People tend to think that because they come from plants, essential oils are always safe and beneficial to use. But essential oils are highly concentrated and extremely powerful, are harvested and processed on an industrial scale, have big impacts on plants and communities, and should be used sparingly, with caution and respect.
If you’re making efforts to reduce your reliance on supermarkets and your participation in the global economy, you’re probably making some basic personal care or healthcare items yourself at home. And Yay for you if you are!
But there’s a common ingredient included in most DIY personal care or heath care recipes that I think needs much more careful consideration than it’s getting, and that’s the topic of this post.
Essential oils are concentrated, volatile oils obtained from aromatic plants usually by steam distillation or with chemical solvents, or by various other methods. Flowers, leaves, needles, fruit peel, wood, and roots are all plant parts that can yield essential oils.
Essential oil use has surged dramatically recently thanks to clever marketing and tiered marketing schemes. A market research study states that the essential oil market size was valued at USD7.03 billion in 2018 and is predicted to reach USD 14.6 billion by 2022.
Make no mistake: this is not cozy, hearth-side herbal home remedies by the people and for the people. It’s resource-intense big industry and big business.
Such rapid, industrial-style growth raises significant questions: Are the oils being used safely in terms of people’s health?
Are they being used with respect for the lineages of herbal knowledge and the plants that they originated with?
And, where are they coming from? What is the impact of their production and processing on the plant populations, communities, and ecosystems that produce them?
Like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut…
Essential oils are promoted as natural; the implication is that they are always safe and beneficial to use. But in fact, they’re highly concentrated, extremely powerful, sacred substances that can both heal and harm.
In her article, “A Survivors Guide to the Essential Oil Craze,” herbalist Lindsay Kolasa cautions that essential oils “have a special feature in that the medicine from the volatile oils gets into the bloodstream via topical application, and potentially … just [by] inhaling them.”
… Essential oils are extremely powerful and sacred.
In the same article, she quotes another herbalist, Jen Landry, as saying:
“… I have drastically reduced [my use of essential oils]. I have come to the realisation that an essential oil is often like ‘using a sledgehammer to crack a nut’.”
Potential undesirable effects of careless use
Herbalist and health educator Susun Weed is another writer who cautions against careless use of essential oils. Her article “Herbal Oils, Infused vs. Essential” gives a good overview.
Susun Weed doesn’t mince words. She points out that:
- essential oils are poisonous internally and problematic externally if used improperly.
- essential oils are capable of killing normal as well as abnormal cells, and severely disrupting liver and kidney function.
Susun Weed’s voice is one of the more direct voices out there on the topic, but she is far from the only one.
Herbalists and aromatherapists list a number of other concerns around the potential impact of overuse or careless use of essential oils on our health:
Allergies, sensitivities, and irritation
Allergic reactions and sensitivities can occur with the first use of an essential oil and can also develop with continued use. They may manifest as sneezing, itchy eyes, headaches, skin irritation or rashes, or severe respiratory distress.
Imposing scents on others
We all have a right to breath clean air. In my mind this is violated when strong scents (of any kind) are used in personal care, beauty, or cleaning products, particularly in situations where the smeller cannot easily escape the smell.
The frequent use of essential oils can result in the desensitisation of our sense of smell.
Comparing ourselves to other species, we think of humans has having a poor sense of smell, but in actual fact we use our noses far more than we realise.
Our sense of smell helps us with all kinds of things, like:
- discerning if a food is fresh or rancid and (regardless of freshness) whether it’s the right thing to eat at that moment;
- identifying and choosing plants in the garden;
- identifying and choosing seasonings and preparation steps in the kitchen;
- bonding with our children and each other (smelling the top of any baby’s head—not just your own baby—can help you calm yourself and access a more calm, nurturing state of mind);
- recognising dangers like the smell of a gas leak or a fire, or other environmental toxins.
Overuse of essential oils (or any other strong scents) harms our sense of smell.
Susun Weed points out that the overuse of essential oil scents harms the ability to discern the subtleties of scent in whole plants in much the same way that the use of white sugar harms our ability to appreciate the flavours of whole foods.
Studies conducted about the antibacterial properties of essential oils compare them to antibiotics and suggest that they may be an effective alternative to antibiotics.
We know that antibiotics should not be used regularly, preventatively or without the oversight of a medical professional. In light of their effect on microbial life, the same sorts of cautions should be exercises in using essential oils.
Besides their potent effect on our health, the harvesting, production, use, and disposal of essential oils all have ramifications that essential oil users need to know about.
Concerns around production and overharvesting
Essential oils are harvested and processed on industrial scales.
The percentage of essential oil that a plant yields varies with the plant species and other factors, but in simple terms, in order to produce a single kilogram of essential oil, enormous quantities of plant material are required.
For example, approximately 20,000kg of rose petals, 500kg of lavender, or 3,000 kg of lemons, respectively, are needed to produce 1kg of essential oil from that plant.
For plants grown commercially, such as lavender or roses, this means huge, corporate, industrial monocultures and the use of herbicides and pesticides to maintain them. (Most essential oils are not organically grown.)
With essential oils from rare or endangered plants, the picture is even worse: many are being pushed towards extinction by exploitative harvesting.
Impacts of use and disposal
Aside from the environmental impacts associated with growing and harvesting essential oils, they also come with ecological and disposal issues.
Most essential oils are extremely flammable, so the containers holding them cannot be recycled unless the oil is washed out first. Some cities require that containers of flammable liquids be trashed rather than recycled since even trace amounts of flammable liquid pose a danger in recycling plants.
Many oils are also toxic to aquatic life and have long-lasting impacts on marine ecosystems.
Most also come with a warning that the oils should not come in contact with water supplies or groundwater, meaning they should never be washed down the drain or flushed down the toilet.
These concerns are magnified when you realise the quantities of essential oils being produced, and the expected growth of the industry. In 2018 around 226.9 kilotons of essential oils were produced and disposed of; by 2025 it’s expected to be around 404.2 kilotons.
I had never heard of “kilotons” before I researched this article. It means 1000 tones.
If you still choose to use them…
For me, these realisations are more than enough to make me seriously reconsider my use of essential oils for any purpose.
If you’ve been using them for a while and feel unsure about how you’d get along without them, here are some suggestions that might be helpful.
- Do your research on the sources of the oils you use.
- Boycott the use of oils from rare or endangered plants. You’ll find lists of them available on the internet; I’ve offered one at the top of the list of Sources (below).
- Steer clear of companies that used tiered marketing of essential oils unless you feel seriously well-equipped to navigate their claims.
To safe guard your health and the health of those you might administer essential oils to, consider following guidelines like these:
- Do not take them internally.
- Dilute them in a carrier oil and use very small amounts.
- Avoid using them for children under about 12 years of age and never for toddlers or babies.