Safety Issue In Aromatherapy

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Many aromatherapists and laymen consider natural essential oils to be completely safe. This is based on the misconception that all herbs are safe—because they are "natural," which is a fallacy. The toxicity of essential oils can also be entirely different to that of the herb, not only because of their high concentration, but also because of their ability to pass across membranes very efficiently due to their lipophilicity.

Some aromatherapists erroneously believe that aromatherapy is self-correcting, unlike conventional therapy with medicines, and if errors are made in aromatherapy, they may be resolved through discontinuation of the wrongful application of the oil (e.g., Schnaubelt, 1999).

Many essential oils are inherently toxic at very low concentrations due to very toxic components; these are not normally used in aromatherapy. Many essential oils that are considered to be nontoxic can have a toxic effect on some people; this can be influenced by previous sensitization to a given essential oil, a group of essential oils containing similar components, or some adulterant in the essential oil. It can also be influenced by the age of the person; babies and young children are especially vulnerable and so are very old people. The influence of other medicaments, both conventional and herbal, is still in the preliminary stages of being studied. It is possible that these medicaments, and also probably household products, including perfumes and cosmetics, can influence the adverse reactions to essential oils.

Aromatherapists themselves have also been affected by sensitization (Crawford et al., 2004); in a 12-month period under study, prevalence of hand dermatitis in a sample of massage therapists was 15% by self-reported criteria and 23% by a symptom-based method and included the use of aromatherapy products in massage oils, lotions, or creams. In contrast, the suggestion that aromathera-pists have any adverse effects to long-term usage of essential oils was apparently disproved by a nonscientific survey (Price and Price, 1999).

As most essential oils were tested over 30 years ago, the toxicity data may now be meaningless, as different essential oils are now used, some of which contain different quantities of many different synthetic components (Lis-Balchin, 2006).

The major drawbacks of trying to extrapolate toxicity studies in animals to humans concern feelings—from headaches to splitting migraines; feeling sick, vertigo, profound nausea; tinnitus; sadness, melancholia, suicidal thoughts; feelings of hate—which are clearly impossible to measure in animals (Lis-Balchin, 2006). The toxicity of an individual essential oil/component is also tested in isolation in animals and disregards the possibility of modification by other substances, including food components and food additive chemicals, the surrounding atmosphere with gaseous and other components, fragrances used in perfumes, domestic products, in the car, in public transport (including the people), workplace, and so on. These could cause modification of the essential oil/component, its bioavailability, and possibly the enhancement or loss of its function. The detoxification processes in the body are all directed to the production of a more polar product(s), which can be excreted mainly by the kidneys regardless of whether this/these are more toxic or less toxic than the initial substance and differ in different animals.

Most essential oils have GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status granted by the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association (FEMA) and approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for food use, and many appear in the food chemical codex. This was reviewed in 1996 after evaluation by the expert panel of the FEMA. The assessment was based on data of exposure, and as most flavor ingredients are used at less than 100 ppm, predictions regarding their safety can be assessed from data on their structurally related group(s) (Munro et al., 1996). The no-observed-adverse-effect levels (NOELs) are more than 100,000 times their exposure levels from use as flavor ingredients (Adams et al., 1996). Critical to GRAS assessment are data of metabolic fate and chronic studies rather than acute toxicity. Most essential oils and components have an LD50 of 1-20 g/kg body weight or roughly 1-20 mL/kg, with a few exceptions as follows: Boldo leaf oil 0.1/0.9 (oral/dermal); Calamus 0.8-9/5; Chenopodium 0.2/0.4; Pennyroyal 0.4/4; and Thuja 0.8/4.

Research Institute for Fragrance Materials (RIFM) testing is generally limited to acute oral and dermal toxicity, irritation and dermal sensitization, and phototoxicity of individual materials, and there is little effort to address synergistic and modifying effects of materials in combination (Johansen et al., 1998).

Many materials that were widely used for decades in the past had severe neurotoxic properties and accumulated in body tissues (Spencer et al., 1979; Furuhashi et al., 1994) but most fragrance materials have never been tested for neurological effects, despite the fact that olfactory pathways provide a direct route to the brain (Hastings et al., 1991).

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