Essential oils are some of the go-to scent and disinfecting agents in the homemade and natural product sector. People buy them and use them all the time, with little regard for exactly what they are. They’re natural, right? So they must be safe? This is not entirely true. To understand how we can safely use essential oils, we need to understand a bit more about them.
What are Essential Oils?
Essential oils are concentrated volatile organic compounds (VOCs) separated from plants. If that phrase sounds familiar, that’s because you’re doubtless heard of VOCs in paints and household products, in the guise of avoiding them. It is true that there is a big difference between plant-based and coal/oil-based VOCs, but the most important thing to know is that VOCs of any kind are volatile. This means that they react with other things around them and readily release into the air. In small quantities and around non-sensitive individuals, this can be perfectly fine.
The next thing we need to recognize about essential oils are that they are concentrated. Plant materials in their natural forms are not a problem for the majority of individuals (the ones without allergies), but concentrating a specific part of something changes its effects on people and the world around it. Just as we try to limit our intake of high fructose corn syrup, a concentrated syrup of just the fructose-type sugars from sugar beets, due to its unbalanced effects on the human body, so must we seriously consider the effects of all concentrated products on our bodies. Our bodies developed to interact with the world around us, including foods and plants, in their natural forms. Concentrating one particular part of the substance and using it exclusively in concentrated form can have unintended effects. We wouldn’t drink pure (100%, or 200 proof) alcohol, but alcohol in the 0.5-40% range is normal to drink (in safe quantities). We wouldn’t use 100% hydrogen peroxide on our bodies, but 3% concentration for a short time is often used for disinfection of wounds. We wouldn’t sit around eating pure sugar as a snack (at least when we grow up, we wouldn’t) – we know that eating too much sugar can result in weight gain and diabetes. Sugar is more acceptable as a sweetener in smaller quantities in other things. The same is true of essential oils.
The third thing we need to know about essential oils is that they are made of chemicals. Yes, these chemicals come from a plant, but they are still chemicals. One essential oil is not a pure, single substance. It is a blend of all of the various aromatic hydrocarbons contained in a plant or plant part. Some of the chemical components of essential oils are the same as chemicals in synthetic fragrances. The components may have been extracted from the plant or they may have been produced in a lab, but the resulting substance is the same. For a list of the chemical compounds that make up some plants, see this site: Plant Profiler.
What Does This Tell Us?
Essential oils can enter the air and affect those around us. Just as we avoid using artificially-scented products in a scent-free workplace, we should also avoid using essential oils where they may be forced upon sensitive individuals.
Just as we generally dilute our concentrated juices before drinking them, essential oils are meant to be used in a diluted form. This means mixing them with large quantities of other things. To make a scented massage oil, we can mix 2-4 drops of essential oil with two cups of carrier oil. To add antibacterial properties to dish soaps, we can add 5-15 drops of essential oils (total) to an entire container of dish liquid. This doesn’t mean 5-15 drops of each essential oil. To a large bucket of hot, soapy water for washing the floor, we might add 5 drops of lemon essential oil. We should NEVER use essential oils directly from the bottle, or even in high concentrations, either on surfaces or on our bodies. They were not meant to be used this way, and they are not safe when used this way. Even if you experience no ill effects immediately, over time you can become sensitive even if you were never sensitive to anything before. Manufacturers clearly state that the pure form of the oil may be used for aromatherapy (not on the body) or that the oil should be diluted in carrier oils.
Positive patch tests to fragrances can mean we are allergic to certain essential oils. For a list of common allergens and which essential oils they can be found in, see this link: Essential Oil Allergenic Components. Before using an essential oil, make sure you’re not allergic.
Like other chemicals, not all essential oils are safe for the human body, in any quantity. Thymol (thyme oil) is used as a disinfectant in small quantities for hard surfaces, but even then, it can cause unintended effects for sensitive individuals. In large quantities, it is not safe for anyone, as it kills good bacteria on and in our bodies. Thus we should not use thymol in body care products. Each essential oil has its own properties, and we should be aware of these properties before using the oil so that we can use the oil safely.
There’s more! Come back later this week for Essential Oils 102, where I’ll talk about what essential oils can do, how to use them safely, what carrier oils are, and how to choose the right oils for you.