The blissful scent of an essential oil can send your mind traveling to a far-off place. You can imagine being in a French garden, pine forest, or tropical paradise. Forget your worries, live in the moment, and delight in aromas like lavender, pine needle, or ylang ylang.
It is no wonder you have fallen in love with the magic of essential oils! An amazing journey awaits when you open the tiny bottle’s lid.
But before you get swept away with a carefree approach to aromatherapy, there is some basic information you should know about enjoying essential oils safely and effectively. This article will talk about seven of the most common questions asked by people new to using essential oils.
First off, what is an essential oil? About 5% of all plants in the world produce this aromatic volatile component. Reasons include: to deter pests, to attract pollinating insects, or even to help ward off microbial infections (1).
Essential oils are typically extracted via steam distillation from aromatic plant parts such as the roots, leaves, bark, heartwood, seeds, or flowers. During steam distillation, the plant’s most light weight and volatile molecules are separated from the solid plant material. The liquid essential oil typically represents less than 2% of the plant’s total matter.
Further, the molecularly light components that make up an essential oil are the most potent components of the plant material. The word volatile is often used to describe an essential oil and refers both to the way it evaporates quickly and to the way it is very chemically reactive.
This is the reason why essential oils have such a small therapeutic margin. It is important to dilute essential oils when you apply them topically and to also enjoy using them sparingly in a diffuser. A small amount goes a long way. Essential oils are best used in moderation.
Before answering this question, it is important to note that each essential oil has differing dilution guidelines based upon its chemical composition. Some essential oils, which are commonly called “hot oils,” should be avoided for topical use unless very heavily diluted (2).
There are also a few essential oils which are considered phototoxic. This means they could cause severe skin damage if you apply them topically and then go out in the sun (2).
For healthy adults, the safe way to use essential oils topically is to first dilute them to 2%. Certain essential oils have contraindications with topical use, especially as it relates to young children, pregnancy, and sensitive skin. For more information, please see the contraindications section of this article.
Note: FCF bergamot has had the phototoxic furanocoumarins removed and is not phototoxic. Also, distilled and expressed are differing extraction methods of citrus aromas, and most distilled citrus (except for grapefruit) are not phototoxic.
As a general rule, experts suggest that healthy adults dilute essential oils in a carrier oil to 2% for body lotions, oils, and sprays. With hot oils and people with sensitive skin, dilute at a higher rate. Also dilute more heavily with children and the elderly.
Using essential oils neat (undiluted) can lead to unpleasant skin irritations or sensitizations. Dilute essential oils in carrier oils such as jojoba, sweet almond, coconut, or sunflower oil. Plus, these carrier oils will offer additional benefits for your skin and reduce the rate of evaporation of the essential oils! Below is an easy chart for you to use when diluting an essential oil to 2% in a carrier oil.
Diffusing is a common way to enjoy aromatherapy. These devices are easy to use and disperse delightful molecules of essential oil into the air. Whether it is a blend or single note, aromas can help improve your mood and freshen the air.
Here are some basic guidelines to consider before you start using essential oil diffusers.
There are a variety of diffusers. The most common type is a cool mist diffuser, but there are also nebulizing diffusers, fan diffusers, and heat-based aroma diffusers. Follow the manufacturer’s guidelines for your specific model.
Essential oils are oil soluble. They are not water soluble. In other words, essential oils and water do not properly mix. Thus, it is not advised to drop essential oils into bath water without first diluting them in a carrier oil.
Just as oil and vinegar do not stay combined in a bottle of salad dressing, a similar situation would occur if you combined essential oils with water in a container. While you can temporarily disperse the oil around in the water with physical shaking, the ingredients will separate after a short time.
Dropping essential oils into bath water would cause undiluted exposure directly onto your skin and other more sensitive areas. The added effect of heat via hot bath water could further exacerbate the situation.
To use essential oils in a bath, you should first dilute them to 1% or 2% in a carrier oil. Then, adults can pour about an ounce of the blend into bath water. To make bath salts, first dilute essential oils properly in a carrier oil. Then, pour about an ounce of the blend onto a cup of salt. Stir well.
The short answer to this question is NO!
Here are a few reasons why it is unsafe to drop essential oils into a glass of water for drinking. First, essential oils are very potent and chemically reactive. Secondly, essential oils are not soluble in water. Improperly diluted, the ingestion of essential oils can be quite dangerous.
There could be contraindications with medications or health conditions. Plus, the oils could damage the delicate mucous membrane tissue of your digestive tract. Even a small amount of certain essential oils could cause serious organ toxicity!
Professional aromatherapy organizations advise that at home users do not take essential oils internally without the advice of a trained healthcare practitioner (3,4). Further, unless you are an expert, buy already blended commercial products with properly labeled usage instructions. Always ask your Doctor about possible contraindications if you are taking medications or have health issues.
There are safer alternatives to dropping essential oils in water. If you want a peppermint flavor, try crushing a few peppermint leaves in your water. If you are after a lemon taste, squeeze some lemon juice in your water. Or, if you are interested in the benefits of oregano, sprinkle a pinch of the herb into your cooking recipe.
Note: Just as there are possible contraindications with essential oils, there may also be contraindications associated with the intake of certain herbs, especially beyond normal food amounts.
Essential oils are very potent and should be used thoughtfully. Before trying an essential oil, read the bottle’s label to learn some basic information. Investigate possible contraindications of using essential oils ahead of time, and ask your Doctor if you have any questions.
Sadly, essential oils do not last forever. Shelf life of an essential oil varies based on the molecular weight of the oil, with the lightest notes, like citrus, being the most fragile. Try to use most essential oils within a year or two. Below are some things you can do to help prolong shelf life.
Avoiding exposure to light, heat, and air can help reduce chemical reactions. First, sunlight and heat can speed up photocatalytic activities that chemically change an essential oil. The rate in which an essential oil deteriorates doubles with every 10 degrees Celsius of temperature increase. This is because heat speeds up the kinetic energy of atoms, causing them to collide into each other at a faster rate, thus speeding up chemical reactions (6). Choose dark colored glass bottles, and store in a cool, dark place.
Air exposure can cause oxidation. Oxygen molecules combine with the essential oil constituents to change the chemistry of the aromatic oil. Oxidized oils can be more skin sensitizing and have less therapeutic benefits (1). Make sure you store your essential oils with lids that seal tight. Also, the more air space that is in a bottle, the greater the risk of oxidation. Choose smaller bottles with a minimal amount of air space.
Avoiding contamination is also important. Essential oils should not be stored in plastic or certain metal containers. Some materials can degrade, and particles can integrate with the essential oil (6). Also, do not get other natural ingredients like carrier oils and other essential oils into the bottle. Avoid “double dipping” by using clean pipets.
What can you do when your essential oils have reached their expiration date? Use them in your laundry or house cleaning recipes. To use in the laundry, add about ½ tsp of essential oil per cup of laundry detergent.
Aromatherapy can certainly bring joy to life. For people new to using essential oils, there are a few basics you should know. If this article has not answered a certain question you may still have, I would be happy to answer it for you!
Let’s talk. Please share your comments and questions!
By: Kathy Sadowski, MS in Aromatherapy, Registered Aromatherapist, Licensed Massage Therapist