How can anyone just beginning in the therapy possibly diagnose a condition, know how to treat it, and which essential oils to use? Diagnosing and treating a condition require considerable expertise, knowledge and practice, and the short courses given are grossly inadequate. I have received many letters from young women who have gained ‘diplomas’ in aromatherapy, but who want to learn more because they feel they know so little. Some top nurses in the Churchill Hospital, Oxford, use essential oils in their treatments, but even they, with all their medical knowledge, are very careful in their usage, and are extremely worried about some claims made for the therapy in the last few years. It is actually dangerous, too, for many of the oils are very strong, poisonous even, and can have powerful effects in the wrong – or uninformed ¬hands; the results could be disastrous to vulnerable people – children, the old, or pregnant women.
Aromatherapy was once a proper therapy because the oils were pure and natural essential oils, having been water distilled from plants grown especially for the therapy. Today there are many methods of gaining essences from plants most being steam-distilled. Through the demands of commerce though, many distillers are now using volatile solvents rather than water to extract the oils. These modern methods produce far more oil and oil with a stronger fragrance, which is beneficial to the perfume industry – the largest client of the distillers. But, as even the tiniest trace of the solvent remaining in the essential oil changes the balance of its constituents, the oil cannot therefore be used as safely and therapeutically as before. Many inexperienced aromatherapists do, however, use these oils, not questioning or caring about the method of extraction and the purity of the oil. Unfortunately, as the therapy accounts for such a tiny percentage of the oils sold, we have little or no say in how they are extracted.
Essential oils for aromatherapy were once produced from plants raised naturally – and, indeed, many still are – but most, again through the demands of commerce, are now being ‘helped along’ by modern agricultural methods, using pesticides and fertilizers. These affect the essential constituents of the plant and therefore the essential oil. Traces of agricultural nitrates, for instance, show up in chromatographs (‘x-rays’ of plant oils), and as a result a lot of research is being done to evaluate the dangers of this in therapy. These pesticides are normally used by those who have huge acreages of plants; most distillers of essential oils for therapy are smaller and are more careful.
Another worrying aspect is the aftermath of the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl. The fallout has probably affected the whole world, but European plants in particular have suffered and, in turn, so have the plants’ oils (as can be seen when the oils are tested for radioactivity). I now import a lot of my oils – particularly thyme, which seems to ‘fix’ pollutants more than other herbs – from Israel, i.e. as far as possible from Kiev and the path of the fallout.
Distillers and bottlers have a great responsibility in ensuring the future of aromatherapy. There are many who distil by steam, bottle pure oils and are honest, but others cut corners. If the clary sage crop has not been good enough, they might top up with sage and sell the oil as that of pure clary sage. Sage oil is a very strong oil, and can have disastrous effects on vulnerable or sensitive people. This practice is very common indeed now, so what are practitioners, let alone members of the public, to do?
It is not always easy to check on the quality of oils, even if you have in your hand all the right answers such as the chromatography and the marks of quality. One has to depend entirely on one’s nose to make the ultimate check, and experience in this comes only after many years of smelling different qualities of essential oils. For instance, lavender, lavandin and aspic all smell the same to an inexpert nose, and lavandin and aspic are taken for lavender in most cases. (There are huge differ¬ences therapeutically and in cost.
An expert nose should also be able to detect adulteration of the product. This is not easy and only comes with time. Many years ago the agent and importer of essential oils with whom I dealt died. His business was bought by someone who had very little knowledge. Shortly afterwards I purchased some essential oil of rose from Morocco, and when I opened the bottle I immediately recognized that the smell was different – it had an added note – also the colour had changed and the consistency was more fluid. My suspicions raised I rang the new agent but was told that the quality was the same as I had purchased in the past. I sent a sample to my laboratory in France for analysis, and I was right. The oil had been adulterated in two ways: first by diluting it with a vegetable oil, and second, by adding geranium. Was the new agent dishonest or had the distillers taken advantage of his lack of expertise? As one depends on total honesty from the distiller and supplier, where does this leave the practitioner? One must always be on the alert.
I am now actively campaigning to have the provenance of essential oils recorded on their labels by the distiller. This will be difficult because of the very many countries which produce oils, but it is a step in the right direction. I also want to have the dates of the distillation recorded on these labels, for oils deteriorate very quickly if not kept properly, and lose their therapeutic properties if too old. Some can actually cause allergic reactions. Two clients reacted badly to lavender that they bought in shops; it is a gentle oil, but it had been stored for far too long.
Storing essential oils
Essential oils should always be stored in dark bottles (glass or metal) to protect them from light, and preferably kept in a dark, cool place (not under the bright lights of a shop interior). Stoppers have to be very carefully and properly sealed, for air can also have a deleterious effect on the oil. (And the oils can, of course, dissolve certain types of stoppers and seals.) Certain oils, clove for example, can also corrode metal. Because it may be impossible for you to check the quality of essential oils, where relevant I have given remedies using the plants themselves. Alternatively you could make your own plant oils and use these in therapy. Don’t forget that they won’t need diluting.
The Effects of the Perfume and Food Industries
Commerce is also responsible for yet another blow to the future of aromatherapy. The largest market for most essential oils is the perfumery industry. This industry is so powerful that it can actually specify to growers around the world what is to be grown. We need rose this year, they might say, not geranium, so distil that. The growers will, of course, agree, thereby cutting down the availability of certain oils which, although very valuable in therapy, are not so valued in perfumery. Certain houses in the perfumery industry, for instance, have recently monopolized almost the entire world market in sandalwood oil. As a result, that oil, of great value therapeutically, particularily for Ayurvedic medicine in India, will not be readily available for aromatherapy for years to come, to say nothing of the effect that the perfumery industry’s demands are having on the destruction of forests.
The food industry, too, uses a huge proportion of essential oils for flavouring all manner of foods and drink. About a teaspoon of an oil like sage could kill a child, and indeed seven cases of ‘food poisoning’ were recently registered in France where the sufferers had eaten sausages flavoured with sage oil instead of fresh sage. What effects, therefore, is the inclusion of oils like nutmeg in food having on the rest of us? Hyperactivity in children, now believed to be related to additives in food, could be one result.
A Look to the Future
All in all, the therapy is no longer what it once was, and in the wrong hands, can be positively dangerous rather than beneficial to health. The future and the success of the therapy are dependent on a whole chain of people doing the right thing at the right time and in the right way: growing the plant organically, cutting the plant at the right time, distilling the plant in the most natural way, bottling the oil honestly, and storing the oil sensibly. I believe that this essential ‘trust’ is diminishing all the time. An expensive ‘rose oil‘ could have been solvent extracted from chemically fertilized plants then adulterated with geranium or gaiac oil.
The city of Grasse in the south of France, once so famed for its fields of flowers and its mild winters, illustrates these points all too well. Very few plants are now cultivated there for distillation and many small factories have been closed down in the last few decades, leaving the big factories to deal with most of the trade. The intensive labour cost, the cost of land and the pressures and demands of certain plants, have been the main factors leading to this demise, and the growers have turned to new sources of income. Some of them have lost all their money and have had to sell their land to developers. Now tall buildings, blocks of flats and houses have replaced the endless fields of aromatic flowers which once composed the unique landscape in and around Grasse.
Neither can its reputation as the ‘climatic’ city of France be applied any more. Nominated this because of its flowers, altitude and proximity to the sea, this lovely city has become one of the most polluted in France. Some 700 tonnes of solvent escape into the air above it each year because Grasse is still one of the world centres of the perfume industry, but chemically so. In the last two decades the chemical syntheses for perfumery have taken great strides forward resulting in the stability in pricing, the lower cost, the good synthetic reproduction of natural smells, and the continuity of colour of products.
There are not enough plants to supply the world demand for perfume, which is why chemical equivalents are being produced. As a result, some flower distillations have completely ceased: some of the flowers which used to make the great perfumes of the past – gardenia, lilac, lily of the valley – are all now recreated in the laboratory, but for me the synthetic smell will never compare with the subtlety of the natural. Such synthetic equivalents, although they can’t be used in aromatherapy, can’t be totally condemned as rather this than that the earth should be further wrecked and deprived of its flora and vegetation, and forests destroyed (see Bois de rose and Sandalwood).
If the future looks gloomy, it remains that the basic principles of aromatherapy still hold good. I do use essential oils in my prescriptions, and I have recommended using many in the remedies throughout this book. However, these are used in very careful dilutions to ensure safety, and I give warnings about those which have even the smallest doubt attached to them. Instead, the majority of my remedies utilize the actual plants themselves, which of course contain theessential oils in smaller but safer quantities. This is a sensible path to choose.
Always consult your doctor for a proper diagnosis of any symptoms, particularly as they may be indicative of a more serious underlying cause.
Aromatherapy has been, and always should be, effective, with a part to play in modern medicine, health, beauty and life – but I do urge you to take care.