June walked into my office today for her regular acupuncture treatment. While she usually struggles with shoulder and hip pain, today was especially bad. Her mother is in poor health and her marriage is on the rocks, causing her stress levels to skyrocket. All that extra stress led to more pain. She needed more than just a simple acupuncture treatment today. So I mixed her up an essential oil blend to warm and release her muscles, as well as address all her pent up emotions.
Her formula contained mandarin, frankincense, sandalwood and rosemary essential oils in varying amounts. I love how calming mandarin is when you feel frustrated and tense. The combination of frankincense and sandalwood opens the heart, and rosemary is warming and relaxing to the joints and muscles.
I used some of her blend in a small rollerball bottle, diluted in almond oil, so she could roll a small amount straight on her hips and shoulders. I also gave her some of the mixture undiluted (or neat) for a hot bath. Adding oils straight into water doesn’t do much; the oil just sits on top of the water. But if you emulsify the oils with a cup or two of salt, and dissolve the salt in a warm bath, you’ve got some serious pain and stress relief happening.
Maybe you’re a bit skeptical of essential oils, or perhaps you’re the essential oil queen of your community. Either way, it’s good to know how to use them safely and effectively. Essential oils are extremely concentrated plant material that can work wonders for many health issues – if you know how to use them. There is also a risk of negative side effects if they’re used improperly. On top of that, there’s a lot of misinformation floating around that can be harmful.
So today you’re going to learn to separate fact from fiction, at least in the essential oil world. We’ll talk about safety, where to get quality products, and how to use them most effectively.
There are 100 pounds of lavender flowers in one pound of lavender essential oil. And it takes 10,000 pounds of rose petals to create a pound of rose oil. This means essential oils are extremely concentrated drops of active plant medicine.
This is great for us, because it means that a very small amount is potent and effective. But it also means there can be side effects to using them incorrectly. Aromatherapists with many years of training and experience learn techniques that aren’t always appropriate for everyone. Those uses should only be applied under supervision of a certified aromatherapist. With that being said, here are the basic safety rules to follow when using essential oils at home.
1. Essential oils are only to be inhaled or used topically.
Essential oils are very safely used by anyone when inhaled. Through the nose, they directly affect the limbic system, the oldest part of our brain. This system has a direct link to our emotions and psychological responses, and works immediately through our olfactory nerves. It may seem simple, but inhaling therapeutic grade essential oils is a powerful boost to your health.
Another way to safely use essential oils is on the skin. The chemical composition of the plants is quickly absorbed through our pores and from there can enter the bloodstream. Always dilute your oils first in a carrier oil before applying them topically. Commonly used carrier oils are olive, almond, safflower, walnut, jojoba or hazelnut. Each of these oils has a slightly different effect on the body. Using oils neat (undiluted) topically can cause rashes and irritation to the skin. When I give essential oil treatments in lieu of acupuncture, I use an extremely small amount of oil, much less than one drop per acupuncture point. This is another powerful way to use the oils, but should be done by a professional, and not done every day.
Ingesting oils without the supervision of an expert can lead to digestive upset and eventual degrading of the digestive system. A clinical aromatherapist may prescribe emulsified oils internally, for a short period of time, to treat a very specific ailment such as parasites. Please don’t try this at home.
2. Don’t use the same oil(s) every day over a long period of time.
Your body easily adjusts to the oils, and they become less effective over time. If you’re treating something acute – an issue that just came up recently, like a cold – you can use the same oils for a few weeks every day, but then take a break from them. If you’re treating something that has been around for a little while, like chronic back pain – the rule of thumb is to use them 3 days on then 3 days off. I can only remember the pattern for a week or 2, and then I forget where I am. This can be remedied in one of 2 ways:
1. If you’re very organized, you can mark in your calendar when to use them and when to take off.
2. If that’s too much work (as it is for most people) just go by your weekly schedule. Choose Monday-Thursday on and Friday-Sunday off, for example. Just keep your days on next to each other.
This is also a good thing to know if you use products with essential oils in them. They smell great regardless, but if you’re trying to get the therapeutic qualities from the oils, rotate them out every few days so they remain effective ingredients.
3. Do your safety research.
Especially if you are pregnant or using oil with kids, make sure you’ve got a reliable source to check for contraindications. There are some oils that are not safe in these two circumstances, but many that are.
Another thing to watch out for is oils that are photosensitive. These are usually (but not always) citrus oils. If you’re going to be using these topically, make sure to keep the area out of the sun. Also, photosensitive oils can burn the skin if they are combined with heat, so no heating pads or baths with these oils.
Methods of Use
Now that the boring part is out of the way, lets talk about how to best use these oils effectively. Keep in mind that mixing together a few different oils into a formula is more powerful than using just one alone. In my training, I learned how to mix the oils based on the principals of Chinese Medicine. Some plants work synergistically and others balance each other out. I also base my formulas on an individual’s diagnosis. This process is too complex to explain in a single article, but you can still get pretty good effects without this knowledge.
1. Steam inhalation
If you’re coming down with a cold, or have some respiratory issues, steam inhalation is the way to go. For this method you’ll need boiling water, a mug, something to cover the mug, a towel and your oils. First, fill your mug with boiling water and cover to keep the steam in. Then mix a few oils together, you only need a few drops altogether for each steam. Drop 3-5 drops of oil into your mug, then quickly cover it again. The volatile oils that give plants their scent is where much of their medicine is. Don’t let the medicine diffuse into the air!
The last step here is to cover your head with a towel, take the cover off your mug and breathe in the scent. Stay for as long as is comfortable, then re-cover the mug and sit back. You can do this as many times as you like in one sitting. I recommend doing this a few times a day until you’re feeling better. If you’re home sick, you can do it every few hours for a few days in a row if you need to.
2. An Inhaler
Steam inhalation is quite a production, and not practical for long term. This is where inhalers come in. You can buy plastic or metal inhalers online, and they come with a cotton insert that you load up with oils. You can carry this around in your bag to use whenever you need it. It works great for allergies or anxiety. You can usually it about 20 drops of oil into a cotton wick, so these can last you quite a long time.
3. Topical Rollerball
This is one of my favorite ways to use essential oils. I prefer small bottles that are 5ml, that way I’m not wasting oil. These actually last quite a long time, even using them several times a day, because you only need a small amount to get a big result. In a 5 ml bottle, you’ll need 10 drops of oil. If you’re using a 10 ml bottle then scale up to 20 drops, and you can use up to 60 drops in a 1 oz bottle.
Mix 3-5 oils together to get to the correct number of drops that you need. Then fill up the rest of the bottle with a carrier oil. You can use this for pain anywhere on the body, including digestive or gynecological discomfort. Apply the oil 2-3 times a day on your days on, then take a few days off. You can also apply heat if that feels good.
4. A Bath
For a powerful pain relieving or strongly calming experience, drop some essential oils into a bath. For this to have lasting effects, you’ll have to repeat every day for a few days, take a few days off, and repeat.
The oil, if just dropped into water, will sit on top of the water and not give much effect. So it needs to be emulsified into something that will disperse the oil throughout the water. The best carrier I’ve found is salt. Epsom salt is great, and economical, but any type will work, and you can even mix salts together if you so choose.
For each bath, mix 1-2 cups of your salt of choice with about 20 drops of essential oils. This is the total number of drops used, not drops per type of oil. Once you’ve drawn your bath, mix the salts into the hot water until dissolved. Climb in and enjoy for 20-30 minutes.
Sourcing good quality oils
To get the best effects, it’s important to use high quality, therapeutic grade essential oils. Many of the lesser quality products on the market use solvents to extract the oil, or use poor quality raw plant material. When shopping for essential oils, I check for a few important things to be listed on the website, accompanying literature, or on the bottle itself. The botanical name for the plant needs to be listed. This will be a two-word title, for example: lavandula angustifolia, for lavender. I like to know what country the plants came from, French or Bulgarian lavenders are common. Also look for how the oil is extracted, whether steam distillation, CO2 extraction, or another method, and what part of the plant is used.
There are a few essential oil companies who, while the quality of their oils is acceptable, their business practices are not. This has lead me to be hesitant in using their products. Companies that promote taking oils internally and using them on the skin without dilution in my opinion are being irresponsible.
When I started using essential oils therapeutically I was amazed by the range of quality from different distributers. Just smelling the same oil from a few different companies was enough to convince me to source the highest quality oils I can get. These oils are not necessarily any more expensive than mid grade oils, so you really have to know where to look. A few companies that I’ve gotten great results with are Original Swiss Aromatics, SunRose Aromatics and Snow Lotus. My teachers have also recommended Gritman, but I don’t personally have any experience with that company.
There is so much more that I wish I could share, but this article is already way too long. Look out for another that will profile some oils and what I like to use them for.
At my acupuncture clinic, I’ve set up a full essential oil dispensary and have been creating custom formulas for patients to use at home in between treatments. I’ve also started giving essential oil only treatments, using oils on acupuncture points instead of needles. For the person that is extremely sensitive and/or afraid of needles, this can be a great treatment option.
Elizabeth Allen is an acupuncturist in Greenville, South Carolina, specializing in pain management, women’s health, and psycho-emotional issues. She’s passionate about helping people feel their best and sharing her wealth of knowledge with the community. Elizabeth is the owner of AcuMed Spa, on Wade Hampton Boulevard. Appointments can be made by calling 864-451-4313, or scheduled online here.