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Massage Today
August, 2010, Vol. 10, Issue 08

Safety Guidelines for Aromatherapy

By Shellie Enteen, RA, BA, LMBT

There are some very important things to know in order to work effectively and ethically with essential oils. Apart from selecting the correct essences, knowing their properties and contraindications and choosing the most efficient method of administration, it is also necessary to observe certain safety guidelines and to know how to obtain and use the best quality essential oils.

Because there is no governmental regulation of aromatherapy or the essential oil industry in the United States at this time, it is easy for a company or an individual to give out information that might not be accurate and in some cases, could even be harmful.

Sometimes, that is intentional (as in the case of a company making claims about their product that they know aren't true, but sound good and will create sales) and sometimes it is unintentional (as when an individual is repeating information received that wasn't questioned). In both cases, having a good education from a qualified school or instructor is the best way to prevent making the mistake of following bad advice or falling for a sales pitch. (More about quality and education in a future Aromatic Message article.)

For the licensed massage therapist, failure to observe some of the standard safety protocols with essential oils could backfire in a very unpleasant way, creating harm and incurring liability for which there may well be no insurance coverage. Here, as always, it is important to remember our scope of practice and observe the exclusion of the ability to diagnose and prescribe.

Essential Safety Procedures

aromatherapy - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark Two of the most critical safety procedures for working with essential oils are:

  1. Use essential oils in dilution for skin application, except for the occasional "neat" use of small amounts of lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) or tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia) as an emergency application for a wound, bite or burn. Even these essences can cause sensitization reactions if overused and some studies have suggested that older, oxidized tea tree oil can cause a rash. The preferred dilution is 1 percent to 3 percent in carrier oil. There are people who will argue this point and it is true that some oils will not cause irritation on first undiluted application, but that can certainly change with future exposure. Other oils, such as cinnamon (Cinnamon zeylanicum) are classified as irritants and will cause immediate reaction. When using essences, if the skin becomes red and inflamed, that is cell damage and not a release of toxins as some like to claim.

    Apart from having to deal with this unpleasant and unnecessary side effect, once you "sensitize" to a particular essence, it will always cause problems. For yourself and for your clients, taking the time to dilute essential oils into a cold pressed nut, seed, vegetable oil or jojoba before applying is worth the time and will bring the assurance that you are working safely. (Important Note: If you get undiluted essential oils on the skin accidently, apply oil or soap first and lather before washing as essential oils do not dilute in water.)

  2. Never ingest essential oils, unless you are under the care of a licensed physician or other licensed medical practitioner who has been well-trained in the method of internal dosage for essential oils and is using essential oils that are 100 percent pure. It is not legal for a massage therapist to suggest or invite a client to ingest essential oils. Once again, there are people who will argue this point but with more education about safety, they would learn that the most serious side effects that have resulted from using essential oils (including liver and kidney damage and death) have been from the intentional or unintentional ingestion of small amounts of essential oils. Lesser symptoms can include nausea, vomiting and irritation of the gastrointestinal tract. Unless a large amount of a specific hazardous oil [such as pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium)] is taken, the damage may take a while to show itself.

In one case discussed by Battaglia in his text The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy a man decided to ingest a small amount of eucalyptus because he thought it would keep him free of colds and make him "feel good". During a routine medical exam, he was shocked when told he had cirrhosis of the liver and since he was a non-drinker, the most likely cause was the regular ingestion of the chemical component, cineole, present in the eucalyptus oil.

Approval of an essential oil by the FDA means that it is possible to use it in food and flavoring and does not constitute safety for general ingestion. The amount and method used with essential oils in food flavoring is quite different from putting a few drops of oil into water (even diluting it first into honey, etc.) and drinking. Apart from the real risks associated with doing this, it is good to remember there is no regulation on essential oil companies in the U.S. and elsewhere for the most part, so it is very hard to be certain of purity or that what is in the bottle is exactly what it should be.

In my own experience, many years ago, I followed the suggestion of a fellow therapist and took a drop of peppermint oil on my tongue to disguise the odor of onions lingering from lunch. That seemed harmless enough. The essential oil had been purchased from a very reputable source. However, almost immediately, I felt very strange and that feeling lasted for several hours. Some time later, I learned from a well-known aromatherapy chemist that this batch had been tested after similar reports and instead of containing Mentha x piperita, which is the peppermint used in food flavoring, it was actually cornmint, Mentha arvens. Cornmint is cheaper than peppermint to produce, tastes and smells close enough to use as an adulterant but unlike peppermint, it contains a large amount of a chemical component that makes it toxic to the liver.

More Safety Guidelines

Working safely with essential oils demonstrates a commitment to excellence. Other guidelines when working safely with essential oils include:

  • Wash your hands after each use.
  • Use a well-ventilated room. (Running an air purifier between clients is a good idea.)
  • Regular breaks between aromatherapy clients.
  • Keep essential oils out of the reach of children (where death from accidental ingestion is a greater possibility as is getting large amounts on the skin or in the eyes).
  • Use less rather than more and vary which oils you use.
  • Do not purchase essential oils that are in bottles without a dropper insert.
  • Do not use essential oils directly on or near the eyes or to treat eye conditions.
  • Avoid purchasing essential oils that are poorly identified. (The label should include the Latin binomial, country of origin, method of extraction and any pertinent chemotype or alteration information.)

Click here for previous articles by Shellie Enteen, RA, BA, LMBT.


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