The Eco Well's Guide to Essential Oils

Essential oils are such a fascinating topic, it's no wonder why they've been the center of such hype recently. While they've been used throughout history for their therapeutic effects, there has been a huge surge of exciting research over the last few decades that confirms some of their traditional uses. Across the board, essential oils are quite anti-bacterial, making them excellent potential future options for antibiotic alternatives (a very important area of research today), but that’s only half of it. For example, growing research has demonstrated certain essential oils can help ease anxiety and improve sleep (e.g. lavender), can help manage pain (e.g. bergamot), can improve wound healing (e.g. lavender, thyme), can prevent infection (e.g. tea tree) and so much more. In addition to diffusing essential oils to improve your mood, they can be used in many skin care and wound care scenarios… such a great alternative to classic polysporin, to antibacterial laden cleansers or lotions, or even shampoos for dandruff. With a little know-how, you can really start to personalize your skincare recipes to your skin type.

How do you use Essential Oils?

Aside from diffusing them, essential oils can be excellent for your skincare routine, just as long as they’re used properly. Rule number 1, dilution is key. Since essential oils are so concentrated, putting them directly on your skin is generally a big no-no. While, depending on the chemical structure of the oils, some will be better tolerated (e.g. lavender) directly on your skin (i.e. neat application), long term application like this tends to result in a sensitization to the given essential oil that can often lead to a condition called atopic dermatitis. Essentially, you’ll be so sensitive to the oil you’ve been using that you’ll have reactions to it every time you use it from thereon in similar to an allergic reaction. How unfortunate would that be? You have a favorite oil that your skin responds really well to but all the sudden it’s inaccessible to you just because you were using it improperly.

Essential oils are fat soluble. As a result, they should be diluted with an oil (like dissolves like), that’s where your carrier oils come in. Mixing your essential oils with water will not really dilute your oils, instead they’ll stay concentrated on the top of the water, unmixed (think about olive oil mixing with water). For example, if you’ve been taking baths and dropping a few drops of essential oil in your tub, try mixing the essential oil with an oil before you pour it into the tub. This basic fact about the chemistry of essential oils is one of the reasons why I don’t like the idea of putting essential oils in your drinking water… think of what happens to just your esophagus when the waters on its way down. Just so you know, I don’t like the idea of internal consumption overall without guidance of a medical practitioner who's very knowledgeable about essential oils (note, essential oil sales reps aren’t usually aromatherapists). Essential oils are very potent and are also very antibacterial… with your esophagus and stomach aside, long term internal use of essential oils (especially at high dosages) may be pretty bad for your gut microflora (just like antibiotics), which has huge implications to your general health.

So back to dilution, the usual rule of thumb is 0.5% for children, 1% for older children and sensitive adults (It’s a good idea to always start your recipe at 1% to ensure you're not sensitive to the oil), 2% and 3% (generally for acute conditions like spot treatment for acne). Note, figuring out what works for you takes a bit of experimentation. Another note, I would avoid using essential oils on babies (& pregnancy) across the board unless you have guidance from a knowledgeable health practitioner who’s familiar with essential oils for children (e.g. certain essential oils may be dangerous to use on babies). Final note, the chemical composition of the essential oil determines how "harsh" it may be (not necessarily bad though, you just have to use the essential oil cautiously). For example phenolic essential oils like clove bud, oregano or thyme, while potentially very therapeutic, are likely to cause a skin reaction if not diluted adequately (good to start with 0.5-1% for these oils). Other oils, like those from the citrus family (except for sweet orange) will cause phototoxicity if used in higher amounts before sun exposure (best to avoid these oils on your skin before going out in the sun).

.5-1% dilution = 3-6 drops of essential oil per ounce of carrier

2% dilution = 10-12 drops of essential oil per ounce of carrier

3% dilution = 20 drops of essential oil per ounce of carrier

 

Okay, so I know how to use them... but what the heck is an essential oil in the first place?

Detail of lower leaf surface of English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia Mill., Lamiaceae), showing a sessile secretory gland surrounded by non-secretory trichomes, which help to trap a layer of air around the leaf to reduce transpiration, or water loss (SEM, CPD magnified 931 times actual size).

Photo © Microscopix photolibrary

from the book "Secretory Structures Of Aromatic And Medicinal Plants: A Review And Atlas Of Micrographs" by Katerina Svoboda and Tomas Svoboda, micrographs by Andrew Syred.

Think about the minty aroma of a mint bush, the flora aroma of fresh lavender or the sweet citrusy scent of a clementine. Essential oils are the aromatic elements of these fragrant plants. Imagine you have a mint leaf in your hand and you squash it up. You’ll notice some oil released from the plant and you’ll smell a burst of the mint… that’s the essential oil! If you were to look at them with a strong microscope, you would see that these aromatic plants have juicy fat sacs (literally, check out the picture on the right) (or secretory ducts) present throughout the plant… again, that’s the essential oil! In addition to giving certain plants their distinctive smells, essential oils often serve to protect the plants, communicate with other other plants and to attract pollinators. For us, essential oils have a long history of being used for skincare, health care and food preparation.

 

Note, Essential Oils are only present in a small fraction of the plant kingdom. For example of the more than 250,000 plants out there, only about 450 species produce usable essential oils… of those, only about 125-150 can be used in aromatherapy. Just so you know, this is a big difference between “herbalism” and “aromatherapy”.

 

How are Essential Oils produced?

The process of making essential oils involves either steam distillation or cold pressing plant material to extract their essential oils. During, for example, steam distillation, steam slowly breaks through the plant material to remove its volatile components, which rise upwards through a connecting pipe, bringing them into a condenser. The condenser cools the vapor back into a liquid, which is collected. Since water and essential oils don’t mix, the essential oil will be found on top of the water (hydrosol, still very useful in skincare), where it can be siphoned off.

From www.anandaapothecary.com

It often takes hundreds of pounds of a given plant material to extract a pound of its essential oil. For example, it can take around 50-60 lbs of Eucalyptus, 200-250 lbs of Lavender and all the way up to about 10,000 lbs of Rose Blossoms, to make a single pound of their essential oils. First off, essential oils are extremely concentrated stuff and should be used with respect. Also, essential oils aren’t always the more eco-friendly pick, especially with the plants that require the thousands of pounds of plant material or those that are grown in marginal habitats (e.g. the rainforest) or with slower regrowth. I think it’s important to purchase only oils that are sustainable (and better yet, from essential oils businesses that have the same approach). Cropwatch is an organization that monitors crop sustainability throughout the world. They have a relatively recent report on endangered crops that are currently used in essential oils. I think the report is important for anyone who uses essential oils frequently to look into. Of the more commonly used essential oils, rosewood, sandalwood, wormwood and many Frankincense varieties are quite unsustainable. 

 

Quality is important!

Unfortunately, because essential oils are so expensive to make, there is a big problem with adulteration in this industry (e.g. with fragrance or other oils). In addition, since essential oils are so concentrated, pesticide use on the crops can be pretty problematic. Ensuring your purchasing pure essential oil is important for both it’s therapeutic effect and how healthy it may be for you to use. Another layer of the picture, crops have different chemical compositions (i.e. chemotypes) depending on where they’re grown (e.g. in their natural environment or in a new environment). The chemical composition of the oils is what makes them so therapeutic. Ensuring the oil has the right composition is also important to making sure it’s going to act in the way we expect. Easier said than done.

The first thing that I would check into is, is the crop organic, wild crafted (picked in the wild) or un-certified organic but still grown in an organic method (my preference personally. Organic certifications are very expensive to small farmers. Purchasing these products supports the small local guys instead of the big conglomerates). Next, did the essential oil businesses who purchases the essential oil (note, most of these businesses, with a few exceptions, purchase from growers around the world. Typically, they all get their essential oils from the same places or at least region) do third party testing? This involves gas chromatography and mass spectroscopy, which is a way to make sure the oil hasn’t been adulterated as well as make sure it has the chemotype they’re after.  Also, make sure that the essential oil business actually has people who can properly interpret these results. Often, you can email the essential oil businesses to request this information.

There’s a lot of confusion around the different certifications businesses are claiming, for example certified therapeutic grade or food grade. Just so you know, there’s no regulating body with a standard for essential oils to adhere to with respect to the whole therapeutic grade business. Instead, that grade is a standard that the business created for themselves. I would personally take that certification with a grain of salt. As for the food grade thing, keep in mind, many essential oil businesses, especially in Canada, have a strong opposition to putting that on their products due to the potential danger of using essential oils internally. I have a lot of respect for businesses that aim to be evidence based and transparent… for my own personal use, I prefer working with these businesses.

A big consideration for me when I’m using essential oils is, are they sustainable? As mentioned above, there are many essential oils that are frequently used that are absolutely not. Looking into all of this when purchasing essential oils is a good idea if you want to be more eco-friendly. For me, if I see an essential oil business purchasing unsustainable crops, I don’t want to support them. Finally, if you're in Canada, we have some outstanding suppliers. This is part of the sustainable front, both economically and environmentally. Put money back into your own community by supporting local businesses. In Ontario, we have a great essential oil business called Alypsis Karooch (up in the Peterborough area) and out in BC, my absolutely favorite supplier, is Vitruvi (They have a very similar approach to sustainability, transparency and science that we do here at The Eco Well, I really admire this business).

Final Comments

While there's so much more to know about essential oils, I think the information presented above is a good starting point. If you're looking for a good resource on essential oils, I highly recommend looking into Robert Tisserand and perhaps purchasing his book on essential oil safety. He also runs a course on essential oils. I really like him because everything that he discusses is well supported by peer reviewed scientific journals. With that said, there's a lot of misinformation floating about with respect to essential oils... while google searches can be a decent starting point when your researching essential oils (and other topics), be very critical of the information you read. Do they include references to scientific journal articles? What is the level of evidence to support their claims? I highly recommend everyone give PubMed a shot, one of the best databases for scientific research related to health. Search the claim in PubMed (e.g. clove bud dentistry or tea tree acne) and see how much evidence is available. If there's a lot of studies, especially larger human studies, with replicated results (i.e. multiple studies showing the same results), then that's decent evidence that something works. You can find all of this information in the abstracts of the studies, not generally blocked by pay-walls (don't get me started on those :p). While this is a very basic approach to interpreting the levels of evidence, it's a good start! If you want to spend more time reading the whole journal articles, be critical of the methodology and the statistics used... I won't go into any more details, if you're interested in learning more about this, feel free to shoot us an email!

And that's a wrap! If you have any questions, queries, conundrums or concerns, leave them below in the comments, on The Eco Well's facebook page or shoot us an email!

References:

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