Extracted from plants, essential oils are concentrated liquids that can have therapeutic effects. They’re most commonly used in aromatherapy, but in recent years, more people have also been using them as an alternative to Western medicine.
Dr Salleh bin Omar, senior family physician from Raffles Medical, says: “If there are comprehensive studies and trials done to prove that a particular essential oil is effective and safe, it can be used as medicine. For example, thymol, an essential oil found in thyme, is commonly used as an antiseptic gargle for sore throats.”
But for Ana Ow, founder of health and wellness portal One Drop Nirvana, essential oils are a lifestyle choice. The mother of two started using them three years ago when her son Keyaan, then two years old, fell sick frequently. After a month of oiling, Ana says Keyaan grew more robust and he stopped falling ill. Now, Ana only uses therapeutic-grade essential oils from US brand Young Living as a substitute for medicines. “My family and I are completely drug-free. I use essential oils to build up our immunity; when we succumb to the occasional cough, flu, fever or stomach ache, we usually recover within a day or two.” She points out that oils should be of top quality so they’re safe to use.
HOW TO USE THEM
>> Apply them topically
Essential oils may be used in skincare products or applied directly to the skin. For example, Ana uses Young Living’s Thieves blend (containing cinnamon, clove, rosemary, lemon and eucalyptus radiata) to build immunity. She recommends that those new to the oiling lifestyle start by applying one drop of the blend to the base of the feet.
She also rubs a drop of lemongrass essential oil on the tummy to aid indigestion, and applies lavender essential oil on open wounds, cuts, blisters and burns. Cheryl Gan, director of Mt. Sapola Singapore, who is also a certified herbalist, advises: “If you’re blending your own skincare, the essential oil should not exceed more than 5 per cent of the blend.” She warns that bacteria can be introduced into the formula if you’re blending it at home. There is also the risk of getting an unstable blend, without the measures taken in commercial production, so it is always advisable to do a skin patch test before using DIY lotions or blends. Be careful too about the kind of oil you’re using, says Dr Salleh.
“Many commercial essential oils designed for aromatherapy should not be applied to the skin because they are so concentrated that they may cause severe skin irritation, provoke an allergic reaction, and may cause liver damage,” he warns. Dr Salleh adds that lavender oil, when applied to the skin, can be oestrogenic and anti-androgenic (it blocks the action of male hormones), and hence, may be harmful to pregnant women and prepubescent boys. A study published in The New England Journal of Medicine states that lavender and tea tree oils have been linked to breast enlargement in boys who have not reached puberty.
>>Inhale their vapours
Inhaling the vapours of essential oils can stimulate parts of your brain to influence physical, emotional and mental health, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center’s website. Common essential oils used in this way include lavender to calm and ease anxiety, lemongrass to diffuse odours and repel insects, and peppermint to combat sleepiness and improve focus.
Ana says she inhales scents directly from the bottle or from a drop on her hand. She also recommends diffusing the essential oil using an ultrasonic or cold-air diffuser. “Candle burners are not suitable for therapeutic essential oils because the heat may degrade the oil,” she adds. Although inhaling vaporised essential oils is generally safe, people with lung conditions such as asthma, respiratory allergies or chronic lung disease should first consult a doctor.
Ana finds that ingesting some of the oils is the quickest way to benefit from them. “Veterans like myself swallow a drop directly from the bottle,” she says of the Thieves blend. She also uses one drop of lavender under the tongue as an antihistamine.
Essential oils have also found their way into her kitchen. “I make lavender lemonade with lemons, water and a drop of lavender oil; and salad dressing with olive oil and a bit of basil, thyme, oregano or marjoram oil.”
Medical experts say one should exercise caution and seek professional advice about ingesting essential oils in general, because of the nature of the products. “Unless the label states specifically that an essential oil can be ingested, it should not be used that way,” says Dr Salleh. If there are any undesirable effects, Dr Salleh’s advice is to stop using them and to consult a doctor. “Conversely, if an essential oil has been used correctly and the individual sees its benefits without any side effects, then it will likely be beneficial and safe to continue using the product,” he adds.
Ana also cautions: “If you are new to this lifestyle, you should hydrate thoroughly as essential oils have a detoxifying effect, and the toxins will be flushed out through your waste. But when you don’t hydrate properly, the body will purge the toxins through your pores – this is where redness or rash might occur.”
Image credit: motherearthliving.com