Essential oils are great. They can infuse rooms with welcoming fragrances or be used to positively influence one’s health and wellbeing. I use EO’s both aromatically and topically, for a whole slew of things like migraines, nausea, and muscle pains.
In my blog post about my essential oil collection, I gave an in-depth look at the essential oils I have and how they can be used. With the success of that post, I wanted to take a moment to make sure that you are all well-educated on essential oils so you can use them safely. So today I am going to discuss some marketing and labeling issues that may be misleading or confusing, some potential dangers that should be considered when using essential oils, and some precautions that should be taken.
A cosmetic or a drug?
To begin, we first need to define the difference between a cosmetic and a drug and determine where essential oils fall. The FDA defines a cosmetic as “a product that is intended only to cleanse the body or to make a person more attractive” and defines a drug as “a product that is intended for a therapeutic use, such as treating or preventing disease, or to affect the structure or function of the body”.
“a product that is intended for a therapeutic use, such as treating or preventing disease, or to affect the structure or function of the body”
This is where things get a little fuzzy. By these definitions, essential oils are used in different ways that make them both cosmetics and drugs. For example, when Lavender is used in your facial soap and only advertised for its lovely fragrance, it’s a cosmetic. However, when Lavender is in your facial soap claiming to help you sleep or relieve anxiety then it’s being advertised as a drug.
So now the question is: what are essential oils considered when they are sold as pure, undiluted oils?
Essential oils are currently not under regulation of the FDA, but marketing techniques that advertise essential oils as items that can relieve or cure certain illnesses cause them to be considered drugs under section 201 of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. Companies such as Young Living have been called out by the FDA for marketing their oils as such. (You can read the letter sent to Young Living by the FDA here).
“Based on our review, FDA has determined that many of your Young Living Essential Oil products, such as, but not limited to, “Thieves,” “Cinnamon Bark,” “Oregano,” “ImmuPower,” “Rosemary,” “Myrtle,” “Sandalwood,” “Eucalyptus Blue,” “Peppermint,” “Ylang Ylang,” “Frankincense,” and “Orange,” are promoted for conditions that cause them to be drugs under section 201(g)(1)(B) of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (the Act) [21 U.S.C. § 321(g)(1)(B)], because they are intended for use in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease.” (“Young Living 9/22/14”) – US Food and Drug Administration
Essential oils being unregulated, but marketed as drugs creates a public health concern that these substances may be harmful when misused. What is important to remember when using essential oils is that while yes, they are “natural” and do in fact come from plants and nature, they can be dangerous. Not all things from nature are good for our bodies and not all things that are good for our bodies in small quantities are good in larger quantities. Essential oils are extremely concentrated solutions extracted from plants. These solutions are often volatile and are made up of very small molecules that can be absorbed by the skin rapidly.
There are a number of essential oils that are actually poisonous to humans if consumed such as…
- Tea Tree
Although I believe essential oils can ease many ailments and positively influence health, I do not believe any one oil to be a cure for any disease.
Dangers and precautions for different methods of essential oil use
Diffusing is a method of using essential oils where the oils are dispersed into the air along with a water vapor. The amount of oil diffused into the air poses little risk, making diffusing a safe way to use essential oils.
Topical Use & Dilution
When applying essential oils to your skin, there are some oils that are known dermal irritants that should be avoided. To get a feel for what oils are potential irritants we have to talk some organic chemistry.
Essential oils are made of chemical structures such as aldehydes, phenols, esters, alcohols, etc. Oils containing aldehydes and phenols are typically skin irritants. Aldehydes are carbon structures that contain a functional group ending in -CHO and phenols are carbon structures that have an -OH functional group attached to its aromatic hydrocarbon ring.
Some essential oils containing Aldehydes
- Cinnamon Bark
Some essential oils containing Phenols
When using EOs topically, I always use a carrier oil even when I am using oils such as Peppermint, Tea Tree, or Lavender which are often said to be safe to use undiluted.
Sensitization is an allergic reaction that can develop over time due to repeated use of undiluted or “neat” essential oils. The allergic reaction often manifests as inflammation. Sensitization is common in people who suffer from skin conditions such as dermatitis and eczema, but can also cause these conditions to occur. I do not recommend using any essential oil undiluted due to the risk of sensitization.
For dilution measurements, I use the ratios suggested by Learning About EO’s in Properly Diluting Essential Oils.
Internal use of essential oils is a messy business. You may see claims on the internet like a few drops of lemon oil or grapefruit oil in your water will help with detoxification and weight loss, but I urge you to tread very cautiously.
Essential oils are, well, oils and water and oil do not mix. Putting drops of essential oils into your water does not dilute the essential oil at all because the molecules of the EO stay separate from the water molecules. Putting peppermint oil or chamomile oil into water is not the same as drinking peppermint or chamomile tea. Since essential oils are so concentrated one or two drops of an oil could have 20-30 times the strength of a cup of tea made from the same plant or herb. Personally, I steer clear of using EO’s internally, but if you are really interested please consult a clinical aromatherapist.
*Essential oils should be kept out of the reach of children, just as other drugs and medications.
To briefly conclude…
- Diffusing is the safest method of essential oil use.
- When using essential oils topically always dilute the oils with a carrier oil (2-3 drops per 1 teaspoon of carrier oil for adults and 1 drop per 1 teaspoon carrier oil for children 6 years and older).
- Consult a professional when using essential oils internally.
- Keep your essential oils out of the reach of children.
I hope this relieves any confusion or concern you guys may have had about using EO’s. Essential oils can be a beneficial and safe practice in your home as long as you treat them with an appropriate amount of caution.
Comment below if you have any questions!