Should you really be drinking that?

Posted by Jo Harris on

safety in using essential oils

I love doing markets. The thing that I love most of all is that I get to talk to anybody, which of course doesn’t really happen outside of the market context, or at least not in my world, or not often anyway. Being at a market, selling my skincare and aromatherapy products, gives me the license to speak about these. And unless I am giving a workshop on either of these (which I also really love doing) then I don’t get to talk about these things so freely either.

I love telling people that I am an aromatherapist, not only because I guess it gives my skincare range credibility but because it can spur people into confiding in me about their usage of essential oils. This may include their favourite oils, or they may ask advice about which oils to use and how, but sometimes it is about essential oil safety. I am very passionate about the use of essential oils and I love to incorporate them in many aspects of my life, and it excites me that other people also love to do this. However, in the case of essential oils, safety is really important, and here we definitely have a case of where less is more. It is alarming when sometimes someone says that they take essential oils internally in water, without any proper dilution and without proper professional guidance, except that of an essential oil salesperson or an article on the internet. When I get over the urge to repeatedly say stop doing this you don’t know what it is doing to your body, then I can calmly talk about why this may not be a good thing to do, and that usually it is a marketing ploy to get you to buy more expensive essential oils more often, as when you use them undiluted and take them internally on a daily basis, you need quite a supply. Here I want to refer to a page in my site. If you haven’t read it yet, then please read it now (click here) When you finish come back. I’ll be here waiting for you.

So today I would like to talk about the safe use of essential oils, specifically, the internal consumption of essential oils (the next topic will be undiluted application). Essential oils were not made for regular internal consumption. That is not to say that you should never consume them, but I was trained in the English aromatherapy method, where internal consumption is definitely not recommended. Some food products do have some tiny portion of essential oils in them it is true, and hydrosols do have trace amounts of essential oil in them. Plant matter that we eat also contains essential oils. But herein lies the difference. It is one of quantity. Less is definitely more in this instance. The thing to know is that we do consume essential oils when we are eating herbs or drinking herbal teas, except these are miniscule in amount and not anywhere even near one drop. Sometimes regular exposure to a lot of plant matter can be harmful. An example to illustrate this is vanilla beans. One of the safest things out there. We eat vanilla icecream, yoghurt, and use vanilla essence in our baking, yet Valnet (1980) cites incidences of severe headaches, gastro-intestinal disorders and total temporary loss of eyebrows, for people working with (handling and packing) vanilla beans. So, while a little is fine and even beneficial, constant and regular exposure can lead to adverse affects. Also, as I stated before a lot of plant matter is required to distill a small amount of esssental oil, so that internally consuming what may seem inconsequential, i.e. 1 drop, is actually quite a lot of plant matter. Drinking herbal tea only requires 1 teaspoon of plant matter. Using herbs and spices in our food also only requires about 1 teaspoon. To distill 1 gram of essential oil takes a lot of plant matter and this is plant dependent. So, to give you an idea of the amount of plant matter required to produce essential oils, I will show a few examples here. Florals have the least yield in general but herbs have a much higher yield. 100 grams of eucalyptus leaves produces 3 grams of essential oil. Similar yields are produced by frankincense resin. 100g of lemon or orange rind yields around about 2ml of essential oil and 100 grams of lavender yields around about 1 gram of essential oil. Thyme, however, is considerably less yielding- where 100 grams produces only about 0.2grams which is about 1/2 of a drop. Imagine ingesting 200-300 grams of thyme? Rose essential oil requires 3kg of roses to get even just a few drops of the precious oil. So, we can see by these figures that there is a huge difference between ingesting 1 teaspoon of plant matter in the form of tea and 1 drop of essential oil. Koalas of course ingest significant amounts of Eucalyptus essential oil in their daily consumption of eucalyptus leaves, but to us humans that would be toxic for our livers. Even to other animals this would also be toxic but koalas are able to detoxify the chemicals in the leaves (and therefore the oil).

However, sometimes, with the guidance of a doctor trained in aromatic medicine, or an aromatherapist trained in internal use, some essential oils can be taken internally, but not on a regular basis and they also need to be diluted in a suitable medium, like honey or milk. Most of the time essential oils are very affective when inhaled or massaged into the skin but on the rare occasion internal use maybe a little more effective, but as I said only with proper professional guidance.

Internal use needs a much higher level of knowledge and has also a higher risk and therefore should be done in consultation with an expert. It is also a good idea to do some research first and have a questioning attitude to what you are taking and why. It is beneficial to think whether internal use is actually the best way or whether the essential oil could be applied in another less risky way and perhaps an even more effective way? You need to think whether what you are doing has the potential to harm your mucous membranes or oesophagus. By the way, the mucous membranes (the lining of the oesophagus) is very sensitive and has a thickness of only 1 cell.

Because essential oils are so ubiquitous in our food (citrus peels, herbs and spices and even as a food additive to chewing gums etc.) you might be right to question why would we even need to take them internally? As a professional aromatherapist, I would say that it is only okay if done rarely, temporarily and for acute conditions only. If we can achieve our wellness goals, or heal the ailment by diluting the essential oil in question in a carrier oil (coconut oil, sesame oil, olive oil etc.) and rubbing it onto our skin or putting a few drops into hot water, or into the diffuser and inhaling it, or by drinking the herbal tea form of the plant, then why would we take the essential oil in a more risky way when it is not necessary?



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