Methods Of Application
Essential oils can be used and applied in several different ways.
The first way is by inhalation. Simply inhaling essential oils can trigger chemical responses in the brain that can cause positive effects in your mood, or influence other areas of the brain which can have effects on various organs, or other systems in the body.
The second way to use essential oils is by application directly to the skin. There are very few essential oils that should be applied directly to the skin without dilution. Using an essential oil undiluted is often referred to as applying an oil “neat.” This means that an essential oil is applied to the skin without being added to a carrier oil first. (We will learn more about carrier oils, what they are, and what they do, in a future lesson.). But while some oils may be applied neat (undiluted) to the skin, most essential oils need to be diluted in a carrier oil before applying them to the skin. Essential oils are extremely concentrated, and many can cause mild to severe irritation when applied directly to the skin. My rule of thumb: if in doubt, dilute. If you aren’t 100 percent sure than an essential oil is not going to cause irritation to your skin, it is always safest to dilute it in a small amount of carrier oil. Adding a few drops of a carrier oil never hurts, and can save you some headaches in the long run! Immediate irritation is not the only culprit to using undiluted or improperly diluted essential oils either. Over time, the use of undiluted essential oils greatly increases your risk of developing sensitivities in the future. Many people can go for months, or even years and have seemingly no ill effects from using improperly diluted oils, and then one day, all of a sudden they have a reaction. In some cases, after a person stops using the oil for a period of time, the body’s histamine response will subside and the skin can tolerate the oil again, but in most of these cases, once a sensitization occurs, it is permanent, meaning you will never be able to use that essential oil again without having a reaction. Another reason for properly diluting oils is that spreading the oil over a larger area, actually aids in the body absorbing it better, as well as helping slow down the rapid evaporation or essential oils on your skin. Essential oils are extremely volatile and evaporate very quickly when exposed to air, whereas carrier oils, which are know as “fixed oils” do not evaporate when exposed to air. (more on that topic later) So, rather than dropping a drop of essential oil directly on your skin, and rubbing it around a tiny bit, adding a drop to a little carrier oil and applying it to a larger area can help your body process it and aid it’s benefits. Studies have actually shown that essential oils are the MOST effective for the human body when used between a 1% and 2% dilution. That’s not just to be safe, or not burn your skin, that’s the BEST way for your body to use them effectively. Just to be clear with how powerful these oils are, a 1% dilution is one drop of essential oil to 99 drops of a carrier oil. In the case of essential oils, more is not better. Ideal dilution ratios change based on what essential oil you are using, what you are using the essential oil for, and what age the person you are applying the oil to is. As a general rule of thumb though, for children or the elderly the average suggested dilution is between 0.5% and 1%, and for adults a 2% dilution is recommended for most applications. There are exceptions to the rule of course, pain applications are often mixed at a higher dilution, or oils that are being used for a short term acute situation, like a bug bite, may be used at higher percentages, but the dilution suggestions above are very good percentages to go by for most applications.
The third way to use essential oils is internally. Traditionally, educated aromatherapists that have been well trained and active in the aromatherapy community for years, avoid the use of essential oils internally, but more recently some circles include internal use as a primary method of application. When taking essential oils internally, more caution needs to be exercised than with the previous two methods. Many companies site that because some essential oils have the GRAS (Generally Regarded As Safe) title given to them by the FDA, that this means they are safe to ingest for medicinal purposes, or every day consumption, however, this is far from the truth. The FDA has thousands of substances that have the GRAS title, that are harsh chemicals, and quite dangerous for consumption, but they are considered safe in flavoring quantities. For example, peppermint is has the GRAS status, and is safe in flavoring amounts. One drop of essential oil equals about a tsp of a traditional food flavoring. So adding a drop of peppermint oil to your chocolate cake when you bake it, could add a delicious minty flavor, and is perfectly safe for you and your family. However, taking the GRAS status and then teaching that these essential oils can be taken daily as nutritional supplements, or multiple drops put into water that people are drinking all day every day is a far far different story and can cause significant gastrointestinal issues over time. There have been multiple cases of severe scarring of the esophagus, stomach, and intestines from long term consumption of essential oils. So as you can see even essential oils that are “safe for internal use” can cause severe irritation and inflammation of the tender lining of your mouth or your digestive tract, as well as external outbreaks and sores. Rarely do these irritations happen instantly, but slowly over time with repeated use. For this reason you may here the statement “I drink essential oils in my water all the time and it’s never hurt me!” because the effects are accumulative, and often, when discovered they are blamed on other causes. Lemon essential oil is a very common oil that some companies recommend drinking in your water throughout the day for detoxing and general health. But one of the main components in lemon oil is a very corrosive chemical that can remove paint, gum, sticky residue left from labels etc., and is a well known irritant that is used in many cleaning products. So buyer beware. Just because someone tells you that their essential oils is has a GRAS title, there is a HUGE difference in eating a drop of lemon oil in a whole lemon cake, than putting two to six drops of oil in a glass of water and drinking it every day. Using essential oils internally is not something to be taken lightly. Even some essential oils that are from the safest plants, can be quite dangerous and even poisonous in essential oil form. When oils are distilled from the plant material, all water soluble chemicals are removed, leaving only the oil soluble ones behind, this leaving you with the essential oils. However, in nature, water soluble and oils soluble chemicals are meant to work together, and preform a delicate balancing act within the plant. This delicate balance of chemicals work together in a way that makes the plant safe within the human body. When you take out the balancing counterparts by removing all the water soluble compounds, you are left with an imbalanced mixture, that can have far more negative results than the whole plant ever could. Basil is a great example of this. As a whole herb, you would never imagine this friendly italian plant could ever be dangerous. But without the water based balancing chemicals found in the plant, the essential oil actually has a huge potential for causing harm, or poisoning someone. So just because you have knowledge of the plant the oil has come from, you cannot assume an essential oils potential for harm, based on the safety of the herb or spice as a whole. The chemistry of essential oils plays a huge part in their safe use, both internally and externally, and advice to ingest an essential oil should not be taken lightly, nor should it come from someone who does not have extensive knowledge and education on essential oils and how they can interact with the body when taken internally. Essential oils can and do react with medications as well, and this is another concern that should be very well looked over and addressed before any attempt to ingest an oil is made. All this being said, using essential oils internally can be safe and effective for certain ailments, although applying the oils to your skin often can be just as effective with less chances of side effects. With the popularity of essential oils rising, the internal use of essential oils has also dramatically taken a huge upturn as well. Often not because it is more effective, but because it “feels” like it would be more effective. Taking a pill seems like it would have a better chance of affecting your health than inhaling or rubbing something on your skin. But because of the chemistry of essential oils, and how they break down in the body through the digestive tract, nine times out of ten, you will see far better results using essential oils via other methods, rather than through internal use.
Now I do want to make it clear again, that there are certain situations where using an essential oil internally could be beneficial. But these situations are very few and far between. Any internal use of oils should be in an enteric coated capsule, so that the capsule does not break down in the stomach, and cause irritation. Internal use of essential oils should only occur under the care of an experienced doctor who has been trained in aromatherapy, or in the care of a qualified aromatherapist that has done a complete evaluation, and is carefully overseeing your treatment. When using essential oils internally, be sure you are aware of all the cautions, dosages, and side effects of the individual oils you are ingesting. Never ingest an oil merely on someone’s suggestion without knowing the specific risks involved in taking that particular oil, or combination of oils. Also, it is important to know the specific standards and distilling practices of the company that manufactures the essential oils you are going to take. And just because the company brags that their oils are the safest and the purest doesn’t mean they actually are. There are all types of marketing ploys that many companies put out, but it is important to remember that they are just that- – Marketing Ploys. In future lessons, we will discuss what to look for when searching through the sea of essential oil brands out there, and how to determine the safety of an essential oil for internal use.
So to review, the three primary methods of application for essential oils are: by nose, by skin, and by mouth (ingesting).
How Do Essential Oils Work?
How Do Essential Oils Work By Smell?
You can inhale essential oils by smelling the oils directly from the bottle; adding the oil to a diffuser; inhaling the oils by adding them to boiling water and inhaling the steam; or using them in the floor of your shower and inhaling them. Another not so traditional method of inhaling that I like to use is putting a few drops of essential oils in the sink when I am washing dishes. That way, I get the benefit of the oils on my hand, and inhaling them as I wash dishes, plus the house smells great too! Of course it is not safe to do this with all essential oils, but there are some that help clean your dishes as well as giving your house a nice smell! When taken in through the nose, airborne molecules interact with the olfactory organs, and almost immediately, the brain. Molecules inhaled through the nose or the mouth are also carried to the lungs and interact with the respiratory system. This means that inhaled essential oils can affect the body through several different systems. Inhaled essential oils affect the emotions through the limbic system. Upon inhalation, odor molecules travel through the nose and affect the brain through a variety of receptor sites, one of which is the limbic system, usually referred to as the “emotional brain.”
One example of smells affecting our emotions is a silly story from my childhood. As a young girl, I traveled often from the busy suburb of Dallas, Texas, where I was born, to my grandparents’ five-acre farm in west Texas. We would drive through the city of Lubbock, and then cover the last few miles out to their farm beyond the city limits. When we were about five miles away, I would always know because of the smell of some unfortunate skunk that had tried to ramble across the highway, only to meet his demise and be left on the side of the road. Every year it was the same. You smelled skunk and knew you were only a few miles away. And because the smell of skunk reminded me of our arrival at Granny and Papa’s house, I still get a happy fluttery feeling in the pit of my stomach every time I smell a skunk! Now I know that is a silly example, but it proves the point that smells can trigger something in the brain. Whether it is a chemical reaction, or as in the example above,a memory trigger like my memory of the skunks. Smells are very powerful, and their effects on the human body should not be made light of..
The limbic system of the brain is directly connected to the parts that control heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, memory, stress levels, and hormone balance. This relationship explains why smells often trigger emotions, such as me feeling happy when I smell the stench of a skunk. Knowing this, we can begin to understand how the inhalation of essential oils can have some amazing and quite profound physiological and psychological effects on the human body. You may not be able to relate to smelling a skunk and feeling happy, but most of us can relate to the relaxing feeling we get when smelling a fragrant flower, or our favorite food cooking. While some of this is memory association (like with the skunk, or your favorite dinner cooking), some of the relaxation we feel from smelling a flower has nothing to do with a previous experience, but only with the chemical reaction it causes in our brain. You can feel your blood pressure drop a couple of points, and your heart rate slow when inhaling a gorgeous bouquet of fragrant blossoms. Essential oils work in much the same way when inhaled. Helen Keller said once “Smell is a potent wizard that transports us across thousands of miles and all the years we have lived.”
How Do Essential Oils Work By Skin?
Our skin is extremely permeable. Small amounts of all substances placed on the skin are absorbed directly into the blood stream in a matter of minutes. Much of the work I did with Dr. Peter Eckhart revolved around this simple fact. What we put on our skin affects our health, in both positive and negative ways. In the case of Dr. Eckhart’s patients that were dealing with hormonal complications, the parabens, preservatives, and other chemicals in their skin care were negatively affecting them. Despite many different treatments, his patients were unable to see drastic improvement without changing their entire skin care regimen. Once these toxic chemicals, as well as some natural substances, were removed from their skin care products, they suddenly began to have drastic improvements.
The reason for this is pretty simple. Many chemicals, and natural substances we apply to our skin go directly into our blood stream, and can affect our organs and whole system negatively or positively. When we ingest food through the mouth, the digestive system processes it, and the liver is able to remove many toxins or other potentially harmful substances that might have been present, thus eliminating a lot of strain on the other organs and systems. When something is applied to our skin, it is absorbed directly into our blood stream before being processed by the liver or kidneys. In the case of chemicals, this can be extremely harmful, but in the case of essential oils, it can be something we use to our advantage. Quick absorption can be a wonderful thing if the substance we are applying is not harmful, but rather healing to the body. A few examples of using the absorption factor in traditional medicine would be the use of nicotine patches, or hormone replacement creams. Some chemicals are much more readily absorbed, while others penetrate the skin very little.
Here are a few factors that can affect the absorption of essential oils through the skin. If you massage an area first, the increased circulation to the area will cause quicker absorption in those areas. Heat will also increase circulation and enhance absorption. This can be achieved either by hot compresses, hot showers, heating pads, or simply warm weather. Heat opens up the pores on your skin as well, and can cause heightened sensitivity to areas that would usually be fairly tough, so be careful when using essential oils with heat. For example, I apply diluted tea tree oil to my face at night from time to time, and suffer no irritation or burning. However, if I take a shower, and then after I get out, absent-mindedly apply my oil in my usual routine, my face will be ON FIRE for about 10 minutes! And yes, I have done this more than once without thinking, suffering the wrath of the oils in my open pores! No harm is done, but it can be quite miserable for a bit, even if the oils are diluted. A quick side note here: if you should ever find yourself in a similar situation in which an oil is burning your skin, always dilute it with oil, NOT WATER. Damping your face with water will actually increase the burning sensation, and cold water will cause your pores to close, sealing in the burning oils and prolonging the irritation. If irritation occurs, use a carrier oil such as olive oil or almond oil, and rub it over the affected area, then wipe it off, and repeat. This will dilute the essential oil and help relieve the burning sensation.
So what are some situations in which you would use essential oils externally? Well, there are so many I don’t know where to start. A few examples: using peppermint oil on your head or neck for a migraine; applying chamomile oil to soothe a rash; using frankincense to help clear up acne; or rubbing lavender oil on your feet for insomnia. The list goes on and on. Both topical application and inhalation remain two of the best ways to practice aromatherapy.
How Do Essential Oils Work By Mouth?
The third way that essential oils enter the body is by ingestion (swallowing). Oral ingestion of essential oils is NOT recommended for the general public by pretty much ALL experienced well trained aromatherapy practitioners, and the aromatherapy community at large. Several essential oil companies such as Young Living, and DoTerra promote the use of essential oils internally as safe and effective for everyone, both educated and uneducated, and have caused quite a stir among more tradition aromatherapy practitioners.
I find myself in between these two camps with regard to using essential oils internally. I disagree with some of the aromatherapy community in that I believe the use of essential oils internally can be very helpful, and extremely beneficial in some circumstances. However, I also disagree with the companies mentioned previously, because their claims, and instructions can be quite misleading, and very dangerous. To suggest that all essential oil users, no matter their experience or education level, can safely use essential oils internally is in my opinion very irresponsible. Companies like Young Living cite as a reason for their recommendations that in France it is commonplace to use essential oils internally. This is a very partial truth. It is much more common in France to use essential oils internally, but only when specially trained physicians and pharmacists prescribe and dispense them. Oils sold on the shelves of stores in France are still clearly marked “for external use only,” because internal use is something reserved for those under professional care, or those with extensive knowledge on the subject of aromatherapy. Pharmacists dispense essential oils much more like medications in parts of Europe, and this includes proper warnings, what do do in the case of accidental overdose, and other information that is completely absent on the bottles of essential oils being sold here in the US. Claiming to use the “French Method” but then not supplying all the needed information for proper safety, usage, interactions, etc., is irresponsible, and unethical in my opinion. Just like with other medications, there is always the potential for harm, and for oils to be safely used, especially internally, all the required safety information should be on the bottle if a company is going to promote their oils for medical purposes. But sadly they do NOT label their products with proper warnings, dosage recommendations, possible drug interactions, what to do in case of an overdose etc. So the customer is left to fend for themselves and experiment with their own health, and the health of their children, just because some company told them that essential oils are from plants, so they couldn’t possibly hurt you. This is far from the truth. The body was never designed to ingest hundreds of pounds of plant material in a matter of days, but that is exactly the equivalent of many of the recommendations from these companies of how to ingest their oils for every day uses such as detoxing, weight loss, heart burn etc. When dealing with a substance that is far more concentrated than nature ever intended, a little goes a long way. A drop is equal to many pounds of plant material, so perspective is always necessary when dealing with essential oils, especially internally.
This being said, I have personally used essential oils internally for various purposes, and feel quite safe doing so because of my knowledge on aromatherapy, but these situations are very few and far between. First-time users of essential oils have to be cautious about taking them internally for the following reasons:
- Some essential oils can be toxic to the liver and kidneys when ingested.
- Chemical breakdown of essential oils during the gastric processing can change side effects.
- There are many potential drug interactions.
- Some essential oils that are very safe for external use are poisonous and can be deadly if ingested.
The cautions above are why most essential oil companies choose to label their essential oils as “for external use only,” despite the fact that many CAN be used internally. Just because a company labels its oils for “external use only” does not mean the products are not pure, or are diluted, or contaminated, or of lower quality than oils labeled as safe for internal use. Various marketing campaigns of companies that choose to take the legal risk of labeling their oils “for internal use,” claim that products labeled “for external use only” really exhibit a “telltale sign of an inferior oil.” This is just not the case. According to the FDA all cosmetic oils MUST be labeled “for external use only.” The companies that do not do this, are using a loophole in the law, and categorizing their oils as nutritional supplements, thus bypassing the FDA laws. The problem is, essential oils are NOT nutritional supplements. They are not whole foods, vitamins, or nutrients. They are concentrated natural chemicals. Your body does not have a deficiency of essential oils. Essential oils can help balance the body, but they are not something the body needs for health and wellbeing like minerals, vitamins, and whole foods. Many companies choose to err on the side of caution (and might I add responsibility) when labeling products, knowing that educated users will be able to safely ingest their oils if needed. The warning label simply wards off the casual buyer without the experience or education necessary to safely ingest essential oils. While an oil labeled “for external use only” MAY be a poor quality oil, simply judging it as such based on this label is simplistic and inaccurate at best. But it is a fantastic marketing strategy used by the multi-level-marketing companies, which casts huge doubts on every other essential oil on the market. The fear of these dangerous “inferior oils” drives a lot of business their way. There are some great ways to tell if a company has high standards and produces pure oils, and we will be covering how to determine the standards of a company in the next lesson.
So what are some possible reasons you would want to ingest essential oils?
Some people use peppermint for heartburn, frankincense or oregano for an infection etc. However, more times than not, topical application is not only safer, but more effective. Essential oils should always be taken diluted in a carrier oil, and in a capsule. Most of the time you want an enteric coated capsule so that the essential oils do not release until they get to your intestines. Essential oils can be used safely and effectively internally, but many oils, even some of the seemingly safest ones require a lot more experience and education before (or if) they should EVER be ingested. And giving a blank statement of safety for internal use to a bottle of essential oils is, in my opinion, never a safe practice.
Herbs have side effects if taken in too-large quantities, or with certain health conditions, and essential oils are so concentrated, it is ridiculous to imagine they would not have side effects as well if ingested in large (or in some cases quite small) quantities. But what would be considered a “large quantity” in an herb, might only be a few drops of an essential oil. One drop of peppermint oil is said to be equal to over 25 cups of peppermint tea! So you can see that with a potent herb, things could get problematic when ingesting a relatively small amount of essential oil. Also, the distillation process removes all of the water soluble compounds from the plant, many of which balance the oil based compounds in the plant and prevent negative side effects. However, in the essential oil, with these water based compounds removed, many more side effects may be found, than one would encounter with using the whole herb, or plant. It is always better safe than sorry when it comes to ingesting oils, and more times than not, the desired effect can be achieved through other methods of application rather than ingesting the oils. Bottom line is: know your stuff. Then you can proceed with confidence and have great peace of mind.
So HOW do you ingest essential oils, if you decide to do so? There are several methods:
One is by placing a drop of essential oil mixed with a carrier oil directly under the tongue. This can only be done with oils that are not irritating to the fragile mucous membrane of the mouth. (which is a VERY limited number of oils) Another way is by diluting a drop or two of oil in a glass of water or milk, and drinking it, which although widely recommended, is not a good idea because oil and water do not mix, and despite the fact the oil seems very diluted, the oil actually floats on the top of the water or milk and the concentrated oil still comes in direct contact with the delicate lining of your mouth and your digestive tract. And the last is by placing the oils in an empty capsule and swallowing it. But again, caution needs to be used because essential oils can be irritating to the stomach or intestines if undiluted, so even in capsule form, care should be taken as to which oils are used, how much is taken, in almost all cases a carrier oil needs to be added to the capsules as well before ingesting. Just remember, just as if you wouldn’t jump to taking prednisone for a slightly achy knee, you shouldn’t jump to ingesting essential oils for small daily problems either. Start with an ibuprofen for your knee, and only use steroids if your achy joints progress to RA. In the same way, always start with diffusing, or topical application, and only ingest oils with great care, or being overseen by your doctor, or someone highly educated on essential oils and their chemistry. These oils need to be respected.
Other examples of oral use, this time without the intent to ingest, would be using oils in mouthwash, or using an oil such as clove for numbing tooth pain, or relieving discomfort for a teething infant. Such applications require a lot of dilution.
And that’s all for today’s lesson! For questions or thoughts about today’s topics, feel free to join our closed Facebook group created especially for this class, the link was in the first email you received with lesson #1
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