One of the leading essential oil educators, Jimm Harrison, has been my mentor and instructor in aromatherapy. Jimm created and teaches the aromatherapy program for Bastyr University, one of the most well-known naturopathic universities. He teaches across the globe, is the author of Aromatherapy: Therapeutic Use of Essential Oils for Esthetics, and has 30 years of experience in the essential oil world.
In Essential Oil Myths Part 1, I discussed the following widely-held beliefs:
- “X Brand” is the best brand of oil
- The label “Therapeutic Grade” is important
- X is an essential oil
- “X Brand” doesn’t use solvents in extracting their oils
- Essential oils are destroyed by heat
- Choose raw essential oils
- GC/MS is important to determine quality
- An essential oil is a high quality if it has a Nutrition Facts section on its label.
- Standardization is not adulteration
- Adulterated oils don’t work
This post continues what I’ve learned in Jimm’s classes.
11. Reductionism can explain how and why an essential oil works
Many of the studies done on essential oils examine specific chemical compounds in the oil, and the biological effects of that compound. This provides valuable insight into the potential applications of essential oils, but it doesn’t fully explain why and how essential oils work. In his classes, Jimm would delve deeply into studies on essential oil components, and how the scientific perspective provides insight into using the oil. But he told the class countless times, “The oil always goes beyond the chemistry.”
Reductionism is a belief foundational to the scientific method, and it attempts to understand a whole by breaking it down and analyzing the tiniest particles. Author and biochemist Rupert Sheldrake points out the primary problem with reductionism: it’s like trying to find out how a computer works by grinding it up, and studying the molecules of nickel and copper. There is a place for reductionism in studying the human body, but we also need to compliment it with the bigger-picture perspective of synergy.
Synergy arises when the whole surpasses the sum of its parts. The whole of the essential oil surpasses the sum of all its chemical compounds. Another term for synergy is emergent properties – characteristics that are not present in the components. A heartbeat is an emergent property, because it occurs in heart tissue but is not found when analyze heart tissue cells in a petri dish.
Essential oils, just like the human body, is Mozart Symphony. But Western science, through the reductionistic approach, tries to study the symphony by playing each note by each instrument, one by one. We can learn a lot about essential oils by studying their individual notes – the chemical compounds – but it is also a sure way to lose the music. To expand into the untapped potential of using essential oil for wellness, we need to consider BOTH the individual notes, and the symphony as a whole.
12. X oil is anti-carcinogenic
You can put a tumor cell in a petri dish, under sanitary laboratory conditions, dab just about any essential oil on it, and the cancerous cell will die. Jimm cautioned the class against taking carcinogenic claims of essential oils at face value.
Once again, this reductionistic approach of putting an oil on a cancer cell can offers insight into essential oils, but a plant is not a laboratory, and a body is not a petri dish. That does not mean frankincense oil will have carcinogenic properties when taken into the body.
13. X oil is scientifically shown to have these properties
A common fallacy involves recommending a specific application of essential oil that has been studied for another application. For example, someone may recommend drinking grapefruit oil to support weight loss, based on a study involving the inhalation of grapefruit oil for weight loss.
In the same way, the researched effects of an herb is attributed to its associated essential oil. I see this done in countless blog posts with titles like, “Benefits of X Essential Oil.” It is not appropriate to interpret the effects of an ingested herb with the effects of an essential oil used aromatically or topically. While an herb and an oil share similar botanical compounds, they often create different physiological responses.
An herbal product (tincture, tea, CO2 exact, powder) shares some energetic and chemical commonalities with its associated essential oil. The herbal product, however, has properties not in the essential oil. Why? An essential oil contains only small molecules called volatile compounds, while the herb contains active plant compounds such as alkaloids which are too large to be present in an essential oil.
To apply study results to an essential oil, the method of the study must be examined. Go back to the original source and, at minimum, read the abstract to understand the study.
14. “X Brand” has oils is “pure enough to take internally”
Did you know it that a certain MLM essential oil company put nutrition fact labels on their oils as a marketing ploy? This company recommended internal use of their oils to position themselves as higher quality. Now, other essential oil companies are following this example.
“Pure enough to take internally” is a MLM-created marketing term. Any oil company can make this claim about their oils. It signifies neither quality nor purity. It’s that simple: it is a meaningless term.
Whether essential oils should be consumed internally, however, is another question entirely.
15. Essential oils are dangerous to take internally
Because essential oils are used widely in the flavoring industry, people ingest essential oils all the time without knowing it. For example, gum is flavored with essential oils. So the FDA approves essential oils for ingestion, but this doesn’t signify safety. The FDA fails miserably in policing safety of food and cosmetic additives.
Voracious marketing by the MLMs have led to individuals ingesting essential oils, because “it can only help, and it can’t hurt.” In 2012, 180 moderate-to-major outcomes due to essential oil ingestion/exposure was reported to the American Association of Poison Control Statistics. This is a low number considering the rising popularity of essential oils, and no deaths reported that year. But that is still 180 individuals significantly harmed.
The real question here is should essential oils be taken internally. If the oils could work in an energetic, diluted, or olfactory application, then ingesting drops of oil in water does not honor them as a precious natural resource.
Essential oils do offer potent results when used internally, but in the right application for specific situations. Anal suppositories are more effective than oral ingestion to deliver essential oils into the body. Suppositories allow the oil to bypass the breakdown processes of the liver.
Remember that widely-cited study showed that grapefruit oil supported weight loss? MLM representatives recommended individuals take grapefruit oil in glasses of water. This is one example of marketing that rather blindly focuses on selling product…. because the original study had subjects just smelling oil, not ingesting it.
16. Essential oils were widely used in “ancient times”
Widely-circulating misinformation, used as a marketing approach, presents essential oils in sacred and medicinal applications during Biblical times.
While distilling technology for essential oil production existed in this timeframe, essential oils are not an common ancient remedy. The high cost of producing the oils prevented access to anyone but the elite. Plant resins and herbal extracts, not essential oils, are the substances to which ancient texts refer.
Essential oil production arose in the 16th century, and was used primarily in the perfumery industry and, due to cost, relegated mainly to royalty.
Aromatherapy – the practice of using essential oils – began in the early 1900’s, and expanded with the broader availability of oils. The first book on aromatherapy, Aromatherapié, was not published until 1937.
17. Essential oils may be “relaxing” but don’t create significant emotional effects
One essential oil myth claims that any emotional effect attributed to an oil arises due to placebo. Looking at essential oils from a scientific lens, however, we see that oils directly alter the emotional centers of the brain.
When inhaled, the volatile compounds of essential oils travel into the nasal passages, where they directly trigger the brain’s limbic system (the emotion and memory center). This instantaneous reaction bypasses the brain’s intellectual, logical centers.
The sense of smell holds primal, survival-based roots in the human body, and it was the first sense to develop in humans. As a result, we create emotional connections to fragrances in our environment. Every smell is attached to a memory or emotion, but this varies from person to person. An essential oil will trigger the emotion you have connected to a certain smell.
18. Essential oils cause detox reactions, not allergic reactions
Another myth purports that any reaction to an essential oil is a detox reaction (a healing reaction), not an allergic reaction. It’s true that essential oils can support detoxification by encouraging the body’s detox processes. Specific essential oils promote lymphatic flow, which causes stored toxins to flush through the system. Other oils may support liver or gallbladder health, which may also circulate stored toxins so they can be released from your body.
But essential oils may cause true allergic reactions. If you experience allergy-like symptoms including hives, rashes, bumps, red skin, shortness of breath or nasal congestion, it is very likely that the oil is not agreeing with your body.
Sensitization to an oil can cause these allergy-like symptoms. Sensitization is occurs when the body becomes allergic to an essential oil due to excessive and prolonged use. Using an oil topically without proper dilution is a common path to an oil sensitivity.
Our consultant who sources our oils (Jimm Harrison), has a background in the skincare industry and has seen sensitization occur countless times. Lavender oil, surprisingly, is the common culprit because it is used so heavily. Fortunately, in many cases, a break from the oil will reverse the sensitivity.
We work with Jimm to ensure that our oils are properly combined and blended with jojoba oil to minimize any risk of sensitization.
Additionally, an essential oil may trigger allergic symptoms due to an emotional response. An individual may have a traumatic association to a certain fragrance, such as pine. As discussed, essential oils directly stimulate the emotional center of the brain, which could trigger a PTSD-type response to a particular scent.
19. Use essential oils for ALL the things
Use essential oils where they are effective, enjoyable, and suitable. Do not waste them with unrestrained enthusiasm.
Keep the following in mind when using essential oils use:
- Sensitization – As discussed above, sensitization occurs when an individual becomes sensitive (or allergic) to a specific oil, frequently due to excessive use. If you use lavender oil daily and undiluted in your baths, in your dryer, in your diffuser, and in concentrated doses on your skin, a sensitization to the oil would not be unusual.
- Sustainability – It takes an enormous amount of plant material to produce a 5ml bottle.
- Alternative plant medicine – Tinctures, teas, CO2 extracts, and other forms of plant medicine also offer healing capacities to the human body. Essential oils are a powerful form of plant medicine, but do not contain many of the active compounds found in whole-plant forms.
To use essential oils with integrity for the environment and the body, I believe these three foundations must not be compromised.
20. Anyone can become an essential oil expert
A marketing technique I see among MLM companies is self-promotion as an essential oil expert. But it requires more than a few classes to just scratch the surface of aromatherapy.
Through Jimm’s classes and consulting, I’ve learned the challenges of finding pure, sustainable, and dynamic essential oils. Most important, I’ve learned that essential oils are like wine. An essential oil aficionado has both market savvy and a highly refined nose. This requires years of experience to attain. He or she approaches the sourcing process with a passion for the people, the land, and the intention behind each oil.
21. Science is always better than a nose
Sourcing essential oils is more than finding pure, unadulterated oils (and that is a challenge enough). When compared to a mass-produced oil, a “fine wine” oil has an unparalleled energetic, chemical, and fragrance complexity. It is the different between Yellowtail wine and a fine vintage wine.
Sourcing essential oils with this complex profile requires a connoisseur who has developed a highly discerning sense of smell, just like a a fine wine expert has a refined palate. In some cases, an experienced and discerning nose is more effective than a GC/MS test in finding an adulterated oil. And a GC/MS test is useless when it comes to sourcing oils of this “fine wine” quality.
Essential oils, as with every aspect of nature, will always work beyond the explanation of chemistry.
If you use essential oils in your healing journey, what are the questions you would have for Jimm and myself? We want to hear your experiences, successes, and challenges in navigating the essential oil world.