Anyone doing their best to live a healthy lifestyle has heard plenty about using essential oils for a myriad things, from healing to relaxation. They’re massaged in, diffused into the air, and even ingested by some. Essential oils are derived from plants in nature, so that should make them pure and safe to use – a no-brainer, right?
Well, there’s a lot more to the story that you need to consider before diving into using essential oils. (We should note here that the topic of whether essential oils are safe and effective is hotly debated.) First, not all essential oils are created equal; contrary to their natural-sounding name and marketing gimmicks, there may be synthetic chemicals added during the distillation process that alter the product. On top of that, although pesticides aren’t needed when growing these types of plants (most repel bugs naturally), anti-fungals are sometimes used by farmers if field fungus becomes a problem.
In addition, many essential oils are heavily diluted with other types of oils – including other undisclosed essential oils and/or vegetable oils – which can turn rancid, whereas pure, unadulterated essential oils don’t go bad if stored correctly. It’s important to look for a statement of purity on the label that guarantees there are no additives of any kind and that the distilling method doesn’t include the use of chemical solvents. Truly pure essential oils are pricey, and for good reason – it takes an extremely large amount of plants to make small amounts of pure, unadulterated essential oils that are considered therapeutic grade (not to be confused with fragrance grade; also, the term “therapeutic grade” is one used within the industry, essential oils are not regulated). Most essential oils that are relatively inexpensive don’t meet the purity level of true therapeutic grade oils and won’t be as effective.
Essential oils are highly concentrated and need to be diluted according to label instructions before use. Still, these oils need to be used in limited quantities – getting too much of a “good thing” can cause negative reactions of varying degrees. You could be applying more essential oils than you think if they’re also in your soap, shampoo, or other personal care products.
Using essential oils in the right way is also important – for example, an oil that is recommended for massage may not be safe to use in a diffuser. Conversely, oils that are best for inhalation may cause skin irritations if used topically. And certain essential oils can cause burns or lead to skin cancer if applied topically before spending time in the sun.
Even more seriously, commonly used lavender and tea tree essential oils have been found to cause gynecomastia in men. A March 2018 BBC news article stated that a study linked topical use of lavender and tea tree oils to enlarged male breasts because the chemicals in these oils “are potential endocrine disrupters” which lower testosterone and raise estrogen levels. Other contraindications include using certain essential oils on infants, young children, the elderly, and pregnant women. Essential oils can also react with prescription or OTC medications.
As with any product, become well educated on the subject before using essential oils, read oil labels carefully, and ask questions about purity. It’s also best to get tested first to make sure you’re don’t have allergies or sensitivities to the plant family, which can cause anything from minor to serious reactions, and that the oil won’t react negatively with any medications you may be taking.