January 23, 2018

No-Nonsense Essential Oil Use: Stay Safe and Sane Use Beyond the Hype

In this final post by Lane Therrell, she explores how to use essential oils safely to support your health by tuning out the hype and accessing real-world information.

If you’ve been following my series of articles on essential oils (EOs) in trauma treatment on this blog site, you’re likely already integrating EOs into your treatment plan. While I hope you are having good results and enjoying the process, I wouldn’t be doing my job as a nurse and EO enthusiast if I didn’t say a few words about safety and best use practices for EOs.

This article is all about how you can use EOs safely to support your health by getting past the marketing hype and accessing the real-world information. I’ll set the stage for your better understanding by providing some background on the EO industry and some context about where EOs fit in healthcare. My goal is to empower and inspire you to become a savvy EO consumer and a safe EO user.

To be a savvy consumer of EOs, it helps to know how the growing EO industry and the modern medical paradigm influence the prevalent marketing messages about EOs that circulate on the Internet.

Current Growth of EO Industry
The EO industry worldwide has been growing quickly for more than two decades, and some sources predict the global EO market will reach $13.94 billion by 2024. Many consumer goods, including personal care items, cosmetics, home care and cleaning supplies, foods and beverages, pest control, and more, use EOs as flavor and fragrance ingredients and as part of their production processes. Aromatherapy is a fast-growing growing segment of the over-all EO market, and consumer demand for high-quality natural produces is expected to continue growing.

Quality Considerations
Savvy EO consumers keep two major factors in mind when assessing the quality of EOs for direct personal use: 1) natural EOs are produced from living plants; 2) commercially produced EOs are subject to adulteration.

The fact that EOs come from plants means there is a high variability from crop to crop, year to year. Myriad factors are involved in growing plants and producing EOs. Everything from the seeds, to the soil, to the water, air, and other growing conditions, as well as harvesting and production procedures, all have an influence on the quality of the oil that is ultimately produced. Growers of plants harvested for EOs must consider and control for numerous environmental factors in much the same way that vintners talk about “good years” and ‘bad years” for wine.

A second quality consideration for EO consumers is known as adulteration. It’s common practice in the EO industry to adulterate, cut, or extend, a batch of pure EO with other substances for manufacturing purposes. These adulterated compounds are less expensive than the pure EO, the process of adulteration also helps to standardize, or compensate, for the baseline variability of the plant material. This helps manufacturers, like perfumers, for example, produce a consistent product over time.

Consumers choosing EOs for direct therapeutic application must avoid adulterated EOs because the impurities make adulterated products unlikely to have the intended therapeutic effect. Also, depending on how the EO was adulterated, it may have a toxic or harmful effect.  As a general rule, inexpensive EOs are likely to be adulterated.

However, savvy consumers are also aware that an expensive price-tag alone is no guarantee that the product in the bottle is pure.  When shopping for a pure, natural EO, investigate the reputation of the brand and check for the Latin name of the plant on the label. Choose oils that are packaged in dark glass bottles and do not leave an oily residue on fingers or paper. And of course, a pure EO will not have an artificial or alcoholic aroma.

Medical Paradigms and EOs
Simply stated, the use of EOs falls outside the prevailing modern medical paradigm, or way of thinking, about human health. The biomedical model is described as reductionistic, exclusionary, and even fear-based. While the biomedical model supports acute care extremely well, it does not adequately support the treatment of chronic illnesses which are a growing concern and account for more than 75% percent of today’s healthcare costs.

The paradigm change in medicine to accommodate the need for better, more comprehensive, chronic care is not yet complete, but the process has opened the door for public interest in complementary, integrative, healing techniques such as EOs.

Since EOs and other modalities that fall under the classification of “natural healing” or “health and wellness” are part of a different paradigm than that upon which mainstream healthcare is based, your physicians and other healthcare providers are unlikely to be educated about them. This speaks to the importance of finding experts and resources you can trust to provide you with credible information as the need arises.

If you choose to think about your health differently, you don’t get to abnegate good judgment or common sense or wear a tinfoil hat. As a matter of fact, your responsibility for your own health increases when you explore topics on which your physician is not educated. No matter what paradigm informs your thoughts, actions and decisions, you still need to use logic and common sense and the scientific method to make decisions that are right for you.

Influences on EO Marketing Messages: Context Has Consequences
The rapid rise in popularity of EOs and the non-mainstream nature of their use for health improvement puts EO marketers under scrutiny from government industry regulators. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) monitors the language used online for promoting and marketing EOs and stipulates that no public medical claims can be made about EOs. Broadly interpreted, the mandate also curtails discussions of the specific chemical compounds and their biological effects, which are central to the efficacy of EOs.

While this may sound like an effective form of consumer protection, it results in marketing and teaching materials about the action and efficacy of EOs that are vague and non-specific. For example, instead of saying “This oil can prevent colds and flu,” an EO marketer who wishes to remain in compliance with the FDA should say, instead, “this oil supports your immune system.”

This kind of obscurity can make it difficult for those who are new to EOs to understand how they work, specifically, and how they differ from one another. As public interest in EOs continues to grow the need for education will increase, and these limits on public discourse about EOs will continue to perpetuate misinformation, misunderstanding, and even misuse of the products.

How is a person with little scientific or medical background and a lot of interest in EOs supposed to sift through it all and use EOs safely? That very question is part of why I’m so passionate about helping you to claim ownership of your EO knowledge, encouraging you to network with EO experts you trust, and steering you toward reliable resources so you can do your own research.

Tips for Safe and Sane EO Use
Here are some of my personal favorite best practices for safe and sane EO use. These tips are from my personal and professional experience, and are some of the things I wish someone had told me early on my journey to integrating EOs into my life. I’ve included some sources and resources at the end of the article that you may find useful.

Use only top-quality EOs. Find a brand (or brands) you trust, and stick with them. Quality oils require an investment, so I encourage you to shop around for the best prices.  And you if you ever catch yourself saying, or thinking, “I can get this oil so much cheaper at the drug store,” please review the section on quality above.

Less is more. Essential oils are highly concentrated substances. A little goes a long way. Even if you use EOs in your life daily, you don’t need to use the same oils constantly.  Start with the smallest amount of EO that produces the intended effect. And remember that even normally non-toxic substances can have toxic effects if you use too much too often.  While a healthy enthusiasm for EOs is fun and brings joy to your life in many ways, if you find yourself admitting to a friend, “I diffuse my oils constantly,” it might be time to take a step back and re-valuate your practices. In general, you don’t want it to diffuse EOs for longer than 8 hours at time in a small room.

Dilute EOs with carrier oils, not water. EOs are fat soluble, so if you put a sample on your skin, and it tingles unpleasantly or turns red, attempting to wash it off with water can make the reaction worse, not better. Use a “carrier oil,” such as olive oil, coconut oil, almond oil, jojoba oil, or another fatty oil to dilute the EO.

Test first, then apply. And speaking of skin reactions… get in the habit of performing a patch test before applying a new oil topically over a large area. Learn to recognize allergies/adverse reactions, and be aware that while our bodies usually embrace and assimilate EOs readily as natural products, some people can have reactions and sensitivities. If you’re ever in doubt about whether an EO is causing an adverse reaction, stop using your EO. Consult with your physician and contact an EO expert.

Citrus oils can be sun sensitizing. When applying citrus oils topically, be aware that they can increase the sun-sensitivity of your skin. This applies to blends containing citrus oils as well as single oils.

Be alert for drug-EO interactions. Some medications just don’t mix with EOs. If the body metabolizes the oil using the same pathway as the medication, the effect of your medication could be increased, decreased, or even blocked. So, it pays to be careful if you’re taking prescription medication and using EOs at the same time. More research needs to be done in this area, and the research that has been done so far is not set in stone. As a nurse, I personally like to promote caution. A well-referenced list of potentially inadvisable drug-EO combinations is available here.

Just because an EO works for you doesn’t mean it will work the same way for others. Every individual is different, and can respond differently to the same oil. While lavender has a relaxing effect on most people, some people experience just the opposite. And, if you catch yourself thinking, “If it’s good enough for me, it’s good enough for Fido and the kids, too,” stop and do some research. Not all EOs that are safe for pets. And remember that your kids’ bodies are smaller than yours, so you’ll want to use smaller amounts of EOs with them, and, use a carrier oil to dilute the EO. And, store your EOs out of reach of children and pets so they don’t accidentally drink or spill them.

Pregnant? Proceed with caution. It’ not true that you can’t use EOs at all during pregnancy, but there are some EOs you should avoid; EOs that stimulate the nervous system, mimic estrogen, or otherwise affect hormones should be avoided. Remember that using topically or internally is different from diffusing.

Cultivate the right mindset for EO use. Operating within a different paradigm demands a different way of thinking. A natural wellness paradigm demands that you see the health of your body, mind and spirit as a set of interconnected systems. When you take responsibility for your health, you agree to have an open mind, you agree to give whatever you try enough time to work, and you agree to keep records to track your results.

Have realistic expectations. The EOs act as a catalyst for change and they are pure natural substances so they bridge the gaps between body mind and spirit and achieve results in very different ways than targeted pharmaceuticals are designed to do. You don’t benefit from an all or nothing approach; you do benefit from integration. You must be willing take responsibility for your own healing. You must cultivate awareness of your own body, mind, and spirit. Body awareness is necessary to cultivate. There is a difference between cure, healing, and quality of life. Your oils are add-ons to your treatments, not substitutes for treatment.

Consider your sources. Information is cheap, and there is a lot of misleading or inaccurate information about EOs on the Internet. If you ever catch yourself saying, “I got this on the internet so it must be true,” think again. There’s a difference between reliable sources and marketing hype. Your path to knowledge is your own. Trust your instincts. Always ask your questions. Keep asking until you are satisfied. Remain skeptical. Look for your sources’ credentials, training, and background. Find your favorite go-to resources, and stick with them.

Set boundaries and systematize to build confidence. The vast amount of information available on EOs can seem overwhelming and even intimidating at first. If you catch yourself feeling ready to give up, or saying or thinking, “I need to know everything about these oils in order to use them safely,” I invite you to take imperfect action. You don’t need to know everything to get started with EOs and use them safely. Just pick 5 oils you’re interested in (go with 3 if 5 seems like too many), and get to know them like friends—learn about the plants they come from, their chemical constituents, the best ways to use them, whatever interests you. As you explore the information on these oils, develop a system you can repeat for learning and discovering the information—what method worked best for you, what resources provided information quickest, etc. 

Have fun exploring EOs for better health. When I first got introduced to EOs, it was an exhilarating experience to read about a new EO and then try it out. Almost two decades later, I still feel like a kid in a candy store when I get a new EO book or experience a new oil blend. If you’ve tried EOs, and they’re not fun and interesting for you, that’s OK, maybe they’re not for you. Let it go. You can always come back to it later.

EOs offer an unparalleled opportunity to take ownership of your personal wellness. They can be a powerful tool for empowering your best health, including trauma recovery. Not only are they effective, they are pleasant, portable, and even fun. But, like any tool, they require proper and skillful use and management if you want to achieve the desired results.

By being a savvy consumer of EOs and observing best practices for their safe use, EOs can support your efforts to end the emotional roller coaster, -escape the pain of the past, take charge of your brain, feel less triggered and more in control, imagine the future you’ve always wanted. EOs may not be for everyone, all the time, but they are most CERTAINLY worth a try. When you use EOs with respect and awareness, you can enjoy their benefits long-term in your treatment plans and in your life.

An Invitation:
I hope you have enjoyed this series about EOs. If you’ve determined that they are for you and you want to know more, I cordially invite you to participate in my essential oil study group. In the group, we’ll discuss some of the specific safe and sane ways enjoy EOs and you’ll have a chance to get to know other avid oilers as well. Sign up via my web site www.BestHealthInterest.com

Questions for comment: What did you wish someone had told you before you started using EOs? What do you enjoy most about EOs? What did you learn about EOs from this article?


Lane Therrell is a family nurse practitioner, health empowerment coach, trauma survivor, and self-described EO aficionado. She uses EOs as tools in her health coaching programs whenever appropriate and leads an EO study group (starting in February 2018) for those who want to learn more details about how EOs work. Lane is a distributor for a popular EO brand, and is dedicated to sharing basic EO use and safety knowledge with anyone. Connect with Lane at www.BestHealthInterest.com

Sources and resources:

Are Essential Oils Safe?

Aromatherapy Resources

Beware: Adulteration of Essential Oils, Part I

Essential Oils and the “Detox” Theory

Essential Oil Market Size To Reach $13.94 Billion By 2024

How Do Essential Oils Work?

How To Use Essential Oils Safely

Medicine’s Paradigm Shift: An Opportunity for Psychology

Paradigms in Medicine: Consequences for Medical Education

Pharmaceutical Drug Interactions or Contraindications

Robert Tisserand’s Recommended Reading

Safely Using Essential Oils With Pets

The 6 Principles of Naturopathic Medicine

The Paradigm Shift in Medicine and Science

Using Essential Oils Safely During Pregnancy & Breastfeeding

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