I learned the hard way to respect the power of essential oils. Thankfully, I didn’t suffer any severe injury, but many people haven’t been so lucky. Essential oils are powerful tools for use in a rustic life. They can serve as medicines, perfumes, ointments, and mood changers. But as the ancient Greeks used to say, everything in moderation. And when it comes to essential oils, not knowing what a “moderate” amount means for each particular distillate can spell disaster.
My intention with this post is not to scare you away from using essential oils. As I’ve said they are very powerful tools. But just as a hammer can either drive a nail into a board or smash your thumb depending on how you use it, so too can essential oils heal or harm us.
What Are Essential Oils
You may already know that an essential oil is the “distillate” of a plant after it has been boiled at a particular temperature and for a certain period of time. This process is done in a special apparatus known as an Alembic.
Although the process can vary depending upon the plant, most essential oils are made by steeping the plant matter in water and boiling them in the alembic. At the right temperature, the essential oil begins to creep up the sides of the vessel and then down the connecting tube. This tube is usually chilled with cold water from the outside, or simply air, allowing the essential oil to liquefy and then drip into another vessel for capturing it.
The product that we get, the essential oil, is actually made up of hundreds of organic compounds. Examples of such compounds include eugenol (found in cloves) and menthol (found in mints). But where do these compounds come from and why do plants produce them?
The compounds in essential oils are usually poisons. Plants being unable to runaway or fight must ward of hungry bugs, fungi, or other beasties chemically. The tobacco plant, for example, evolved to produce nicotine to kill off bugs that try to munch on it. The concentration of nicotine is not potent enough to kill a human, but we do exploit its effects through smoking and chewing the plant.
Let’s say, though, that we took a lot of tobacco leaves, crushed them up, put them in an alembic, and boiled them. The essential oil that we extracted would have a very high concentration of nicotine. And if we took this essential oil and rubbed it on ourselves or drank it, it’s effects probably would be deadly since the concentration of nicotine was high enough.
This same principle applies to all essential oils. They are the heart and soul of the plant, and often its defense mechanism. By distilling it, we are concentrating the chemicals to make use of them more easily and effectively than, say, chomping on the leaves. But that means that a little bit goes a long way, and too much can prove very dangerous.
How I Almost Burned Myself
My own clumsiness with essential oils came down to me slathering them on myself in the mornings as a rough cologne. I fancied myself an amateur perfumer, and would add a drop of two or three different oils each day into my hand, mixing them with some jojoba carrier oil, and then rubbing the concoction onto my neck, face, and shoulders. I would often use myrrh, cypress, and clove oils, as these together had a pleasant, manly scent. I also knew that myrrh had some beneficial properties for men, so that was an added bonus.
But the other day, my wife purchased a new batch of essential oils, and it included Cassia or false cinnamon. It smells like Big Red and has many uses, but I was mostly concerned with developing my own incredible scent. So, as is my usual routine, I got out of the shower, added a few drops of this and that into my hand, added some jojoba, and slathered it on. Then, I felt the burn.
It started with a tingle, then turned into an inferno on my neck and face. My first reaction was to dilute it with more jojoba oil. This didn’t do much, so I jumped back into the shower and tried scrubbing it off with body wash. Again, it only helped a little. I ran into the bedroom and told my half-asleep wife what had happened.
“You gotta put milk on it.”
She said drowsily, not seeing the scarlet color of my neck in the dim light. So I ran to the fridge, poured a glass of raw milk, and splashed it all over myself. It helped (kinda), but I decided that another session of scrubbing was in order. So, I took to the shower again, and after all that, I put some moisturizer on myself and hoped for the best. After twenty minutes, the redness began to fade as did the burning.
Thankfully, there were no severe burns, but I later read that these can indeed occur with cassia if left on the skin long enough. I certainly learned my lesson.
Phototoxicity and Other Dangers
One of the reasons I freaked out so much about the burning is because I have experienced botanical chemical burns before. A few summers back, I was in my garden tying up what I thought were celery stalks. Unfortunately, I was one bed off, and on this very hot, very sunny day, I was actually man-handling heirloom parsnip stalks. The juice of these stalks, when absorbed by the skin (especially sweaty skin) and exposed to sunlight, causes a condition known as phytophotodermatitis., which is a type of phototoxicity (and yes, my hands looked even worse than the pictures in that link).
The symptoms come on gradually after exposure, and result in what looks like a second degree chemical burn. I won’t go into all of the details, but suffice it to say that I had blisters the size of golf balls on both of my hands for a good two weeks, and hyperpigmented (extra dark) patches of skin for months. It was a horrifying experience that I never want to experience again, hence my panic over the cassia.
Fortunately, cassia isn’t known to cause this type of sunlight-activated reaction. But some essential oils are. Bergamot essential oil, extracted from the bergamot citrus fruit and prized for its distinctive fragrance that makes Earl Grey tea taste like Earl Grey tea, can cause severe phytophotodermatitis.
Other essential oils like lavender can have hormone manipulating effects if used improperly. Lavender and tea tree essential oils are considered phytoestrogens, meaning that they contain compounds which mimic bodily estrogen and can amplify its effects in the body.
Myrrh is another essential oil that can have some potent effects for women. As Kristin discussed in her article “Myrrh for Menstruation,” the essential oil of this exotic tree sap can cause miscarriages or promote menstruation. Thus, it isn’t that the effects of essential oils are necessarily good or bad, but rather that they need to be used in the right proportions and for the right purpose, rather than haphazardly because we enjoy the scent or read about the health benefits somewhere.
So, in short, when using essential oils, always be mindful of:
- Means of application
- Possible drug interactions
- Hormonal influences
So how do you use essential oils? Have you ever had any bad experiences with them?
Let us know in the comments!