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What's the Deal with Essential Oils?

Published Apr 11, 2019 • Last Updated 10:39 am, April 11, 2019

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Essential oils have been called a cure for everything from cancer to the common hangover. With claims like that on the market, it's important to keep an eye on the facts.

Essential oils are compounds distilled from plant matter that contain the scents of the plant from which they came. They are not FDA approved as medication for any diseases.

"You can get single-plant based items or fruits like lemon essential oil. Certain companies will blend different single oils together and that's a whole other option," says Frances Wright, a registered nurse.

Lavender, she says, is one of the most common oils for stress relief purposes and sleep support.

"I work in a hospital, very high stress environment, so I use it for my own support," she says. "That can help bring you back to the present moment and take away all of the external factors that are driving you crazy and pulling you in a million different directions."

Oils often come at various levels of dilution and are intended for inhalation, topical use, or infusion into certain household products.

"The essential oils help support health and well being. They're not meant to reverse disease states," Wright says. "It's an integrative therapy you can use for stress relief, supporting different body symptoms."

Having said that, Wright says that essential oils are worth keeping an open mind about.

"If you don't use the oils, they're not going to work," Wright says. "It's something to empower people, to reach for alternative methods to support your wellness."

Extraordinary claims aside, the oils do have their place in a therapeutic setting.

"As far as 'treatment,' it's a term we need to be careful about," says Donna Fallacaro, a Fairfield-based aromatherapist certified by the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA). "Only medical practitioners can offer treatment."

The scientific consensus is generally set against the effectiveness of essential oils in medical treatment, but aromatherapists and others have found success in areas more closely related to mental health and relaxation.

"Essential oils and the use of aromatherapy can be a wonderful support to issues like the need to relax, calm nerves, cleanse air, uplift spirits, [and] ease muscles," Fallacaro says.

Last November, the O2 Oxygen and Wellness Bar opened up in Guilford, offering services said to calm and "energize" customers.

Renee Seeley, the owner of the Oxygen Bar, uses machines and locally purchased concentrated oxygen at her bar. While the atmosphere is 20% oxygen, her customers are treated to 30 minutes of breathing from a 94% oxygen source. Mary Lyons of Guilford says getting one of these oxygen treatments made her feel very energized.

"If you ever watched a football game, you'll see athletes using oxygen," says Seeley. "It's great for healing, great for diabetes, even great for hangovers."

In the case of the football players, there is some science to support a more speedy recovery of oxygen body saturation, particularly when playing in higher altitudes, but for people looking for their oxygen fix at ground level, the atmosphere is sufficient.

However, Seeley also offers essential oil infusions that can be calming to some people.

"Aromas are very much a personal thing," Seeley says. "Many people are just looking to relax and chill."

Her customers' favorite flavors are peppermint, vanilla, and eucalyptus. She also sells locally sourced kombucha, a fermented tea originally brewed in China that contains beneficial bacteria called probiotics.

Fallacaro says that many of the extreme claims attributed to essential oils come with the prescription that they be ingested. However, it is the practice of Seeley, Fallacaro, and other certified aromatherapists to apply essential oils through inhalation or topically.

While essential oils have their uses in relaxation, they can also be used in a variety of homecare products.

Wright initially began learning about essential oils when she was thinking of using them as part of an aromatherapy program in her practice as an end of life doula. But her interest changed directions and she never ended up getting certified.

"It's a hobby turned lifestyle for me," she says.

She started out with a diffuser and a sample set of essential oils, but that hobby has become increasingly complex with research and discovery of new techniques. She recently gave a talk in Chester about using essential oils in everyday life.

"It was a free introductory workshop to learn simple steps to eliminate toxins from your home," she says. "Instead of products with fragrance in it, you can make products at home with essential oils in it."

For Wright, essential oils are largely about empowerment.

"My goal...was to empower people to look at the ingredients lists on the back of their products," she says. "Something to look out for is 'fragrance,' which is pretty much on the back of any household or personal product."

The labs that make the scents infused into those products are not required to list the ingredients that go into their scents.

"When it's listed as fragrance, there can be as many as 3,000 different chemicals in that one word, fragrance, and not knowing what those chemicals are is concerning," Wright says. "Not everything on the shelf at the store is as clean as it might claim."

Mixing basic, unscented hand soap with fragrant oils is one way to take control of the chemicals introduced into the home.

"It's being aware and being able to control which products you use...that you either put on your body every day, wash your clothes with, clean your counters with," she says. "I'm finding that's my passion when it comes to essential oils."

Using essential oils, Wright has made everything from chapstick to beard oil using recipes found online and in recipe books. By replacing products that use unknown chemicals with cleaning agents fueled by essential oils, Wright says she's more comfortable with the products in her home.

Despite her belief in essential oils, Wright says it's important for others to do their own research about them.

"People write books and they make claims from research. It's one thing to read that and trust the author, [but] I found my own people who I trust and I read," she says.

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