Misconceptions about Reactions to Essential Oils

Essential Oil SafetyLast week there was a discussion on my student list which was started by one of the students asking about possible reactions to essential oils. In this discussion it was brought to my attention that, there is a particular company selling essential oils, who claims that any reaction experienced from using their brand of essential oils is never an allergic reaction. Nor is it due to skin sensitivity, it is simply the body taking the opportunity to “detox”.

I did a little bit of research myself today and what I found was truly concerning. In my opinion, none of the explanations given are grounded in any real understanding of the true nature of either essential oils or the anatomy and physiology of the human body. It is my belief that if these people truly understood how the body functioned, they would see that their claims make no sense at all. If they understood the true nature and chemical complexity of essential oils they might see that the explanations that they are given are not grounded in reality at all.

For instance –  What is a skin rash? Dictionary.com defines it as – any red eruption of the skin.  And What causes a skin rash? WebMD Says:Healthy skin provides a barrier between the inside of the body and the outside environment. A rash means some change has affected the skin. Rashes are generally caused by skin irritation, which can have many causes. A rash is generally a minor problem that may go away with home treatment. In some cases a rash does not go away or the skin may become so irritated that medical care is needed.In adults and older children, rashes are often caused by contact with a substance that irritates the skin. In adults and older children, rashes are often caused by contact with a substance that irritates the skin (contact dermatitis). The rash usually starts within 48 hours after contact with the irritating substance. Contact dermatitis may cause mild redness of the skin or a rash of small red bumps. A more severe reaction may cause swelling, redness, and larger blisters. The location of the rash may give you a clue about the cause.

Therefore I find it quite logical to believe that if an essential oil is applied to the skin and the skin reddens up it means that the skin itself has been irritated by the substance applied to it.

Easy to understand information on how the skin and immune system really works is freely available on the internet today.  HowStuffWorks Human Body Immune SystemorNetDr.Co.UK Immune System and the skin are certainly two places to start.

If the skin is going to react to an essential oil it will react to it, regardless of what label appears on the bottle.  The reason a person’s skin reacts to an essential oil has everything to do with the chemical make up of that particular essential oil and the way the skin naturally functions.

What are essential oils?  I have a brief answer to this question on my FAQ pagebut basically, essential oils are naturally occurring aromatic compounds that are created during secondary metabolism in some plants.  They are highly complex chemical compounds with many useful properties.

The essential oils are extracted from the plant material in a number of different ways, distillation (steam and water) being the most frequently used method, cold expression, enfleurage, solvent extraction (technically an absolute not an essential oil) and carbon dioxide extraction. Each essential oil is a complex combination of many different chemical components.  If we test an oil we will get a listing of the chemical components in that oil.  When checking this against the chemical profile of that oil we would expect the oil to contain specific chemical components and these specific components are also expected to fall within a specific range.   It is from these chemical components that each essential oil gets its wonderful healing properties, but it is also these chemical components that can bring the cautions and contra-indications to an oil.

Let’s use Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) belonging to the Labiatae family as an example.  There are a number of chemotypes available for this oil, but let us compare the two chemotypes most readily available.  Thymus vulgaris ct. thymoland Thymus vulgarisct. linalool.  One would expect Thymus vulgaris ct. thymol(red  or white thyme) to have the following chemical profile:  Esters 2%; Ketones 9%; Sesquiterpenes 1.5%; Oxides 4%; Monoterpenes 25%; Alcohols 17%; Phenols 40%;  while Thymus vulgaris ct. linalool(Sweet Thyme) would have a somewhat different chemical profile: Esters 40%, Sesquiterpenes 4%; Alcohol 54% and Phenols 2%.  While I have given exact percentages for the functional groups, they actually occur within an accepted range of percentages.  The actual amounts can vary depending on many different factors, such as climate, where the plant was grown, how it was harvested, stored, distilled etc. etc.

From Organic Chemistry we know that of the functional groups found in both Thymes the group most likely to cause skin irritating properties would be the Phenols.
Phenols are formed when a hydroxyl group (an oxygen and hydrogen bonded together) is joined to a benzene ring. They have bactericidal, immune stimulating, skin irritating and warming properties. They are potentially toxic. Therefore it follows that any compound containing phenols would have bactericidal, immune stimulating, skin irritating and warming properties. Based on their chemical profile we can see that Thymus vulgaris ct.thymol with 40% phenols would be a lot more skin irritating than Thymus vulgaris ct.linalool which only contains around 2% phenols.

In order for an oil to be Thymus vulgaris ct. thymol it would have to contain around 40% phenols and therefore regardless of who you purchase this oil from it will have skin irritating properties.

I do hope that instead of just taking everything said at face value, people will use their own common sense and get a true understanding of what is actually going on.

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