Essential Oils are Chemicals. Say What Now? Aromatherapy 101 from The Sensory Coach

Essential oils are chemicals. Does that surprise or shock you?

Any aromatherapist worth their diploma will know this, but the majority of essential oil users don’t, which can lead to potential safety issues.

I’ve heard it said that many herbalists consider essential oils to be the pharmaceuticals of the plant medicine world.

However, the general public tends to view them as gentle, safe, natural products, which isn’t quite true.

In this article I’m going to debunk some of the myths surrounding essential oils, and in the process show why we must develop more respect for these potent plant compounds.

I’m something of a chemistry geek it has to be said, so this is one element of aromatherapy that I absolutely adore. I do appreciate that not everyone feels like that, so I’ll do my best to pique your curiosity without burdening you with jargon!

The Whole World (Including You) is Made of Chemicals

Chemicals get a bad rap, which, when we think about all the toxic junk that gets dumped into our environment, food, water and air, is hardly surprising. But chemicals are also the reason we’re alive.

Most of us will remember learning that water is H2O – 2 parts hydrogen to 1 part oxygen. That’s a chemical compound – when the atoms of 2 or more elements join together to create something new.

As every single thing in the universe is made of atoms, it means that every single thing in the universe is made up of chemicals. You are a living breathing collection of chemical compounds and reactions – a science lab no less! Ever eaten a tin of beans and experienced the chemical reaction that lead to the release of gas…? Uh huh, like I said… you’re your own science lab.

Aromatherapy - A Science and an Art

It may seem like semantics to take issue with the statement: ‘essential oils are chemical free’, but it’s really not. To say that is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of aromatherapy.

I’ve posted photos on my instagram account that have had comments such as ‘ooh that looks like science!’ Which is hitting the nail firmly on the head. Aromatherapy IS a science as well as an art.


What is an Essential Oil Anyway?

According to wikipedia, an essential oil is:

a concentrated hydrophobic liquid containing volatile chemical compounds.

What does that mean? Hydrophobic simply means it doesn’t like water, ie water and oil don’t mix .

If you’ve ever taken the advice of certain companies who suggest you add a few drops of their essential oil blend to a glass of water, you’ll have seen this very clearly. Top tip: don’t do that, it’s not good for you.

Volatile means that it contains compounds which easily turn to a gas or vapour – the aroma of aromatherapy!

Your bottle of Lavender Oil is made up of at least 100 constituents – every single one of those is a chemical compound. One of those compounds is called linalool which is what is known as a monoterpenoid or a terpene alcohol. 

Let’s go full geek mode for a moment and look at its picture…..

linalool chemical structure

If you’re wondering why there are mirror images of the chemical structure, that’s a whole other chemistry rabbit hole we could fall down, but not today.

Remember, Linalool is just one of the 100+ chemicals in little old lavender oil. 

Why Does This Matter?

Linalool is one of 26 allergens that have to be listed as an ingredient on aromatherapy products. 

Read that again: 1 of 26 allergens.

Which, I’m sure you will now better understand, makes a mockery of what a certain Essential Oil MLM rep told me some years ago.

Linalool can cause problems for those with skin conditions such as eczema, and is known to cause contact dermatitis in susceptible individuals.

Unfortunately many aromatherapists, particularly those who practice massage therapy, go on to develop allergies as a result of prolonged contact with these naturally occurring chemicals, which can mean the end of their careers.

As a result of well meaning, but under educated, MLM essential oil company reps  telling customers that it’s safe to apply undiluted essential oils to the skin, we are seeing a substantial rise in the numbers of reported reactions.

As I say time and time again: just because something is natural doesn’t mean it is safe.

Are Essential Oils Natural?

Yes and …. sort of no. I appreciate this is going to be controversial, but bear with me here.

As I said at the beginning of this article, many herbalists consider essential oils to be pharmaceuticals. The first time I heard this, I was pretty pissed off to be honest! However, as my continued professional development taught me more about the chemistry of the oils, I understood what they were getting at.

Herbalists work with the whole plant; their tinctures will, naturally, include the compounds that are found within that plant. They use hot water and alcohol to draw out those medicinal compounds, and make them easier for us to consume at medicinal levels.

Essential oils on the other hand generally have to go through a more rigorous extraction method such as steam distillation. This creates a much more concentrated soup of chemicals than you’d be able to get from a herbal tea.

If you consider that it takes approximately 240,000 rose petals to make just 5ml of rose essential oil, you can see the difference! 

So yes, essential oils are naturally occurring plant not synthetic chemicals, but can we say they’re truly natural in the same way we can say apple juice is? I’m undecided, what do you think?

Treat Essential Oils With Respect

The subject of chemistry in aromatherapy is vast, and would take ever growing volumes to cover, but I hope this article has given you a small taster of what a fascinating and complex subject this is.

I also hope that it’s given you a good enough grounding in the science, to feel confident in calling out anyone who claims that essential oils are chemical free. It’s simply not true, and if they don’t understand this, you going to want to think twice about taking their advice about how to use them.

Treat essential oils with the respect they deserve. Take the time to learn more about how to use them safely, so that you can enjoy their numerous benefits with confidence. If you have any concerns, always consult a professional aromatherapist.