Essential oils are chock-full of concentrated plant compounds, and by compounds I’m talking about CHEMICALS! This can sometimes be a scary word to natural-health leaning folks, but we need to break the stigma down in order to get at the truth, because what you don’t know not only adds further confusion to the information pool, at worst it could actually hurt you and your loved ones.
Just one single drop of an essential oil typically has an average of 20-30 milligrams of active chemical constituents from the plant within it. An essential oil is up to 100x stronger, i.e. more concentrated, than it would be just found in general consumption of the plant. To put that into some perspective allow me to give an example of an herbal compound breakdown from a product formulation – A formulated Oil of Oregano capsule product, that is intended for internal consumption, may be standardized to contain a guarantee of up to 70% carvacrol per serving – (carvacrol is one of the known “active” compounds in oregano for human health benefit) – and each serving of one pill is 510 milligrams of oregano total, 45 milligrams of that being the oil, and 70% of that oil being carvacrol, meaning 32 of those milligrams in the total capsule is the compound carvacrol. Keep in mind this pill also has a base oil such as olive oil, and/or emulsifier such as soy or sunflower lecithin included in the capsule as well, so it has a carrier and fills the capsule out. In addition, the extraction process for herbs in tincture and pill form is typically different than that of essential oil distillation. So the point here is that you’re not consuming a whole pill full of straight oregano essential oil. Yet there are a growing number of people who consume multiple drops of all sorts of various essential oils daily, something that is not encouraged and prescribed by any seriously trained professional aromatherapist or clinical herbalist.
To make matters more confusing, some years ago companies launched with claims that their oils were “therapeutic grade”, leading many to believe that the oils were somehow inherently different than every other essential oil on the market. However, this was strictly marketing terminology and not any sort of regulated term – much like the flagrant use of the word “natural” being thrown around in the food products industry, anyone can use the term and it doesn’t necessarily ensure anything about the product.
It is true there can be varying grades of quality to essential oils, and many factors come in to play to create the conditions for the product – such as; where the plant was grown, when it was harvested, how it was harvested, how the extraction is done, whether or not solvents are used – and if they are, whether they are natural or synthetic chemical solvents, how the end product oil is bottled and stored, how long it sits before reaching the consumer market etc…
More recently, marketing using the term “food-grade” for essential oils has unfortunately generated further implication for use or delivery by the general public that is actually not congruent with clinical aromatherapy training, nor education in proper use with essential oil safety . While the FDA usage of the term “Food Grade” does include plant extracts under the FCC (Food Chemical Codex) and GRAS (Generally Regarded as Safe) lists, they are not meant to suggest applications for consumption to the general public. Remember, essential oils are no longer just the plant – herb, root or flower – and therefore they’re not equivalent to herbal preparations such as found in food, extracts/tinctures, syrups, infusions or macerations etc. Proper use of essential oils includes safety, education and common sense about their chemical compounds.
Another factor that many consumers may not consider is that there are a number of plants that we extract these essential oils from which grow in very specific parts of the world and/or under rather specific environmental conditions. This can limit the avenues on how it gets to the market. Some producers are mindful of the growing, extraction, and sourcing, with regards to not over harvesting and damaging ecosystems, not contributing to threat or endangerment of the plant species, and not subjugating the indigenous people where the plant grows (whom often are doing a lot of the work in the supply chain process). But the mindfulness comes with a cost, and so some manufacturers would rather buy in to a bulk of essential oil, or raw materials to make their oil, cheaply, even if that means forgoing any thought or care towards the aforementioned concerns. If a company is not being transparent with regards to its sourcing of its plant materials how can you be sure it is being ethical about it? If they’re not seeming ethical about it, how much more sure can you be about the purity/quality of the product?
Adverse reactions from improper or over-use of essential oils, based on assumed safety and lack of proper training and knowledge, has been growing in recent years. It is beginning to prompt stricter regulatory measures in Europe and may well soon follow suit in the United States. While regulation for safety concerns may sound like a good thing at face value, the trouble is often that bureaucracy may overstep bounds for the sake of control, and thus make it increasingly more difficult, if not impossible, to legally obtain and/or use some particular plant substances. Basically, what the irresponsible use of essential oils has created is a “one bad apple spoils the bunch” scenario – and so when there reaches a tipping point of backlash to the industry, and outcry from medical professionals dealing with people who have injured themselves with oil usage, it not only gives the practice of clinical aromatherapy a bad name, and may dilute the product stream and availability of these valuable plant medicine/extracts to the public, it may even contribute to ceasing consideration of funding for legitimate scientific studies into the plants and their compounds.
This is not to say that products on the market are intending to be nefarious and misleading. But it is worth noting that its easier to sell more product if people go through it faster, and people will go through it faster if they think they should be drinking it, or encapsulating it and taking it as a oil filled pill daily, and using it on their kids and their pets and everything else with profusion. Just like we are seeing a rise in antibiotic resistant bacteria due to over prescription and over use of antibiotics by the medical community over the past several decades, it is reasonable to conclude we could face similar issues – increasing resistances and/or acquired allergies and sensitivities, due to over use of the potent plant chemicals found in essential oils.
Essential oils are a indeed a plant’s most concentrated medicine. They are amazing wonders of chemistry that deserve further study and respect, and they hold much potential benefit for the user. There’s a right place, right time, and right application for oils – and that is not to be inundating yourself with them constantly. All the more reason to consult with educated professionals, read from well researched authors, and consider that sometimes the wisdom of nature can be “less is more”.
Here are some recognized safety experts, educators, and resources regarding aromatherapy, dedicated to proper/thorough training, so you can dig more into the topic if you so choose:
And some great books to learn from:
- Aromatherapy for Healing the Spirit, by Gabriel Mojay
- Complete Guide to Aromatherapy, by Salvatore Battaglia (3rd edition)
- Heart of Aroamtherapy, by Andrea Butje (newest release)
- Complete Aromatherapy & Essential Oils Handbook for Everyday Use, By Nerys Purchon & Lora Cantele
- Essential Oil Safety: A Guide for Healthcare Professionals, by Robert Tisserand & Rodney Young