Essential Oils-The Basics: Uses, Cautions and Breastfeeding

As an Herbalist and Lactation Consultant, I get, read and hear some great and even some unusual and even disturbing things about Essential Oils. There is confusion on what an essential oil is, how it is supposed to work and how many treat themselves and even consume these things called in short EO’s. Sometimes I just shudder. 

Essential oils are made to work through the limbic and olfactory systems in the brain. Smells can recall memories both good and bad. These smell can also trigger healing functions in the body. Think of smells that can calm, alarm and even make you sick. Just think of the smell of cookies, vanilla, skunk, coffee, lavender, heather, burning wood and a fresh rose or rosemary. Each of these can bring back memories both good and bad.

Essential oils are made in two ways. Most are distilled from the plant or flower and are the consistency of water or very light oil. They are not thick or what we would feel is greasy. Some Essential oils are heavier and more viscous if they come from a resinous plant such as Frankinsence, Copal Resin, or Myrrh. Some EO’s are cold pressed, but few are. To get essential oil it takes a lot of the plant material to make even one ounce. It takes 1,000 pounds of rose petals to get one (1) ounce of rose essential oil. These oils can be and are expensive depending on the plant material used.

Essential oils are not Tinctures, those are the flower or plant material placed in consumable alcohol (vodka, wine, or other grain alcohol)  and allowed to extract medicinal properties of the plant.

Fragrance oils are not Essential oils. These are oils that can be made in a laboratory, and may or may not include the actual EO or the plant material. These are used in perfumes, soaps and other items. The cost is much cheaper than essential oils. Their consistency is more oily,  and these are more likely to contain adulterants.

Infused oils are not EO’s. Infused oils are plant materials placed in carrier oil and are usually used for fragrance, cooking and flavoring foods. The herbs are placed in olive, shea, cocoa, jojoba, almond or coconut oils and allowed to sit for weeks to extract flavors and smell of things like rosemary, garlic, peppers. These types are edible. Plain of these olive, and other oils are called Carrier Oils. These are what you are to dilute essential oils in before application.

Gas Chromatography is the standard test of excellence for each oil as to smell, weight and viscosity. If a company cannot supply a copy of this test for you, i would not use them. Look for bottles that say “therapeutic grade” on them. This action is what most massage and other therapists look for when selecting oils. Make sure they are kept in dark bottles, brown, blue or green, and away from sunlight or extremes of temperatures. Never store in a refrigerator.

Cautions with essential oils. Essential oils, no matter what some sales people tell you, ARE NOT for Oral consumption. Even when diluted into lots of water, or other beverages. True example, a friend of mine who is a singer, had sore throat so she used a lemon and myrrh in her water to drink for a sore throat. even 1 drop of each in 8 ounces of water, burned her throat so bad, she had to wait for 8 months to get her voice back, She wasn”t able to talk well for weeks, and yes it too that long to heal her throat and vocal cords to be able to sing. Very rare are the ones that can be used orally.

Oils should not be applied “neat”. There are oils that can be applied neat,or undiluted, like lavender, and tea tree for certain issues. However, take into consideration where you are applying them! Sore nipples, lips, genitalia, burns, can cause further damage and irritation. Before application, take a good amount of a carrier oil and place a drop or two of essential oils in and shake. Then apply that to the skin. Do not place on an infant or child’s face. feet are acceptable and small amounts of oil can be used in a diffuser for a room. Some essential oils can dry up a supply and use caution. I will get to those in a later blog. Again if applying to breasts, use a carrier oil and not directly on nipples. Do not get in or around the eye area. Always wash you hands after handling essential oils.