Essential Oils 102: Basics & Use
In our first blog on essential oils, we highlighted the differences between essential oils and tinctures/extracts. We learned that tinctures and extracts are herbal remedies made for internal use, and the process of extraction is vastly different.
Essential oils have become quite trendy in the U.S. With hardly any published research and studies on the subject, many who are interested in learning more, do so through anecdotal stories. Essential Oils 102 seeks to give a background on basics.
Have essential oils been around or is this a new trend?
Essential oils have been used for centuries as a perfume. "Eau de Cologne, for example, which was created in the 18th century, contained the distilled essential oils of Orange, Lemon, Rosemary, Lavender and Bergamot," shares author Jennie Harding, in her book, The Essential Oils Handbook.
She goes on to say, "During World War I essential oils such as Rosemary and Tea Tree were used in hospitals as natural antiseptics and wound-healers." 1
When I was studying for my aromatherapy certification, my favorite story was about the discovery of the therapeutic nature of lavender.
“In 1910 French chemist and scholar René-Maurice Gattefossé discovered the virtues of the essential oil of lavender. Gattefossé badly burned his hand during an experiment in a perfumery plant and plunged his hand into the nearest tub of liquid, which just happened to be lavender essential oil. He was later amazed at how quickly his burn healed and with very little scarring. This started a fascination with essential oils and inspired him to experiment with them during the First World War on soldiers in the military hospitals.” 2
Is there a difference to how much of the plant is used in an essential oil vs. an extract?
Absolutely. Essential oils, unlike extracts/tinctures, use massive amounts of plants to produce small quantities of oil. Harriet Flannery Phillips shares in her article, Guide to Making Essential Oils, that "Distilling 2500 pounds of flowers produces about a pound of rose oil." 3
When we think about using essential oils, it is essential we put the volume of plant used into that context.
2,500 lbs of roses = 1 lb of rose essential oil
1 lb essential oil = 32 bottles of essential oils (0.5 oz of essential oil per bottle)
1 bottle of essential oil = approximately 78 lbs of roses
When you think about how little a rose weighs, you can start to imagine how many acres of roses were needed for each batch.
Does that make essential oils very potent?
Most definitely. Even though essential oils are natural, the sheer volume of plant needed to produce a bottle is so voluminous, we should treat it with care.
"Lavender essential oil, and any extracted essential oil is about 100 times more concentrated than it was in the plant," shares Harding. 4
How are essential oils used?
Essential oils have a variety of applications which include inhalation and topical application. The ways of using essential oils depend on what one is looking for and what their health care provider indicates might be right for them.
1. Topical application. When applying to the skin, the molecules of the essential oil pass through the skin and enter the bloodstream. Due to the potency of essential oils, it is generally recommend to dilute essential oils with a carrier oil (i.e. coconut oil, sweet almond oil, avocado, jojoba, olive, etc.) rather than using them neat (directly on skin). Certain essential oils, like tea tree, can burn the skin upon direct contact.
In another practical sense, using a carrier oil helps draw and hold as much of the essential oil as possible since only a small percentage will ultimately pass through the skin. The larger fat molecules in carrier oils ensure the essential oil is spread over the surface of the skin, not absorbed in high potency in one spot.
Additionally, the note of the oil, will determine how quickly it evaporates. Carrier oils can help hold those essential oils longer and increase the area of absorption. Essential oils that are considered a top note, like Bergamot and Grapefruit, evaporate quickly.
2. Inhalation. Some enjoy the scent of essential oils, and believe that that certain scents may have supportive therapeutic benefits. Forms of inhalation can be anything from occasional inhalation from a bottle of essential oil to applying a few drops to a room diffuser.
"During inhalation, the volatile molecules of essential oils become a vapor and pass rapidly from the cilia lining in the nasal passage to the olfactory nerve, where they are transported to the olfactory bulb and into the brain." 5
3. Other uses. Essential oils have been used as additions to baths, a few drops added to the washing machine to add a wonderful fragrant smell to clothing, and those oils with antibacterial properties, such as tea tree oil, added to household cleaning supplies. As we read above, certain carefully diluted essential oils have been used as antiseptics. Plus, many DIY body care product recipes list essential oils as a common ingredient.
I've heard a lot of about taking essential oils internally. You don't list that as a use?
Internal use of essential oils is a touchy subject. You will find certain companies and practitioners tout taking essential oils internally just as quickly as you will find those who tell you to avoid them. Let's step back and pose some thoughts and questions.
1. Herbal extracts and tinctures use less than a handful of plant to create an internal use remedy. A bottle of essential oils uses pounds of a plant. If you were to add lemon balm to your salad (where you would naturally eat essential oils), would you eat a half handful a day for 365 days or would you consume approximately an acre of lemon balm in one year?
2. Herbal extracts and tinctures pull the therapeutic properties from the plant using a liquid, over the course of several weeks. The plant is then discarded, leaving a digestible, liquid recognized as a form of "food" to the body. Essential oils are, on the other hand, an oil. Essential oils distillation process pull out the oil from a plant until the oil sits on top of water and then skimmed off. Oil and water do not mix.
"About 70 percent of the human body is made up of water." 6
3. Drinking essential oils (drops in water) has been known to cause esophageal irritation. How can you bypass this? Author Harding shares, "They (essential oils) are concentrated and highly potent substances, and in large amounts they can attack the delicate linings of the mouth and digestive tract. In sufficiently large doses, swallowing essential oil may cause a poisoning reaction in the body."
If these thoughts pose additional questions, that's a good thing.
"Essential oils are highly potent chemical compounds. Because they are so potent, they can be harmful and sometimes even fatal if used incorrectly. That’s why it’s so important to learn how to use them properly and with the proper precautions. You should never assume that any particular essential oil has the exact same medicinal properties as it’s original plant form. Because essential oils are so concentrated, they can work very differently," says Vanessa Pruitt, in her article, How to Use Essential Oils Safely. 7
Some essential oils should not be used with certain medical conditions, applied to sensitive skin, or applied before going out into the sun. Get to know your oils and be sure to consult your health care professional.
Interested in learning more about Essential Oils? Check out our Essential Oils 101 blog where we talk about the difference between essential oils and tinctures/extracts.
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products and statements are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.
1,4 Harding, Jennie. The Essential Oils Handbook: All the Oils You Will Ever Need for Health, Vitality, and Well-being. London: Watkins Pub., 2010. Print.
2. "Gattefossé's Burn." Robert Tisserand. Robert Tisserand, n.d. Web. 14 June 2017.
3. Publications, Inc. Ogden. "Guide to Making Essential Oils - Health and Wellness." Mother Earth Living. Ogden Publications, Inc., 01 Dec. 1992. Web. 14 June 2017.
5. Enteen, RA, BA, LMBT, Shellie. "Topical Application of Essential Oils." Massage Today. Massage Today, Nov. 2007. Web. 14 June 2017.
6. Dunbar, Brian. "Follow the Water:Finding a Perfect Match for Life." NASA. NASA, 16 Apr. 2007. Web. 14 June 2017.
7. Pruitt, Vanessa. "How to Use Essential Oils Safely." Natural Family Today. Natural Family Today, 28 Dec. 2016. Web. 14 June 2017.