Note: This post has been edited, and was originally titled “Aromatherapy Defined & Practice Guidelines”. As my studies and experience with Aromatherapy have advanced, so have my opinions. This article has been edited to reflect that, and while I have deleted a few things, I have added plenty of new information. I hope it serves. (The original post was published on September 24, 2018 and was updated on August 1, 2019.)
Over the past few years, essential oils have been brought to the forefront of the wellness industry, becoming a hot topic and an even hotter commodity. Everybody seems to have something to say about essential oils, and this has led to an avalanche of information being made available to the general public.
In spite of this spike in popularity, however, it seems like most people don’t seem to know what Aromatherapy actually is! This is likely because many of the newer articles being written are not by Aromatherapists or Herbalists; nowadays, anybody who uses essential oils in any capacity can call themselves an “expert”, “practitioner”, “consultant”, “coach”, or “advocate”, leading to a huge discrepancy in the quality of information being made available to consumers.
Perhaps the biggest misconception about Aromatherapy is that it is the practice of inhaling essential oils, ONLY; that Aromatherapy is restricted to the olfactory domain, and is limited to direct inhalation (either from the bottle or an Aromatherapy inhaler) or diffusion (typically from an electronic diffuser, but can also include heat diffusion or reed diffusers).
This is only partially true, as Aromatherapy is so much more than that! Indeed, the word “aroma” would lead one to believe that this is the primary function of the practice, and while inhalation is one of the main (and arguably most effective) method of absorbing essential oils, it certainly isn’t the only way.
Fun fact: the term “aromatherapy” was coined by the French chemist René-Maurice Gattefossé, in an article in 1928. You can read more about the history of aromatherapy here: https://www.aromaweb.com/articles/history.asp
Aromatherapy as a Professional Practice
Aromatherapy is the practice of using essential oils for therapeutic purposes, and includes all routes of absorption: olfactory (via inhalation), integumentary (topical application on the skin), and yes, even internal (orally, rectally, or vaginally, in extremely rare instances, if at all). Aromatherapy, especially Clinical Aromatherapy, is the science and art of medicine-making using essential oils.
Aromatherapy is a complex, and ever-evolving body of work, and you could spend an entire lifetime studying it and never be done – mostly because more and more research is being done in the field of Aromatherapy!
While this is good news, unfortunately, much of the new research that’s being done on essential oils is not done with the intention of finding the most effective and therapeutic way to work with essential oils; rather, it’s being done with the intention of finding data to substantiate the false and oftentimes dangerous marketing strategies that are being perpetrated by certain companies to encourage excessive essential oil usage, and therefore, sales.
Ultimately, I believe that more research is always a good thing, and that people will always take what they want to from research findings (this happens with medical trials as well holistic health research). However, one of the unfortunate drawbacks to the modern aromatherapy landscape is that now, plenty of people think that the practice of aromatherapy is simple, and that anybody can use essential oils regardless of their level of knowledge, to no consequence.
There is a huge difference between crafting natural beauty products, and creating an essential oil blend to support someone’s wellness, based on that individual’s specific constitution. Of course, the natural beauty formulators know this, as do the Aromatherapists; the public, however, don’t often see the distinction.
To be clear, the practice of Aromatherapy is not government-regulated, much like Herbalism, Homeopathy, Massage (in some provinces), or Holistic Nutrition. However, as a self-regulating profession, Aromatherapy has some of the highest and strictest standards of practice and education in the holistic health industry.
I understand that not everybody wants to become a professional Aromatherapy Practitioner, nor does everybody even care to consult with one.
I also know that there are many ways of working with essential oils in an “arts and crafts” manner that can be very therapeutic, without crossing into the territory of being potentially dangerous and needing professional supervision.
Those who are not trained practitioners in the art and science of Aromatherapy would do well not to lead their clients to believe that they are. In addition, each Aromatherapy Practitioner must carry liability insurance, and abide by their country’s laws regarding the therapeutic application of essential oils. In addition, every Aromatherapist must abide by the code of ethics as outlined by their individual aromatherapy or holistic health association, should they choose to join one. (I am an active professional member of the Natural Health Practitioners of Canada – NHPC).
You Can Use Essential Oils!
That being said, of course non-practitioners can use essential oils. After all, they’re readily available to the public in stores, and there are virtually no barriers to entry for anyone who wants to start a business selling essential oils or creating their own natural products.
Essential oils can be wonderful additions to your natural health toolkit, as long as you’re using them appropriately, and they make powerful active ingredients for your natural beauty and cleaning products.
Also, contrary to popular belief, they’re actually very cost-effective; or rather, they’re supposed to be, as long as you’re not using more than you need, which can often be the case.
Here’s the kicker: You really don’t have to be an Aromatherapist to use essential oils well. You can absolutely learn how to use them safely and effectively, albeit in a more practical, simple home remedy capacity. Plus, there’s nothing wrong with arts and crafts 😉 (But keep them out of reach of children!)
If you’re willing to learn, and you’re ready to respect the power of essential oils and the plants they came from, then please read on.
Guidelines for Topical Application
Because essential oils are not bioavailable in their pure, undiluted state, and can also be highly irritating, they must be diluted before being applied to the skin (unless you’re looking to irritate the skin to the point of breakdown, such as in treating acne or warts).
A general rule of thumb is to stay within a 1-2% dilution if you are applying essential oils to the skin of a healthy adult. People with sensitive skin, the elderly, and children (between the ages of 6-12) would benefit most from a dilution of 0.5-1%.
For young children and babies, the benefits of essential oils do not outweigh the risks (particularly for systemic toxicity and sensitization), so I generally wouldn’t recommend using them topically. Instead, use hydrosols, which are the aqueous components of essential oils. Hydrosols are fantastic – they are extremely diluted, but still therapeutic, and can be applied neat (directly to the skin, without dilution) to children and babies, safely.
For acute conditions or injuries, where you will only be applying the essential oil treatment for a few days, you can increase the dilution to about 10%. Use your discretion, depending on what you’re dealing with. For example, a muscle rub that you intend to use for a few weeks could be anywhere from 5-10%; an injury leading to a muscle sprain may even call for a stronger concentration of essential oil, but only for 3-5 days max.
Quick Dilution Guide: For 1 oz or 30 mL, 0.5% is about 3 drops; 1% is about 6 drops; and 2% is about 12 drops. These are the TOTAL drops of essential oils, so keep that in mind if you’re using more than one oil in your blend.
Guidelines for Inhalation
The most efficient and effective way to disperse essential oils into the air is by using an electronic diffuser, which uses a cold mist. These are readily available to purchase at most health food stores, and many home decor stores are carrying them too. Plus, you can get them with cool lighting features and some of them are gorgeous pieces of art in and of themselves!
In any case, most of the water chambers in commercial diffusers hold about 100 mL of water. For this amount, I would recommend 6-8 drops of essential oil TOTAL, and diffusing for 45 minutes to 1 hour at a time. The efficacy of essential oil dispersion peaks at about the 45 minute mark, after which you no longer receive any benefit from it, and would just be wasting precious plant material. Make sure you give yourself a 1-2 hour “break” between diffusion sessions.
Reed diffusers are another way to disperse essential oils into the air, although they’re not as effective as electronic diffusers and only cover a small area. Candle diffusers use heat to disperse the oil, but unfortunately the heat also breaks down the molecular structure of the oil, which could alter its effects. I don’t personally use candle diffusers, or heat up my essential oils, and it’s not something I would recommend to my clients.
Make sure that you diffuse essential oils in a well-ventilated area, and away from your face. Diffusion is safe for most age groups, although I would avoid it in infants under 6 months of age (I don’t use essential oils for babies under 6 months). Also, if you have animals in your home, you must be careful with diffusion. For more information about using essential oils with your pets, see Lea Jacobson’s article: https://www.usingeossafely.com/using-oils-with-pets/
Guidelines for Internal Use
I don’t recommend using essential oils internally, without being under the care of a qualified practitioner, such as a Clinical Aromatherapist or Herbalist. The creation of rectal or vaginal suppositories is not an “everyday” practice, and must be left to professionals; playing around with this mode of absorption can cause more harm than good.
There is also no need or benefit to taking essential oils with your beverage. First of all, because oil and water don’t mix, drinking essential oils in your water is tantamount to applying essential oils directly to the mucous membranes in your mouth, esophageal tract, and internal organs. This practice alone has caused a significant amount of injury and toxicity. If you’d like to learn more about this, you can view the latest Aromatherapy Injury Reports at: http://aromatherapyunited.org/injury-reports/
Many people believe that essential oils are the concentrated version of the fruit or plant from which they came – this is NOT true! Essential oils are specific chemical components that have been distilled from the plant or fruit, and at best represent about one-third of its healing properties. Finally, essential oils have NO nutritional value, including the ones that have “Nutrition Facts” on the label. There is no regulation regarding the placement of “Nutrition Facts”, and this label can be placed on anything.
But What About Lemon In My Water…?
The essential oil from lemons and other citrus fruit is distilled from the peel, not the fruit itself. Therefore, if you’re hoping to get a concentrated form of lemon’s benefits via its essential oil, you’re barking up the wrong tree. Lemon juice in your water is perfect – you get the fibre and vitamins, and its much more cost-effective. Lemon essential oil is a wonderful oil, particularly for de-greasing your kitchen counters… It’s main chemical component is d-limonene, a very effective degreaser used in mechanic shops. This has nothing to do with whether the oil is labeled as “therapeutic grade”, or even if its adulterated. If it is indeed, pure lemon essential oil, then it has enough d-limonene to cause more harm than benefit to your internal organs.
For more insight into this, please watch Amy Kreydin’s video, Friends Don’t Let Friends Drink Essential Oils. I also highly recommend her book by the same name.
Video (only 20 minutes!): https://youtu.be/8funNMKRx54
Article (with link to book): http://www.thebarefootdragonfly.com/friends-dont-let-friends-drink-essential-oils/
So, there you have it! Essential oils can be used in a wide variety of ways to improve your health and wellbeing, and even if you’re not a professional practitioner, you can still learn how to use essential oils to make simple home remedies.
If you’d like to dive deeper into the world of Aromatherapy and learn how to use essential oils for yourself and your family, check out my new online class, Aromatherapy for Beginners! Register online here.
Yours in wellness,