Updated: Oct 4
I recently watched [UN]WELL, a Netflix docuseries that unveils the health claims and criticisms of essential oils (EOs). While it lightly covers some positive experiences, it largely focuses on industry scams and the results of misusing EOs. As a student of holistic nutrition, I'm inclined to provide a fair rebuttal and full disclosure on how to properly use EOs.
Netflix docuseries [UN]WELL: you've been heckled
As an aromatherapy student, one of the frustrations I felt while watching this docu-episode was the lack of focus on how to safely and properly use EOs. Without this context, the negative experiences that were highlighted are misrepresentative of EOs.
Because anything can be harmful when misused, even water! In the documentary, a woman regularly overuses EOs, as she applies them topically, takes them internally, and uses them as aromatherapy. As a result, she unsurprisingly experiences adverse reactions. In American culture, we have the tendency to think more is better, but when it comes to health, balance and necessity are key.
What you need to know about essential oils
EOs are therapeutic and medicinal when used properly. It's important to understand when implementing any therapeutic modality that unique experiences are common. While someone may have a miraculous recovery, someone else may only see benefits when implementing EOs as part of their overall therapeutic management plan. In simple terms, despite what big companies and various industries would like you to believe, there is no magic pill or potion for health, but there are therapies that can assist you and may be the catalyst for achieving optimal health. Just remember, great health requires a multi-faceted approach that focuses on the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects of your life.
Essential oils are superior to conventional house fresheners
Filling your house with a comforting aroma is something we all love to do, and the wonderful thing about EOs is that they are simply plant extracts. EOs are far safer and superior to the chemical-laden air fresheners that are conventionally used around the household, like plug-ins, candles, and incense. Conventional "air fresheners" are filled with carcinogenic chemicals, toxic perfumes, synthetic fragrances, and fillers which are actually toxifying your air. And according to the EPA, the smoke from burning candles or incense also emits other toxic chemicals including acetaldehyde, formaldehyde, acrolein, and naphthalene.
According to the EPA, the smoke from burning candles or incense emits toxic chemicals including acetaldehyde, formaldehyde, acrolein, and naphthalene.
Now that we've covered some basics, let's look at the power of EOs and the benefits that research has shown...
Studies show EOs have been effective for treating a variety of issues, including:
*Particularly Lavendula angustifolia, Citrus sinensis, and Citrus aurantium
EOs have been shown to contain naturally occurring compounds that are:
*Particularly Thyme Thymus vulgaris, Oregano Origanum vulgare, Garlic Allium sativum, Lemon Balm Melissa officinalis, Cinnamon Cinnamomum zelancium, Tea Tree Melaleuca alternifolia
Now, let's walk through some EO shopping guidelines...
What you need to know when purchasing essential oils
Know the quality: If an EO is cheap or surprisingly inexpensive, it's likely derived from low-quality ingredients and diluted with harmful substances. Inferior EOs can cause harm that a high-quality EO would not. I recommend purchasing certified organic, high-quality EOs from reputable companies (i.e. Now, Aura Cacia, Plant Therapy, doTerra). Since EOs are concentrated plant extracts, you don't want to use extracts from plants that are genetically modified or conventionally grown and full of carcinogenic chemicals and pesticides. I use organic EOs grown and processed at the American College of Healthcare Sciences apothecary shoppe. As a graduate student of this school, I fully trust their products, as their mission is to foster holistic and natural approaches to healthcare. Furthermore, their EOs are certified organic by Oregon Tilth, which is the strictest organic certifier.
Know the Latin: Pay attention to the botanical nomenclature, and never purchase an EO that does not list its botanical name. The botanical name of the EO is important to ensure you're using the proper EO for your needs.
Never increase an EO dose in an attempt to increase the benefits- this can be more harmful than helpful.
Once you've purchased your EOs, know how to safely use them...
What you need to know before using EOs
Know the therapeutic margin. Some EOs have a low therapeutic margin, meaning there's a fine line between a therapeutic dose and a harmful dose. Use caution with EOs that have a low therapeutic margin and avoid oral use. The body absorbs EOs through the skin and olfactory passages so even if you apply EOs topically, you are effectively taking it internally. The important point to remember is that when an EO has a low therapeutic margin, the difference between a helpful dose and a harmful dose can be mere drops!
Know your limits. Everyone has a unique metabolism and physiology, and an acceptable dose for one person may not be appropriate for others. When using EOs, always closely monitor your reaction. If you're going to use topically, conduct a skin patch test for each oil to determine potential irritation. Certain oils may cause irritation if used in high concentrations. People who are allergic to other substances and experience asthma, eczema, or hay fever are more likely to be sensitive to EOs.
Know your purpose. Different botanicals are used for different purposes. They do not all accomplish the same thing. Be sure to research the EO and know your goals and contraindications before using. For example, lavender (Lavandula) can come in several varieties: Spike Lavender Lavandula spica can help with respiratory issues, while fine lavender Lavandula angustifolia is more effective for treating anxiety and promoting sleep.
Follow the recommended daily dose (RDD). Never administer more than the recommended dose of EOs and don't overuse them. You don't need to have a diffuser on 24/7, in addition to applying them topically, and taking them orally. It's best to administer them therapeutically, as needed.
Oral use. Consuming EOs can be done, but it requires particular care and should be advised by advanced aromatherapy practitioners. The choice to use an EO orally should be a personal, informed decision. Oral use is sometimes considered controversial, but we actually ingest many (diluted) essential oils in our food and products. Many EOs have a regulatory status in the U.S. known as GRAS, which is "Generally Recognized As Safe." Oral ingestion may have additional contraindications for an essential oil, for example, do not use orally if you have kidney or liver disease.
Don't add heat. Adding high heat to EOs changes their chemistry and therefore alters their therapeutic effects which can be toxic. This includes burning candles made with EOs and diffusers that utilize heat. Instead of adding heat, use an ultrasonic diffuser, which agitates the water until it vaporizes (this is also serves as a humidifier), or a nebulizing diffuser, which breaks down the oil (sans water) into an aerosol mist (non-humidifiying).
The effects of EOs are transmitted to the brain via the olfactory system, so by simply diffusing the EOs into the air and inhaling, you can reap their benefits.
My favorite ways to use EOs
Disinfecting/Air purification. I use EOs in homemade cleaning products to disinfect my household. Thyme, peppermint, and lemon EOs are three of my favorite disinfectants (which I dilute with vinegar and water). Additionally, antioxidants have been shown to be effective for EMF protection, so oregano or eucalyptus are great options for cleansing and purifying.
Focus. I often diffuse peppermint, frankincense, or myrrh to help me focus and improve my memory while studying or working.
Relaxation. When someone in my household is experiencing anxiety (including my pugs), I fill our diffuser with chamomile and lavender for their calming effects.
Immunity. I recently came down with COVID and experienced difficulty breathing, so I used eucalyptus both topically (diluted) and in the diffuser to assist my respiratory and immune system.
Mood elevator. During the work day when I'm surrounded by electronics, I like to diffuse citrus EOs: orange, grapefruit, or lemon. The antioxidants in citrus have been shown to not only be effective for EMF protection, but they also serve as anti-aging mood elevators!
Ambiance. Throughout the winter, and especially near Christmas, I love the warming and comforting combination of cinnamon, clove, and orange. There's something incredibly cozy about diffusing these EOs while sitting by a Himalayan salt lamp and watching my favorite movies.
Learn more about taking your health into your own hands and see how to protect yourself from harmful EMFs
Diego, M. A., Jones, N. A., Field, T., Hernandez-Reif, M., Schanberg, S., Kuhn, C., McAdam, V., Galamaga, R., & Galamaga, M. (1998). Aromatherapy positively affects mood, EEG patterns of alertness and math computations. The International journal of neuroscience, 96(3-4), 217–224. https://doi.org/10.3109/00207459808986469
Ramsey, J. T., Shropshire, B. C., Nagy, T. R., Chambers, K. D., Li, Y., & Korach, K. S. (2020). Essential Oils and Health. The Yale journal of biology and medicine, 93(2), 291–305.
Setzer W. N. (2009). Essential oils and anxiolytic aromatherapy. Natural product communications, 4(9), 1305–1316.