The article Complementary Medicine, Refusal of Conventional Cancer Therapy, and Survival Among Patients With Curable Cancers came across my newsfeed this morning. To sum it up, the aforementioned study found that patients who received complementary (alternative) medicine were more likely to refuse other conventional cancer treatment. For this reason, they had a 2-fold greater death risk than those not receiving complementary medicine. Which, as a person in the alternative medicine field, I find very concerning.
Complementary alternative medicine and practices are just that, complementary. They should happen in tandem with tradition medical approaches and not replace them fully -- this is especially pertinent when it comes to cancer care. These practices can include aromatherapy, homeopathy, herbalism, vitamins, yoga, diets, meditation, massage, etc. It should be noted that with cancer, there can be interactions between herbal and aromatic preparations with chemotherapy, surgeries, and the medications that a patient may be taking. It is always recommended to clear any alternative therapies with the oncology team first to avoid any complications.
I see so many people posting on aromatherapy Facebook groups things like "my friend has cancer, I want to make her something, what should I make her?" This is very concerning for a number of reasons. There is the misconception that since plants are natural most of them are safe. While most are, there are definite safety considerations to take into account even for completely healthy people. This is especially true when using essential oils since they are so potent. Also, taking advice on the Internet from well meaning friends and acquaintances who are not professionally trained in safety especially as it pertains to herbs and essential oils can be downright dangerous. For instance, peppermint, ginger, and spearmint are great for nausea, but it might be better to use an aromatic inhaler or diffuser than to apply them topically or to use them internally. Special care also may need to be taken when considering a dosage as you may only need a few drops of essential oils in an inhaler.
Complementary alternative medicine can be used to improve the physical and emotional state of someone dealing with cancer, but again, it should not replace conventional cancer treatment and always should be done first by consulting the oncology team. It can be effective in treating things like nausea, pain, depression, and anxiety associated with cancer and cancer treatments. Using them for palliative and end of life care is a different story as the treatment(s) are used to provide comfort to the terminal patient as usually conventional cancer treatments are no longer in use by that point outside of pain management and other palliative care measures. The fact that cancer patient that who alternative medicine are more likely to refuse conventional treatment puts the onus on those of us in the field to be clear about the limitations of alternative medicine.
It's no secret that there is a lot of strife between the professional aromatherapy community and MLM Essential Oil Distributors and Wellness Advocates. There are numerous reasons for it, but the primary ones seem to come down to education and misinformation about essential oils and the aromatherapy practice. I remain in the middle of the road on this argument. I think MLM essential oil companies have their place in the aromatherapy world, but I will always and continue to advocate for education and safety first. I have many friends and colleagues on both sides of the argument.
A lot of people have serious and well-founded misgivings when it comes to Multi-Level Marketing companies (MLM's) at large. I'm sure you have heard them called scams or pyramid schemes, which is an entirely different issue that I am not going to address in this blog post. This post will also refrain from addressing any particular controversial issues about the MLM companies at hand as that is not the point of this post.
Let's start with my personal back story. I started using store bought essential oils in 2011 for mood support when I was dealing with anxiety and depression. I will admit, I didn't have a clue as to what I was doing, I had a heat diffuser and would occasionally put them in my bath water or place a few drops of lavender on a tissue under my pillow. I got away from them for a time, but came back to the essential oil world in 2016 when I attended an essential oil and yoga workshop at a local yoga studio. This was my first introduction to Young Living. From what I learned I was intrigued, until I looked at their website and found the starter kit and oils to be extremely expensive in comparison to the store bought ones I purchased in the past. I was unemployed at the time so I put that starter kit on hold.
In the meantime, I was having some skin issues on my face and around my eyes, and started tinkering around with making my own skin care products since nothing I purchased from high-end to drug store brands ever seemed to work for me. Within a few weeks my skin improved vastly and I was hooked on essential oils. Fast forward about six months and add in a new job - I finally decided to invest in a starter kit through Young Living.
I do in fact like their oils even though they are quite expensive. I was hooked up with a knowledgeable community that shared so much information and really got me comfortable using my oils for more than just skin care. Within a couple months, I was encouraged to start selling oils, and I thought "what the heck and gave it a try." Life got in the way shortly thereafter and I put it on hold for a few months and then came back to it. In the end, it just wasn't the right fit for me.
I have always had a thirst for knowledge and wanted to learn more about aromatherapy and essential oils. Usually the recommendations were to read books by authors associated with Young Living, not that there is anything wrong with that per se, but it didn't give me the science that I was looking for and the foundational basis for understanding aromatherapy practices.
By December 2017, I decided that I wanted to seek out becoming a certified aromatherapist and was referred to the New York Institute of Aromatic Studies and enrolled in their dual certification program in the Foundations of Aromatherapy and French Aromatherapy. I received my Level One certification in February 2018 and am in the process of finishing my final paper for the French Aromatherapy certification. In addition, I have completed and passed the Essential Oils Safety Masterclass through the Tisserand Institute and the Aromatherapy Teaching Training Program through the Aromahead Institute. I am currently working on certifications in Natural Skin Care Formulation through the School of Natural Skin Care and am working on my Level Two certification program through the New York Institute of Aromatic Studies.
As I started learning more about the science behind essential oils, different modalities of practice, and essential oils safety through my certifications and connections within the professional aromatherapy community, I started to see a lot of negative things about MLM essential oil companies focusing on the lack of experience by some of the distributors and wellness advocates in addition to marketing misinformation about essential oil safety and practice. There are a lot of myths out there perpetuated by MLM companies that are untrue or at best partial truths. I don't think that this is done with malicious intent by any means, but on some base level a lot of the myths and practices seems to be for the sole purpose of selling and using more product.
Some MLM essential oil companies espouse being based in "French Aromatherapy," which is true to some extent though cooking with essential oils and putting undiluted essential oils in water without an excipient, are in fact, not practiced within the purview of French Aromatherapy as I discovered in my certification program. I recently wrote a blog post on this subject clearing up myths from fact about the internal use of essential oils. Is any of this dangerous? Not really, but you probably aren't getting any benefits from cooking with essential oils because the heat will evaporate any therapeutic benefit the same way it burns off alcohol when it is used in cooking. It tastes good, but you aren't going to get drunk from bourbon chicken. Most importantly, oil and water don't mix, so when using oils in a hydrous liquid you always need to use some sort of excipient or dispersant so that the essential oil actually blends with the water otherwise it just floats on the surface. I also wrote about ingesting essential oils.
Another problem that comes from the MLM model is overusing oils especially in rollers. It is pretty simple, the more oil you use, the more oil you buy. Once you learn proper blending ratios and dosages for each purpose, you will learn that sometimes "more oil is just more oil" and it does not actually increase the benefit of the product by using more. For instance, your rollers should probably have under 20 drops of essential oils MAX. Undiluted or "neat" application can be beneficial and used for targeted or acute circumstances, but doing this daily for a prolonged period of time has a high risk of adverse reactions or sensitization. Given that these high quality oils are so pure, why would you have to use more of them that the recommended safe doses to get a desired effect?
All essential oils regardless of their purity will oxidize due to heat, light, and oxygen exposure. It is also pertinent to know that most carrier oils are good for 1-2 years which will change the shelf life of any products that you make. While there are many unscrupulous essential oils companies out there that sell adulterated or low quality oils, there are many other companies that sell high quality, pure, unadulterated essential oils.
But, it's not all bad, I do acknowledge that for those who sell through MLM companies that it can be a life-changing and enriching experience and I think that is truly great. However, I find that marketing the business aspect with "all you need is a starter kit to start your business" is a bit worrisome. Knowledge, experience, and training are essential in any business and it is easy to get bogged down by conflicting information passed down through Facebook groups, Pinterest recipes, and general Google searches. I don't think that everyone has the time or financial resources to enroll and complete aromatherapy certification programs, but there are many aromatherapists and industry professionals who will work with and educate clients on essential oil usage for free or an affordable fee.
As I mentioned earlier, I remain in the middle of the road on this argument and I am not trying to be a killjoy. I think MLM essential oil companies have their place in the aromatherapy world, but I will always and continue to advocate education and safety first. I don't begrudge my experience with selling for MLM's as it provided a valuable experience in laying the foundation work in my professional aromatherapy practice. My goal is always to provide the most accurate information and to disseminate factual information from trusted sources with many years of experience. Education is extremely important to me and a journey and I am always willing to share information along the way.
I would like to personally thank Robert Tisserand, Jade Shutes, Andrea Butje, Amy Galper, Cathy Skipper, Joy Musacchio, and Cynthia Brownley who's courses, webinars, and workshops have provided an invaluable experience to me as an aromatherapist.
What is French Aromatherapy?
There is a popular misconception that the practice of French Aromatherapy justifies ingesting essential oils on a regular basis. The practice is more nuanced than that and the term "ingestion" should be replaced with "internal application" as this includes methods of application such as rectal suppositories and vaginal pessaries as well. There is much to be understood about the complexity of French Aromatherapy as the internal application of essential oils and herbal preparations. This is the only difference between other valid schools of thought often referred to as British and German or Anglo-Saxon Aromatherapy which do not advocate internal application of essential oils.
[Side note: I have completed my coursework and exams for my French Aromatherapy certification through the New York School of Aromatic Studies and am in the process of finishing my case studies for the final paper that I am writing on stress and aromatic preparations.]
French Aromatherapy uses the following methods of essential oil application
Internal application, via the oral route, of essential oils involves more than just putting a couple drops of lemon oil in your water or tea or seasoning foods with essential oils as a replacement for fresh or dried herbs and spices.
There are several methods of internal applications using proper excipients and dispersing agents for each method because as we know - oil and water do not mix. Excipients include: solubol or disper, honey, alcohol, gelatin capsules, herbal tinctures, herbal pastilles, neutral tablets (only available in Europe, but homeopathic blank tablets might be a comparable replacement,) sugar cubes, honey, fatty oil capsules, charcoal, tinctures, bread, rice flour capsules, syrups, dried powdered herb capsules. [New York Institute of Aromatic Studies] When you add essential oils to your water, they will just float on the surface and when you drink from your glass you in essence will be ingesting undiluted essential oils. This may not cause any noticeable discomfort or issues, but can cause internal damage over time.
French Aromatherapy does not advocate putting drops of essential oil in your water or tea without using one of the aforementioned excipients, nor does it advocate cooking with essential oils - these are both common misconceptions about the practice of using essential oils internally. Cooking with essential oils can be a costly endeavor and much of the therapeutic value will evaporate with heat - especially the heat required to cook or bake any type of food dish.
While French Aromatherapy advocates using essential oils internally this is not usually intended for frequent or daily use for long periods of time and there is much emphasis on safety considerations for ingesting essential oils — regardless of purity or quality. There are different doses and duration of use specific to acute or chronic conditions -- this applies to both adults and children.
Why Use Essential Oils Orally?
Oral use of essential oils is primarily used for "digestive disorders, infectious diseases, immune support, candida infections, liver detox/cleanse, liver support, preventative to tropical diseases, colds, coughs, flu, sinusitis, oral candida, periodontal disease, mouth ulcers, terrain support, urinary tract infections, insomnia, some acute nervous states: anxiety, etc." [New York Institute of Aromatic Studies]
As for sublingual use, which means placing one drop of oil under the tongue, this can help with the rapid onset of therapeutic action as the absorption is 3-10 times greater than the traditional oral route, but is often short acting. Sublingual use can be self-administered, but it can be challenging to get just one drop - I suggest using a pipette or a syringe so that you do not accidentally use more than one drop.
Internal Application Essential Oil Safety
There are numerous safety considerations to take into account when using essential oils internally - just because they are GRAS or 100% pure does not mean that they do not come without any contraindications or safety precautions.
Recommended Oral Dosages & Duration
For Adults, the typical recommended oral dosage is 1-3 drops up to 2-3 times a day. The maximum daily dose is 12 drops per day depending on age, general health, medications, purposes, and condition.
For Children, the oral route is used when they are over 7 years old. Some exceptions apply such as cough syrup for children who are 5 or 6 years old. Otherwise, rectal suppositories are used to treat infants and children under 7 years old.
For acute conditions: Oral dosage should be used for up to 21 days total starting with a high dosage for 1-4 days and then reduce to lower dosages for the subsequent days.
For chronic conditions: Essential oils should be used orally only 21 days out of the month, then go a week without oral use. 1-2 drops 3 times a day can be used for an extended period of time, but it is recommended to have blood work done including liver panels when you are taking essential oils internally for over 1 year.
[New York Institute of Aromatic Studies]
The Truth About Internal Use of Essential Oils
While I am trained in French Aromatherapy, I do not advocate using essential oils internally beyond the aforementioned dosages and duration. There is a lot of misinformation on the web and you have probably come across it on websites, blogs, Facebook groups, and from well-meaning friends who have been inadvertently passing along such misinformation. Internal use of essentials oils is a highly controversial topic among the aromatherapy community - many advocate to never take essential oils internally, while others, like myself, are generally okay with it as long as you know what you are doing and follow the safety guidelines that I included above.
"Neat"application of essential oils simply means applying an oil or blend without using a carrier oil. Typically, this should only be used in acute situations or for short periods of time, but we are seeing more and more that people are applying neat essential oils or blends on a daily basis for a variety of reasons. Many people just pop a roller top on their essential oil bottle and call it a day. But, is it safe?
This is one of those controversial topics within the aromatherapy industry underscored by many safety concerns and the risk of adverse reactions. Personally, I rarely do this save for special circumstances such as blemish spot treatments, minor skin inflammations or small cuts, and burns. Though there are other circumstances when you may desire to apply an oil or blend undiluted -- most aromatherapists and industry experts seem to agree that this should not be the go-to application method for essential oils due to their potency and the risk of adverse reaction by those who are unaware of any known safety issues with a particular oil. Undiluted application should only use 1-2 drops per application in small targeted areas. Robert Tisserand specifically states to never apply essential oils undiluted on the skin. Read more about How to Use Essential Oils Safely and also New Survey Reveals Dangers of Not Diluting Essential Oils
Some people who have sensitive skin or other skin issues should not apply undiluted essential oils to their skin as they may be more prone to having a reaction. Others may never have a reaction to undiluted application. I prefer to err on the side of caution.
There is a reason that the vast majority of essential oils based recipes use some type of carrier oil or blend of oils, butters, waxes, etc. to administer the topical application of essential oils. They are fat soluble and disperse evenly when diluted properly. The fatty oils make oils that are potential dermal irritants or sensitizers safer to use -- this is not to say that you will never have a reaction, but it minimizes the risk. You also need to know proper blending and dilution ratios as using a dermal sensitizer like Lemongrass even with a carrier oil can still cause a dermal reaction.
Owner, Restorative Aromatics and NAHA Certified Aromatherapist Level One. This blog focuses on aromatherapy education and other essential oil related topics.