Some of you may have been told by an aromatherapist or naturopath, that certain essential oils may be toxic. Well some essential oils may be. The question is which ones. In order to answer this, we first need to understand our aromatherapist’s mind-set a little.
Three Schools of Thinking.
You may be surprised to know that there are 3 schools of thought in the field of aromatherapy.
The German school of aromatherapy teaches the use of essential oils via inhalation. The French school teaches the use of essential oils in anyway that’s appropriate – orally, rectally, through the skin and through inhalation. Gary Young has added a number of other ways to this school, including intravenously and hypodermically.
The British school of thought, which has largely influenced the American and Australian aromatherapist community, focuses more on the burning of oils (inhalation) and the dilution of oils.
Therapeutic Grade vs. Perfume Grade
At his recent visit to Sydney, Dr David Stewart (an aromatherapist and prominent researcher in the field of essential oils)  made reference to a number of British aromatherapy text books, such as Essential Oil Safety and Clinical Aromatherapy for Pregnancy and Childbirth. In page 45 of the latter book, a number of oils were listed as forbidden: cinnamon, calamus, cassia, fennel, clove, oregano, wintergreen, tansy and yes, Vanilla (incidentally, the bible makes reference to people being anointed with calamus and cassia thousands of years ago).
Dr Stewart made the following points about much of the British research in aromatherapy, much of which has a long impressive list of citations:
- The research was conducted on animals (They’re far more sensitive to oils than humans.)
- They will take one compound in the essential oil, which in isolation is toxic (but which in combination with other compounds in the oil, render it safe) and label the entire oil as toxic and to be avoided.
- Much of the research utilizes perfume grade essential oils and NOT therapeutic grade essential oils (we’ll come back to this point later).
The Sum of the parts…
Let’s elaborate on the second point that Dr Stewart made, as it’s an important one. We’ll use a couple of examples.
The compounds Scatole and Indole are not very nice ones. Scatole in fact can be found in animal droppings. Yet the essential oil Jasmine has both of these. In fact perfume companies deliberately put Indole in their perfumes, as it intensifies the fragrance.
Another compound, Xylene (found in hazardous waste), can be found in Myrrh, another oil referred to in the scriptures. It was given to the Christ child by the 3 Wise Men. The point is many compounds are dangerous on their own, but when placed in combination with other compounds, have a totally different effect.
As Dr Stewart puts it, “one cannot deduce the properties of an essential oil by knowing the properties of its individual compounds as isolates… a compound that is highly toxic alone can be safe, non-toxic, and therapeutic when occurring as an ingredient in an essential oil. Many aromatherapists who fear certain oils have been trained in a school that teaches the fallacy that properties of isolated compounds studied in laboratories apply to the natural oils in which they are found. Thus, many aromatherapists avoid perfectly safe and therapeutically effective oils because a laboratory has found one or more compounds in the oil that, by themselves, are harmful.”(My emphasis) 
Synthetic vs. Natural
We now come back to Dr Stewart’s third point, that many lab tests are conducted on perfume-grade essential oils and not therapeutic grade essential oils.
The first perfume oils in the world were basically essential oils. Two thousand years later, there is very little in our perfumes that are natural or essential oil. Advances in chemistry over the last 100 years, have meant that the perfume industry relies largely on synthetics that attempt to mimic the best that nature has to offer. And it’s not just the perfume industry that relies on the synthetics.
To be continued…
Disclaimer: Please remember that anything discussed here does not
constitute medical advice and cannot substitute for appropriate medical care. Where essential oils are mentioned, it’s recommended you use only pure, unadulterated therapeutic grade essential oils and follow the safety directions of the manufacturer.
 About David Stewart, Ph.D.
 The Raindrop Messenger, Official newsletter of C.A.R.E. (Center for Aromatherapy Research and Education) Vol 8, No 1 Jan-Feb 2010. To subscribe