The dangers of essential oils is often exaggerated, usually based on insufficient evidence and inappropriate conclusions. It is true that essential oils are powerful substances, but used knowledgeably and with due diligence, pose little to no threat to one’s health. Let me first share three points made clear by Len Price:
- There is no doubt that essential oils are powerful mixtures and have physiological, psychological and pharmacological effects, both desirable and undesirable, when applied to the body.
- In most countries, including the UK and the United States, these oils are freely available and there is no restriction on their sale and use.
- The majority of people who buy essential oils are members of the general public, who cannot be expected to have expert knowledge of their nature and use.
“It is remarkable then that their safety record is as good as it undoubtedly is. Despite this record, statements are sometimes made which sensationalize aromatherapy or exaggerate unwanted effects of the oils” (Price, 2007, p 43).
Essential Oil Quality
For therapeutic use, the quality and wholeness of any essential oil is of paramount importance, irrespective of the cost. This is in contrast to those oils used for perfumes or flavors where the aroma or taste is of utmost importance. Generally speaking when one references a therapeutic essential oil, they are referring to ones suitable for aromatherapy use – not adulterated, not “ennobled’, not redistilled, not fractionated, no parts removed or added, but which have been distilled specifically for aromatherapy from known plant material (Price, 2007).
It is important to understand that the quality of essential oils will vary as the season. Plants are exposed to an ever-changing climate with fluctuations in light, wind, heat, cold, rain, frost, and soil compositions. These will alter the plant and subsequently the oils to some degree. This is no different than fine wine which varies from crop to crop and year to year. Perfume and flavor based oils however, must be identical and are therefore synthetic to some degree so the flavor of your preferred gum is same from package to package.
Recommendations specific to essential oils, particularly in how they should be administered, vary greatly. The cause of this is largely related to the deterpenizing of oils. Essential oils used in the fragrance industry often have their terpenes partly or wholly removed on account of their insolubility in alcohol, which would result in cloudiness – a distinct commercial and aesthetic disadvantage to perfume. To the practitioner however, this deterpenized oil is incomplete. It contains a higher percentage of the remaining constituents of the oil, and is often more hazardous. This process disturbs the natural balance of the essence, but sadly, many texts base their information on tests carried out of perfume grade oils, not those of a therapeutic-grade (Price, 2007).
Most essential oils are produced for the fragrance or food industry, and therefore, contamination by pesticides and fertilizers are not of concern to manufacturers. Their presence however, adulterates the efficacy and safety of the essential oil and may potentiate the toxicity of an otherwise safe essential oil (Price, 2007).
Procurement of Genuine, High-Quality, Authentic Essential Oils
Procurement is where the various essential oil distributors will argue they have cornered the market. Each claim to have superior farms and control from seed to seal. This competition among essential oil distillers is a healthy one in that it increases their accountability and desire to improve standards for harvesting and processing of the oil.
The meaning of synergism is difficult to articulate but one might explain this as individual molecules within the oil are not nearly as effective as all the molecules working together. Essential oils are complex. Their properties work together to produce their healing effect, but when altered, their natural synergism is disrupted and therefore, ineffective. For example, isolating any part of the oil may create more toxic outcomes, as opposed to used synergistically, constitutes can work together to quench unwanted effects. Not only does the synergy of a single oil need to be well understood, but the enhancement effect of combining two or more oils should also be well appreciated.
“It is important to preserve the wholeness of an essential oil in order to guard its natural synergistic power” (Price, 2007, p 50).
Care should be applied in the utilization of essential oils. They are powerful or they would not be of any use therapeutically. Over-use will cause untoward effects. Eating too many of any one food also has untoward effects, such as eating too many tomatoes, potatoes or corn. Typically oils are inhaled, applied to the skin or ingested, although only therapeutic-grade essential oils should be employed for internal use. This method is not typically recommended for pregnant women and very young children. It is not clear how the endocrine effects on the gastrointestinal tract alters metabolism during pregnancy, therefore, oral ingestion is typically discouraged at this time.
Undiluted essential oils should never be placed in the ear nor on ano-genital mucous surfaces and especially not in the eye, even diluted. Essential oils are immediately soluble in vegetable oils which gives a dissolving or flushing action, so if the eye is exposed, it may prove beneficial to flush the eye with a vegetable oil or if a genital region, to place a soaked piece of cloth on the exposed area.
Mutagenicity and Teratogenicity
“There is no available evidence that any natural essential oil has ever provoked mutagenicity or teratogenicity in an embryo or developing fetus. No tests have ever been carried out because the possibility of fragrant materials causing either genetic mutation or malformation is regarded as unlikely” (Price, 2007, p 67).
However, there are several essential oils which may have unwanted effects during the first trimester of pregnancy and it is believed that most, if not all essential oils, can pass through the placenta. Their effects on the developing fetus is unknown. Use after this first trimester, when done appropriately, can generally be done safely. It is important to work with your provider and an aromatherapist.
We are increasingly aware that some individuals are sensitive to and can even experience anaphylactic shock from ingesting nuts. Although there does not seem to be evidence that advocates for the avoidance of nut-based carrier oils such as sweet almond or peanut during pregnancy aromatherapy or massage, it may be wise to inquire if the mother has a sensitivity and avoid use in these scenarios.