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Essential Oils; Everything You Ever Wanted to Know



What Are They?

Plants & their extracts have been used since time immemorial to relieve pain, aid healing, kill bacteria, & thus revitalize & maintain good health. 2 The term “essential oil” is a contraction of the original “quintessential oil.” This stems from the Aristotelian idea that matter is composed of four elements, namely, fire, air, earth, & water. The fifth element, or quintessence, was then considered to be spirit or life force. Distillation and evaporation were thought to be processes of removing the spirit from the plant and this is also reflected in our language since the term “spirits” is used to describe distilled alcoholic beverages such as brandy or whiskey. The last of these again shows reference to the concept of removing the life force from the plant. Nowadays, of course, we know that, far from being spirit, essential oils are physical in nature and composed of complex mixtures of chemicals. 1

Essential oils are aromatic volatile oils that come from plants or plant parts – roots, resin, leaves, flowers, shrubs, seeds, & more that contain the healing properties of plants. They are in lipid (fatty acids or their derivatives and are insoluble in water but soluble in organic solvents) form & penetrate readily into our cells effecting their benefits on us. The oils with their light molecular weight are easily absorbed by our skin in topical applications & enter readily into our circulatory system.


How Do They Work?

While exactly how they work is as of yet unproven, extensive anecdotal evidence & research prove that they do work. In the past essences have been used to heal wounds, inhibit the decay of flesh (Mummification in Ancient Egypt) & reduce the spread of the infection (During the Black Death) all without knowing how they worked, just as the humble aspirin was in use for many years before anyone knew its mode of action. 2


Are They Safe?

Natural whole essential oils can be used on tissue with minimal unwanted effects (unlike synthetic drugs, however successful they might be against their intended target). In addition the human body builds resistances to the effects of chemical synthetics, leading to escalating doses. This is not the case with essential oils, which retain their effectiveness in repeated applications & can strengthen tissue while killing off unwanted bacteria.3 In Aromatherapy for Health Professionals the following analogy is made,

“In orthodox medicine a single molecule “bullet” is aimed at the symptom. In aromatherapy we point a shotgun at the problem, which sprays all sorts of beneficial shot, together with the very occasional unwanted effect. Many essential oils contain constituents which when isolated are found to be toxic, but it does not automatically follow that the whole essential oil is toxic; many items normally regarded as quite safe also contain substances which, when isolated, could be shown to be toxic – tea, almonds, apples, pears, radishes, mustard, sage, & hops to name a few.”2

It is of the upmost importance to be sure that when choosing which essential oils to use that the botanical name & source is identified along with the means of production (organic vs inorganic) & any possible adulterations or dilutions. (Keep in mind that while essential oils have common names i.e. Thyme, there is a definite difference between varieties i.e. Thymus vulgaris ct. phenol [red thyme], Thymus capitatus [Spanish oregano], or Thymus serpyllym [wild thyme]) Inorganic means of production may result in high levels of pesticides or herbicides being present within the essential oil which could potentially be harmful, especially when essential oils enter the circulatory system so readily. Unfortunately, as some essential oils are highly lucrative there are those suppliers who may “cut” the pure essential oil with synthetic or other unknown components which may create a situation where the medical application of the essential oil is tainted. This may result in adverse effects due to the unknown properties used for dilution. Thus, it is imperative to find a trusted source who can document many details, not only regarding sourcing, but even better scientifically through gas liquid chromatography (GLC). Unfortunately scientific testing is very costly & not every supplier is able to afford such in depth analysis.

Finally it is important to do a little of your own research as some essential oils may have the following effects or safety precautions.

  • Skin Irritation – examples include cinnamon leaf, clove bud, red thyme

  • Mucous Membrane Irritation

  • Phototoxicity – examples include citrus oils, Virginian cedarwood, bergamot

  • Flammability

  • Keep essential oils away from eyes

  • Should be used under supervision if pregnant – clary sage, rosemary, et cetera

  • Should be used under supervision for children

  • Other medications taken should be reviewed before use

  • Do not take internally unless working with a qualified and expert practitioner.

  • If applying an essential oil to your skin always perform a small patch test to an insensitive part of the body (after you have properly diluted the oil in an appropriate carrier.)


What Can They Be Used For?

Below are examples of what uses essential oils may have & specific uses for some essential oils for educational purposes only. This information has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration & is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. (Examples listed below are not comprehensive)

  • Antiseptic & Antibacterial – examples include lavender, red thyme, peppermint

  • Analgesic – examples include Melaleuca alternifolia, Chamaemelum nobile

  • Antifungal – examples include cinnamon, clove, fennel, thyme

  • Anti-inflammatory – Lavandula angustifolia, Chamomilla recutita

  • Antiviral – bergamot, lemon, tea tree, peppermint, clove bud, melissa

  • Deodorant – Salvia sclarea, Zingiber officinale, Myristica fragrans

  • Aids Digestion – Rosmarinus officinalis, Mentha x piperita

  • Diuretic – Juniperus communis, Nepeta cataria, Origanum majorana

  • Energizing

  • Hormone Balancing – varies based on hormonal system concerned

  • Hyperaemic – examples include Eucalyptus globulus, Rosmarinus officinalis

  • Immunostimulant – Melaleuca viridiflora

  • Insecticidal & Repellant – Ocimum basilicum, Cinnamomum camphora, Eucalyptus

  • Expectorant – peppermint, eucalyptus

  • Sedative – Lavandula angustifolia, Citus aurantium var. amara, Melissa officinalis

  • Spasmolytic – Cinnamomum zeylanicum, Mentha x piperita, Foeniculum vulgare var. dulce


Sweet Orange - colds, constipation, dull skin, flatulence, flatulence, flu, gums, mouth, slow digestion, stress

Lavender - acne, allergies, anxiety, asthma, athlete's foot, bruises, burns, chicken pox, colic, cuts, cystitis, depression, dermatitis, dysmenorrhea, earache, flatulence, headache, hypertension, insect bites, insect repellant, itching, labor pains, migraine, oily skin, rheumatism, scabies, scars, sores, sprains, strains, stress, stretch marks, vertigo, whooping cough

Lavandin - abscesses, asthma, blisters, boils, burns, cuts, cystitis, dry skin, dull skin, eczema, fatigue, insect bites, irritated skin, lice, muscle aches, scabies, shock, sores, sprains, strains, vertigo, wounds

Juniper Berry - colds, flu, acne, cellulitis, gout, hemorrhoids, obesity, rheumatism, toxin build-up

Cardamom - appetite (loss of), colic, fatigue, halitosis, stress