Scent and Scentsibility

My first training in Aromatherapy was a community offering in Cochrane, AB. I went hoping to find a way to make my old home smell better and was in the room for maybe 5 minutes before I realized that I had stumbled into something MUCH more profound. My instructor, Master Herbalist and Master Aromatherapist, Blaine Andrusek, regaled us with the most funny and interesting stories about essential oils, pheromones, and health potentials. In the midst of these anecdotes, I discovered aromatherapy as a health and wellness tool which had never been part of my awareness. Like many others who discover that medicine can have a wonderful sensory component, I dove in. In my typical manner, I dove in deep right away.

Over the years, I took many workshops, participated in distilling of essential oils, and offered my share of "What is Aromatherapy and How Can I Use it" seminars. I worked for an essential oil company filling bottles and seeing what goes into the preparing of blends. And, I went to (then) Mount Royal College and spent 2 years in part time study of essential oils with an incredibly astute and well trained aromatherapist, Jean Channon Simpson. I came away from this program as a Certified Aromatherapist - Advanced Level.

I found, that my enthusiasm for the amazing benefits of essential oils was met in the general public with puzzlement. Few were willing to go beyond the idea of pot pourri at that time, and it seemed like my work was to bring awareness of essential oils to the public before I could ever do any clinical work with them. And then..... Along came the big essential oil marketing companies. Mixed blessings, indeed.

Now, essential oils are very well known and are touted as a completely safe form of healing for anyone. I am routinely given instructions from strangers on how to use essential oils, how to ingest them, how to cook with them.... etc. Part of me is going, WOW.... people know..... And another part of me is going HMMMM.... I guess all my years of schooling and training are redundant. And yet another part of me is going OH, NO.... these people have seen the benefits but are not being guided to the safe use of the oils.

I have personally and unwittingly used oils on my own child which caused her to have contact dermatitis and a very painful reaction. I have personally splashed oils on my skin which led to phototoxic reaction and darkened spots on my face. I have personally spilled oils on my hands which caused a hypothermic reaction for over 18 hours. I know there are oils, such as Sweet Birch oil which smell amazing... and are KNOWN liver toxins. Trained clinicians use these oils sparingly and with good understanding of their properties. So not all essential oils are safe.

And not all essential oils are appreciated by people. Scent is related to our oldest part of our brain which connects to memory. Using a scent in the environment that I enjoy may elicit a traumatic memory in someone else. Some people DO have allergies and sensitivities to essential oils even though they are a natural product. I have definitely had people in seminars needing to leave because the scent was giving them a migraine. Essential oils are definitely specific for each person.

What became my biggest lesson in the use of essential oils is related to their potency. As a distilled product, their oil-like chemistry is removed from plant material (usually by steam distillation). This is not far off from the processes used to extract chemicals from plants in order to recombine them and turn them into pharmaceuticals. It takes masses of plant material to create even 1 liter of oil. In some cases, tons of material. It was brought to my attention a few years ago that the vial of essential oils that I was so willing to use is a highly concentrated medicine derived from thousands of plants which were ripped from the earth to make the oil. Why am I treating it without a sense of sacredness? Even ONE drop can heal. And, if there is a way to use that plant in its whole form, why not do that first? Eat the oregano in the diet rather than potentially overuse the oil which has the potential to be a treatment against superbugs. Make mint tea from mint leaves. Put the lemon in the water rather than the oil. After all, would you eat the same amount of plants in one sitting that is creating that one drop of essential oil?

Pause for thought...... I really had to ponder that. Why am I acting like these medicines should be sprayed and massaged and ingested, and used like there was no end to the supply? I put some thought into what goes into creating them. We took a whole day to gather plant material from 2 long rows of currant bushes, put them through a wood chipper, put the chips into the distiller, collect the hydrosol and the essential oil.... and only to reap about 100 mls of essential oil. It should cost thousands of dollars per ml according to the labour alone. Should I even be promoting their use? How many people are labouring for pennies a day so I can have essential oils?

I have come to an uneasy compromise with my involvement in essential oil use. I recognize they are part of the mainstream consumer awareness and I am unlikely to make much of an impact on how they are marketed and used. When people ask, I will help them to understand when, how, and why to use specific oils safely and effectively. I use them modestly in my clinical practice... to great benefit for those dealing with sinus issues, and for creating deeper tissue relaxation in massage treatments mainly. Their antiseptic benefits are of value at times.... but for the most part, I keep them stored quietly out of sight for those times when their deepest medicine can be really valuable. I trust my suppliers. I do my best to use the oils skillfully and ethically. And I trust that others who are called to use them will receive what they need from them. I have chosen to use scent sensibly.

Paula Carnegie Fehr