Essential oils are not a revolutionary topic – but in the past few years they have grown exponentially in popularity; shifting from a niche part of holistic practitioners to now being accessible to consumers through a variety of suppliers, some reputable some not. I am a big fan of essential oils, for their natural qualities, medicinal benefits, and overall good scents – but as my interest in essential oils grows, I continue to become more aware that education is critical, essential oils are not intended to be a trendy item to use in our lives, and we need to have a deep respect for the medicinal and cultural legacies of these products.
I realized that, for as much as I hype up essential oils, I actually know very little about their safety and overall use. My already limited use of essential oils has become more restrictive, as I learned (in snippets on social media) about the potential risks my diffusing of essential oils could have on my cat, and my unborn child. But I have always been interested in incorporating essential oils more frequently into my life, and what I am lacking at this point, is education.
The goal today is to spend some time in conversation about three important questions we should be asking regarding essential oils: 1) Where did essential oils come from? 2) What are the benefits and risks of essential oils? 3) Are essential oils safe?
A Brief History of Essential Oils
The use of essential oils is an ancient practice, rooted deeply in several different cultures. From ancient Chinese and Egyptian Civilizations, we find a carefully honed – almost sacred tradition -that sets us up for our modern consumption of essential oils. Building on this ancient knowledge, Romans and Arabs perfected the techniques and ways to use essential oils. “The famous alchemist Avicena, distinguished himself as the pioneer in the distillation method of essential oil extraction” which, even today, continues to be the most widely used procedure for extracting essential oils.
The potent essential oils that we have come to love are rooted in holistic and natural practices from our ancestors and continue to be a strong practice today.
The Controversy About Essential Oils
Essential Oils are not a new concept, as I shared in the history above, yet there is a lot of skepticism surrounding their use, and a lot of misinformation about incorporating them into our lives.
There are stigmas surrounding EO, a lack of understanding, and a direct tension between “natural” “outdated” and “modern medicine.” While myself, and many others will always advocate for transparent education about any products that we are utilizing in our bodies – as well as finding a balance between different types of remedies, it does not mean that one form of treatment is better or worse than another. Fear is not a replacement for lack of knowledge.
As Tris Black (a certified aroma therapist who advocates for accessible and accurate information about Essential Oils) states in her blog post, “it is astounding to me that we are comfortable adding fragrance into our skin products and home products but not essential oils.”
This conversation is not to dive into whether “artificial” versus “natural” scents are better or worse for us. But, it is safe to say that for the average person, for most of us, for myself, we have the same amount of limited knowledge about both of these products, yet we may be more inclined to more freely accept one as better than the other, despite never having gathered the data to support that decision. While we are not expected to be experts on every topic in life, we need to ask ourselves, what limited criteria are we using to guide our decisions?, and is it really allowing us to make the best decisions that align with our personal mission statement?
Essential Oils: Benefits VS Risks
Common Benefits of Essential Oils:
With over 90 different types of essential oils, and different ways to utilize them, the list of benefits of essential oils is surprisingly extensive. Between modern medical professionals, aroma therapists, and long time enthusiasts, there is a consensus that essential oils can assist with stress reduction, mood improvement, digestion, sleep improvement, the treatment of fungal infections, as well as treatment and management of certain health conditions.
Common Risks of Essential Oils:
The largest risks of essential oils occur from their misuse – knowing how to use essential oils safely is key to avoiding these risks and to be able to enjoy essential oils as an enhancement to your life, as opposed to a possible stressor.
The most serious risks involving essential oils are severe toxic reactions to their use. Because of the potency of essential oils, we have to be very intentional and conservative in how we introduce them to our bodies, and too much can quickly overwhelm our bodily systems.
In 2018, WebMD shared the story of Stacey Haluka, who unfortunately experienced severe and chronic health conditions due to gross misinformation about the benefits and ways to use essential oils. “Haluka is among a growing number of people turning up with chemical burns, allergic reactions, respiratory issues, and other side effects from the popular fragrant plant extracts.” (Haluka ended up in the ER and put on steroids to treat her severe toxic reaction, from improper ingestion, neat (“undiluted”) application, and overuse of essential oils.)
Due to increasing popularity and the desire for more “holistic” and “natural” treatments of common ailments, essential oils are more accessible than ever, which puts a lot more responsibility on the consumer to properly research before use; it also, unfortunately, opens up many more opportunities for the spread of dangerous essential oil practices by individuals, MLMs, and other companies motivated by capitalist opportunities to cash in on this growing trend.
How to Use Essential Oils Safely: A Brief Guide
How do we use essential oils safely? Between misinformation, the realization that essential oils are more complex than marketing leads us to believe, and the potential risks – how can we possibly figure out what is safe to use?
I am not a certified aroma therapist and have limited knowledge with essential oils – I am continuing to learn alongside all of you and this series is a journey we are taking together. I am not going to give you an instructional guide of how to use essential oils safely – instead, I am going to provide you with realistic action steps so that you can obtain accurate information to safely make decisions in your own life and based on your personal needs.
Essential oils interact with medications, health conditions, and can vary in potency depending on how they are consumed. Don’t feel overwhelmed with thinking that you need to become an expert. If you don’t have any underlying health conditions, a quick google search should be enough to quickly determine how best to use a particular essential oil.
If you have any situation that may be more complex, such as various health issues, allergies, or medications that you take regularly, you may want to consider reaching out to an aromatherapist or another trained professional who can safely assess any interactions that could occur, and recommend the best essential oils for you to enjoy.
I will be talking more in depth about using essential oils around pets and children, later in the series, but these are two important demographics that need to be taken into account as well.
Buy Quality Products
There is not one brand of essential oils better than another, but you do want to be sure that you are consuming products that are pure and not mixed with other, undisclosed ingredients that compromise the integrity of the essential oil, and possibly your health. Greatist.com recommends the following three tips to make sure that the items you are purchasing are quality products:
- Check the bottle: The bottle should be glass and a dark color
- Read the Label: The bottle label should provide you with all of the information that you need to know. It should state the name of the essential oil, it’s source, that it is 100% pure essential oils, and all ingredients (which if pure, should only be one)
- Verify the Source: You can look up the lot# if the bottle does not mention a specific country of origin.
Essential oils are not equal for everyone; keep it simple and don’t guess. Research first, consult with experts, and wait to use any products until you have a definitive answer.
Coming Up in the Series
Series #2: Essential Oils and Pets
Series #3: Essential Oils in Pregnancy
Series #4: Essential Oils in Children & Infants
Enjoying the series and have a specific essential oils topic you want to hear more about? Let me know in the comments or send me an e-mail.
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