by Ivory King
Every day we use plants and their extracts in our household routines - not just for food but for medicine and cleaning as well. While products that we buy might come with plant-derived ingredients, it’s tempting to go straight to the source and buy essential oils. The practice of aromatherapy has become so popular you can buy them at many drug stores, even if it's only the most basic of a selection.
Essential oils have been used for centuries, if not millennia, for their fragrance as well as to calm and focus the mind and to disinfect and cure ailments. By nature they are volatile compounds, distilled from leaves, bark and flowers by steam or solvent, which are used by diffusing into the air, applying to the skin, or sometimes ingesting it. Highly concentrated, they do require a little knowledge before you use them. Some are ubiquitous and widely accepted as safe, as is the case with lavender, peppermint or lemon oils, but even these usually need to be diluted before being used topically or internally.
Diffusing essential oils is easy; they are predisposed to vaporizing into the air - that’s why they fill your nostrils with fragrance right when you open the bottle. But you can aid this process to fill a room with pleasant smells by using moisture, air or heat. The most common diffusers look like small humidifiers, and some devices perform double duty. There are also plug-in air fresheners that heat up a little fabric pad that holds the essential oils.
Diffusers free you from using synthetic air fresheners, and when essential oils are released into the air, they're wonderfully effective. Synthetic fresheners are full of nasty chemicals that you may not even see on the label by virtue of it being simply listed as “fragrance”. They also are safer to use around little kids than burning scented candles, and there are even ones you can use in the car. But EOs can do a lot more than simply smell nice. Some can clear the air of pathogens, helping you to avoid the latest strain of the flu or to get better quicker. They can also have the complementary benefit of strengthening the immune system, easing allergies or breathing pathways.
Topical use for EOs is varied, but some of the most common remedies are using diluted peppermint oil for headaches and nausea, frankincense for scars, and lavender oil for pretty much everything. It’s common to use a carrier oil, like sweet almond, jojoba or sesame (untoasted, please!) to spread the active ingredient farther, reduce waste, and create a mixture that is less likely to cause irritation.
Essential oils are an effective way of limiting exposure to toxic chemicals, but some argue that they can be dangerous too. Sourcing is extremely important, since most essential oils are not regulated by the FDA they can be labelled as pure or “therapeutic grade,” and still contain other substances in the bottle. It’s important to choose a recommended brand or one you trust, rather than getting the cheapest bottle on Amazon - it doesn’t end well. Not only will it be ineffective for its intended use, it could be contaminated with unhealthy components. Gross.
As we mentioned above, it’s important to dilute some EOs with a carrier oil to tone down their sometimes intense effect on the skin. While chamomile, lavender and frankincense are generally acceptable for applying neat (read: pure) to the skin, the vast majority of EOs should be diluted for topical use. This applies (pardon the pun) particularly to citrus oils, which not only can burn like anything but also are phototoxic - that means that they make your skin more sensitive to the sun, so you burn more easily. Using an organic, vegetable-based oil or fat slows down EO absorption by the skin, making its effect gentler on the system and longer lasting.
With this in mind, everyone is different. Pregnant women, little kids and older people are more susceptible to adverse effects of essential oil use, so you’ll have to exert additional caution in these cases. And not everyone can read an article and go safely on to put neat tea tree oil on a pimple - while some sources say it’s safe, one individual may experience rough, cracked skin where she innocently put it on her face. That’s why the patch test is important - use just a drop, diluted in carrier oil, on a small section of skin and wait 24 hours. If the skin doesn’t become inflamed, itchy or otherwise sensitized, you can try either a higher percentage of the essential oil or use it safely at that dilution. If you do experience a reaction, don’t wash with water - that doesn’t help and can make matters worse. Instead, use more carrier oil, which should cut the effect as its absorbed.
Sensitivity is more likely to occur with those special groups I listed above, meaning a patch test is crucial, but there are other factors to consider. Never take EOs internally when you’re pregnant or lactating, or have a baby ingest them. With pregnancy, lactation and little kids err on the side of caution, do your own research and don’t be shy about talking with your physician or obstetrician about any essential oil you plan on using. We aren’t medical experts here, but we do want you to know about the tremendous benefits to be had and the hazardous substances to be avoided when you use essential oils responsibly.