even if they are diluted, be sure to test a small, sensitive area like the inner wrist, for sensitivity before applying to large areas. To create a test batch, add 5 drops of essential oil to 1 ounce of carrier oil. Make sure it is thoroughly combined, then apply a small amount to skin and wait at least 15 minutes. For a larger batch, it is safe to add up to 70 drops of essential oil to 8 ounces of carrier oil. Avoid using essential oils on delicate groin tissue unless recommended by a healthcare provider.
Inhalation is another method of using essential oils. This method is fantastic if you are seeking relief from respiratory tract symptoms or want to alter neurological function and mood. It can be as simple as opening a bottle and inhaling, or using a diffuser or atomizer to fill a room with therapeutic fragrance. Diffusing or atomizing are also great to help remove any airborne pathogens that may be circulating. Follow the directions on your diffuser or atomizer to to determine how many drops of essential oils to use.
Some people recommend using essential oils internally, believing it’s okay to put drops in a glass of water. This can be extremely unsafe, especially with potent, therapeutic grade oils. Unless it is combined with an emulsifier, the oil collects on the top of the water, and causes concentrated exposure to the sensitive mucous membranes of your mouth. It takes about 15 lemons to make one drop of lemon essential oil. How do you think the delicate tissue of your mouth and throat would feel after eating 15 lemons? Some essential oils can cause bleeding of the gastrointestinal tract if they come into contact with the mucous membranes. Other essential oils can cause kidney and liver damage if used internally, especially in people with undiagnosed kidney or liver disease. There is also the risk of allergic reaction to the essential oil, especially if it is not from a pure source. Essential oils are medications, not foods, and they should be treated like medications. Use internally only when encapsulated by reputable companies, or as recommended by a healthcare provider.
To learn more about home use of essential oils, I recommend taking a class with a local aromatherapist or checking out the resources offered by educational organizations without financial conflicts of interest, such as The Alliance of International Aromatherapists. As usual, this blog is for general health information only, and does not constitute personalized medical advice. For personal recommendations, I offer Botanical Medicine Consults that can be tailored to your unique health care needs.
Dr. Tremblay graduated from high school with an associate’s degree in horticulture and worked as a gardener for 10 years before returning to higher education and the healer’s path. Dr. Tremblay studied native plant ecology and ethnomedicine at The Evergreen State College, and earned her doctorate degree in Naturopathic Medicine at Bastyr University. Read more >>