I have avoided this topic for a loooong time. Why? Because essential oils are contentious and there’s a lot of internet hate for those who share their opinions. But since I get asked about oils all the time, I decided I needed to have the answer. Welcome to the results of my latest deep-dive research project to help illustrate what you should know before using essential oils.
To form the basis of this post, I’ve read peer-reviewed studies and subsequent critiques and dismissals of the studies; had conversations with aromatherapists[i] and essential oil advocates[ii]; and done more Facebook group scrolling than I care to admit. Jessica Raymond of Mother of Rays first opened my eyes to the amount of research out there, and it’s almost endless.
It is a subject that people spend their lives studying, so I am not going to pretend to be an expert; but I have made some surprising discoveries and realizations. If you only have a minute and want the abridged version, feel free to scroll down to the Final Thoughts. But if you’re seriously considering using essential oils, I suggest making the time to get through this post first.
Ready? Here goes…
What are essential oils?
Essential oils are components of plant material that are extracted via distillation with water or steam, or cold pressing/expression. Plants produce essential oils to help them adapt to changing internal and external environments. They have been shown to: attract pollinators through scent; prevent competing vegetation from growing in a certain area surrounding the plant; act as insect and animal defense mechanisms; and act as antimicrobial, antifungal, and antibacterial agents for improved plant survival. The essential oils we buy are highly concentrated forms of the oils found naturally in plants.
How are essential oils made?
True essential oils are extracted through distillation or expression. To retain their therapeutic properties, this process must be done at low temperature and pressure. Some plants require a gentler approach so the oils are extracted using solvents. The product of solvent extraction is called an absolute – this should be clear on the package but there’s no guarantee. These solvents (typically petrochemicals, which may be carcinogenic) may remain in trace amounts in the finished product.
Any essential oil created with CO2 extraction should be organic, as this process has been shown to concentrate pesticide residues. Also note that their safety has not been well-studied.
Essential Oil Uses
Essential oils have been used in traditional medicine and aromatherapy across various cultures for thousands of years. They can be inhaled, ingested and absorbed to support everything from stress and anxiety to stomach aches to problems sleeping.
Since essential oils are insoluble and highly volatile, it can be difficult to assess biological effects with much certainty. Some studies have found that essential oils can be used to fight off infection, inhibit certain cancer cell growth, treat acne, and support pain management treatments. They can also be used around the house as cleaners and disinfectants (they have been shown to be effective against certain bacteria, viruses, and fungi).
What You Should Know Before You Use Essential Oils
For all their seemingly endless uses and benefits, it’s important to understand a few important points about essential oils:
1. Essential oils are largely unregulated in North America.
Essential oils can be sold and used therapeutically with very little oversight for public safety. You often do get what you pay for and if a price is too good to be true, chances are it’s not pure and may be of questionable source.
There are many different schools training aromatherapists. Ask your practitioner where they trained, what designation they have, and check the certifying body (like the Canadian Federation of Aromatherapists, British Columbia Alliance of Aromatherapy, or National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy in the US). The aromatherapists I spoke to all support more regulation and oversight of the industry. Until that happens, it’s important that consumers understand and trust where they’re getting their products and information from.
2. Essential oils should not be ingested.
I’ve seen several posts on social media sharing ways to add essential oils to water and other liquids. Here’s the Canadian Federation of Aromatherapists’ (CFA) stance on ingesting essential oils:
“The CFA does not recommend nor condone the application of undiluted essential oils. The CFA does not recommend nor condone the ingestion of any essential oil in any manner.”
There are different schools of thought and training around essential oil use: English, French, and German. Each approach teaches different application methods of essential oils. According to certified aromatherapist Sandra Grilo, essential oils should not be ingested unless under care of a certified medical professional; this is available in France where ingestion is taught and practiced. In Canada, there isn’t the oversight or medical ability to monitor the body’s internal reaction or build-up of the essential oils (such as liver toxicity).
3. Essential oils should not be used undiluted (i.e. straight from the bottle).
I’ve seen people saying undiluted essential oil application is safe for children over a certain age.
Here’s what the CFA says about applying undiluted oils:
“Application of undiluted essential oils or ingestion of oils is considered a breach of the Code of Ethics of the CFA. Essential oils can be irritating and sensitizing and some chemical constituents have the potential to cause systemic toxicity if used improperly. Therefore safe use is absolutely critical.”
World renowned aromatherapy expert Robert Tisserand explains why diluting essential oils is so important:
“One, to avoid skin reactions: irritation, sensitization and phototoxicity. Two, to avoid systemic toxicity, such as fetotoxicity, hepatotoxicity, carcinogenicity and neurotoxicity. Adverse skin reactions are obvious when they happen, but systemic toxicities may not be.”
4. Essential oils can cause adverse effects in some people.
Many people believe that essential oils are a safe alternative to synthetic fragrances. While they are safer by some counts, they are not benign. An increasing number of people have scent sensitivities or allergies that can be severe. Components of essential oils – such as limonene and linalool – may exacerbate asthma or allergies.
I’d like to pause here to make a very important distinction: fragrances (natural or synthetic) don’t cause respiratory issues, but they can make underlying conditions worse.
It’s also important to note that this sensitization can happen slowly over time, so previously unaffected people may find themselves suddenly start to react after repeated exposure. Oxidized oils can cause sensitization faster. To prevent oxidation, essential oils should be kept in the fridge in a sealed container (most will last 2-3 years, citruses 1 – 2 years, and less if kept at warmer temperatures). Look for signs of oxidation such as slight changes in odour, gumming around the cap, or negative effects after use.
5. Just because you can use essential oils doesn’t mean you have to.
Some people swear by using essential oils for household cleaning, purely because they can use them instead of toxic chemicals. In my opinion, you can save money by using other ingredients just as effectively for most situations. For example, I use vinegar, baking soda, and castile soap in my recipes – I like to add lavender to my window cleaner to make the vinegar less strong, but that’s purely optional.
There are some packaged essential oil-based cleaners that are better than conventional cleaners in terms of ingredients, so they might be a good option if you’ve found one you like (many people love the Thieves household spray). And yes, while some essential oils can help disinfect and boost cleaning power, they certainly aren’t necessary in a homemade cleaners kit.
6. Consider Essential Oils as part of your overall health strategy.
Professionally trained and highly skilled health practitioners can treat or cure many of the conditions that people self-treat with essential oils. Naturopaths, chiropractors, registered massage therapists, acupuncturists, and certified aromatherapists, for example, will take detailed health histories and understand how their treatments fit with your overall health and wellness. Always consult a professional to make sure you’re using the oils properly for you.
It’s no wonder that we hear so much about essential oils – on the surface, they seem like a cure-all and the solution to toxic chemicals. Not to mention the rise in popularity of DōTERRA and Young Living, whose independent sales representatives are growing in numbers every day.
Because there’s no shortage of information and contradictions, it’s overwhelming to dive into the subject. But I’m glad I did. I hope you feel more empowered to make the right choices before you start using essential oils.
What You Should Know Before Using Essential Oils
- Essential oils can be incredibly powerful and effective at treating and preventing a range of health and well-being issues.
- Essential oils should be treated like any other form of therapy or medication. They should be used under guidance of a professional (just be sure to do your research on where they did their training), and generally not all-day-every-day.
- Essential oil safety is important as they are potent and can negatively affect the body in ways we may not be aware of. Whether you choose to diffuse (inhale) or apply to your skin, always read the use instructions, risks and contraindications for the oil you’re using (and refer to #2). For example, some oils are not recommended during pregnancy and others can cause skin sensitivities to the sun.
- Before using any essential oils therapeutically, do your research. Be 100% sure that the oils you are using are pure (i.e. do not contain synthetics or fillers). Ask the company about 3rd party testing results.
- If you choose to work with an independent consultant who sells essential oils, find out what kind of ongoing training and education they are receiving about the safety and efficacy of the oils. Be aware that there are no regulations protecting consumers in this space; you should have confidence in who you’re working with.
- If you suffer from asthma or allergies, consider reducing exposure to essential oils along with synthetic fragrances to manage your symptoms.
I think it’s great that more people are wanting to take control of their health and well-being, naturally. And if essential oils are reducing your reliance on pharmaceuticals and toxic chemicals while improving your long-term health, then I’m happy for you. But I do urge you to take a really close look at what you’re using, how you’re using them, and where you’re getting your information.
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I am not endorsing nor have I received compensation for any of the products or practitioners linked or mentioned (though I am grateful for Lourdes Calderon of Young Living on the Danforth for providing me with the essential oils for use in my workshops). The opinions expressed in this post are my own, unless otherwise quoted. I greatly appreciate the input and insights from industry experts and while I used their feedback to form my opinions, my own wording should not be confused for theirs.
Rachael Dean – Happyoils.ca
Sandra Grilo – sandragrilo.com
Jessica Raymond – Mother of Rays