Essential things to know about essential oils

By Michael Miller  ·  Jun 03, 2013

Part 1 of a series.

Blood covered Virginia Grace McDonald.

The 11-year-old daughter of Samaritan Ministries members James and Stacy McDonald had fallen out of a tree face-first onto a landscaping boulder at the McDonalds’ Mapleton, Illinois, home. Another of the McDonald girls brought Virginia Grace into the house and frantically called for James and Stacy.

“When I got to the bathroom, it looked like a homicide scene,” Stacy says, remembering the April 2012 accident. “There was blood everywhere, and it was pouring out of her mouth and nose. I couldn’t even tell where the blood was coming from.”

Stacy yelled for James. He grabbed the car keys, and they headed for the hospital.

“The next thing I know, I’m in the car with a bunch of towels and my bottle of geranium oil,” Stacy says. “I don’t even remember grabbing it. I knew that geranium oil helped with nose bleeds and other types of bleeding. I didn’t know where to apply pressure because I couldn’t see where the blood was coming from. It was gushing. I was afraid she was going to bleed to death on the way to the hospital, so I started praying for her and applying geranium oil—a few drops on her tongue, because geranium oil is food-based.

“Within seconds the bleeding stopped.”

Virginia Grace recovered after a stay in the hospital, where Stacy also used frankincense oil to help the swelling in her face go down.

Geranium oil has astringent properties, causing contraction of body tissues, which can help to stop bleeding. Frankincense is believed to be effective in treating the skin.

Chalk up one—or two—for essential oils.

The use of essential oils in the McDonald household, though, is not reserved for emergencies. James, a pastor at Providence Church in Morton, Illinois, uses a few drops of peppermint oil in a glass of water to help him stay mentally alert and clear when preparing a sermon. Stacy, who is an independent distributor for Young Living oils, also treats her family with lavender for burns, blends like Thieves for prevention of illness, lemon for indigestion, and vetiver for sensory issues and its calming effects.

They aren’t alone. Use of essential oils has increased rapidly in the U.S. over the past several years, expanding to topical and internal use from its original aromatherapy application. It has also become big business, with large, direct-sales companies like Young Living and doTerra and dozens of small online companies distributing oils for topical, aromatic, and internal use.

But the use of essential oils isn’t new. It’s been around for thousands of years. Oils like frankincense, myrrh, and spikenard are mentioned in the Bible. Ancient Egyptians made regular use of them.

Essential oils began to make their comeback in modern times about 100 years ago, mostly due to their antibacterial properties, which came in handy when treating wounds in World Wars I and II. Professor R.M. Gattefosse of France first used the term “aromatherapie” in a book written after his hand was reportedly healed by lavender oil following a laboratory explosion in 1910. Then French army surgeon Jean Valnet found oils useful in wound treatment during World War II and started using them with other types of patients as well. Finally, Austrian chemist Marguerite Maury promoted diluted oils in massage during the 20th century, as well as more practical applications of aromatherapy.

Spiritual caution accompanies essential oils, though. Some sellers tout oils’ value from a “new age” or pagan worldview. Christians who have studied the uses of essential oils warn about sellers who use terms like “energies,” “chakras,” or anything to do with “vitalism.” At least one seller promotes “intuitive essential oil therapy,” using a pendulum to select oils for a person. One advertisement for frankincense oil says that it’s “Useful for visualizing, improving one’s spiritual connection, and centering, it has comforting properties that help focus the mind and overcome stress and despair.”

The oils themselves, however, are a natural part of God’s creation.

Essential oils are extracted from plant material such as flowers, tree bark, resins, fruit rind, roots, and leaves. Dr. David Hill of doTerra says he is aware of more than 3,000 different types of plants that produce essential oils. The material is typically compressed and then steam-distilled. The ratio of plant material to oil is significant; says on its essential oils page that 16 pounds of peppermint leaves are needed to make 1 ounce of peppermint oil. But the oil is so concentrated down to its essence that only a drop or two per use are needed.

The advantage to using truly natural essential oils, say fans of the little brown bottles, is their lack of negative side effects, especially compared to synthetic medicines.

“There’s this great safety factor associated with them,” says Dr. Hill, who is chief medical advisor for doTerra.

The safety factor, though, only comes with “therapeutic grade” essential oils, say leaders and representatives of essential oil companies. That generally means that the oils are 100 percent essential oils, containing no chemical additives or carrier oils such as coconut or olive, although the definition can vary with the company producing them. (A general rule of thumb is that if you see an expiration date on an essential oil, it isn’t 100 percent pure; it may have been diluted or stretched to make more money from less oil.)

Different companies tout the purity of their oils by pointing out that the source materials are grown naturally and are free of pesticides and germicides, frequently on virgin soil. Some also say their oils are better because they’ve been grown in their natural habitat.

“Chemistry in its natural form is less toxic and we don’t see unwanted side effects” because natural materials interact with our bodies in a more natural way, Dr. Hill says. But, he adds, one should use caution when mixing them.

“You’ve got to realize this is chemistry and anytime we use chemistry, it’s possible some oils could be antagonistic toward one another,” Dr. Hill says.

Other cautions include:

  • Internal use.Some oils shouldn’t be taken internally, such as wintergreen, pennyroyal, calamus, wormwood, tansy, wormseed, and camphor. The University of Minnesota’s Center for Spirituality and Healing recommends that ingesting any essential oils only be done under the direction of a licensed health care provider. Pennyroyal, parsley seed, and juniper in particular can be toxic, according to Donal O’Mathuna, author of Alternative Medicine: The Christian Handbook. He said those oils have been used in the past to induce abortion and should be avoided by women who are pregnant or breast-feeding. O’Mathuna also says that highly concentrated oils should not be taken internally at all and that “care should be taken to ensure children do not consume them.”
  • Topical use. Most oils shouldn’t be applied directly to the skin but, rather, should be diluted with a carrier, such as coconut oil, vegetable oil, or olive oil. The University of Minnesota recommends no more than three drops of an essential oil to 1 teaspoon of carrier oil. O’Mathuna says that highly concentrated oils may irritate the skin and that any used on children’s skin “should be highly diluted at first.” Possible allergic reactions also must be taken into consideration.

When used properly, essential oils work because they are composed of “very tiny molecules, smaller than in other kinds of oil,” says Dr. David Stewart of the Center for Aromatherapy Research and Education and author of Chemistry of Essential Oils Made Simple.

Their fragrance is so strong so quickly, because the small molecules “jump into the air” and evaporate, one of the reasons they’re referred to as “volatile” oils.

“Essential oil molecules are energetic,” Dr. Stewart says. “They’re small enough to not only evaporate easily but will penetrate the skin and penetrate cell barriers.”

That also explains how the oils can get into the body and have a quick effect on our systems, he says. Plus, since those molecules fit receptors in our cell structures, they “help parts of the body to more properly communicate with one another.”

How essential oils are used is up to the individual, Dr. Hill of doTerra says.

“It largely comes down to personal preference,” the chiropractor says. “One of the greatest benefits they offer to individuals is the opportunity to personalize their health care.”

One challenge with essential oils is to know which to use for what ailment or prevention. Trial and error is one approach, but several guidebooks also are on the market. Websites have plenty of suggestions, too. And then there’s the old standby: Asking people who use essential oils.

Related Articles

Part 1 of this series: Essential things to know about essential oils
Part 2 of this series: How to use essential oils
Part 3 of this series: Essential oils: Use spiritual discernment

Editor’s Note: The information in this article is provided for educational purposes and is not meant as medical advice. You should consult your own physician for advice on your particular situation.