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Essential Oils: What They Are, and How to Use Them Safely

People have been using aromatics from plants for many thousands of years. In ancient Egypt, China, India and even into prehistoric times, plant scents and resins have been used for healing, magic, and beautification. However, the first known steam distillation of essential oils was in ancient Persia, where Ali-Ibn Sana (980-1037 AD) wrote books about their use and perfected the steam distillation method of extraction. Earlier uses of aromatics generally involved infused oils, that is, the plant material is placed in an oil base which absorbs the scent and qualities of the plant. But steam distillation is a superior method for receiving the full benefit of these essences from the plant. Some essential oils are also “expressed” – derived by pressing the plant material to squeeze out the oils. Citrus oils in particular are created this way.

In the early 20th century, Rene-Maurice Gattefosse coined the term “aromatherapy”. He was a chemist who burned his hand badly in the lab and unthinkingly plunged it into a vat of lavender oil. His burn healed quickly with no scarring or blistering. The medical use of essential oils in France became standard practice. Pathogens would be isolated on a petri dish and a drop of essential oil added. In this way it was learned which oils worked best to kill which pathogens. The French method is to give essential oils internally, in capsules, but this is dangerous and can be harsh on the stomach. Because essential oils have been discovered to penetrate the skin and interact with internal organs that way, internal ingestion is not necessary, and not recommended (unless under medical supervision.)

Essential oils are not really oils, but they are lipophilic, that is, able to be dissolved in an oil base. They cannot be dissolved in water, and this is why they are called oils, but that is really a misnomer. What they are is the distilled essence of plant material and they carry a vast amount of wisdom from the plant kingdom, in an architecture of natural chemical structure that can truly have powerful effects on the human system, when used correctly.

Many Essential Oils are Diluted or Use Synthetic Fragrances

Essential oils have recently become very popular due to the natural health movement, and the market for them has exploded. These substances are not regulated in any way by any government or agency oversight, so a buyer and user of essential oils has to be savvy and learn how to find quality products. 

Many companies do not tell the truth about their oils, which can be diluted with cheaper oils or even with synthetic fragrance substances. Generally it’s a good idea to find oils that have been tested using the gas chromatography and mass spectrometry methods. These tests can show the full chemical composition of the oils, whether or not they have been adulterated with other substances, and even tell something about quality.

Therapeutic grade oils – though many labels may claim that standard – are hard to find, and expensive. For example, the very popular lavender oil, one of the very few it is safe to use directly on the skin with no dilution in a carrier oil (a vegetable oil used to dilute the E.O.) is usually distilled fairly quickly in order to generate a high volume of product, even though the final, small amount of distillate that “comes over” toward the very end of a longer process is the most potent in terms of the oil’s healing powers. Steam distillation is something of an art, and because it uses heat, plant material can be burnt if the process is heated too much in order to speed it up. All these things the wise consumer needs to be wary of!

Because most essential oils are still used in cosmetics, cleaning products, and other such applications, there are large clearing houses for wholesale oils which are geared to the production of cosmetics, cleaning products or the like, and not to healing. 

There is a common practice called “preparing the sauce” in which the plant oils are mixed and blended, often with artificial scents, in order to be more attractive on the market. Chemistry has created what have been called “bio-identical” scents, and so no matter how well trained your nose is, you can still be fooled. Artificial doesn’t always smell artificial.

Why Good Quality Essential Oils Are Expensive

 Aside from the reasons above, it is also often the case that huge amounts of plant material must be used to produce a tiny quantity of essential oil. Rose Otto is one example, as it takes literally tons of rose petals to produce a milliliter of oil. Melissa is another expensive one, which comes from the humble lemon balm herb, a marvelous healing plant, but the oil requires many tons of leaves in order to produce drops of the oil. Citrus oils, generally produced by a pressing method, are usually the least pricey. Some oils are extracted using solvents, for example, Rose Absolute. This is a cheaper method, though the absolute is still quite pricey and the use of solvents means the quality of the oil is different than if it were steam distilled.

Another concern with the popularity of essential oils is the market pressure on natural plant communities, such as Sandalwood trees, which can become severely diminished by overharvesting. Sustainable harvesting or organic production are important factors in finding good quality oils that are responsibly produced or wildcrafted.

Some oils are not safe for use during pregnancy. As well, though essential oils can be used for children, care must be taken as some oils can be too strong for the very young. And oils that are not “clean” may stimulate allergic reactions, or not work well with any prescribed pharmaceuticals being used. Certain oils can cause photosensitivity, for example, bergamot oil, a lovely oil that is uplifting to the spirit and anti-infectious, is recommended not to be applied to the skin before going out in the sun. 

Genuine essential oils are wonderful and powerful healing substances that can positively affect our emotions, our mental states, and our physical health. Essential oils can be used very effectively to combat ills of the body. Learning how to use them safely and beneficially involves using them with respect for their power, and some understanding of what they can and cannot do.

How to Store and Safely Use Essential Oils

Essential oils are volatile and deteriorate rapidly in exposure to heat, light, and moisture. How long they will last varies as they all have different chemical compositions. Most, if stored carefully, will last two or three years. It is recommended to replace them every three years. Keep your oils tightly capped and store in a cool dark place. Refrigeration is generally not recommended due to the potential for moisture accumulation.

Some oils are not safe for pregnant and lactating women. Citronella is one such oil as it can affect certain hormone secretions. Check with your supplier for this information! If you plan to use oils for children or small animals, be aware that smaller amounts should be used. As well, some oils are too strong for young children and some are poisonous for animals. Again, check with your supplier. 

It’s a really good practice to spot test oils before use to make sure there will be no allergic reaction, especially if you tend to be sensitive to potent substances. A drop of the blend (oil or oils in carrier) applied to the inner elbow is a good method.

Always dilute essential oils in a carrier, usually a vegetable oil such as avocado oil or almond oil. Using E.O.’s “neat” – undiluted – can be harmful and cause burns. One exception is lavender oil which can be applied directly (in tiny amounts!) to small cuts or burns, to speed healing.

Essential oils can be placed in the bath – 5 to 10 drops –  or used in a foot bath. 

A drop or two of an oil can be placed on a cotton ball or handkerchief, and the scent used directly this way. 

To relieve sinus, nasal, and lung congestion, oils can be used in a steam inhalation, a few drops in a bowl of just boiled water. To benefit facial skin, the same practice can be used, simply allowing the steam to bathe the face. Use different oils for these two purposes.

Oils can be blended with rubbing alcohol, witch hazel and/or water, and dispensed in a spray bottle, as for an air freshener, or an insect repellant. Always shake it up before use, as the oils will be suspended in the liquid and not dissolved throughout.

Take care not to get essential oils in your eyes or on mucus membranes as they can burn.

Some Essential Oils Offered by Pure Living

Lavender 40/42: The numbers refer to the amounts of linalool and linalyl acetate, as this is a blend of several lavenders to standardize the scent. Lavender can be added to the bath, used to assist skin healing of cuts or burns, and is a good calming influence for insomnia or anxiety. 

Lavender is cytophylactic, that is, it supports new cell growth in skin. This is why it is excellent as a first aid tool for small cuts and burns. Can be used this way neat, or in a carrier such as witch hazel. Ten drops in an ounce of carrier, dab on affected area. 

Lavender is anti-infectious, as well as calming. Place several drops in the bathwater, or a couple of drops on the floor of the shower to inhale the scent. To aid sleep, put a drop or two on a tissue or cotton ball and place it on your pillow. Lavender added to other blends also supports the effectiveness of other essential oils. 

More about Lavender oil here (Although this article gives a warning about use of lavender oil during pregnancy, I have found no other such warning in any other source. )

Tea Tree: Anti-infectious, anti-fungal, anti-bacterial – a great hand sanitizer! But can dry the skin so a blend with lavender, in a carrier, is best. Also helps with colds or respiratory infections – inhale the scent by placing a few drops in a bowl of  just boiled water. Sit in front of the bowl with a towel over your head to create an inhaler. This can help clear the sinuses and destroy pathogens in the respiratory system. Add to a first aid blend for small cuts and abrasions, but be sure to dilute it and use very little as it can burn the skin.

More about Tea Tree oil here

Eucalyptus globulus: This is one that is considered too strong to use with children under 10. May be too strong for people with asthma and could cause a negative respiratory effect. (To test this, put a drop on a cotton ball and wave it in front of you away from your face. Some asthma sufferers are fine using it.) It is an excellent anti-infectious oil, especially cleansing for upper respiratory issues. It is another oil that can be very effective in a steam inhalation. Blend with Tea Tree and Lavender for this purpose, or use alone. Two drops on the floor of your shower and breathing in the scent can open up the breathing. It’s also a great immune system support. Eucalyptus globulus is enlivening and stimulating. It can relieve inflammation and pain in joints and muscles when blended in a massage oil or sports rub. It is also an excellent insect repellant. Blend with lavender and Cedarwood oil in witch hazel or alcohol to make a bug spray. 

More about Eucalyptus here

Citronella: A great air freshener and insect repellant. Slows the growth and spread of harmful airborne bacteria, repels flying insects (such as mosquitoes) uplifts negative moods and may reduce muscle spasms, ease headaches, and boost energy.  To make an insect repellant for use on the skin, place witch hazel in a four ounce spray bottle, leaving a little room at  the top for essential oils. Add 30 drops of Citronella oil, and ten drops each of lavender and peppermint. Can use alcohol in place of witch hazel if desired. To help repel insects in the house, use citronella in a diffuser or try placing a few drops on a hot light bulb. (Citronella should not be used by pregnant or nursing women without medical supervision.) 

More about Citronella here

Cedarwood: Pesticide against moths. Can help with pain or stress relief. Anti-bacterial. Calming and soothing, and helps deodorize the indoor environment and prevent mildew. It is anti-infectious, anti-inflammatory, and anti-infectious. Can help regulate menstruation. Excellent as a wound-healer and works well with lavender for this purpose. To make a first-aid blend, use 10 drops of cedarwood, 15 of lavender, in four ounces of witch hazel. Add to your insect repellent blend along with Eucalyptus and Citronella. 

More about Cedarwood here

Peppermint: Can relieve headaches, muscle aches, joint pain, itching. Helps to treat coughs and colds and relieve stress. A few drops in a bath or foot bath can provide these benefits. Can also be added to a steam inhalation for respiratory support. Cooling and calming, it is also anti-fungal and antimicrobial. Effective as a deterrent for household insects. More about 

Peppermint Essential Oil here


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