I love essential oils.
And I’m glad that my journey into aromatherapy began in the 1990’s before their use became super popular. Today it is nearly impossible to find essential oil information online or in-print without stumbling down the rabbit holes of multi-level marketing companies. While these companies are quite passionate that they offer a premium product which demands a premium price, and because of their superior nature you can therefore use their essential oils internally &/or undiluted (neat), this is not the view of traditional or clinical aromatherapy or of the most well-respected experts in the field.
Traditional & clinical aromatherapy recommends that essential oils not be used internally for health reasons except for under the direct supervision of a medical caregiver who is skilled in their use and insured to prescribe essential oils as medicine. This is the model which is most commonly used in France. In the UK however, essential oils are very strongly affiliated with the spa and aesthetics world and are not used in the medical or healthcare models. North America is a bit like the Wild West with consumers being free to make whichever choices they feel are best. While members of organizations such as the Canadian Federation of Aromatherapists or the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy agree to a particular code of conduct and scope of practice, membership is not mandatory (I’m not a member of any aromatherapy body for instance). This is both liberating and dangerous. In order to tread safely through aromatherapy in North America I believe you need to seek out high quality information from professionals who have been working with essential oils for more than just a weekend, and who don’t have a personal financial interest in how much of their product you buy.
Essential oils are highly concentrated substances: a single drop of essential oil can be the equivalent of anywhere from about 25-100 cups of the herbal tea, depending on the oil. If we believe that essential oils WORK - that they have a direct impact on the body - then we also need to recognize that they can interact with our bodies, our health issues, and our medications. While that can be beneficial, it can also be dangerous. Just because something is pure and natural, doesn’t make it safe (botulism or anthrax anyone??)
On the other end of the spectrum we have those who feel that essential oils are SO concentrated and potentially dangerous that no one should use them under any circumstances except under the supervision of a clinical aromatherapist, and that they should always be avoided by pregnant women and young children.
I am not a professional clinical aromatherapist. I have been using and learning about essential oils since the late 90’s, practice in the Wise Woman Tradition, and am currently enrolled in the course “Advanced Herbs & Aromatherapy For Women” through the Heart of Herbs School in the US. My use of essential oils both personally and professionally is with safety in mind, and follows the recommendations of experts such as Demetria Clark, and of course - Robert Tisserand. I am also not a sales rep for or affiliated with, ANY essential oil company. Finally - - I am not a medical professional. And guess what - - my views on essential oils fall somewhere between the two ends of the spectrum. My education and experience has led me to the following:
~ I believe essential oils are highly concentrated natural substances which can increase our sense of well-being and improve our quality of life.
~ I believe it is unnecessary at best and dangerous at worst to use (any and all) essential oils undiluted (neat). They are highly concentrated and while you may not see a negative reaction immediately, there is a growing body of evidence that shows sensitization can develop over time – EVEN when using the purest and most ‘therapeutic’ grade of essential oils. There is also some evidence that you get more benefit from using essential oils when diluted as the various constituents within the oil can ‘unfold’ fully if you will. Really the only places which recommend the undiluted use of essential oils are those which sell them for the highest price and have the most to gain financially from that approach.
~ I believe that essential oils should not be used internally for health purposes except under the direct supervision of someone who is an expert aromatherapist AND also medically qualified to prescribe them.
~ I believe that once you are VERY familiar with essential oils they *may* be used for personal culinary purposes. Valerie Worwood’s Complete Book of Essential Oils and Aromatherapy has a whole chapter on cooking with essential oils. This involves things like a single drop of lemon oil to boost the flavor profile of an entire lemon pie however -- not putting multiple drops of lemon oil in water or on a sugar cube and ingesting it.
When it comes to aromatherapy in pregnancy it seems there are as many lists of which essential oils are safe and which should be avoided as there are essential oils! While the toxic oils are found on most if not all "no-go" lists (like pennyroyal or wintergreen), others like chamomile, lavender, and geranium appear as "no-go’s" in some places and “go-to’s” in others. I think Allison England takes a sensible approach in her book Aromatherapy & Massage for Mother & Baby regarding essential oil safety in pregnancy: “It is the continuous and indiscriminate use of these (contra-indicated) oils that causes concern.” In other words, given all the available options out there, and what tradition and research have shown us to date, there is no reason to believe that the risks of moderate use of the non-toxic essential oils in pregnancy outweigh the benefits.
Essential oils can be used while breastfeeding so long as you keep in mind that essential oils you are using topically on yourself, will be inhaled by your infant and may even be transferred through skin contact. This means that only essential oils that are safe for infants should be used. Essential oils such as peppermint and sage may have a drying effect on milk supply in vulnerable women and so this also needs to be kept in mind even when they are used away from the baby.
Essential oils can also be beneficial for children. While herbal infused products and hydrosols are gentler and lower-risk choices, there can still be a place for essential oils in your wee one's life. When learning about essential oils you will find that many are not recommended for children. This is because children are smaller, have thinner skin, and have an immature liver which makes them more vulnerable to the potential risks of essential oils. When diffusing essential oils into the air you'll want to difuse for short periods of time only. When applying topically you'll want to use very mild dilutions of no more than 0.25% - 1% depending on the oils, conditions, and child. I recommend Herbal Healing For Children by Demetria Clark, as well as this article from the New England Herbal Academy, and this one from Learning About EO's.
Because essential oils are natural many loving pet-owners believe that they can safely use essential oils to enhance their animal-companions health and well-being. While there can be a place for aromatherapy in your pet's life, like with small children, animals are particularly vulnerable to the potentially negative effects of essential oils. Cats, dogs, and birds etc also metabolize essential oils differently than people do which means additional caution is required.
Holistic Aromatherapy For Animals by Kristin Leigh Bell is considered the most reputable written source on this topic and I recommend reading her book before using essential oils in any form in your home or on your pets. If you would like to begin your research with online sources, I suggest this article by Dr. R. Palmquist
From a purely personal perspective, I am (for example) far more comfortable with the occasional use of a product to help prevent insect bites which contains a 1% organic essential oil blend (of course without any of the essential oils in it which are widely considered toxic), than I am with the use of a product containing KNOWN toxic chemicals like DEET. That’s my own bias. I have a particular focus on making truly natural products suitable for mama’s and babes, and that sometimes includes the use of essential oils at no more than a 1% concentration. I've chosen to use essential oils which my research and education to date have led me to believe are suitable for this audience. The decisions that are right for me aren’t necessarily right for you though. And that’s why every product I make has a note on it to consult a healthcare professional with concerns or in case of pre-existing conditions.
One of the questions I am asked most frequently, is what brands of essentials do I trust and recommend. I'll state upfront that I do NOT trust any brand which is not forthcoming with information about their oils or uses smoke, mirrors, and double talk to distract you. I highly recommend reading "How To Know If Your Essential Oils Are Top Quality" (in the resources below) to learn more. As for specific companies - I buy almost exclusively from New Directions Aromatics. If you prefer to buy things one at a time (as opposed to wholesale with NDA) then MoonLily Wellness & Plant Therapy are two companies which have singles, blends, and dedicated lines for children and which follow Robert Tisserand's safety guidelines. Tisserand & Young literally wrote the book on essential oil safety. It is even referenced by Poison Control centers across North America.
I love essential oils. I’m thankful for the knowledge I’ve gained so far, and am always learning more. As this field expands rapidly I discover every day that there is more that I don’t know than I do. If you keep the cautionary principles of “always dilute.... external use only...” in mind, you’re off to a good start. The references, resources, and recommended readings below will help you deepen your own knowledge so that you can use essential oils confidently in your home.
References, Resources, and Recommended Further Reading
Free Mini Course by Robert Tisserand - How Essential Oils Work in the Body
Free online introduction to essential oils course (Aromahead)
The Ultimate Essential Oils Guide
The Nitty Gritty on Essential Oil Safety
No More Drinking Your Oils
How To Know if Your Essential Oils Are Top Quality
Learning About EO's
Canadian Federation of Aromatherapists
National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy
Pacific Institute of Aromatherapy
Heart of Herbs
Joy Essence Aromatherapy Centre
Prefer to learn from printed books?
Essential Oil Safety 2nd ed. by Tisserand & Young
Aromatherapy & Herbal Remedies For Pregnancy, Birth, & Breastfeeding by Demetria Clark
475 Herbal & Aromatherapy Recipes by Demetria Clark
The Complete Aromatherapy & Essential Oils Handbook for Everyday Wellness by Nerys Perchon & Lora Cantele
The Encyclopedia of Essential Oils by Julia Lawless
The Healing Intelligence of Essential Oils by Kurt Schnaubelt