The popularity of essential oils has grown massively over the past couple of years. The internet is filled with recipes to create your own bath salts, skins care products, scented candles and household detergents, all with essential oils. Lately, even recipes for cookies, cocktails, and oatmeal porridge have started to include the use of essential oils. Even though I used to be a big fan of essential oils myself, I soon discovered that essential oils are not-so-natural after all and far more toxic and polluting than is claimed by most people. Let me share what I found and what my opinion on all this is.
What are essential oils?
It is often claimed that essential oils occur naturally in plants. This isn’t the case. A compound that occurs naturally in plants are volatile oils. These oils are distilled and highly concentrated, upon which they become essential oils.
Essential oils tend to be used in aromatherapy, but ever more often, other medicinal properties are assigned to them as well. People are using them to improve gut flora, to create mosquito repellents and sunblock, and to dry out their pimples. In other words: people have started to use them as substitutes for real herbs.
Why aren’t essential oils natural?
Although the volatile oils of which essential oils are made are natural, this doesn’t mean that the use of essential oils is natural as well. Essential oils are so highly concentrated, that for just one drop of essential rose oil, 2420 rose petals are needed. To me, that isn’t natural. Why would we need that many petals to benefit from the medicinal properties rose has to offer us? If that was the case, Mother Earth would have made sure that rose petals were more powerful in and of themselves, so that we wouldn’t have to gather 2420 of their petals for just one drop of medicine (equalling an entire rose garden).
The same goes for one drop of peppermint oil. One drop equals 28 cups of mint tea. Knowing that just one cup of peppermint tea lowers your body temperature, imagine what 28 cups could do. It’s unhealthy and unnecessary, as one cup does the job.
When we add one drop of peppermint oil to a dough for a whole tray of cookies, this isn’t a problem per se (1 cup of tea per cookie). But it does become a problem when we follow a recipe for a 100ml bottle of mosquito repellent, which asks for 20 drops of peppermint tea and about 50 drops of other essential oils. When we spray this repellent on our skin, our skin is exposed to hundreds and hundreds of herbs all at once. As our body isn’t used to this, and wasn’t made to deal with such a high dosage of herbals, we’re not only intoxicating the insects flying around us, but our own body with it.
Just like our body has a hard time dealing with white sugar, while it digests the sugar in a banana perfectly well, the body has a hard time dealing with essential oils. Again, essential oils are highly concentrated volatile oils, which are just one compound of a plant. The body simply misses all the other compounds in order to break down and deal with the oil that is put in or on it.
Why are essential oils unhealthy?
Let me first say that essential oils are a relatively new product in the field of herbalism. Therefore, nothing is known about the long-term effects of using essential oils. In the same way as there wasn’t known anything about the long-term effects of smoking cigarettes when they were first introduced. Well, we do know about those now…
The most common use of essential oils is to vaporize them in a diffuser, which spreads the essential oil through your entire living room, office, or yoga space. However, this practice doesn’t differ from smoking an e-Cigarette or a vapor, in the sense that you breathe the essential oils directly into your lungs. Not necessarily a bad thing, but you can imagine that it is when we do it every day, multiple times a day. Especially when we use more drops than is recommended (which we tend to do, as after a while, we get desensitized, don’t smell that much anymore, and increase our usage).
The second reason I deem essential oils unhealthy is that for plants, volatile oils serve as insect repellents and intoxicants. By providing the plant or herb with a strong scent, volatile oils help to protect the plant against insects who’d like to feast on them. The insects smell, sense or feel the scent and stay away. Not because the volatile oils signal to them that this plant doesn’t want to be eaten, but because it signals that this plant is toxic. In other words, the volatile oils are poisonous to insects in a very, very low dosage. In this dosage they aren’t poisonous to us (in most cases), but as we tend to apply essential oils in an incredibly high dosage, it is likely the oils are poisonous to us, too.
It is true that some volatile oils exist in plants to attract pollinating insects, like bees, but these oils can be poisonous to non-pollinating insects at the same time.
Essential oils and antibiotic resistance
A number of essential oils are used as a substitute for antibiotics. I’m not totally against this, as I believe that antibiotics are, indirectly, the number one cause of disease in our modern society. However, essential oils that innocent either. Just as regular antibiotics, essential oils can lead to antibiotic resistance when used too often. This means that bacteria that invaded the body aren’t reacting to antibiotics (or essential oils) anymore and therefore can’t be eliminated. This is problematic whenever you get in a situation where antibiotics truly are the only thing that could have saved you. (As much as I dislike antibiotics, sometimes they are our saviours).
Just like our bodies, Mother Earth isn’t used to the highly concentrated volatile oils that are essential oils. When they are disposed in nature, she has trouble breaking them down. Next to that, as with regular antibiotics, essential oils can end up in our ground and drinking water, making us antibiotic resistant without us consciously being aware of it.
Essentials oils aren’t the same as herbal medicine
The biggest mistake that is often made when it comes to essential oils, is that people assume they work in the same way as herbs in a tea, tincture or decoction. Again, as essential oils are made of the only the volatile oils in the herb, they don’t carry the benefits all the other compounds the herbs have to offer. In that sense, an essential oil doesn’t carry the whole range of health benefits of the herb. What is especially important here, however, is that as essential oil is so highly concentrated, ignorant people might apply in entirely the wrong way.
Last week I visited a pretty well-known ‘health’ store to ask for a ginger tincture, upon which they gave me a ginger essential oil. A different product entirely, but also very dangerous when they would have given this product to someone less literate on herbs than me. It isn’t uncommon to be advised to take 30 drops of a certain tincture three times a day, but if you’d do the same thing with an essential oil, you’d probably die rather quickly…
I’ll write another article about the difference between a tincture, essential oil, herbal oil, and flower essence soon, but in a nutshell:
- A tincture is made by steeping herbs in alcohol for at least a couple weeks and is taken with a dropper.
- An herbal oil is made by steeping herbs in oil for at least a couple weeks, can be applied on the skin and on your food (in most cases).
- A flower essence is a strongly diluted medicine which is made by steeping herbs in water, after which alcohol is added for preservation. In this case it is the spirit of the plant that heals you.
- An essential oil is a very high concentrated distilled volatile oil from a certain herb.
Mass production of essential oils
Now that we know the high amount of plant parts that are needed for just one drop of essential oil (i.e. 2420 rose petals), we can imagine how many plant parts are processed daily to extract their volatile oils. Realizing that doTerra (a huge essential oil company) has an annual revenue of $1.2 billiard, you can imagine how many essential oils are sold and produced every day. Entire fields of lavender, chamomile, and lemon balm are processed daily. Not by a loving and gentle herbalist who infuses her intentions and love in the medicine she’s making, but in a huge factory which is only about producing more and more oils. To me, this is not different from battery cages used to generate as much eggs as possible from unfortunate chickens. The healing spirit of the plant goes lost and instead your ‘medicine’ is infused with capitalist greed. Not helpful in this day and age.
Be mindful with essential oils
I do want to mention though that the use of essential oils can be great substitute for a lot of chemical prescription drugs, but people forget that essential oils are incredibly potent and that not everyone is a herbalist.
Personally, I don’t use essential oils, as I find them totally unnecessary and disrespectful towards the medicinal properties of herbs. Next to that, I’m worried about the environment and the growth of antibiotic resistant bacteria. But, if you do want to use essential oils, do it mindfully. Remember how many plants were processed to create that one drop of oil, be conscientious, and know that less is more. Regard your oils as sacred, honur them, and be grateful. Or learn how to make your own true herbal medicine, to heal yourself in a true and respectful way, and to find your path to self-healing with the spirit of your plant allies.
And don’t forget: an essential oil is not the same as an herbal oil. Herbal oils are a great plant, body, and Earth friendly medicine that are very potent, nourishing, and loving.
Love and light,