Essential Oils & Aromatherapy: A Beginner’s Guide

Caitlyn Malone, Clinical Aromatherapist

I have to say, that title has a nice ring to it! And I’m so excited to say that title will very soon be my reality, since I have recently enrolled in Heart of Herbs’ Master Clinical Aromatherapy course. This 650 hour course is about as close as I can come to gaining my associates degree in aromatherapy. Since I plan on using my blog to complete some of my writing assignments, I thought it necessary to write an introduction on aromatherapy and what this certification means for me.

Essential oils have exploded in popularity in the last decade, so I would be very surprised if someone hadn’t at least heard of them or aromatherapy. Aromatherapy is simply the use of aromatic plant extracts and essential oils to treat illnesses or ailments.  An essential oil is fluid that is distilled from the leaves, stems, flowers, bark,
roots, or other elements of a plant. It is highly, highly concentrated. The amount of plant material it takes to produce a bottle of essential oil varies from plant to plant. For example, it takes roughly 250 pounds of lavender to produce 1 pound of essential oil, but it takes roughly 10,000 pounds of rose petals to yield the same amount (source). Essential oils are chemical (yes, chemical) compounds consisting of 100+ constituents in any given batch. These individual chemical constituents are responsible for giving an essential oil it’s therapeutic properties. This is why so many oils seem to have similar benefits, because they share the same constituents. Growing conditions can have a great effect on constituent amounts, and this is something that can be observed in gas chromatography-mass spectrometry or GC/MS testing. A GC/MS test is the easiest way to not only view the different constituent amounts, but also to differentiate between pure essential oils and fake ones. “Fake” essential oils will often contain constituents that do not naturally occur in that particular plant, or they may be completely synthetic. Often times, companies trying to cut corners and jump on the bandwagon will find plants that imitate the real thing but are cheaper to produce (i.e. cornmint in place of peppermint or lavandin in place of lavender). This is why GC/MS testing is so important. If an essential oil company isn’t willing to show you their third-party tested (to avoid adulteration and bias) GC/MS reports then that should be a red flag. There is nothing about a bottle of 100% pure essential oil that can be considered proprietary and warrant withholding purity tests.

So, how do you use essential oils? There are three different methods available- via topical application, diluted in carrier oil (fatty oil such as coconut oil) and applied to the skin; via inhalation, through the use of an electric diffuser, aromatherapy inhaler, or passive diffusion methods such as a locket containing a felt pad or lava stone (or other diffuser jewelry); or via internal use, most commonly done through oral ingestion, but also done through suppositories. This is where very important safety information comes into play. How you use essential oils depends upon the problem you are trying to solve. I do not agree that essential oils should be used all the time as a preventative measure, to “stay healthy.” We don’t take conventional pharmaceuticals all day, every day to stay healthy, and essential oils should be given the same thought and respect as anything in your medicine cabinet. With a substance as pure and potent as an essential oil, there are serious risks to take into account. ALL essential oils should be diluted to prevent sensitization. Sensitization, or Allergic Contact Dermatitis (ACD), is an immune response to an essential oil. It can take the form of a rash, hives, eczema, itching, shortness of breath, and tightness in your chest and is generally caused by an overexposure of an oil. Overexposure, here, meaning using neat (undiluted), using while not diluted far enough, or using too frequently. It can take 1 time or years and years of use to occur. Regardless of how long it takes, once you are sensitized to an oil you will likely not be able to use that oil again without reoccurring symptoms. It is not a detox. It is also prudent to research an oil before using to see if it has any contraindications to pharmaceuticals or if it has a low dermal maximum dilution. Wintergreen essential oil is high in methyl salicylate, and can be dangerous for those on blood thinners such as Wayfarin. Cinnamon, a common ingredient in germ fighting blends, has a very high risk of being a skin irritant, and although there are different forms of cinnamon (leaf, bark, and cassia) they all have very low maximum dilution rates. Cinnamon bark has the highest rate of the three at just 0.1%, which is only 1 drop of essential oil in 2 tablespoons of carrier oil.

Some essential oils aren’t safe for women who are pregnant or nursing, many aren’t safe for children under the age of 11, very few are safe for use on or around dogs, and zero are safe for use on or around cats and other small animals. Essential oils should not be used on sensitive mucous membranes such as inside your mouth, nose, and genitals, and should not be used near or in your eyes. Internal use, via oral ingestion or suppository, is NOT recommended unless you are under the care of a doctor specifically trained in internal aromatherapy who knows your medical history, and is only using this method to treat a specific illness or ailment for a short period of time. The human body is amazingly complex and also extremely delicate. Improper internal use of essential oils (namely, putting drops in a vegetable capsule or glass of water and drinking it) can lead to internal burning and damage of the esophagus and/or stomach, and put unnecessary stress on your liver. There is no scientific evidence that there are any health benefits to regularly taking essential oils in this manner. Because of the processes required to obtain an essential oil, any vitamins or minerals contained in the whole plant are destroyed. It is FAR safer and much more effective (and cheaper!) to use the whole herb or fruit from which you are trying to gain the benefits of.

That leaves us with topical application or inhalation. When trying to decide between these two, ask yourself what problem you’re trying to solve. If you have a physical ailment, topical application at the site of pain is recommended. If you’re experiencing emotional or mental problems, or for help sleeping, inhalation is the preferred method. When diluting for topical use, there is a general guideline to follow (as long as the oil you’re using has no dermal maximum): 0.5-1% for facial applications, 1-3% for the rest of your body, and 5% for more serious pain and only used for a short period of time. In some cases, it may be acceptable to dilute higher than 5% but only in acute situations. Always start low and only increase the dilution rate if necessary. Dilution is not necessary when using via inhalation, and carrier oils can ruin diffusers. There is a popular school of thought amongst home users that the soles of your feet are the best place to apply essential oils for most problems because the pores are either bigger or more numerous and allows for faster absorption. This isn’t quite the case. The skin on your feet is some of the thickest on your body. Your feet also tend to be one of the sweatiest parts, as well. Sweat is water based, and we all know from our elementary school science that water and oil don’t mix (ever, and no amount of shaking or mixing is ever going to change that). Coupled with the need for sweat to leave the body and essential oils to enter the body through the same pores, all of these things can actually slow essential oil absorption. Does it work? Sure, but it may not always be the best place. Personally, I only use essential oils on my feet when I’m actually having a problem with them.

With aromatherapy growing in popularity so rapidly, it’s important now more than ever to have trained professionals to teach the general public what is and isn’t appropriate for home use. That’s where I want to come in! I have unfortunately seen friends hurt (thankfully, none severely) by oil misuse because some essential oil companies and their representatives care more about making a profit and peddling poor information to do so than they do about making sure their customers, and subsequently their families, stay safe. How does using essential oils safely in the aforementioned ways benefit you? Well, by practicing proper dilution and only using oils to solve a problem when necessary, you decrease your risk of developing ACD and you can use your oils for years to come. It also reduces your use of essential oils overall, meaning you go through bottles slower, save money, and reduce your environmental impact.

This certification is my way of becoming a trusted authority, not only to my family and friends, but also to my community. During my 650 hour course, I am responsible for learning botany, taxonomy, chemistry, anatomy & physiology, quality & blending, safety, formulations, business, and ethics. These are not things you can learn outside of a professional aromatherapy course. These are not things you can learn through company training to be a distributor (which requires no upfront training). I take this certification very seriously because I want to protect anyone I come into contact with. If you have any questions about essential oils or aromatherapy, feel free to leave them in the comments and I will do my best to answer them! I love essential oils and aromatherapy. I think they have immense potential to be used alongside conventional medicine safely and effectively, as long as we exercise responsible usage and give essential oils the respect they deserve. I am very excited for what’s coming and I hope you’ll stick around!

❤ Caitlyn

 

Some essential oil companies I trust (no affiliate links, I am not being paid to say this):
Plant Therapy
Mountain Rose Herbs
Aromatics International
Aura Cacia

Essential Oil Injury Report 2017– put together by Aromatherapy United every year with data collected by FDA (people who experienced an injury and made a formal complaint through the FDA)

Safe Essential Oil Recipes– a Facebook group run by a team of certified aromatherapists who provide safe and accurate information

Essential Oil Analysis Foundation– organization currently testing various brands of essential oils and releasing the GC/MS reports at no cost to the public, so they can make an informed choice about which brands to purchase; testing is done by Dr. Robert Pappas, a leading chemist in his field

Robert Tisserand– leading expert in aromatherapy

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