What are essential oils and are they safe?

The Thymekeeper

What are essential oils and are they safe?

by Mari Marques

Essential oils are highly concentrated and extremely potent substances containing the aromatic compounds from plants. There is really nothing essential about them and they aren’t necessarily oily in the fatty sense of the word. They are extracted from different parts of plants and have been used extensively by the food, beverage, and cosmetics industries to name a few. Essential oils are nothing new and not just a passing fad.

Historically, essential oils were used by royalty to enhance their chances in love. It is reported that Cleopatra kept vast gardens to ensure a good supply. In the 16th century, Elizabeth I used copious amounts of lavender oil as did Queen Victoria in the 19th century; most likely to keep the bugs at bay although lavender is quite calming and I would imagine the queen of a nation would probably appreciate that aspect. (Worwood, 1995)

Not only have essential oils been used to flavor food and make people smell good, because they’re derived from plants, they are good herbal remedies. As remedies, essential oils appeared in the very first pharmacopoeias. Yes, they are safe if they are used properly. As with any herbal therapy, if used improperly, essential oils can be dangerous, and not to sensationalize, but can even result in death. Some even range from “potentially toxic” to “highly toxic”. Can they react with or change the way pharmaceutical medications behave? You bet they can (more on safety guidelines later).

The act of using essential oils therapeutically is called aromatherapy. As the name implies, it has a lot to do with the olfactory system. EO’s are volatile, meaning they disperse into the air. Once these aromatic molecules reach the nerve rich sensors in your nose, it sets off a reaction resulting in brain activity. These molecules also reach the trachea and lungs when we inhale them but olfaction also involves other body systems as well. There are two basic ways in which essential oils have an effect on the body; through the nose and through the skin. EO’s are thought to enter the body through the skin because their molecules are extremely small. This is called percutaneous absorption. The beauty of percutaneous absorption is that the oil can be applied to the part of the body where it is required or as near to it as possible. Many essential oils will burn your skin or cause adverse reactions if applied directly and not diluted with a carrier oil. When someone suggests applying essential oils “neat”, meaning undiluted, the potential for problems can occur.

Dilution Guidelines

1% dilution=5-6 drops of essential oil to 1 fluid ounce carrier oil

2% dilution=10-12 drops of essential oil to 1 fluid ounce carrier oil

3% dilution=10-12 drops of essential oil to 1 fluid ounce carrier oil

*source: Rebecca’S Herbal Apothecary & Supply

Carrier oil refers to any organic oil such as olive oil, grapeseed, or sweet almond oil to name three. There are actually many more to choose from all having different viscosity.

Misleading terms cause confusion

In my experience using essential oils, as well as many of my colleagues such as massage therapists, herbalists and other natural practitioners who are already trained in some aspect of health care have incorporated EO’s into our practices as a method of healing. Essential oils are very versatile and can be used in many different settings and in some cases such as hospice, aromatherapy is the most requested service offered. However, the term “aromatherapy” also refers to the use of beauty and body care treatments. From a legal standpoint there is no difference between a pure essential oil and a chemical copy. Currently this industry is not regulated by the FDA and there is no one to determine what oils are “therapeutic” grade and which aren’t. In fact, therapeutic grade is a term coined by one of the Multi- Level Marketing (MLM) essential oil companies and therefore cannot legally be used by anyone else. Basically adding just one more layer of confusion to which oils are best used medicinally. All reputable essential oil companies will clearly state their oils are pure and uncut and be able to provide you with MSDS data upon request. My choice for essential oils is The Lebermuth Company who has been a leading innovator in the industry since 1908 and does provide MSDS sheets with each order.

In addition, some unscrupulous commercial companies have taken advantage of the lack of regulation and have used the word “aromatherapy” to sell their products when there is nothing pure about them. In that same vein, the word “aromatherapist” can be very misleading. It can refer to someone that has committed themselves to a two to four-year comprehensive training program, or to someone that has attended an introductory course, or to those who received training from a multi-level marking (MLM) company’s DVD. A “certificate” or “diploma” from any one of these sources is not a national certification or a license to practice and does not qualify a person to advise on health issues. Although, I would trust the advice of the individual that went through a complete comprehensive training program over the latter. People that take it upon themselves to give advice after receiving minimal training could be far more dangerous than helpful especially when it comes to essential oils. If the first you’ve heard of essential oils is coming from someone trying to sell them to you, it would be in your best interest to educate yourself further before using them, especially on anyone other than yourself.

In the case of essential oils, more is not better

Now that you know essential oils can burn the skin, one common mistake I find that occurs far too frequently is using too much in the bath. Most people think because the bathtub is rather large, more is better. It is not. You can get a full body burn from overuse in the tub and you won’t even realize it until you’re out of the water and burning from head to toe.

Another huge consideration is this; you are skin on the inside too and being that the inside skin is protected solely by mucous membrane; it is much more delicate than the skin on the outside. I cringe at the very suggestion that essential oils are safe to ingest. I once attended a talk given by a MLM company’s sales rep and inquired as to what dosage should be taken since they recommend ingesting the “Thieves” blend. When she recommended starting with 6-8 drops I nearly fell off my chair. Big red flag! Where there is money to be made, the best decisions aren’t always at the forefront.

Let’s give this a second or third thought mixed in with a little common sense. When you put a drop of essential oil into a capsule and swallow it you are bypassing a huge amount of pain receptors. If your mouth had any idea of your intention it would protest violently. If you don’t believe it, put a drop of oregano essential oil in your mouth. If the resulting tears aren’t enough to convince you, consider this; in many cases your liver is responsible for metabolizing oil. If you were ingesting ANY amount of essential oil on a daily basis over a period of time, what’s known as a cumulative effect could occur and eventually cause your liver to mysteriously fall into failure. You have to take into consideration what could be going on inside when ingesting EO’s and historically this has never been a method of administration by herbalists.

In fact, it was NEVER suggested to be taken internally in our training from herb school. Advice from world renowned aromatherapy experts, Kathy Keville and Mindy Green, “Don’t take essential oils orally for therapeutic purposes. Safe ingestion of oils requires a great deal of training and is therefore not recommended for beginners. The exception is when we suggest using essential oils to flavor foods. The dosages per serving in these recipes are minimal and harmless.”

The Alliance of International Aromatherapists also makes a statement on the internal use of essential oils: “AIA does not endorse internal therapeutic use (oral, vaginal or rectal) of essential oils unless recommended by a healthcare practitioner trained at an appropriate clinical level. An appropriate level of training must include chemistry, anatomy, diagnostics, physiology, formulation guidelines and safety issues regarding each specific internal route.”

If you are ever advised to take essential oils orally, do yourself a favor and ask how they are qualified to advise on your health issues; your continued health could depend on it.

For more on essential oil safety guidelines see:


I find that applying essential oils to the bottom of the feet just as effective as taking them by mouth and much safer, so why risk it? If you cut a clove of garlic in half and apply it to the bottom of the foot, within a matter of seconds you will taste garlic in your mouth demonstrating how quickly the bottom of the foot method works. This is also a tried and true folk method for colds and flu. Another useful resource for essential oil safety can be found here:


Some basic cautionary guidelines

Once you’ve received proper education regarding the use of essential oils and are feeling confident in using them, it’s always best to take care when using them on children (especially infants), animals, and the elderly. Other cautionary steps should be taken when using them on people that take pharmaceutical medications, people in frail health and in pregnancy and nursing mothers. Always keep essential oils out of the reach of children and animals. If accidental ingestion does occur, contact your poison control center immediately.

Breaking news

In yet another case of improper or inadequate training using essential oils, companies and the individuals who work for them cannot claim to “treat or cure” a disease without FDA approval which is an extensive and lengthy process. Terminology is key and can land you in some pretty hot water when it comes to making health claims regarding natural products. In the latest news:

“The FDA issued warning letters this week [Feb 19th 2016] to the two largest MLM distributors of essentials oils in the United Sates claiming that their products are being marketed as unapproved drugs. The companies have to remove all health claims and take corrective actions, or face very serious legal action, which can include armed federal marshals coming to their warehouses and seizing all of their inventory.”

See more at: http://healthimpactnews.com/2014/fda-targets-essentials-oils-see-eos-as-threat-to-new-ebola-drugs/#sthash.qjgdmokB.dpuf”

As mentioned earlier, the essential oil industry is not currently regulated by any governing body. That could easily change causing a great deal of meddlesome issues and red tape for legitimate qualified practitioners and natural product makers; but could mark the end an of a dangerous trend of misuse and misinformation regarding the use of essential oils.

Three reputable sources for essential oil research, safety, and education

Alliance of International Aromatherapists

Aromatherapy Registration Council

International Federation of Aromatherapists

Mari Marques is a Certified Herbalist and owner of The Thymekeeper. For questions or more information contact: Mari at mugsyspad@aol.com or 719-748-3388 or 719-439-7303. Mari is available for private consultation or private classes.





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