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What are Essential Oils Really? 3 Things to Know.

Updated: Jun 19, 2022

  1. Plants, Herbs and EOs

  2. "Eat This! It's Supposed to be Good for You."

  3. Training


1. Plants, Herbs and Essential Oils (EOs)

The commonality between herbs and essential oils is plants. There is evidence that plants have been used for medicine, healing and medicinal purposes for over 60,000 years. It wasn't until the 19th century, less than 200 years ago, that synthetic medicines were developed - most of what we take today as our prescription drugs. Using plants, growing them yourself or purchasing them locally, and using them for medicinal and healing purposes has been and still is something people are involved in all over the world. Both herbal medicine and using essential oils, known in practice as aromatherapy, came from this history and practice. However, over time, both have also become, in some ways, very different things, and it is in your best interest to know the differences.

I have studied and became certified as a medical aromatherapist, using EOs. I have not studied herbal medicine nor become a medical herbalist. I am not trying to convince anyone that one is better or worse than the other; they are both beneficial. I am just noting a couple important differences, with the main intention that you understand EOs better.

1) Herbal medicine takes a plant, plants you can grow or buy somewhat inexpensively, and uses them in that form. They may be taken out of the person's back yard the day you need it. They can be cooked, put into hot water to make a tea, or otherwise used for the purpose of being ingested. They can be put on the skin in a paste, but there is a higher likelihood of the plant being used for medicine or ingestion. Essential Oils are extracts from plants - maybe from the bark, the flower, or some other part of the plant - the "smelly" stuff "pulled" out of the plant to make a high concentration of that extract (click here for good information about extraction methods). This takes many plants and often expensive extraction methods to create a small amount. EOs are mostly used for being diffused in the air for respiratory inhalation, put on the skin, sometimes via a hot bath, and sometimes ingested.

2) EOs are sold widely, as are herbs in pill form. Both attempt to address shelf life, meaning keeping the product/plant from going bad. Fresh plants from the yard or grown locally will go bad, but are often only picked the day of need by the herbalist. EOs can and mostly should be diluted in a quality base oil, however, oils like almond oil or coconut oil grow bacteria rapidly (limited shelf life) and should not be ingested.

2. "Eat This! It's Supposed to be Good for You."

Did your parents ever say to you as a child something like this, "Just because your friend jumped off a roof, does that mean you should?" Mine did. It was the logic that you should think for yourself, and not just do something because someone else did it or someone else said you should do it. This lack of thinking is happening a lot today in regard to EOs. Your friend is selling an EO, and she was told it is good to put into your tea when you have a cold, so you buy it and drop it into your tea. Okay - it could be nothing happens, or it could be that you get an upset stomach or worse. Why would you put something in your tea without a reason to believe it is beneficial to you? And yet marketing in the area of EOs has people doing all sorts of things.

Let me give you an example. Citrus EOs (lemon, sweet orange, bergamot, lime, mandarin, tangerine, etc) are extracted via hot water distillation from the peel. We don't eat the peel, do we? But we do take the "smelly" stuff from the peel to make the citrus EO. Research has shown that citrus flavors, when diffused in the air and inhaled, tend to increase or stimulate appetite - stimulating certain brain centers. Diffusing one of these EOs may be a great thing to do around your grandparent with dementia who forgets to eat or your picky eater/underweight child, especially if they like the smell. However, citrus EOs are also known to be sensitizers, meaning they cause skin reactions and cause you to burn easily in the sun, so why would you put it on anyone's skin like perfume? These EOs are also known to oxidize; they are not stable chemicals. Putting them in the refrigerator can slow the oxidation process, but not knowing when the EO is or is not good to drop in your tea is a health risk.

3. Training

The training for herbalist vs aromatherapist are quite different. Both learn about plants and fungus (35 phyla for plants and 8 phyla for fungus, for example), however, aromatherpists study extraction methods and how that changes the chemistry of the product, for example. Aromatherapists learn about gas chromatography (GC) testing, so the therapist can better understand what chemical make up is in that 'lot' of EO. On the other hand, the herbalist is getting a masters degree in nutrition, herbology and natural medicine or a similar degree program.

Both herbalists and aromatherapists look at efficacy or research, as to what is and is not the best practice. However, most people are doing things on their own, willy-nilly, with herbs and EOs. At the very least, they are spending a lot of money and not really knowing what may or may not help them or harm them.

My suggestion when using EOs, the reason you came to this article, is you either go to or consult an aromatherpist or read some research to make a better decision about what EOs to buy and how to use them. Feel free to comment on this post or email me with any thoughts or questions.


Bonus thought - If you are getting advise from someone with no training, even if they sell an EO, think twice about ingesting it or putting it on your skin.

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