Using Essential Oils Safely
by Catherine Novak

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Been seeing a lot of recipes bandied about on the internet.
These recipes often require a lot of essential oils, much in
excess of what I've learned to be safe over the years. So, I
thought I'd share some information and one viewpoint on how
to incorporate essential oils and aromatherapy safely into our daily

The essential oils of herbs contain their concentrated energies.
An essential oil usually bears the aroma or flavor of a plant,
although the intensity of the scent may be overwhelming compared
to what you're used to the plant smelling like.

Just because essential oils are derived from plants does not mean
they are automatically safe to use. After handling essential oils,
it is "essential" to wash one's hands carefully with warm water
and soap. Avoid touching your eyes or putting your fingers in
your mouth. Many people use disposable surgical gloves to
protect their hands while working on projects that use

Unlike fixed oils, essential oils are volatile. This means they
evaporate rapidly at room temperature, whereas fixed oils, such as vegetable or
motor oils, are more stable. Chemically, essential oils consist of a
complex mixture of 30 to 100 or more compounds.

The oils themselves are found in various plant parts. Peppermint,
patchouli, basil and geranium oils are derived from their leaves and
stems. Clove oil comes from flower buds. Jasmine, rose and tuberose
oils are derived from the open flowers.  Essential oils are also derived
from the seeds, wood, bark, roots, needles and skins of various plants.

In addition to using essential oils through inhalation of their
scents--through tea-light diffusers, candles, or potpourri pots, electric diffusers, or
in baths, one can also apply diluted essential oils directly on the skin through
Because essential oils are so concentrated, it is usually best to dilute
(almost always) them with a  neutral carrier oil, such as sweet almond, jojoba,
coconut or olive, to avoid irritating the skin.

Even such oils as lavender, tea tree, sandalwood and rose should be
diluted before use on the skin because undiluted use may lead to sensitization
and the inability to get the healing benefits of those oils when they are
most needed.

Scientific research has shown that traces of essential oils placed
externally on the skin will be found in the kidneys one hour later. However, the
jury is out as to whether or not this occurs because the oils are absorbed
through the skin or inhaled and then enter the bloodstream. Nonetheless,
essential oils have proven to be effective healing agents used in  conjunction
with therapeutic massage.

Some people take oils internally, but, because of their strength,  need
to be very careful about limiting the intake to one or two drops carefully
diluted into honey or a neutral carrier oil suitable for ingestion, such
as olive oil. Most practitioners recommend using essential oils ONLY
EXTERNALLY as this is the safest and possibly most effective way
to use them. You also must be certain you're using very high-quality
oils, if you decide to use them internally. Some oils are considered toxic if
taken internally, EVEN in small quantities.

Most of us are already consuming essential oils internally as many
of them are used as food additives and flavoring ingredients--whether
in candies, cakes, toothpaste or mouthwash. Much of the research
conducted on the safe use of essential oils has come from scientific
studies to determine their toxicity levels when used in food, cosmetics and

Just as some herbs can cause irritation when touched, but can also
provide healthful ingredients for teas, salves and other uses, so too,
can some really useful essential oils irritate the skin if not first diluted
into a neutral carrier oil, such as olive oil, jojoba oil, fractionated
coconut, or others.

Tea Tree (Melaleuca alternifolia) is a widely promoted and popular
essential oil.
Its medicinal, antiseptic scent and antiseptic properties make it a
wonderful household cleaning ally. However, the myth and lore accompanying this
useful oil would not only have you believing it can cure cancer, but that you
are perfectly safe using it undiluted. Contrary to the mythology, you must dilute tea
tree essential oil before using it. In fact, there's been at least one
scientific study that has indicated tea tree is very effectively used in a mere one percent

Martin Watt has written extensively on the safety considerations of
using essential oils.

Mr. Watt says,
"Adverse reactions
The 3 main kinds of adverse reactions that can occur with essential
oils applied to the skin are:

1.Irritation. This is a process where some substance comes into
contact with the skin, and causes anything from a mild itch to burns.
The important thing though it that once the substance is removed and
healing takes place, there should be no more problems.

2.Sensitisation. This is a much more serious situation than irritation.
Once the substance has been introduced to the skin, it can cause
permanent changes in the immune system in a similar manner to a
vaccination. On first use no adverse effects may be seen. However
the body has been sensitized, and next time the same or a similar
substance is used, a reaction may occur. The severity can again be just
a mild itch, through to the extreme of severe anaphylactic shock. However,
the later in aromatherapy is almost unknown. Sensitization in
aromatherapy is something to be on constant alert for. If after using
any essential oil or absolute, an irritating or burning sensation, or
a blotchy irritable skin rash are noticed, then that particular oil or
chemically similar ones should not be used again. This type of reaction
is far more likely to occur with therapists rather than their clients.

3.Photosensitisation (sometimes referred to as photo toxicity).
This is where a substance coming into contact with the skin can
react with ultra violet light. This reaction can cause anything from
mild brown blotches through to severe burning of the skin. The condition can be
very long lasting and any time the skin is exposed to ultra violet light
the condition can recur. It is vital to remember that it is ultra violet
light which causes the problem and this can occur even on relatively dull days.
Therefore it is not as many aromatherapy authors say caused only by
bright sunlight. The main essential oil to avoid in this respect is
expressed bergamot. The grade known as FCF is perfectly safe.

For more of what Martin Watt has to say (and the source of the comments above).

Okay, now that you never want to go near essential oils again

Actually, as Sylla Sheppard-Hanger says in her well-regarded
"The Aromatherapy Practitioner Reference Manual,"
"The vast majority of essential oils have low toxicity when
compared to other potent, readily available medicines such
as aspirin. In most cases, an adult would have to drink
a large amount (cupful) of essential oil for death to
occur and the over-the-counter medications are far
more toxic and damaging to the body on a weight-for-weight
basis, than most essential oils."

The reason I'm presenting all these cautions is, too many
people consider more is less with essential oils. Not only is
that costly, but also it is foolish, with respect to safe use.

Some Basic Safety Tips

--Always keep out of reach of children.
--Avoid using directly or near the eyes or mucous membranes. Use whole
milk or vegetable oil to help flush out any e.o. that might have splashed into
the eye. Remember, essential oils are NOT soluble in water, so water is not the best medium
for removing them. If problems persist, seek medical assistance as soon as

© 2000 Catherine Novak, Wise Weeds

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