Essential oils seem to be everywhere. You can walk into your local natural food store and buy them, you can order them online, and many of us know someone who is earning extra money as a distributor for one of the multi-level marketing brands.
But, how many of us really know how to use them safely? This question came to mind when I saw a blaring title on WebMD proclaiming, “Essential Oils Promise Help, But Beware the Risks.”1
It made me realize that even in my local natural food store, the only guidance available is reading the tiny labels on the tiny bottles—which is another way of saying there might be a smidgen of info about a particular essential oil, but not much info about using essential oils safely. Online retailers offer all kinds of information, but it is often difficult to assess the credibility of what is written. The multi-level marketing companies provide training to their representatives, but how in-depth is the training?
The WebMD article focuses on the experiences of Stacey Haluka, a Canadian motivational speaker and writer. Her story went like this, “She infused her water with citrus oils said to detoxify and lathered her skin with stress-relieving lavender. When a faint rash appeared on her forearm, a salesperson told her it was a normal ‘detox’ reaction and advised her to rub frankincense oil on it. She obliged.”1 After a few months, Stacey developed a severe reaction to her essential oil regimen with symptoms that landed her in the ER ranging from swollen eyes, welts, and blisters.
Stacey authored a book entitled The Unspoken Truth About Essential Oils: Lessons Learned, Wisdom Gained in which she describes unpleasant effects that linger several years later. The Amazon description of the book reads like this: “You are about to embark upon a journey that may shock you and cause disbelief, however, the fact remains that this is a true story. In fact, it is this truth that some essential oil corporations want to hide from you. In this book, Stacey takes you along on her raw and real journey that is eye-opening for the reader. She will reveal the unspoken truth about essential oils so that you can learn the lessons from her experience. Her story is not unique and can happen to anyone, at any time. You will want to read this truth to prevent harming yourself, or anyone you love.”2 It should be mentioned, Stacey is suing the company she bought the essential oils from.
One has to wonder, how did Stacey’s essential oil misadventures happen? The WebMD account quotes Joie Power, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist and aromatherapist, who expresses her thoughts on the source of the problem: “‘Essential oils, properly used, are safe and effective for many routine issues, but I continue to hear of bad, even dangerous, reactions from people who are grossly misusing them,’ says Power. ‘People are being hurt by following some of the inappropriate advice that’s being given out there.” That ‘inappropriate advice’ often comes from manufacturers’ representatives, she says.”1 It’s important to note the key word “often” to be clear that Dr. Power is not saying reps always provide inappropriate advice.
Here’s some thoughtful advice from Dr. Axe that will help get you started safely with essential oils (however, we encourage you to do additional research):
And what of the advice from other “experts”? In digging through the arguments about who is most qualified to say what about essential oil use and safety, one soon finds that many “independent” experts have either founded EO companies or work for them. It is understandable that they are driven by a passion for the field. They may not have hidden marketing agendas, but it would be opening a hornet’s nest to try to sort out which people associated with which companies might be more objective than others. The best we can do is try to be alert for conflicts of interest and compare information from several sources to get a solid picture for ourselves.
An advocacy group called Essential Oil Consumer Safety Advocates (EOCSA) observes that lists, charts, and memes with general guidelines about how to use EOs are not the same thing as “instructionals, educational lessons, study guides or valid medical protocols to base your personal health and life on… Real education and true empowerment to make informed choices for your health and personal care is not going to happen if you keep relying on the tools of the internet age as your main sources of information to build your knowledge base and understanding.”3
Here is a summary of just some suggestions offered in an EOCSA blog for how to handle the start of your own journey with essential oils:3
- Effective and safe use of essential oils comes with personal responsibility and accountability.
- We need to stop thinking aromatherapy is black and white and treat it with the respectful balance it deserves.
- We need to move away from treating aromatherapy like it’s a drive-thru window where you drive up, place your order, pick it up and move on.
- We need to stop looking to laypersons, bloggers and company representatives for expert advice.
- We need to stop looking for quick fixes and easy answers.
Maybe this is the best bottom line for where to start that also comes from the Essential Oil Consumer Safety Advocates: “Essential oils are extremely concentrated, potent chemicals with great potential to help. But with that comes the great potential to harm as well. You just can’t buy a few bottles or a kit of essential oils, dive in head first and expect it to work out. You need to do your research BEFORE you pick up your first bottle of essential oil or aromatherapy product.”3
For readers who want to learn more about the proper use and safety of essential oils, there are some interesting opportunities available for free. One of my favorites is from the University of Minnesota’s Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing that offers Learning Modules for Healthcare Professionals.4 Topics range from Clinical Aromatherapy, Healing Touch, Reiki and much more. The Clinical Aromatherapy module discusses everything from basic definitions to safety to case studies and even licensure. It is definitely worth the estimated 2.5 hours it takes to work your way through the sections.
1Marshall L. Essential Oils Promise Help, But Beware the Risks. WebMD. 13 August 2018.
2Haluka S, Fioravanti K. The Unspoken Truth About Essential Oils: Lessons Learned, Wisdom Gained. Amazon Digital Services LLC. 2018.
3Essential Oil Consumer Safety Advocates. Are You Living and Learning by Sound Bites and Eye Candy? 28 November 2016.
4University of Minnesota Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing. Learning Modules for Healthcare Professionals. Clinical Aromatherapy.
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