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What I’m about to say may upset many people, but I feel like it is a topic that is needed. Over 15 years ago I discovered essential oils/aromatherapy. Back then there were limited online sources and buying in store was limited to my local health food store. I was also the only one in my circle of friends who used them much, as far as I recall, though several friends and family did start using them at my recommendation. I bought some reference books written by aromatherapists and mainly just diffused the oils, using them occasionally topically. I really don’t use them as much as most essential oil fans simply because I think they are one good option among many good options and I actually prefer herbal teas and tinctures for most things. That’s neither here nor there though with this topic.
Fast forward to a few years back I was attending a preparedness type event and came across a vendor selling a popular brand of MLM essential oils. I won’t give the specific company name because it really doesn’t matter to this post which it was. Up to that point I’d been mainly oblivious to the majority of essential oil users and many of the companies that had sprouted up. I’d had one friend ask me about a specific company about a year prior and I’d dutifully checked out the company’s site and given her my feedback on what I saw — that the prices were outrageous, that their claims about purity was backed by a dubious standard which was little more than a marketing trademark, and it just wasn’t for me. But then I’d gone back to being in my own world until I walked through this preparedness event and overheard the vendor spouting his talking points about the company he was a distributor for. He said that essential oils are “flower essences” (no, they aren’t) and completely pure (maybe) and completely safe (again, no). He was suggesting that everyone should have these in their bug out bags and the right oils would heal everything.
The big problem I have with this from a preparedness perspective is that most people have absolutely no way of knowing if these talking points are accurate. Someone with a background in herbalism, who has studied and used such remedies for decades would automatically understand that just because a product is natural does not make it completely safe. Just because it is “pure” doesn’t make it safe. I wish it was that simple but it’s demonstrably false. There are contraindications. There are safety guidelines that should be followed. I had a family member begin to experience heartburn problems after extended use of Peppermint oil internally — something that was somewhat predictable if someone knew how that EO works internally, but the family member was just going by what a friend (a MLM distributor) had told them.
That doesn’t mean I don’t believe they can be effective. They can be. I am that person that has used natural remedies for decades and had success. There are studies that show promise for many herbs and essential oils. But what makes those talking points inaccurate? How would someone know? Where could they look to for accurate information? Those are the things I want to cover here.
What are essential oils?
Essential oils are volatile compounds from plant material, primarily extracted using a steam distillation process but also cold press extraction for certain materials. Contrary to what some say, solvents are not a typical part of essential oil production. That would be confusing essential oils with other substances like absolutes. You can find this explained further by Robert Tisserand (a notable aromatherapist with decades of experience) on this page.
What does it mean to be a therapeutic grade essential oil?
In short, absolutely nothing. There is no governing body with any sort of standard by which this claim can be made. It started as a marketing term and has been adopted by most companies as a form of peer pressure in a way. Nobody wants to look inferior by saying their oils aren’t as good as someone else’s, so they all claim this “grade” even though it has literally no real value. I’ve also heard people use the term “medicinal grade” which is similar nonsense.
There are such a thing as lesser quality essential oils and the quality needed for purposes like perfumery or soapmaking are different from aromatherapy, but that does not in any way validate these terms. While claiming to be therapeutic grade doesn’t make the company bad, it also doesn’t necessarily make them good.
How do I know an essential oil is pure?
For the most part, you don’t. You are trusting a company’s reputation unless you pay to have a sample sent off for testing (an expensive option). Many companies will provide the GC/MS results for their batches which does give some information but isn’t really a guarantee that they haven’t unethically attached a report to one batch when it actually went to another. Your best bet is to find a reputable company run by an aromatherapist with decades of experience. Someone charging well above the average cost or well below the average cost should send up red flags.
Because I know some are going to read this and be like “well, what company can I trust then?” I’ll go ahead and divulge that I purchase most of my essential oils from Nature’s Gift run by Marge Clark. I have never been disappointed by them. I have no connection to them other than as an occasional customer and this is not an affiliate link — I simply find them to be a reliable company, especially if you are just starting out with aromatherapy.
What does GRAS approval mean?
When it comes to essential oils, this is another term which really doesn’t mean anything. It’s actually a valid term from the FDA, standing for Generally Recognized As Safe, but it does not apply to aromatherapy. I’m envisioning collective gasps of shock and objection. The GRAS approval is referring to the essential oil being used as a food flavoring and not for therapeutic purposes. Use as a food flavoring is also going to be a very tiny amount, highly diluted in the food. So when a company says “this peppermint oil has GRAS approval” that does not mean that their brand has submitted their peppermint oil and that the FDA has signed off on it as being a high quality and safe. It means that the FDA has peppermint oil (in general, no specific brand) on the list of food additives that are Generally Recognized As Safe.
How can I use essential oils?
There are three main ways of using essential oils: diffusing, topical application, and ingestion.
Diffusion is when an essential oil is dispersed into the air. This is generally the safest method and can be done for a therapeutic purpose or general enjoyment.
Topical application is when essential oils are applied to the skin, generally for a therapeutic purpose.
Ingestion is taking the essential oils internally, whether in food, in drink, placed directly on the tongue, or swallowed in a capsule.
Now, just because I mentioned a method above does not make it safe. Essential oils used topically or ingested should always be diluted. Yes, always. It doesn’t matter how pure it is, how wonderful the company selling it is, who you know that didn’t dilute and is just fine, or anything else. Always dilute. Essential oils are highly concentrated and quite frankly the full strength isn’t even typically needed and just a waste of your hard earned money. There are even more reasons to make a habit of diluting properly: sensitization and phototoxicity.
What is sensitization?
I’m glad you asked! Sensitization is when a person has used a specific essential oil in the past with zero irritation or other problem but over time the body starts to recognize it as a threat. This results in eventually being unable to use that essential oil anymore. A lot of times users will say “that’s true for most oils, but <insert essential oil here> is an exception and perfectly okay.” Usually that was said of Lavender and/or Tea Tree (sometimes called Melaleuca). There is one glaring problem with the statement and that is that it’s completely untrue.
What’s true is that over the years many people used this neat (undiluted) without any problems, so assumed and told others it was okay. It was commonly accepted in aromatherapy for a long time, but then many of these seasoned aromatherapists developed sensitization problems of their own and realized it really was a problem. You can read Marge Clark discussing that on this blog post.
To properly dilute you’ll need mix the essential oils with a carrier oil like olive oil, jojoba oil, coconut oil, or similar. You can find an easy dilution chart here on the Tisserand Institute’s website, recommended topical dilution percentages here, and maximum recommendations for children here.
What about phototoxicity/photosensitization?
This is only an issue with certain essential oils, mainly citrus oils. It’s where use of that oil, specifically in high concentrations, followed by exposure to UV light results in a skin reaction. Think sunburn on steroids: potentially redness, swelling, and blistering which doesn’t always show up immediately after the UV exposure. This is all caused by a specific constituent found in some essential oils called furanocoumarins. This is found in essential oils like cold pressed Bergamot or cold pressed Lemon (as opposed to steam distilled). These aren’t the only ones though and anytime you are going to be working with essential oils much it’s worth having a good reference guide.
What else should I know?
You’ll never get all the relevant info from a blog — that’s the unfortunate truth of it. I can write all day long and link other good quality blogs but at the end of the day the best option is to invest in a couple quality reference guides and keep them on hand with any essential oils you choose to buy. Some suggestions:
Tisserand and Young’s Essential Oil Safety 2e is essentially a textbook but it has all of this information in detail and a lot more. It is my first stop to check dilution, contraindications, etc. As of writing this post it is currently $77.54 on Amazon which may seem like a lot but it’s a large hardback and worth every penny.