Aromatherapy-Are You Using it Wrong?

You’ve been hearing about essential oils from your friends and on social media and your curious. You do a little research and think you are using them correctly, only to later find out that you’re not. Or are you? There is a wealth of information about oils out there, but sadly not all of it is reliable or safe. Who do you believe?

The problem

Perhaps the biggest problem is we’ve forgotten how to use plant medicine.  Our ancestors used plants as their primary means of wellness and we are probably only the second or third generation that has grown up with primarily conventional medicine.

Medicine today is officially defined as the treatment and prevention disease, however often we skip the prevention part, wait for disease and then seek solutions. We have grown up with the idea that if we get sick or have a problem, we go to the doctor and get medicine to fix it. Certainly our problem today with antibiotic resistance is partially a result of doctors feeling pressured to give a pill for a viral illness so the patient felt like they walked out of the office with a cure.

Herbalism and aromatherapy don’t behave like a medicine. Yes, they do have properties and chemical components that are medicinal (and sometimes are extracted to create conventional medicines), but to fully understand them we need to think more holistically. Herbs and essential oils can support the body’s natural responses, but don’t necessarily target a specific problem. Those who have used oils for any length of time have experienced some amazing results. And maybe that is where the confusion lies, we see so many sources to tell us to use helichrysum for scars, or eucalyptus radiata for a cold virus and we understand it to mean that we can fix the problem with oils. We try it and indeed it helps.

Next thing you know, people are claiming you can cure cancer and fix cavities with essential oils.

I think it is useful to remember that almost everything that aromatherapy is good for, the body can handle on its own. Aromatherapy lends a helping hand and we get faster results, better results, and maybe emerge a little stronger and more resistant.

But how much is too much?

Conflicting messages to only use aromatherapy as needed, versus a philosophy that aromatherapy has a wide enough margin of safety that it is not likely to harm when used regularly cause further confusion.

Certainly, the internet is full of ideas of how to incorporate oils into more and more areas of your life. Diffuse them, roll them on, make perfume, put them in your lotions, clean with them, drink them, apply them to pressure points. And then we see others cautioning, be careful, less is more.

We know more now than we did then

As time marches on, we see more and more studies that help to paint a better picture not only for what is effective in aromatherapy but also what is safe. I just read the most entertaining book about quackery through the ages, but the thing to remember is at the time, these people fully believed in what they were doing. I am sure we can all think of something that we thought was true that has since been refuted (coffee and red wine used to be bad for you, the world used to be flat).

Always be learning

What this means is we are still learning how to really use aromatherapy. Modern aromatherapy is considered to date back to the 1930’s with Gattefosse. We don’t even have a hundred years under our belt. Yes, we have research going back to the 19th century on the antibacterial effects of oils, but as a practice we are younger than that.

Have you ever noticed that in health care, people have practices? Your doctor may be a family practice doctor, your dentist has a dental practice. It’s true, we graduate practitioners (see the word practice in there again?) who have just enough knowledge to safely be let loose and then they practice their art, learn, improve, and grow. A patient presents with a problem, and we try out what we have learned, or maybe read about in a journal and see what happens (while always remembering to do no harm). Through this we gain experience and learn what works first hand.

Many aromatherapy books are written based on the authors experiences. Because we have historically had a lack of evidence to guide us, we have guessed what an oil might do based on its historical herbal use and tried and tested it. Through this process of trial and error, we have learned much.

What’s your point?

So it may seem like I have been rambling a bit, so let me bring it all together. We don’t know if we are using aromatherapy right or wrong because we are still learning and evolving the practice of aromatherapy. We have some research, but not always human research, and we have the experiences and observations of a couple generations of aromatherapy pioneers to guide us.

So perhaps we should take a middle ground. We can’t say with certainty that overuse will bring lasting harm to us. Overuse will, however, tax the supply of genuine essential oils and we run the risk of overharvesting in order to keep up with demand. Responsible use is not only how much we use on ourselves, but also how our use impacts the environment. On the other hand, we shouldn’t be afraid to use oils when we need them. Essential oils generally have fewer adverse effects than pharmaceuticals.

Adopt a prudent approach

In low doses, it seems reasonable to use essential oils to support your health and appearance as much as is needed. Keep in mind that essential oils don’t cure disease. Instead, use them to support your body back to a state of wellness.

Keep current with the safety recommendations for the oils you are using. Pay particular attention to oils that should be used in low doses, low dilutions, or for short periods of time. If you have a medical condition or take medications, double check for interactions and precautions.

Don’t feel like you need to use essential oils in all areas of your life just because you can. Find companies you like that offer oils in small quantities or even sample sizes so you only buy as much as you might need for a couple years. (Except citrus oils which have a shorter shelf life of <1 year).  Use oils in responsible quantities, for your health, and the planet’s.


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