Aroma Basics

By Christina Wilke-Burbach PhD, RMT

Plants and botanicals have been used for thousands of years for health, healing, and wellness of mind, body and spirit. Over 40% of Americans continue to use some form of alternative medicine with natural substances (herbs, essential oils, supplements) at the top of the list. The use of aromatherapy has risen dramatically in recent years with many turning to essential oils to support a natural lifestyle free of toxins and pharmaceuticals.

But just because something is natural does not make it 100% safe.

The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA) in conjunction with the Atlantic Institute of Aromatherapy have started to collect data on essential oil adverse reactions. Their first report was published in April 2014. They found that 88% of adverse reactions from essential oils were due to using oils undiluted directly on the skin or from taking the oils internally. 50% of the individuals who had an adverse reaction had to seek out medical attention.

As an AromaHerbalist, Holistic Health Psychologist, and Aromatherapy Certification instructor, I have found that an overwhelming number of individuals are using essential oils with little to no training on safety and best practices. In addition, untrained salespeople with good intentions continue to disseminate unsafe information to the public. As a Business Member of the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA), I am committed to the highest level of safety and ethics and always strive to Do No Harm. I’d like to share some aromatherapy basics so you can safely harness the healing power of nature.

Essential oils are extremely concentrated. When you consider that distillation concentrates the chemistry of hundreds of pounds of plant material into an ounce or two of essential oil, the importance of safe dilution of the oil becomes readily apparent. Essential oils are not inherently dangerous, but there is a need to understand the full scope of essential oils including their safety. We need to band together and decrease unsafe aromatherapy practices before the government and FDA start regulating these products and take away our health freedom to choose alternative medicine techniques!

Using Essential Oils Directly on the Skin: All essential oils should be diluted before applying topically. Undiluted oils are drying to the skin, quickly evaporate, and are not effectively absorbed into the skin. Using oils undiluted can lead to allergic reactions, sensitization (an immune system reaction), and contact dermatitis. In addition, some oils can be quite caustic to the skin. If an oil gives you a burning sensation, this does not mean the oil is “working.” It means that you are starting the sensitization process and continued use of that undiluted oil could lead to a rash, itchiness, up to anaphylactic shock. The recommended dilution rate of essential oils for healthy adults is 2.5% to 5%. This is equivalent to 15-30 drops total in one ounce of a carrier oil. One ounce is roughly the size of a shot glass. (We live in Wisconsin, so I’m sure most people are familiar with the size of a shot glass). Carrier oils include coconut oil, grapeseed, jojoba, sunflower, sesame, and almond oil. For topical application on children 1-12 years old, lavender, chamomile, rose, neroli, orange, and tea tree are safe with a recommended dilution of 2-4 drops total per 1 fluid ounce carrier oil. On infants under one year of age, lavender, chamomile, and rose are generally safe for topical use. For topical application on infants, dilute first, 1-2 drops per 1 fluid ounce. Never use peppermint and eucalyptus with infants! These oils can cause respiratory distress.

Internal Use: Robert Tisserand, an international essential oil safety expert, as well as The Alliance of International Aromatherapists, National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy, Aromatherapy Trade Council, and International Federation of Aromatherapists state that only medical professionals who are qualified to diagnose illness and are qualified to prescribe medications should be recommending internal use. Essential oils are powerful medicines. There is a lot to consider when using oils internally such as medication interactions, contraindications, pharmacology, and toxic oils. Individuals using oils internally should be under the care of a Certified Aromatherapist or a medical professional with training in essential oils.

Inhalation: Inhaling essential oils is the safest and most effective way to use essential oils, especially in a diffuser. Inhaled essential oils exert their effect the quickest and have little side effects and interactions.

Other Safety Tips: Some essential oils should be avoided when pregnant, especially 1st trimester. Avoid aniseed, basil, birch, camphor, hyssop, mugwort, parsley seed and leaf, pennyroyal, sage, tansy, tarragon, thuja, wintergreen, and wormwood. Essential oils that appear to be safe include cardamon, German and Roman chamomile, frankincense, geranium, ginger, neroli, patchouli, petitgrain, rosewood, rose, and sandalwood.

Some oils (bergamot, all citrus oils, ginger, and angelica) can cause photosensitivity or photo-toxicity when exposed to sunlight/ultraviolet rays and can accelerate sunburn. Avoid exposure to sunlight/UV light for 24 hours after topical use of these oils.

Not all essential oils are suitable for use in aromatherapy. Wormwood, pennyroyal, onion, camphor, horseradish, wintergreen, rue, bitter almond and sassafras are some of the essential oils that should only be used by qualified aromatherapy practitioners, if ever at all. These oils have either been found to be carcinogenic, toxic, or highly interactive with medications.

Essential oils are damaged by heat, oxygen, and sunlight. Keep in amber or UV containers out of sunlight in a cool location. Refrigeration is highly recommended. Close your caps tightly.

Essential oils should never take the place of regular medical care.

War of the Companies: Don’t be misled by one or two companies that claim their oils are the only “pure” therapeutic grade oils. There are dozens of reputable essential oil companies with high quality oils. I support many companies and think everyone is drawn to the best companies for them, so please, let’s stop all the fighting.

Aromatherapy Certification: If you are interested in learning more about essential oils, safety, history, techniques, pharmacology, chemistry and in becoming a Certified Aromatherapist, CLICK HERE.

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About Dr. Christina Wilke-Burbach PhD: Christina is a leading aromatherapy professional and teacher in the Midwest. She has been professionally using aromatherapy for over 16 years. Christina is frequently interviewed for magazines and radio shows regarding aromatherapy. She is a holistic health psychologist, AromaHerbalist, wellness consultant, Reiki Master Teacher, ordained minister, intuitive, light worker, and an Awakening Your Light Body Graduate. Her business is Mind, Soul, and Self LLC based out of WI. She has her PhD in Health Psychology, a Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology, 2 bachelor degrees in Psychology and Cultural Anthropology, and a minor in Sociology. She has presented at academic conferences and has taught hundreds of classes, workshops, and group sessions throughout the Midwest. She is a published author and award winning researcher and healthcare provider. She combines science with intuition.

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