All About Essential Oils

All About Essential Oils

Did you know your Listerine mouthwash contains three essential oils? What about your hand soap, dish soap, or even clothes dryer sheets? Many of the household products we use today are chalk-full of essential oils but what exactly are “essential oils”? Essential oils are volatile organic compounds that come from plants. Essential oils have a very low heating point, so they become very fragrant at low temperatures (think of strong perfumes or using a diffuser in your home). Essential oils are made of lipophilic molecules, which essentially means these compounds are easily and quickly absorbed across the skin, lungs, and gastrointestinal tract. In fact, blood testing on people being massaged with lavender oils showed lavender essential oil in their blood within five minutes of application! So far, the research on essential oil use on our furry family members shows the same results. Once these compounds enter the body, they are metabolized by the liver and then eliminated by the lungs, kidneys, and stool.

So, the big question is: Are these chemicals safe to use? The short and simple answer is we just don’t know yet. As far as science knows, there are over 3,000 essential oils that exist, and each compound may contain 20-200 different chemical components of varying concentrations. Plants and their extracts are not standardized, so factors like growth conditions, maturity of the plant, time when harvested, minor variability in genetic makeup, and the parts of the plants that are used are all factors that make one essential oil of any given variety (say lavender or eucalyptus) its own unique chemical profile. Also, among the many chemicals in each plant, scientists cannot figure out which of the 20-200 chemical components is the beneficial one. Or is it a synergistic effect between one or more chemicals? As you can see, this makes studying these mysterious oils a little challenging! The bottom line is, no one lavender plant will have the exact same chemical makeup as the next. To add to the confusion, scientists have shown the route of administration (i.e. inhaling versus topical application versus ingesting) of an essential oil can change its toxicity. For instance, Oleander is a beautifully, sweet-smelling flower and seems to be safe to inhale. But eat it and you’ll probably die! In the limited amount of animal studies, there have been proven differences in how cats and dogs react to essential oils. Cats have a glucuronidation deficiency, which affects their liver’s metabolism of essential oils. Due to these studies, it is absolutely critical we do not allow our feline family members to ingest any essential oils because of the risk of liver failure. We also know essential oils can worsen asthmatic and allergic conditions in both cats and dogs. Cats and dogs are simply more sensitive to odours than humans are. Cats have between 45-80 million scent receptors and dogs have between 149-300 million scent in their noses. Us humans have a measly five million, so if an odour is really smelly to you, you can imagine the scent is much more powerful to your furry family member.

So why are essential oils being touted for possible health benefits? Well, there are actually potential beneficial uses in essential oils. The compounds in the oils of plants have protective benefits to the plants themselves. Scientists have discovered these oils to have cytotoxic benefits, which means they disrupt the cell membrane, so it’s possible these oils have antibacterial or antifungal effects. Essential oils also contain compounds called terpenes, which research has shown to cause physical effects on the body. Their benefits are currently being studied, so the prospects are exciting. Unfortunately, the many variables we’ve discussed in this article complicate and prolong studies greatly, which probably means we won’t have many answers too soon. The take-home here is to never allow our pets to ingest essential oils. Also, if you find a scent overwhelmingly powerful, your best furry family member does too!

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