“People who know me, know I love America and Americans, but on the question of essential oils, I am knocked to the ground by the method of selling and exploiting these precious plant medicines and by the conflict that seems to exist within the aromatherapy world itself.
It makes me very sad.”
~ French Herbalist, Cathy Skipper (quoted from this article)
It is with great love, concern and respect for the plant kingdom that I write this post. As a Community Herbalist, I feel it is my responsibility to offer information to the community I serve. Please read this post and SHARE if you resonate with what I write.
(For the record, I do use essential oils ~ but *very, very* sparingly. For example, in one quart of herb-infused oil with melted beeswax to make salve, I would use about 10-13 drops of lavender essential oil. The reason I am posting this on essential oils, is because ~ just like everyone else ~ I am exploring right relationship with this type of herbal preparation.)
There is a deep, rich, long line of herbalist traditions on every continent of the planet. Most of these traditions use plants in their raw form, infusing plant material in vinegars, wines, honey, milk, alcohol, and water for their healing affects on the body. Traditional herbalists use their personal experience and senses, draw on traditional lineages, and tap into folk medicine ways. As well, many American Herbalists read empirical literature of Ecclectic & Physio-medical physicians for their understanding of plants and the human system.
Collectively, these practitioners write and speak with a balanced perspective on essential oils as they are not associated with a company nor do they typically sell essential oils themselves. That is where I draw my information from, as well as listening to my own intuition on the matter based on my relationship with plants. Considering that most of what is written about essential oils comes from the companies that create them (or representatives that sell them), I urge us all to use caution with these preparations.
I am a steward to plants. It all began when a traditional herbalist gave me a tincture to take ~ some 12 years ago ~ that helped me with arrhythmia, insomnia, and dizzy spells. This formula also gave me enough space in my life to make dietary changes and lifestyle changes to continue my healing process. I knew that after such deep healing had occurred for me, that I wanted to steward a positive and loving relationship with plants. They helped me take the first steps to heal my heart and I am forever indebted.
My studies began with the insight and relief from that healing experience 12 years ago. Since then, I’ve studied with some amazing herbalists in this country. After the long road of bringing my mind, body, and spirit back into balance, I felt that I could return the favor and help people bring plants into their lives and encourage a balanced relationship with them. (Check out the resource linked at the bottom of the page to find out what herb teacher, school, or conference is in your area).
With that said, I have been listening to what friends have been telling me about their experiences in their respective communities with essential oil representatives from big companies. More and more women are coming up to me to voice their concern over the growing hysteria around them.
Just within the past two days, two concerned women came up to me to ask me about my opinion on essential oils. They said that many in their peer groups have become evangelical in their approach to essential oils and these two women were feeling ‘hazed’ ~ to say the least ~ by representatives from different companies.
My response was:
1 – use a lot of caution regarding internal use and please consult a trained practitioner if you decide to use them internally! (I know Clinical Herbalists that only use them in very specific situations of bacterial infection; and only when other whole herbs are not available.)
2 – use them topically only and diluted well in a carrier oil and/or via inhalation; use very small amounts
3 – stay away from the use of essential oils derived from endangered and threatened plants (unless you have a lineage-based relationship with that plant, meaning you are a healer from the region that plant comes from)
4 – use flower essences for mood and emotional/energetic qualities instead of essential oils (much gentler and kinder to the plant kingdom and very effective)
5 – PLEASE get to know the plants yourselves and take your time with them
6 – use essential oils that are from common and overabundant plants like lavender, rosemary, eucalyptus and peppermint
7 – do not give to your children orally and use *very* small amounts topically, diluted in a carrier oil or salve (however, when you can, use an oil infused with whole plant material which is ideal for children in regards to safety); PLEASE do not use on infants and toddlers!
8 – when you are able, purchase essential oils from small-batch distributors that are not anchored in tiered marketing
9 – use essential oils at last resort or only for a very specific purpose and situation that whole plant material cannot be used (for example, I know of some herbalists who did medical relief work in a tropical environment and essential oils were key in treating some bacterial infections and issues)
10 – enjoy exploring other herbal preparations: infusions, decoctions, infused oils (using whole plant material), teas, flower essences, tinctures, glycerites, dream pillows, sitz baths, smudge bundles, etc
The bottom line is that essential oils are extremely powerful and sacred. They traditionally were used to anoint oneself and divine objects during religious ceremony or ritual. They have a special feature in that the medicine from the volatile oils gets into the bloodstream via topical application, and potentially even through the olfactory system (just inhaling them).
There is a specific time and place to use an essential oil. Jen Landry, who wrote the first article linked to below says that, “I have used essential oils in my practice and in my first aid kit, but based on these concerns I have drastically reduced their presence. I have come to the realization that an essential oil is often like ‘using a sledgehammer to crack a nut’.”
There are many ways to work with and prepare herbs. The first approach with plants needs to be the most gentle on the plant kingdom and your body. Unless you are in a critical situation that points directly to essential oil use (as in an emergency first aid situation), there are many other ways to take plants into your system.
The most subtle way is sitting by the plant and not disturbing it and just basking in its presence. The next is rubbing it’s leaves for scent (if it is an aromatic plant) or nibbling on a leaf or petal. The next is making a flower essence from the blossoms. The next is harvesting some and making a tea, infusion, or tincture. And so on and so forth…
Essential oil production happens to be the most invasive form of herbal preparation that I know of. For example, to make 1 pound of rose essential oil, 5000-10,000 pounds of rose petals need to be gathered and distilled. To me that is a tragedy on the plant kingdom when maybe all someone needed to do was smell a rose or sip on some rose petal tea. Rose petal tea is just divine, sweeten it with a little honey and experience how your mind shifts with this legendary plant ally.
To me, the plight of the original frankincense forest in Somalia really symbolizes the cost of the current popularity of essential oils. Here is an excerpt from the article I linked to:
While local people in Somaliland have harvested frankincense for millenniums, the current rhythm to meet the global appetite for essential oils leaves few options for sustainability – and these ancestral forests cannot replenish fast enough to survive the current overharvesting.
“Frankincense has been harvested in a sustainable manner for millions of years,” Awale said. “But the rise in the global demand has completely changed it.”
Harvesting in an unsustainable way means making a higher number of cuts per tree to extract as much sap as possible and tapping the trees year-round rather than seasonally. These practices weaken the trees, impede them from recovering and, ultimately, means they end up dying.
It’s our responsibility to take care of our plant allies. Our relationship with them has everything to do with our humanity and our place in the web of life. To me, restoring our humanity by tapping into our heart-ethic will make us feel better, not the exploitation of an herbal ally due to marketing trends and schemes.
Again, the bottom line of this article is that essential oils are one of MANY kinds of herbal preparations. They truly have their place in the spectrum of plant medicine uses and applications. They are extremely potent and need to be used in an ethical, strategic, and skilled manner. This blog post serves to high-light these points and deepen our exploration of working with plants.
An incomplete list of essential oils and herbs, to avoid due to threats to the species (list below is mostly summarized by common name or genus but some threats are species and/or location specific for detailed information go to Cropwatch Threatened Species list):
Thyme oil (Thymus moroderis, Thymus baetigus, Thymus zygis gracilis are threatened)
Kenyan cedarwood oil, Himalayan cedarwood oil, Cedrus atlantica (Cedar atlas oil)
Greater wormwood oil
Anise scented myrtle oil, Havoso tree oil, Origanum oils (species include Origanum barygli
Origanum dictamus, Origanum vetter)
Buchu oils (Agathosma betulina, Agathosma crenulata)
For further reading on essential oils ~
Another article (Feb 2019) on endangered and threatened plant species due to essential oil consumption.
Please read this well-written and comprehensive article by Jen Landry
Essential Oil Safety ~ a comprehensive textbook on the subject
Essential Oil University on Facebook
Mountain Rose Herbs Hazards, Warnings, and Guidelines on essential oil use
Aromatherapy United files complaint pointed at Young Living and doTerra
Ethical Aromatherapy is a FB group discussing the safe and ethical use of essential oils
For those of you interested in herbal medicine ~