The following is NOT MEDICAL ADVICE and is intended for educational purposes only - to illustrate the science behind essential oils, how they might be applied in the real world, and to offer a foundation from which to speak to your doctor.
Consult your primary healthcare provider before using essential oils.
Essential oils are concentrated plant extracts and SHOULD NOT be handled by anyone unaware of the RISKS and DANGERS they pose.
I once heard someone at a display of essential oils say the words, “I’m not sure I believe in essential oils.” The words cut into me like fingers on a chalkboard. I wanted to turn around and say, “You don’t believe in chemistry? You don’t believe in biology?” The fact is, however, that those words which cut me so deep did, and probably still do, represent the wrong idea that most people have about essential oils and the practice of aromatherapy.
Essential oils and aromatherapy are not pseudoscience, they are not quackery, and they are not bullshit — and I can prove it.
What Are Essential Oils?
Essential oils are highly concentrated plant extracts. When they occur naturally in plants, essential oils contain unique blends of chemicals that are responsible for providing many benefits to the host plants, in addition to giving each host plant a unique aroma. The reason why a rose smells like a rose, and why eucalyptus leaves smell like eucalyptus leaves, is because they each contain certain amounts of naturally occurring chemicals that combine to create a unique scent. Just as different combinations of piano keys can create different types of music, so can different combinations of plant chemicals create different types of aromas.
For example, in one study of the essential oil from the plant Eucalyptus globulus (known commonly as eucalyptus), researchers noted the essential oil which was investigated contained 51.62% of the chemical eucalyptol, 23.62% of the chemical a-pinene, 10% of the chemical p-cymene, 8.74% of the chemical B-myrcene, 2.74% of the chemical terpinen-4-ol, and 2.59% of the chemical y-terpinene (Almas, Innocent, Machumi, and Kisinza, 2021). This means that if you could collect pure samples of these chemicals, and blend them to the percentages just listed, you could create something very close to naturally occurring Eucalyptus globulus essential oil.
What is Aromatherapy
Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes you can make regarding aromatherapy is to believe it is the pursuit of health and wellness through the inhalation of specific scents. This is simply not true. Aromatherapy is actually the pursuit of health and wellness through the application of concentrated plant extracts which contain the chemicals that give plants their distinct aromas. The “aroma” in “aromatherapy” comes from the chemicals that give plants their unique aromas. There are actually four ways that the chemicals in essential oils can be introduced into the body; by inhalation, by external topical application on the outer skin, by internal topical application to internal skin (think mouth washes, douches, and suppositories), and by oral ingestion (Buckle, 2015).
NOTE: While any application of an essential oil should be performed with care and caution, internal application and oral ingestion should NEVER be performed without your doctor’s knowledge and assent.
Where is the Science Behind Essential Oils and Aromatherapy?
Many people are surprised to learn that essential oils and aromatherapy principles have been studied for years. If you know where to look, you can find peer reviewed articles from the likes of universities, multinational corporations, and independently funded research teams. A great place to start is the website PubMed.gov.
PubMed.gov is an archive of published and (unless otherwise noted) peer reviewed research maintained by the United States National Library of Medicine. The PubMed archive focuses on biomedical and life sciences journal literature, and is as easy to use as any other search engine. If you’ve never explored PubMed.gov, I encourage you to visit the site and try typing the keyword “essential oil” or “aromatherapy” into the search bar. If you’ve been under the assumption that essential oils are quackery and aromatherapy is a pseudoscience, then the results you receive from PubMed may very well surprise you.
Essential Oils are Chemicals; Aromatherapy is Science
The study of essential oils and aromatherapy is a blend of chemistry, plant science, biology, and physiology. The chemicals that occur in plant essential oils can have very real, and sometimes extreme, effects on the human body. While you can buy essential oils over the counter, the fact that they are concentrated plant chemicals must be respected. Also to be respected is the fact that the essential oil manufacturing industry is poorly regulated, and unless you have the capability of performing laboratory analysis on essential oil samples, you can never be too sure of what might be floating around in your favorite essential oil.
Remember, never apply essential oils directly to the skin without first diluting in a carrier oil. Never ingest orally, or otherwise apply internally, any essential oil without the knowledge and assent of your doctor. No matter how you choose to use essential oils in your everyday life, you should learn about the chemicals that your essential oils contain, and the risks associated with overexposure to those chemicals.
Almas, I., Innocent, E., Machumi, F., & Kisinza, W. (2021, April 7). Chemical composition of essential oils from Eucalyptus GLOBULUS and Eucalyptus MACULATA grown in Tanzania. Scientific African. Retrieved September 30, 2021, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2468227621000624.
Buckle, J. (2015). Chapter 2: How essential oils work. In Clinical aromatherapy: Essential oils in practice (3rd ed., p. 16). Churchill Livingstone. https://amzn.to/3CXHQ8X
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