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Less is more: How to safely and sustainably use essential oils

This article explores the safety and sustainability of essential oils and provides 6 recommendations for use.

Essential oils have risen dramatically in popularity in the last decade, and they are frequently marketed to yoga teachers to elevate our class experiences. Upon catching wind of this in my 200-hour teacher training, I promptly bought a bottle of clove essential oil from Whole Foods on my way home from a long Saturday session. I had a delicious, elaborate evening of self-care planned for myself. I was going to light a few candles and a stick of incense and give myself a warm clove-laced sesame oil self-massage. Unfortunately, neither “Incense Lighting 101” nor “Basics of Essential Oil Dilution” were within the scope of my 200-hour teacher training, and my evening of self-care quickly spiraled into a night of choking on the horribly potent scents of my experiment. I woke up nearly every 30 minutes to switch from inviting in and shutting out the icy 20° breeze that wafted out the smell of burnt ash and concentrated spice cabinet. I swore to myself, never again.

Yet after a year of teaching, the idea of using essential oils floated into my periphery again. I received a few bottles of tea tree essential oil in my gift bag from volunteering at the Yoga Journal LIVE conference. I found myself trapped in a logical fallacy, thinking, “If teachers on the cover of Yoga Journal use these oils, then they must be the thing to use. Who wouldn’t want a yummy lavender savasana? Why use chemical cleaners when I could use tea tree oil? Why artificially created drugs to treat a cold when I could sniff a little wild orange oil?”

And so, I became intrigued with the oils again, dreaming of all the plant-based ways I could enhance my life. This curiosity led me to New York for a 50-hour Yin Flow & Essential Oils training at Laughing Lotus. The training was a luxurious sensory event, but it was also a prime opportunity for learning. After a week of experiencing the lush scents of the natural world atop my piles of bolsters, my take-home message was: essential oils are a wonderful way to enhance a yoga practice IF they are used in moderation.

There is something so grounding about self-massaging vetiver into my feet in butterfly; so sultry about being wafted with rose oil in heart bench; so clarifying about applying clary sage to my brow line before taking child’s pose; so meditative about having frankincense rubbed into my scalp during savasana. Essential oils undoubtedly metamorphose yoga into a sensory experience, which can encourage us to be mindful and fully present.

Yet essential oils are both medicinal and therapeutic, which means they should be used with great care and intention. Many allopathic medicines and recreational drugs have their roots in plants – morphine from opium poppies, aspirin from willow bark, ecstasy from sassafras root, and digitalin from floxglove, among many others. Each of these drugs are also poisonous when consumed at high enough concentrations.

Similar to plant-based drugs, essential oils are plant parts in concentrated form. To produce 16 fluid ounces of rose essential oil, 10,000 pounds of rose petals are required, which is a .006% yield during a season with optimal growing conditions. This makes rose’s price outlandish enough to be called “the Gucci of essential oils”, according to my training. Yet even lavender, Gucci rose’s ubiquitous knockoff brand, requires 250 pounds of the plant to yield 16 fluid ounces of the oil. What’s more, a single bottle (4 fluid ounces) of lemon oil, which is an oil recommended by some essential oil companies to ingest in water, is made from 50 lemons. Essential oils are precious, potent, and could pose risky side effects if they are not used with knowledge and caution.

Considering the unintended consequences for both human and planetary health, how can essential oils be used safely and effectively? Knowledge is power and taking a training in how to use essential oils can be invaluable. Yet for those who can’t make it to New York for a week-long oils session, here are my best recommendations:

Search for the source

Before purchasing essential oils, it’s important to consider what we are looking for and why. One of the most surprising things about my essential oils training was that it made extremely interested in plants. Growing up as a botanist’s daughter, I assumed that the green thumb gene skipped my generation due to my disinterest in plants and my inability to keep even a basil plant alive. Yet during my training, I began to see plants in an entirely new light. Suddenly, there was something so satisfying about smelling fresh roses and watching spring’s tulips sprout out of the earth. It dawned on me that the essence isn’t the only part of a plant that’s healing; the entire plant itself can bring about health. Seeking out the plant source may be even more delightful than buying its essential oil.

Be selective

In the case that the we can’t access the plant source, sustainability should be a primary consideration when purchasing essential oils. Production and distribution of essential oils is a resource-intense procedure, and their skyrocketing demand is pushing some plant species toward extinction. As consumers, we have a responsibility to investigate the sourcing of the oils that we purchase. It is possible to find organic, herbicide-free, and/or pesticide free oils. But what is perhaps more important is finding out if the oils we seek are native to the land on which they were grown or endangered. Plants that are native to the land are likely to be more sustainable as they can often be grown with less intervention, whereas plants that are endangered, such as sandalwood and rosewood, should be avoided. Cropwatch provides a list of threatened species to avoid.

Dilute, dilute, dilute

When using essential oils, proper dilution is paramount. Applying undiluted oils directly onto skin can cause severe skin irritation or sensitization, which shows up as a severe, itchy rash. The easiest way to dilute oils is to drop them into a lipid-based carrier, such as coconut oil, almond oil, sesame oil, jojoba oil, cocoa butter, or unscented lotion. A dilution of up to 2% (12 drops per 1 fluid ounce) is recommended for topical use for adults, and a 1% dilution (6 drops per 1 fluid ounce) is recommended for seniors, children, and individuals with weak immune systems. Dropping is an inexact science so it is best to err on the side of caution when creating dilutions. Dilutions can be made in amber or cobalt glass roller bottles and stored away from light or heat to prevent degradation.

Ask for consent

Asking for consent is essential anytime essential oils are used on others. Who wouldn’t want a yummy lavender savasana, you ask? In my classes, there is almost always at least one person who politely declines to receive oils. Whether this is because they have sensitive skin, a serious allergy, or essential oils just aren’t their thing, it’s important to respect their decision to decline.

Practice moderation

Less is more when it comes to using essential oils on ourselves or others. This is true when it comes to topical use, but especially so for internal use. There are very few essential oils that are certified as safe to ingest. For those that are, diluting and/or micro-dropping is necessary. In the essential oils that I have tried in baking, I’ve micro-dropped them by applying a drop to a knife, then running a fraction of a drop off the edge of the knife – and even with micro-dropping and the potential heat degradation from baking, the flavor is still incredibly potent. Ingestion is a case when it nearly almost makes most sense to return to the food source rather that using oils for both safety and financial reasons.

Dispose with care

Unfortunately, essential oils do not have a terribly long shelf life. The shelf life of an oil depends on a variety of factors, but some sources recommend replacing all oils within 3 years of purchase. Once an essential oil spoils or oxidizes, it may have an “off” or rancid smell. This can diminish the aromatic and therapeutic properties of the oil, and it can cause irritation or sensitization.

Disposing of essential oils can be difficult as many are extremely flammable, which qualifies them as household hazardous waste. If essential oils are dumped down the drain or toilet, they may be toxic to marine life or they could affect the quality of groundwater. If an oil has expired but has not gone rancid, it can be diffused or added to cleaning products for scent. If it has gone rancid, the best option is to dispose of it in a household waste collection.

Bottom line: Essential oils are precious, potent, and powerful. Less is undoubtedly more if they are used aromatically or therapeutically.

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