Essential Oils: What They Are (And Aren’t)


There seems to be a lot of interest – and misunderstanding – surrounding essential oils these days.  Lots of people – myself included – are looking for ways to get away from unnecessary chemicals and drugs and essential oils are being touted as an all-natural answer to all kinds of ills.  Let me offer a little dose of reality here and talk about what they actually are and, more importantly, what they are not.  I’ve been using them around my house for about fifteen years and you can read about how we use them in our products here.

So what are essential oils?

Essential oils are highly concentrated oils extracted from plants.  They are said to carry the “essence” of the plant, retaining its characteristic fragrance and other compounds.  The word “essential” comes from the word “essence” and does not mean that the oils are “essential” as in “absolutely necessary” for anything.  They have been used for centuries in remedies for various ailments.

Depending on the plant, the oils are extracted by processes called distillation, expression or solvent extraction.  It just depends on how tenaciously the plant wants to hang on to its oil.  The more difficult is it to extract the essential oil from a particular plant the more expensive that oil will be.  It is relatively easy to express orange essential oil from the rind of the fruit and therefore orange essential oil is one of the more inexpensive ones – maybe $5 per ounce.  On the other hand, it is very time-consuming and somewhat difficult to distill the essential oils of sandalwood and only fraction of an ounce can cost $75 or more.

What properties do essential oils have?

Essential oils are considered volatile, meaning that they are somewhat fragile and evaporate easily, so they are not useful in any application that requires a lot of heat.  This is where synthetic fragrances may come into play.  For instance, some essential oils cannot be used in soap making because they will “burn off” in the process, so a fragrance oil may be used to get a similar scent.

Some essential oils come from plants that contain small amounts of antimicrobial compounds that serve to protect the plants.  As a result, some essential oils may have antibacterial and antifungal properties but are not effective for treating large-scale infections.  When essential oils are diluted, which they must be, their antimicrobial properties are even further diminished.  It’s important to note here that essential oils must always be diluted and should never be used straight from the bottle.  The concentrated oils are much too strong and can be anywhere from slightly irritating to dangerously toxic.

Lavender, basil, rosemary and favorite herbs.

Lavender, basil, rosemary and thyme…my favorite herbs.

How are they useful?

Essential oils’ power is in their aroma.  Since each essential oil retains the characteristic aroma of its particular plant, they are best used in aromatherapy — scenting bath and body products and reed-type diffusers — but they are poor choices for candles or heated diffusers because they evaporate so easily.   The aromas of essential oils are pure yet complex, clean yet powerful and have much more dimension than synthetic fragrances.  They are my first choice when scenting our products and I use them whenever I can.

Our sense of smell is a powerful one.  The part of our brain that processes scents is the same region that is associated with memories and emotions.  That means that particular aromas can evoke feelings of happiness, relaxation, anxiety, or even sadness.  It is also why a scent can instantly transport us to a time in our past.  It is through our sense of smell that essential oils work their magic, not by taking them internally or by absorbing them through our skin (more about that in a minute).  A relaxing scent will lower our blood pressure and heart rate and may even stimulate the production of chemicals in our bodies that make us feel happy and lessen our pain.

People have been taking advantage of essential oils’ powerful scents for hundreds of years and many of their traditional uses have been backed up by recent scientific study.  For example, this study reinforced previous research on the memory-boosting effects of rosemary.  As Shakespeare’s Ophelia said in Hamlet:  “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.”  Aromatherapy with essential oils is also recommended by the American Cancer Society as complementary to conventional treatments for managing pain, lowering stress levels, reducing nausea and promoting feelings of well-being.  Pretty powerful, huh?

Inhaling camphorous oils like eucalyptus, rosemary, cedar, pine and peppermint can help alleviate sinus congestion caused by a cold or allergies.  When one of us has a stuffy nose, I put a few drops of oil on a cotton ball, place the cotton ball in a little glass bowl and let the scent diffuse throughout the room without heating it.  This is great in the bathroom while soaking in a hot tub and is nice in a bedroom with a humidifier to help open up nasal passages while we sleep.  Again, concentration is key because too much of these aromatic oils can actually irritate sinuses and cause them to be even more inflamed.

As for the properties beyond their scents, the mild antimicrobial properties of essential oils are welcome in natural deodorants and seem to be helpful in staving off stinky bacteria in otherwise generally clean armpits.  Same goes for foot powders.  They are also useful for repelling insects as their essential compounds probably performed that function while the plant was alive.  I like to use them in bug-repelling lotion bars and dog soap.

How are they NOT useful?

I find it a bit disturbing that so many “practitioners” – from massage therapists to newly-indoctrinated multi-level marketing reps – are recommending essential oils to cure diseases and conditions.  They are capable of changing your state of mind through your sense of smell but they are not the panacea they are made out to be.

Yes, they have been in use for a thousand years.  Yes, using them correctly may help certain conditions.  Their antimicrobial properties are grossly overstated, though and should never be relied upon to cure an infection.  If used incorrectly — either taken internally or not properly diluted — they can be downright dangerous, especially to children and pregnant women.

Let me be clear:  I believe that antibiotics are grossly overprescribed and I avoid them until they are absolutely necessary (my oldest child is almost 12 and has only taken them twice in her life…my almost-six-year-old has taken them once).  But think about it:  if essential oils cure everything that the “practitioners” claim they do and if this “wisdom” has existed for centuries, then why are there so many graves of babies and young children as we walk through old cemeteries?  How did the Bubonic Plague wipe out a full third of the population of Europe?  Why was the discovery of penicillin so important?

Do the research for yourself and always, always be wary of where your information is coming from.  I know it’s nice to believe that essential oils are some kind of forgotten goldmine of natural healing power but, realistically, they’re just not.

Our illnesses and chronic conditions are more likely to be prevented and alleviated by changing our diets…the powerful scents of essential oils are best used to improve our state of mind which, in turn, can improve our health.

This Indian research studied the antibacterial properties of several essential oils against common household bacteria including Staphylococcus aureus,  E. coli and other bugs that are probably in your house right now.  It found that many of them did kill a small number of bacteria but concentrations of the oils needed to be relatively high.  The conclusion of the study was that the antibacterial compounds in cinnamon oil were the only ones out of the 21 essential oils studied that were worth pursuing for medicinal purposes, stating:  “Additional in vivo studies and clinical trials would be needed to justify and further evaluate the potential of this oil as an antibacterial agent in topical or oral applications.”

It is interesting to note that lavender, eucalyptus, peppermint and basil essential oils were the worst performers with eucalyptus oil being virtually useless against the six common bacteria.  Funny, this article on Natural News says this about the germ killing power of eucalyptus oil: “For example, place a two percent mixture in an aroma burner to kill 70 percent of staphylococcus bacteria in a room”.  To claim that an aroma diffusing through the air will gobble up 70 percent of anything is laughable, especially since Staph is commonly found on surfaces, not floating through the air.

This article, also on Natural News, states that “lavender is an exceptional bactericide” and admonishes readers to “fend off infectious disease with lavender”.  It also says that diffusing a few drops into a room will sanitize the air.  Here we go again.  Killing germs in the air.  Well, sorry, folks.  These kinds of claims just don’t stand up to controlled, scientific study.

Lavender is an undisputedly wonderful scent that can promote feelings of relaxation and clarity of mind — it’s one of my favorites! — but I would never rely on it to kill pathogens.  That incredible-smelling tea tree and lavender soap I’m using doesn’t kill germs because it’s made with two of the most-recommended essential oils for killing germs.  It kills germs because it’s SOAP!


In addition to using them in bath and body products, I also use essential oils in some of my household cleaning products like laundry detergent and surface-cleaning spray but, again, it’s really for their scent.  The soap and vinegar I use in those things are doing the disinfecting, not the oils.  If I were to use the amount of essential oil necessary to actually kill all the germs on my kitchen counter, in the bathroom or somewhere else that is pretty germy, I would have an oily mess.  The aroma would be too intense to stay in the room and I would have to wear gloves to keep from getting it on my skin.  Not to mention how expensive that would be…

“But aren’t they safer than synthetic oils or medicines?  Isn’t natural always better?”

Balance, my friends.  No, natural is not always safer.  Cyanide is all-natural, isn’t it?  Hemlock is a pretty little herb.  Would you let your kids play with oleander leaves?  I sincerely hope not.  Penicillin, the first antibiotic useful for treating large-scale infections, is natural as well — it is produced by a fungus.  As for synthetic fragrance oils, here’s my take on them.  We should research the things that concern us and then make our choices, not the other way around.

What is your experience with essential oils?  How do you use them?



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