What You Need to Know About Essential Oils

A common ingredient in natural products, essential oils are used commonly through inhalation or by topical application of diluted oil. Because these oils are so readily available to the public, many people incorrectly assume that no particular knowledge or training is needed to use them. Unfortunately, there are many who make this mistake. Some have read a little about aromatherapy, or a friend or supplier has told them a particular oil is good for this or that. But essential oils can cause problems if used incorrectly. How much do you really know about these powerful botanicals?

Some have read a little about aromatherapy, or a friend or supplier has told them a particular oil is good for this or that. But essential oils can cause problems if used incorrectly. How much do you really know about these powerful botanicals?

What Are Essential Oils?

Essential oils are highly concentrated liquids extracted from plant material-bark, berries, flowers, leaves, roots, seeds, or twigs-that are produced in several different ways.

The most common is steam distillation, in which pressurized steam is passed through plant material, causing oils to evaporate out. The resulting mixture of oil and steam is condensed back into a liquid, and the oil is skimmed off.

Plants that are too fragile for steam distillation, such as jasmine, orange blossom, and rose, can have their oils extracted using solvents. Oils created by this process are called absolutes and are generally used in perfumes or diffusers because the solvent residue makes most of them unsuitable for topical use.

A third method is carbon dioxide extraction. While these oils are technically absolutes, the pressurized carbon dioxide used as a solvent leaves no harmful residue and also creates a thicker oil with a more rounded aroma.

Finally, cold-pressed essential oils are those that have been extracted from fruit rind by grinding and pressing it.

Most essential oils do not have an indefinite shelf life: citrus oils will lose their efficacy after about six months, while most floral oils will last a year or maybe two. A few-cedarwood, patchouli, sandalwood, and vetiver-become better with age. You can refrigerate oils that you do not use often. It is also a good idea to store them away from sunlight, in small bottles with less air space.

Know What You’re Getting

The method of production is just one factor affecting the quality and price of these botanical extracts. Others include the rarity of the plant, how and where it was grown, how many plants are needed to produce the oil, and the quality standards of the manufacturer.

Genuine rose oil, for example, is extremely expensive. This is simply because it takes 200 pounds of roses (approximately 60,000 flowers) to make 1 ounce of rose oil. That equals 30 roses for a single drop! If you are paying less than $80 for a 5-milliliter bottle of rose oil, it is either synthetic or it has been diluted with a carrier oil such as jojoba. Purchasing diluted oil is perfectly acceptable as long as you know what you are getting. Reputable suppliers will be up front about whether their products are sold already diluted. Less reputable suppliers may be selling an adulterated blend (for example, a small amount of rose oil mixed with cheaper rose geranium oil) and claiming it is 100 percent rose oil.

It’s also important to know that different varieties of the same plant can have different uses. For example, high-altitude French lavender is most often used in skin care products, while Bulgarian or English lavender is used in bath products, diffusers, or as a sleep aid. The variety called spike lavender is higher in camphor, which brings respiratory benefits. Lavandin is a hybrid of English lavender and spike lavender, and “40/42” is a blend of several varieties that is stretched with synthetic lavender oil and used by many soapmakers.

Even the same plant can produce widely different oils. Many years ago, I purchased a brand of ginger oil which I found very disappointing. It didn’t really smell like ginger. It wasn’t until a few years later, when I had learned more about essential oils, that I realized I had purchased an oil made from dried ginger root instead of fresh. What a difference!

I strongly recommend purchasing essential oils only from reputable distributors that specialize in aromatherapy supplies. Unfortunately, there are companies out there that rely more on outlandish claims than on the quality of their products and others that sell synthetic fragrance under the guise of essential oil. Here are a few red flags to watch for when choosing a product.

Grading Guile

Although essential oils do have therapeutic value, there are no regulatory standards for their production and no official grades of oil are assigned or recognized by any organization. Manufacturers and distributors who claim their oils are “therapeutic grade” are using this as a marketing term only, and it is meaningless as an indicator of the oil’s quality.

Synthetic Substitution

Although we use aromatherapy to mean the therapeutic use of essential oils, the word is not formally defined or regulated by the US government. As a result, it is legal to sell products labeled “aromatherapy” that do not contain essential oils, but only synthetic fragrance.

Synthetic fragrance may be described on a label as “aroma oil,” “aromatic oil,” “fragrance oil,” or “perfume oil.” These are all blended synthetic aromas that are diluted with mineral oil, propylene glycol, or vegetable oil and may also contain phthalates and other potentially toxic ingredients. Synthetics are much cheaper than essential oils, and their scent is much stronger. When you walk past a candle store and can smell the candles from outside, that is synthetic fragrance. There are a number of plants that cannot be used to produce essential oils: some examples are gardenia, lilac, and lily of the valley. So-called essential oils marketed under these names are always synthetic.

Nutrient Nonsense

Some distributors make the claim that their essential oils deliver nutrients to the body. This is one thing these oils simply cannot do. Robert Tisserand, one of the most respected aromatherapists and author of The Art of Aromatherapy (Healing Arts Press, 1978), the first English-language book on the topic, says, “What nutrients? Essential oils do not contain nutrients. They contain no vitamins, minerals, proteins, amino acids, carbohydrates, or any other type of nutrient.” Claims that these oils can cure disease-even cancer-are also unsubstantiated by science, and you should be wary of any distributors willing to make such claims about their products.

If you intend to use essential oils, it is vitally important to think of them like any other healing tool: get proper training in their use, thoroughly research contraindications and interactions.. Like anything else that can be applied to the body, essential oils can potentially cause harm. Remember, “natural” does not automatically mean a product is gentle or safe. And they should never ever be taken internally unless you are under the care of a certified medical aromatherapist and that is not a license issued in the United States.

There are oils that must not be used on a person with high blood pressure and oils that interact with certain medications. Cypress and rosemary can be dangerous if a woman is pregnant or nursing. And some essential oils, such as wintergreen, can even be lethal if ingested.

One of the most common and dangerous misconceptions is that essential oils can be used neat (undiluted and applied directly to the skin) in skin care. I cannot emphasize enough that this is strongly discouraged by leading aromatherapists and all reputable manufacturers and distributors. No essential oil should ever be applied neat in skin care-not tea tree, not lavender, not any other kind of essential oil.

When these oils are applied neat, some people will have an immediate or delayed reaction, which can range from burning, irritation, or swelling to very major and serious health consequences. Other people will be unaffected-at first. Since the oil seems safe, they continue to use it. Over time, this causes the skin to become sensitized to that essential oil and the plant it comes from, with a longer-term, cumulative effect. When that happens, not only will the client be unable to use that oil again, they may not be able to use other products or foods that are related to it.

Correct use of essential oils for topical application always requires dilution, usually at a strength of 6-15 drops of essential oil per ounce of whatever product it is being added to.

Citrus oils are good examples of how a wonderful oil can be harmful if used incorrectly. These oils have antiseptic properties and blend well with other products, but many citrus oils cause photosensitivity, and clients should avoid direct sunlight for 12-72 hours after exposure. In addition, because citrus essential oils are created with the cold-pressed method, there will be traces of pesticide in the oil unless you are careful to buy organic. And finally, whether citrus oil is organic or not, it can be irritating to the skin. For this reason, it’s best to add citrus oils only to products that will be washed off, such as cleansers, not to a moisturizer or any other product intended to remain on the skin.

With the right knowledge and precautions, you can safely use essential oils. Take classes, pick up some books that discuss each oil and its properties, and spend time researching the benefits and contraindications of the plants involved. You will soon be enjoying the sweet smell of successful aromatherapy.

Shelley Birnbaum is a master esthetician and aromatherpist who has been practicing for more than 23 years, focusing on natural health and skin care through aromatherapy and herbology. Her Baltimore skin care studio was the first in that city to use only organic products in an eco-friendly environment. Visit http://www.renewbotanicals.com for more information.

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