The longer I am a part of the world of aromatherapy the more often I see articles that circulate dire warning of the perils of using essential oils “improperly”. These articles paint terrible scenarios, brandish some scientific studies, and turn the even slightly wary heart firmly against the use of essential oils.
Essential oils, portrayed the way these articles paint them, seem to be terrifying in their potency, and an accident waiting to happen by their very existence.
The authors of these articles seem in most cases to be driven by a genuine desire to provide good, reliable safety information to their readers, but unfortunately, there are a few common misunderstandings that many of these articles and websites seem to include.
It begs the question, are essential oils safe?
But before I dive into the misunderstandings I want to lay a little bit of groundwork.
The stark staring truth of the matter is that essential oil quality and labeling are not regulated by any US government agency and as a result, there is very little that can be done about the way that some essential oils are marketed. I’m not a huge fan of intrusive government regulation, don’t get me wrong, but I am a big fan of honesty. Honesty in labeling is a problem in all industries, not just the aromatherapy industry.
Take for example, it is a pretty well-known fact that a food product can be labeled as “natural” or “contains whole grains” (for example) and be absolute garbage. It can contain known neurotoxins (in the form of artificial sweeteners) , artificial colors, or be comprised mostly of highly refined, bleached, processed white flour. Because of the way that food labeling laws are, the term natural means nearly nothing in the way of the true quality or nutritional value of a food product.
The truth is, “essential oils” are often fabricated with synthetic chemical versions of their botanical namesakes, cut with other species of essential oil, “standardized” to be completely consistent between batches in terms of components and scent, or spiked with non-disclosed components.
It is VERY common, and such a known problem in the aromatherapy industry that there is a multitude of papers and articles written about it, and most corporate essential oil buyers would acknowledge that they have to be cautious when purchasing essential oils to ensure they are getting the real deal and not a tampered with substitute.
So what this has led to is an idea that because some essential oils are impure, and because most lay-people do not have the testing equipment to discern whether an oil is pure or genuine for themselves, that ALL essential oils should be regarded as if they were impure or inherently dangerous.
Dr. Kurt Schnaubelt, PhD. writes in his book Medical Aromatherapy: Healing with Essential Oils (p 128-129): “A reasonable discussion of the safety of essential oils is distorted by the demand for ‘absolute safety’ by the consumer. These demands are usually entertained by commercial interest looking for a way to sell to a public perceived as underinformed.”
” The real intent of these demands is to ensure safety for the business venture. Alarmist attempts to completely discontinue the use of certain oils are a result of this. These warnings are made because there is a fear that accidents could be used by government organizations to prohibit trade and thus hurt business. In light of the potential benefits, a modality as safe as aromatherapy should continue to be accessible despite the fact that minor accidents may occur, especially because the probability is much lower than for any other form of self-[help].” (emphasis mine)
What else has contributed to this misunderstanding over the safety of genuine essential oils? Let’s go deeper.
Are essential oils safe? Schools of Aromatherapy
There are three major schools of thought in aromatherapy: the English, the German, and the French. I personally use methods derived from all three schools.
The basics: English school aromatherapy focuses on essential oils that are substantially diluted in a fatty carrier oil and massaged into the skin. What this means is that in practice, the preparations they are applying are typically only 2-5% essential oil and 95-98% fatty carrier oil.
German school aromatherapy focuses on the inhaling of essential oils for their benefits. This can be done either directly from the bottle, a drop or two in the hands, or from oils placed in an essential oil diffuser.
French school aromatherapy uses both topical and internal application of essential oils (through ingestion, suppositories, douches, etc). French aromatherapy also uses some essential oils undiluted (though not all), and when they dilute, they dilute at a much smaller rate, often in a 1:1 or 1:4 ratio of essential oils to carrier oil.
Because English school applications require heavy dilution, and French school applications do not, there often is conflict between well-meaning English style practitioners and those who practice French style methods. Also, English aromatherapy regards the internal use of essential oils (in general) to be dangerous, and French school does not, bringing them into further conflict.
It also helps to know that most aromatherapy books and aromatherapy programs in the United States are built around the English method, which is inherently biased against the French method, simply based on its usage guidelines. That is why so much seemingly conflicting information is available when it comes to essential oils. READ MORE HERE.
Heard that this whole “School” thing is just made up by MLM essential oil companies? Check out this article HERE.
Are essential oils safe? Quality of Oils
I lightly touched on the quality issue in the introduction, but the fact remains that genuine essential oils are not the rule. Unfortunately, the essential oil supply chain is riddled with product stretching, adulteration, and mislabeling. Even if you find a pure oil, there is not any guarantee that it has any beneficial properties at all. That can be a problem, especially when the person using the oil is looking for a benefit beyond casual scenting.
In fact, Dr. Schnaubelt touches on this difference in his book Advanced Aromatherapy (p. 7-8) when he says “Genuine essential oils–as they are encountered upon distillation–are distinguished by a remarkable diversity of complex substances the likes of which only nature can produce.”
Unfortunately for the consumer, this is not always a given, as he explains further: “The composition of essential oils depends upon many factors, such as growing conditions, climate, methods of harvesting, and distillation.” The difficulty with this process is that most essential oil sellers do not actually grow or distill their own oils, making it difficult to know their true oil quality or authenticity of their product.
Thankfully, though, when the consumer finds a genuine essential oil with all of the desired botanical properties he explains that “[d]ue to their complexity, genuine essential oils have achieved results that their mass-produced, standardized, watered-down namesakes can never hope to equal.”
I experienced this personally when I used a very popular essential oil brand available in nearly every health food store and most online retailers. I was totally underwhelmed, and it caused my son some skin irritation, even using 2% dilution rates. But when I switched to genuine essential oils, my experience was far more positive!
He finishes up the thought by sharing that “[t]he risks associated with the use of genuine essential oils are minimal, especially when compared to the much greater risks associated with [other options].”
There absolutely is a difference in essential oil quality, and as a result, genuine essential oils are often used much differently than run of the mill essential oils should ever be.
Are essential oils safe? The Scientific Studies
Frequently, authors will cite articles pointing to specific components found in certain essential oils and then share the results of a study that implies that compound causes some sort of damage.
Scientific research is important when it comes to essential oils, and we should definitely encourage more of it, but isolating a chemical component of an essential oil, testing it, and then assuming that the essential oil will behave the same as an isolated component does is not a true representation of how essential oils actually work.
Advanced Aromatherapy cites a paper written in 1979 by K.H. Kubeczka, who developed guidelines for determining the quality of essential oils. In this paper, Dr. Schnaubelt summarizes Kubeckzka’s findings saying that “evaluating the quality of an essential oil cannot be restricted to determining its main component, but must take into account trace elements as well. The effect achieved by the interaction of a variety of components has a different quality than simply adding together individual effects. Putting it simply, the effects of the whole are greater than the effects of the sum of its parts” (p. 17).
Essential oils can consist of hundreds of known botanical chemical compounds. There are many oils that we have not identified all the botanical components of. To pick one out of hundreds, even if it is the one in the highest concentration, does a great disservice because no single component works on its own. All components work in synergy.
What does this mean, practically?
Wintergreen Essential Oil
Wintergreen essential oil is one that has come under intense discussion over the years because many sources claim that it should not be used. Studies have been done on the main component, methyl salicylate, that show that compound can be dangerous to humans at high levels.
What these studies typically fail to distinguish is that synthetic methyl salicylate may have those effects, but naturally occurring methyl salicylate does not necessarily. Forgive me, but I’m going to have to get technical here.
Why is it that synthetic methyl salicylate and naturally occurring methyl salicylate both have the same chemical “recipe”, in other words, the same exact number of carbons molecules, oxygen molecules and hydrogen molecules, but they ‘behave” differently? That is because they are different isomers. An isomer is the same chemical “formula” but with the molecules arranged slightly differently from one another.
So, synthetic methyl salicylate behaves differently from natural methyl salicylate because their molecular formulas are arranged slightly differently, and that slight difference is enough to make the difference between how they interact with the body. Not only that, but the exact arrangements of carbons, hydrogens, and oxygens that occurs in natural wintergreen essential oil is impossible to synthesize in a lab. Unfortunately, as a result, oils containing methyl salicylate have been grossly misunderstood because of their industrially created cousin who gives them a bad name.
Interestingly enough, a large percentage of oils marketed as Wintergreen are actually synthetic “Oil of Wintergreen” or lab created methyl salicylate, which makes it all the more important to ensure that your essential oils are genuine and authentic.
“While not impossible, it is extremely unlikely that a person would cause real injury through the use of essential oils.” Medical Aromatherapy (p. 128)
“The potential hazards of essential oil use are limited and easy to keep in mind…These hazards should be seen as only moderate dangers–with only a minimum of common sense, the hazards can easily be avoided. Again, most of these substances have a millions-of-years-old history of interaction with other organisms. The aromatherapy enthusiast does not need to worry about a surprise occurrence of toxic materials in his or her essential oils–as long as the oils are genuine and authentic.” Medical Aromatherapy (p. 120-121)
Genuine essential oils come with instructions, which when followed, can provide a reasonable level of guidance.
Scour the internet and you will find horrible stories of children or pets who have been killed or injured by essential oils. But when you look at those stories, as sad as they absolutely are, how many of them occurred when the person was using the essential oils properly?
Were the oils stored out of reach of the child or pet, or did the child or pet consume a significant amount of an essential oil while unsupervised? Did the person consume an essential oil marked as unsuitable for consumption or did they consume a type of oil that was marked with a warning against taking by mouth? Did the user disregard instructions given on the product packaging or information/contraindications given in a reliable reference book?
All of these things must be considered to fairly judge whether the fault lies with the user or with the product. When we hear of the tragic stories, we must be careful to put them in proper context.
We are likewise responsible for the choice to use the natural products we purchase in the manner described in a reliable reference guide.
Thankfully there are reliable reference books, and knowledgeable authors that you can consult with in the comfort of your own home.
Are essential oils safe? My conclusion.
I have no desire to argue with anyone. As far as I have ever seen, most people practicing a combination of the schools of aromatherapy simply want to be able to make an informed decision and then use their essential oils to bring health and peace to their own lives.
I respect the desire of many people to use the English model of aromatherapy exclusively. I personally found it to be inadequate for my family, but I don’t begrudge those who enjoy it. I believe most people who use French techniques would simply ask others who have differing opinions to stop with the scare tactics and realize that many of us have done significant research to become comfortable with this course of usage.
Let’s all go in peace, and enjoy our essential oils responsibly in the manner of our informed choosing.
Other Articles that May be of Interest:
- English and French Schools of Thought in Aromatherapy (what makes them different)
- Is French Aromatherapy an MLM construct?
- The Truth About Essential Oil Labeling
- A Case Against “Therapeutic Grade”
- Are Certified Essential Oils Better?
- Concerns about Internal Essential Oil Use