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Essential oils

Category: Medicines - non plant based



Introduction and description


An essential oil is a concentrated hydrophobic liquid containing volatile aroma compounds from plants.

Essential oils are also known as volatile oils, ethereal oils, aetherolea, or simply as the "oil of" the plant from which they were extracted, such as oil of clove.

An oil is "essential" in the sense that it contains the "essence of" the plant's fragrance—the characteristic fragrance of the plant from which it is derived.  By definition it is not all the plant, thus there may be many chemicals and substances in the plant which are not in the oil.

Essential oils are generally extracted by distillation, often by using steam. Other processes include expression or solvent extraction.

  • Steam - Raw plant material, consisting of one or more of the flowers, leaves, wood, bark, roots, seeds, or peel, is put into an alembic (distillation apparatus) over water. As the water is heated, the steam passes through the plant material, vaporizing the volatile compounds. The vapours flow through a coil, where they condense back to liquid, which is then collected in the receiving vessel.
    Expression’ - Most citrus peel oils are expressed mechanically or cold-pressed (similar to olive oil extraction).
  • Solvent extraction - Many flowers contain too little volatile oil to undergo expression and their chemical components are too delicate and easily denatured by the high heat used in steam distillation. Instead, a solvent is used to extract the oils.  The extracts obtained from solvents are called concretes, and although highly fragrant, contain large quantities of non-fragrant waxes and resins.  Often, another solvent, has to be used to remove the essential oil.

Essential oils are often used in cooking in tiny - drop by drop -  quantities. Flavourings like rose water, orange water etc, provide the taste in a dish where you do not want actual rose petals or orange peel.  In this section we will be concentrating only on their role as medicines.
In answer to the question are essential oils safe? The answer is, it depends on which plant has been used for the oil, whether it was toxin free and how much of the oil you use.  If you are silly enough to use teaspoons and not drops of the oil, or oil made from insecticide sprayed plants, or oil called 'essence of deadly nightshade', I can well imagine you might feel a tad unwell afterwards, if you live to tell the tale.

Essential oils and healing


In order to understand the role of essential oils in healing, we need to understand the difference between healing and treatment. 

Most western medicine today is treatment based; the symptoms are assessed and a pharmaceutical prescribed to treat the symptoms.  This does not heal because it des not address the root cause.  Healing addresses the root cause.  As we have seen throughout this site, the main causes of illness are

These 'causes' may be on the outside of the body, attacking the skin in an attempt to enter and do further damage, or they may have gained entry and be inside doing damage.  If we use a vaccine for example, with a live virus, we have effectively by passed the skin barrier, our mouth and its saliva, the stomach and its acid and the intestines with their good bacteria and directly allowed ourselves to be injected with a virus which can then travel anywhere in the body via the blood stream and lymph system.

Internal attack


Once something has entered our body, we have only one means of genuine defence - the immune system which is linked with the lymph system.  This is our internal means of defence.  There are then three extra means by which we can help the immune system:

  • By eating plants and other foods that have anti-viral, anti-parasitic, chelating [for the toxins], anti-bacterial, anti-fungal or similar capabilities. 

Food and drinks are our allies – organic, natural in their original form and not processed.  Raw is better than cooked for plants, but often the plants are inedible when raw, so then steaming or boiling makes them edible.

In effect, essential oils have no role when the cause of an illness is internal.  It is often the combination of components in plants that provides their effects and furthermore the amount in the plant is balanced and at the dosage we can take.  Anything is a poison in overdose and essential oils can be overdose.  Used in tiny quantities in cooking to flavour food [such as the rose water used in turkish delight] they will do no harm, but to take them as a medicine is very very unwise.   In effect, Essential oils taken internally can act as poisons.  The following is an extreme case, but not an isolated one

Gac Med Mex. 1996 Jul-Aug;132(4):433-7.  [Fatal poisoning caused by oil of epazote, Chenopodium graveolens].  [Article in Spanish]  Montoya-Cabrera MA1, Escalante-Galindo P, Meckes-Fisher M, Sánchez-Vaca G, Flores-Alvarez E, Reynoso-García M.

We present a case of acute lethal poisoning by oil of "epazote" (oil of chenopodium), in a 2 y 9 m female. The volatile oil was administered according to the advice of a "curandera" (female healer), in a total quantity of 40 ml. Clinical features of the poisoning were: vomiting, deep coma, seizures, mydriasis, apnea, metabolic acidosis, neurogenic shock and death. The EEG suggested a diffuse encephalopathy, the CT scan with an image of severe brain edema and ventricular collapse. Relevant postmortem findings were brain edema and neuronal necrosis, pneumonia, enteritis, pericholangitis, mild pancreatitis and tubular necrosis. The phytochemical analysis of volatile oil identified ascaridol, the main active compound of the chenopodium herbs, in a quantity of 39 mg/ml (1,560 mg in the dose administered), and Chenopodium graveolens as the plant employed to prepare it. According to the age of the patient, 60 mg of ascaridol would be the recommended dose formerly used in the treatment of parasitic disease. Thus 1,560 mg was 26 times higher than the recommended dose, and exceeded by 56% the dose of 1,000 mg reported as lethal in humans.  PMID:  8964384

I will repeat the message ESSENTIAL OILS HAVE NO USE INTERNALLY  as healing medicines, simply because there is nearly always an edible plant that does the same job better.


 External attack

Many plants have anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-parasitic and anti-viral properties.  If we are being attacked from the outside – or for that matter if our fellow creatures, - dogs, cats, plants, horses, cows, sheep etc are being attacked from outside, then plants have a role. 


And here it can also be seen that essential oils – IF PROPERLY PREPARED – also have a role as they provide a far more convenient means of application than a plant.  Although it might be nice walking round with a garland of flowers to keep the flies away, it may be a little inconvenient when we go to work, and raise a few eyebrows on the tube from King’s Cross.

Essential oils have a use both in repelling unwanted invaders – such as mosquitos, ticks, tsetse flies and other unpleasant bugs, or if one has been unlucky enough to be infested with them, to get rid of them. Some examples:

Treatment for parasitic infestations of the skin eg the mite Psoroptes cuniculi is a common worldwide ectoparasite. However, therapy and control of both human scabies and animal mange are still based mainly on the use of drugs and chemicals such as ivermectin, which involves disadvantages including genotoxic and cytotoxic effects.  Several strategies have been proposed for the treatment of mange caused by this mite, including essential oils and plant based products.



Head lice infestation is an emerging social problem in undeveloped and developed countries. Because of louse resistance increasing, several long-used insecticidal compounds have lost their efficacy, and alternatives, such as essential oils, have been proposed to treat this parasitic infestation. The present study investigated the efficacy of two natural substances: tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia) oil and nerolidol (3,7,11-trimethyl-1,6,10-dodecatrien-3-ol) against lice and its eggs. Products were used alone and in combination (ratio 1:1 and 1:2) from 8 % dilution. …… The association of the two substances both in ratios 1:1 and 1:2 combined efficaciously their insecticidal and ovicidal effect; in particular, the ratio 1:2 (tea tree oil 0.5 % plus nerolidol 1 %) acted producing both the death of all head lice at 30 min and the abortive effect of louse eggs after 5 days. These results offer new potential application of natural compounds and display a promising scenario in the treatment of pediculosis resistant cases.  PMID:  22847279

They have also been used in the past to treat wounds that have gone gangrenous or become infected.


Aromatherapy may have origins in antiquity with the use of infused aromatic oils, made by macerating dried plant material in fatty oil, heating and then filtering. Many such oils are described by Dioscorides in his De Materia Medica, written in the first century. Distilled essential oils have been employed since the invention of distillation in the eleventh century, when Avicenna isolated essential oils using steam distillation.  In 1910, René-Maurice Gattefossé, a chemist, burned a hand very badly in a laboratory explosion. The hand developed gas gangrene, which he successfully, and intentionally, treated with lavender oil.  In 1937, his book: Aromathérapie: Les Huiles Essentielles, Hormones Végétales described some of the properties of the oils.  A French surgeon, Jean Valnet used essential oils as antiseptics in the treatment of wounded soldiers during World War II.

So again, very precise uses externally.

BUT essential oils have to be used with great care.  It is essential that one knows without any shadow of a doubt what the cause of an external attack is.  Many skin diseases are not straightforward and the current simplistic thinking that a skin care product based on plants is somehow better than a skin care product not based on plants is woolly thinking and could produce even more suffering.


In the first place many essential oils are strong anti-bacterial agents.

But they can also be indiscriminate anti-bacterial agents. 

On our skin we have bacteria that are part of our defences, as such to put a skin care product on our skin that destroys our defences is, let’s face it, madness.  In effect, you must know what is attacking you and whether the essential oil attacks that thing and nothing else.

Some essential oils have been used in mouthwash products.  There is proof that the bacteria causing gum disease gingivitis, and tooth decay are also one of the causes of heart disease, as such it would seem a good idea to use mouthwash.  But some of the essential oils used in mouthwash are general anti-bacterials and our mouth contains good bacteria that helps in fighting viruses as well as bad bacteria, so in fact by using a mouthwash with general anti-bacterial action, we could be opening ourselves up to all sorts of infection.


There are more problems.  Let us suppose the person has psoriasis.  This is a skin condition so the simplistic, symptom based approach says we need to apply something to the skin.  But the cause of psoriasis is either a pathogen in the lymph system or a blockage caused by surgical intervention, for example, in the lymph system – an essential oil based skin care product actually does nothing and may simply exacerbate the problem. Thus whilst those promoting essential oil based skin products may sell them on the basis they are not as toxic as pharmaceuticals, they may not be right.  Both pharmaceuticals and essential oil based products are toxic if they do not address the cause.

And to round it all off:

Phototoxic reactions may occur with citrus peel oils such as lemon or lime. Also, some essential oils have chemical components that are sensitisers (meaning that they will after a number of uses cause reactions on the skin). Some of the chemical allergies could even be caused by pesticides, if the original plants were cultivated non organically.


Aromatherapy usually involves the heating of an essential oil so that it vaporises and thus becomes a gas. It is thus a variant of external use, although occasionally the vapours are intended to reach the lungs.   Aromatherapy has two uses. 

Repellants - It provides an alternative means of repelling pathogens in, for example, a room.  Thus it can be used to repel mosquitoes or other pathogen carrying insects.  The disadvantage with aromatherapy in this context is that it is not targeted and the person also has to breathe the fumes.  As such every care has to be taken that the vapour of the essential oil does not harm the person as well.


Promotion of relaxation - The second use is in providing nice odours and relaxing smells.  In this, the smell should be almost imperceptible as it has to work somewhat subliminally.  Some plants contain chemicals that appear to induce the body to produce adenosine when they are inhaled. [Limonene, a natural cyclic terpene, is an agonistic ligand for adenosine A(2A) receptors. - Park HM, Lee JH, Yaoyao J, Jun HJ, Lee SJ - Division of Food Bioscience and Technology, Seoul, 136-713, South Korea]   Adenosine is a major endogenous relaxant and whilst stress can compromise the immune system, relaxation and sleep can boost the immune system immeasurably.  As such very few of the essential oils currently touted in aromatherapy actually heal directly, but because they contain relaxants like limonene, they help the immune system and by helping the immune system they help healing take place.  For example

Lemon oil vapor causes an anti-stress effect via modulating the 5-HT and DA activities in mice.  Komiya M, Takeuchi T, Harada E.

We examined the anti-stress action of the essential oils of lavender, rose, and lemon … in mice. Lemon oil had the strongest anti-stress effect in all three behavioural tasks. We further investigated a regulatory mechanism of the lemon oil ….. The findings suggest that the antidepressant-like effect of lemon oil is closely related with the 5-HTnergic pathway, especially via 5-HT(1A) receptor. Moreover, the lemon oil significantly accelerated the metabolic turnover of DA in the hippocampus and of 5-HT in the prefrontal cortex and striatum.

Essential oils and the unborn

Essential oils can penetrate the skin.  Used externally, even in apparently low concentrations, they can affect the unborn child.  There are cases on PubMed of women receiving massage treatments with essential oils in order to relax them before childbirth who have spontaneously aborted and had miscarriages, thus the overall advice may be not to use essential oils at all when pregnant and never use essential oils on babies or small children.

Their value in research


In all the discussion about essential oils and their uses, one of their most important and valuable uses is often overlooked -  in research.  Assuming the essential oils have been extracted correctly and are representative of the plant, they are one of the most essential and useful means of doing laboratory research in understanding their effects against pathogens and toxins.  There is no need to involve innocent animals in the research either, as all you are testing is their effect against the pathogens that attack animals, plants and us.

The essential oils provide the researcher with a means of testing different strengths and different combinations as well.  For example

In the present study, lemon grass essential oil (LGEO) was evaluated for its …. antifungal activity using both liquid and vapor phases.  LGEO exhibited promising antifungal effect against Candida albicans, C. tropicalis, and Aspergillus niger, ………….  PMID:  25242268

So in effect they know from this that the oil has an effect on any EXTERNAL fungal infection.  One cannot assume that lemon grass also attacks internal fungal infections from this study, but as lemon grass – the plant – tastes nice and is a good food, then eating it might help.

Another example

In vitro studies have demonstrated antibacterial activity of essential oils (EOs) against Listeria monocytogenes, Salmonella typhimurium, Escherichia coli O157:H7, Shigella dysenteria, Bacillus cereus and Staphylococcus aureus at levels between 0.2 and 10 microl ml(-1). Gram-negative organisms are slightly less susceptible than gram-positive bacteria. A number of EO components has been identified as effective antibacterials, e.g. carvacrol, thymol, eugenol, perillaldehyde, cinnamaldehyde and cinnamic acid  PMID:  15246235

All these very nasty pathogens attack us from the inside, so we need to find plants we know are not poisonous to us that contain these chemicals.  So, if we take the example of Carvacrol, it is present in oregano, thyme, pepperwort, and wild bergamot; savory has a content between 1% and 45%; marjoram and Dittany of Crete are rich in carvacrol, 50% resp. 60-80%.  It is also found in tequila.

Thus if we are poorly from these pathogens a mixed herb omelette, followed by Earl Grey tea and tequila chaser might just be a great help!

Before every researcher goes scurrying off to start his or her own research the extraordinary and valuable research work done by Dr James Duke should be mentioned here.  Many many plants have already been investigated by him, using both the plant itself and essential oils, and he has already established the most amazing database of plants, their components and their action which needs to be used far more often.

Essential oils and their use in eliminating toxins from our environment



Perhaps the most important use for essential oils has been in the use of plant based products to help plants fight pathogens – fungi, viruses, parasites, bacteria etc.  By providing a non toxic alternative to the insecticides, pesticides and so on that are in use today, we may be able to help plants fight disease, but do it with plants.  The research being done here is recent and extremely encouraging, for example:

Vegetable crops are frequently infected by fungal pathogens, which can include seedborne fungi. In such cases, the pathogen is already present within or on the seed surface, and can thus cause seed rot and seedling damping-off. Treatment of vegetable seeds has been shown to prevent plant disease epidemics caused by seedborne fungal pathogens. Furthermore, seed treatments can be useful in reducing the amounts of pesticides required to manage a disease, because effective seed treatments can eliminate the need for foliar application of fungicides later in the season. Although the application of fungicides is almost always effective, their non-target environmental impact and the development of pathogen resistance have led to the search for alternative methods, especially in the past few years. Physical treatments that have already been used in the past and treatments with biopesticides, such as plant extracts, natural compounds and biocontrol agents, have proved to be effective in controlling seedborne pathogens. These have been applied alone or in combination, and they are widely used owing to their broad spectrum in terms of disease control and production yield. In this review, the effectiveness of different seed treatments against the main seedborne pathogens of some important vegetable crops is critically discussed.   KEYWORDS:   Alternaria spp; Leptosphaeria maculans; biocontrol agents; essential oils; physical treatment; seedborne pathogens  PMID:  24293285


In Summary


I have found cases where essential oils, taken internally or applied almost neat on the skin have produced everything from hallucinations to death.  Thus stupidly used, essential oils have the same capacity to maim and kill as anything else used in overdose and in the wrong way. 

But used externally – ONCE YOU KNOW THE CAUSE OF AN ILLNESS – they are clearly of great use.  They also have the potential to be a means of saving us from yet more toxin exposure, helping our fellow creatures – domestic animals and wild animals – and helping the plants that are our allies become well again.

Trends Biotechnol. 2003 Sep;21(9):400-7.  Using fungi and yeasts to manage vegetable crop diseases.  Punja ZK1, Utkhede RS.Center for Environmental Biology, Dept of Biological Sciences, Simon Fraser University, 8888 University Drive, Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada V5A 1S6.

Vegetable crops are grown worldwide as a source of nutrients and fiber in the human diet. Fungal plant pathogens can cause devastation in these crops under appropriate environmental conditions. Vegetable producers confronted with the challenges of managing fungal pathogens have the opportunity to use fungi and yeasts as biological control agents. Several commercially available products have shown significant disease reduction through various mechanisms to reduce pathogen development and disease. Production of hydrolytic enzymes and antibiotics, competition for plant nutrients and niche colonization, induction of plant host defense mechanisms, and interference with pathogenicity factors in the pathogen are the most important mechanisms. Biotechnological techniques are becoming increasingly valuable to elucidate the mechanisms of action of fungi and yeasts and provide genetic characterization and molecular markers to monitor the spread of these agents.  PMID:  12948673

In doing this it is worth remembering however that occasionally it is companion planting that is the most effective, as opposed to the spraying of the essential oil of a plant.

studies have shown that the numbers of pest insects found on crop plants are reduced considerably when the crop is allowed to become weedy, [a weed in this context being an inedible plant]  is intercropped with another plant species, or is undersown with a living mulch. PMID:  12425046


References and further reading

The photographs of people on this page are by Jimmy Nelson and are part of his project "Before they pass away".


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