Aromatherapy is the therapeutic use of essential oils from plants for the improvement of a person’s overall wellbeing. This alternative form of treatment has become so popular that even organizations like the National Cancer Institute have entire webpages dedicated to the uses of essential oils.
The effects of Aromatherapy are theorized to be a result of the binding of chemicals in the essential oils to the olfactory bulb, the neural structure in the vertebrae forebrain involved with our sense of smell. This binding directly affects the brain’s emotional center, the limbic system. Some essential oils are also said to have antibacterial and anti-fungal properties.
While many use essential oils as a form of therapy, it’s uses have also caused some controversy. Just recently the FDA issued warning letters to two major essential oil companies, Young Living and DoTerra, citing that they are selling products which claim to help with health concerns without the approval of the FDA. This is interesting to note because essentials oils can be regulated as either drugs (heavily regulated) or cosmetics (not so heavily regulated) depending on the company . Usually it’s the latter.
Since essential oils are typically regulated as cosmetics, and since cosmetics are the least regulated form of consumer products by the FDA, that means there are a lot of essential oils on the market that could potentially have harmful chemicals. Use our guide below to get clear on what you need to know about purchasing essential oils.
Look for therapeutic grade oils.
Therapeutic grade essential oils are those that have undergone a stringent distillation process, are created with no solvents and have undergone testing procedures.
Here’s where the problem comes in: a lot of companies claim to be 100% pure and if they are being regulated as a cosmetic, then their claim may not exactly be accurate due to loose standards.
The oils are also easily affected by factors such as where the plants were grown, what method of distillation was used, whether or not they came into contact with other chemicals, etc.
That’s why it’s important to familiarize yourself with companies and ask questions about their distilling and testing process before purchasing. Since there is not much regulation here, each company is responsible for their own process and some do a better job than others.
The University of Minnesota’s Take Charge of Your Health and Wellbeing initiative also has a pretty solid guide on how to know whether or not you are purchasing a quality oil.
Research online databases for answers.
If you really have no idea where to start researching about essential oils, the Environmental Working Group has a database of cosmetics where you can look up toxicity ratings, allergic reactions, whether or not there is a cancer concern, etc.
The ratings are calculated by a team of scientists who use the EWG’s Skin Deep Methodology and standards. Note that sometimes the data available is limited so you may have to do a little more digging.
Consider the chemical composition of the oil.
Some oils, even if therapeutic grade, still should not be used on your skin. According to the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy, some oils are rich in chemicals like aldehydes and phenols which can cause skin irritation.
NAHA does have a list on their website which tells you which oils can cause skin irritation and how to dilute them. They also have a list of precautions to take when purchasing and using oils.