Safe and Effective Use of Essential Oils: What You Need to Know About What You’re Not Being Told

By Joie Power, Ph.D., Former Asst. Professor of Neurosurgery, internationally known author, teacher, and consultant in Aromatherapy; Director of the Aromatherapy School; Consultant to Artisan Aromatics

Over the last twenty years, I’ve seen aromatherapy grow from an almost unknown alternative modality employed by a few well-informed practitioners into a multi-billion dollar a year industry in which fortunes have been made by a few companies employing sophisticated marketing strategies aimed at the general public. These companies have been very effective at getting their fingers in many people’s wallets while destroying true aromatherapy in the process.

It’s time to wise up.

The sale of essential oils to the public is now dominated by a few aggressive companies armed with huge marketing budgets and bottomless greed. Make no mistake about it – if you are a user of essential oils, you are a “mark” in the eyes of these kinds of companies, and in my opinion, there’s not much some of them won’t say or do to get your money, even if that means putting you and your family at risk.

With widespread commercial marketing, the public face of aromatherapy is changing. For decades, skillful aromatherapists have used a carefully selected range of essential oils to safely and effectively promote healing, but now untrained consumers are being encouraged to take higher and unnecessary risks in their choice of oils and their methods and frequency of use because this strategy leads to higher sales and higher profits.

The most effective strategy for selling essential oils is to encourage over-use, push all forms of use (whether safe or not), and make “cure” claims that are unsubstantiated.

These marketing strategies have succeeded because the majority of consumers do not have much if any, knowledge about the real science behind how and why essential oils work. As someone who does understand the physiological and pharmacological basis of essential oils’ actions on the body, I know exactly how people’s trusting natures are being exploited by inaccurate and even dangerous advice about what essential oils can do and how to use them.

When properly used, essential oils offer many important benefits with a very low risk of adverse reactions. The key concept here is “properly used”, and it’s definitely time to start being choosy about who you listen to and what you’re willing to believe about essential oils! There are still many ethical, service-oriented essential oil companies out there run by people who are knowledgeable about aromatherapy and who do not promote risky practices or make deceptive claims.

You can get the maximum benefit of aromatherapy and avoid adverse reactions by choosing your essential oil supplier carefully, being aware of the hype, and heeding the simple guidelines that I’ll layout below.

The promised benefits of ingesting essential oils are mostly hype.

Rather than just ask you to take my word on this, I want to explain why it’s true and arm you with the knowledge you need to make good decisions about essential oil use.

The idea that oral use of essential oils is “better” is loosely based on the fact that you can generally get more essential oil constituents into your bloodstream by swallowing them, and, in fact, up to about 96% of some essential oil constituents are absorbed into the blood when ingested. But this is only true for SOME essential oil constituents. What you haven’t been told is that some essential oil constituents are actually destroyed when they contact the fluids in the stomach.

Lavender essential oil is a good example: among the most therapeutically important constituents in Lavender essential oil are the so-called esters, and esters are virtually destroyed in the stomach. If you’re adding Lavender essential oil to your drinking water you might as well be flushing it down the drain! In addition, some essential oil constituents may be reduced or destroyed by what’s called the first-pass liver metabolism when you ingest them, and we don’t really have enough research to know how big an issue that may be in most cases.

Something else that the big corporate companies don’t want you to know is that essential oils are actually absorbed into the bloodstream very effectively when simply inhaled. Studies have shown that between 60% and 70% of most constituents of inhaled essential oil are absorbed into the bloodstream. That’s not as much as 96%, but it’s still VERY good and carries far fewer risks. And, with inhalation, you never have any problems with constituents of essential oil being destroyed or reduced in the stomach or during the first-pass through the liver, as you may with ingestion.

Olfactory Nerve - Artisan AromaticsHere’s something else you probably haven’t been told: many of the beneficial effects of essential oils occur due to the fact that when they are inhaled they stimulate the Olfactory Nerve that goes from the nose directly into the brain. This provides a unique pathway through which essential oils are able to directly affect the central nervous system and the immune and endocrine systems without being absorbed into the blood. When you add your oils to your drinking water or, especially, take them in capsules, you lose these benefits.

It’s called AROMAtherapy for a reason – and the reason is that many of the beneficial effects that essential oils can exert probably come through the stimulation of the Olfactory Nerve that happens ONLY when they are inhaled.

The craze for oral use that’s been created through marketing is, in my opinion, nothing more than a scam that takes advantage of people’s lack of in-depth knowledge.

Guidelines for Safe Usage of Essential Oils

  1. Do not ingest essential oils. Be aware that the ingestion of essential oils increases the risk of adverse reactions and can be dangerous if you are not WELL trained in this method. Ingesting essential oils carries a risk for irritation, or even tissue damage, to the lining of the Gastrointestinal Tract, and this is true for any amount of essential oil ingested, even just a drop or two. In addition, some people have reported nausea and/or vomiting following ingestion of essential oils. Increased risks for organ toxicity, fetotoxicity (toxicity to a developing child in the womb) and for drug interactions are also often cited as issues with oral consumption of higher “doses” of essential oils. Ingesting a few drops of essential oil in a day is not going to give you a substantially greater benefit in most situations than you get with external use – and may, as detailed above, give you even less benefit in some situations. WHY DO IT?
  2. Look for “external use only” on labels when selecting essential oils. Responsible essential oil companies put a warning against internal use on their labels. This is NOT because the essential oils they are selling are in any way of lesser quality than those sold by companies pushing internal use. It is because responsible companies know that an untrained consumer incurs unnecessary risks by ingesting essential oils. Again, why do it?
  3. Always dilute essential oils before applying them to the body. Some companies push topical use of undiluted essential oils. The potentially harmful results of this procedure, which can produce severe burns in some cases, are well known to professional aromatherapists. While severe burns are only likely to occur with very irritating essential oils, even some that are less irritating can produce skin sensitization reactions in some people with repeated use. Just because you’ve been using undiluted essential oils for a long time without developing sensitization reactions doesn’t mean you won’t. These reactions, which are a type of allergic response, can be very uncomfortable, and once you become sensitized to some constituent in one essential oil, you are more likely to develop other sensitivities. If you want to be able to continue using essential oils for years to come, never apply them to your skin without diluting them. In most situations, the recommended dilution ratio is a maximum of 2.5% essential oil in 97.5% vegetable oil, but some specific essential oils must be diluted even more for safe use.
  4. Know any safety precautions that apply to any essential oil that you intend to use. Buy a good reference book and use it. One very important safety issue is the use of essential oils with young children; they react differently to essential oils than do adults, and before using any essential oil on a child, make sure that you have consulted a good reference that includes safety procedures for children. Do not use any essential oil on a child under one year of age without consulting a professional aromatherapist.
  5. Use essential oils in moderation. You will get the best results from essential oils by using them in moderation. Do not use nebulizing diffusers to put large volumes of essential oils into the indoor air, and do not diffuse continuously. Anytime you begin inhaling essential oil, you will rather quickly start losing your ability to smell it, and this is one reason that people tend to diffuse too much essential oil. Essential oils diffused in excessive amounts can cause respiratory tract irritation and/or chronic toxicity. People exposed to high levels of topically applied essential oils on a regular basis have some risk of developing skin irritation, sensitization, and chronic toxicity.

With a little awareness and common sense, essential oils are extremely safe for external use and can make a significant contribution to a holistic wellness regimen. As a consumer of essential oils, you can make a significant contribution to preserving the practice of true aromatherapy by being wise and aware.