Intellect versus Experience: The importance of balance
There is a growing sense from reading different aromatherapy posts on social media, that research is where it’s at. From opinions based solely on research to individuals sharing about personal experiences with essential oils and yet when they get to what essential oils worked for them they revert to quoting research papers about the potential benefits for ‘given’ condition instead of sharing what worked for them. Note: Research can be incredibly valuable so please understand, I am not discounting research in the least. I personally love to research and spend hours doing it. That is not the point of this blog post. This is simply a post to state that I don’t agree with the bath safety infographic. Simple as that. It is not intended to discount the value of research.
What’s better than research in aromatherapy?
Practice and the results an aromatherapy practitioner experiences with individual clients, with family members, with friends, and/or with self, and then sharing these experiences with other aromatherapy practitioners. Next, continue practicing and observing, taking notes, and sharing again. Then patterns can be uncovered within actual practice rather then simply research on a given essential oil.
We want to know how, if, and when (etc.) essential oils work in the real world, with real people, with real life happening every day, right? This is so much more valuable then simply quoting from research papers. And yes, it may be one individual case here but then another will pop up, or someone else will have had a similar experience, and voila, we begin to see a pattern, we deepen our understanding, we learn a few things about the way essential oils work in real time with real human beings. Heck, we already have this in many ways but it is often negated.
The Negation of the Individual Experience
Over the past year or so, as information on safety has increased, I have noticed that when someone shares a personal experience (e.g. taking baths with essential oils all these years without an emulsifier or in salts), quickly others chime in on how this does not matter because ‘water and oil don’t mix’, because of the ‘sensitization risk’, because ‘Tisserand’ said, because someone else had the opposite reaction, etc. Lots of seemingly good reasons for suppressing the individual experience. But it’s not good. Because what is often missed is the shear number of individual experiences, all saying the same or similar thing. Add those together, and we have a significant number of personal experiences that allow us to say something like: dispersants such as salt, honey, and full fat milk are fine to use in the preparation of an aromatic bath and typically, do not present any risk whatsoever.
In a blog by Aromapologist, Lauren Bridges writes: “We will not find broad acceptance as an adjunct to healthcare if we pass over evidence-based research for the under-evaluated claims or perceived results of the individual.”2 Although it is honorable for those who choose to work towards greater acceptance in traditional healthcare settings, it is not the goal of everyone who works with aromatherapy. However, the later half of the sentence, could be interpreted as an intelligent way of saying ‘your experience does not matter’ and worse, it does not matter because this research paper did not get that result or says this. Aromatherapists seem to be going in the complete opposite direction as herbal medicine. While herbal medicine is founded on practice (complemented by research, not driven by it), some aromatherapists want to move to a practice based solely on science, on research. But at what cost? Years of experience that says otherwise?
Which leads me to: Tisserand’s Bath Safety infographic:
The accompanying text reads: “Seriously, don’t do it. This is a mistake very easily made, even by people who have been using essential oils for some time.” I am sorry to say but the way this sentence is written makes us seem like children, incapable of making the decision for ourselves. http://tisserandinstitute.org/learn-more/bath-safety/
Shortly after this bath infographic, I happened upon this post (mentioned above) by Lauren Bridges who writes: “We are seeing aromatherapists who refuse to acknowledge erroneous “traditions” they began on their own that took hold and spread despite the evidence that explicitly demonstrates these new traditions (or newfound “rules”) were rooted in misunderstanding.”1 How incredibly insulting, to say the least!
Because what is basically being asked is for us to ignore our entire history and experience with using essential oils with various ‘dispersants’ in the bath simply because theoretically one should or worse, because it is the opinion of Robert Tisserand (and please know, I respect Robert very much for his work and believe we have been blessed with many insights from his writings over the years) or even worse, intellect over experience. Yikes!
“To get out from underneath these layers of trumped up concerns, the whole safety and toxicity discussion needs to be turned upside down. Instead of perpetuating mantras about imaginary dangers, the inherently benign nature of essential oils needs to be recognized.”
– Dr. Kurt Schnaubelt
First off, as it needs to be said: We have been instructing individuals to use an emulsifier such as polysorbate 20 or solubol (although this is newer to the market), since the very beginning (most don’t do it because it is that one extra step too much and perhaps the expense)…
And we (we – being most well educated aromatherapy educators and/or practitioners) have also included other dispersants such as salts, honey, full fat milk, etc. So the idea to blend with a dispersant or emulsifier is not new. Tisserand offers his opinion that salts, honey, and full fat milk, etc. are not appropriate due to the potential of irritation/sensitization. We all know that essential oils and water don’t mix (oil and water) due to their inability to emulsify into the given material and hence they stay ‘separate’. However, the chances of sensitization are pretty low to begin with (for most authentic essential oils) used in the proper dilution for baths. He is entitled to his opinion and I respect that, but I am also entitled to mine (and you to yours, whatever that may be).
“Essential oils in the bath: Create a soothing and therapeutic bath by adding 2 cups of Epsom salt and 8-10 drops of essential oil to the bath water. ……..Do not add bath oil to the bath water, as this will coat the skin and inhibit the absorption of the Epsom salts and essential oils”.
And a bit later on Using Essential Oils in the Shower: “Clearly, the oil will not mix with the water on the skin. This is, however, not a problem but an advantage. As the oil is repulsed by the water, its tendency to be absorbed into the lipophilic (fatty) skin tissue will increase.” – Dr. Kurt Schnaubelt (PhD in Chemistry). pg 122-123 “The Healing Intelligence of Essential Oils .
We are over 30+ years (Thirty +) into the unfolding of the Aromatherapy field here in the US and many more years in Europe and other parts of the world. Aromatherapy in the United States had its beginnings in the bath & body care gift industry. (Most won’t recall this time perhaps, but it happened in the early 1990’s – Remember the lavender or rosemary sprigs in clear glass jars, with oil scented with essential oils?).
Individuals have been making and using the various bath preparations all these years, including bathing salts, milk baths, and perhaps more rarely, just essential oils. Do we not all think if this had been a major problem, we would have heard about it before 2017? Companies would have been pulling their products off the shelf, no? yes.
When I read what others have written from the ‘intellectual’ side regarding polarity, solubility, and sensitization risk, I think to myself, these are people who have never taken a bath with aromatic bathing salts or essential oils. How could they have experienced this and yet write from such a disconnected place?
As a herbal medicine practitioner, we are always looking for patterns. Patterns in how a certain herb works, patterns in patient constitutions, patterns in disease manifestations, patterns to allergies, etc. So if we are truly aware of a potential adverse event pattern (which is incredibly small), we equally need to be aware of its opposite. The fact is that hundreds, thousands, and thousands more likely, have taken a bath over these years under all the circumstances in which the Tisserand infographic deems ‘dangerous’, without any adverse event.
And YES, this matters!
And perhaps, at least to me, this matters MORE than intellect (referring to what we think might happen versus what actually happens) because it is real and it has taken place over a long period of time.
Search on the internet and you will find a wide array of bathing salts, all without the use of an emulsifier. And some of these salts have been on the market for a long time, for instance:
Aromaland – Bath Salts – Indulgence 2 oz.
Fossilized Sea Sea Salt, Magnesium Sulfate( Epsom Salt), Dead Sea Salt, Sodium Bicarbonate (Baking Soda) and essential oils of Mandarin Orange (Citrus reticulata), Sage (Salvia officinalis), Rose Geranium (Pela. graveolens x asperium), Palmarosa (Cynbopogon martini), Nutmeg (Myristica fragrans), Rosewood (Aniba roseodora), Cedarwood (Juniperus virginiana), Patchouli (Pogostemon cablin), Cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum), and Vetiver (Vetivertia zizaniodes). http://www.aromaland.com/product_p/72sind2.htm
Aura Cacia: Aura Cacia Soothe Body Soak
Sea salt, Sodium chloride (Dendritic salt), Tocopherol (Vitamin E), Lavandula x intermedia (lavandin) oil, Lavandula angustifolia (lavender) oil, Avena sativa (oat) kernel flour, Kaolin (clay), Origanum majorana (sweet marjoram) oil. https://www.auracacia.com/aura-cacia-soothe-body-soak-18-5-oz/
And as I have said, there are literally hundreds of companies offering bath salts or other bath preparations that do not contain an emulsifier. So to end this rather lengthy post: I disagree with Robert Tisserand’s Bath Safety infographic and the accompanying writing. And I disagree with it based upon years of direct experience along with years of direct observation of hundreds of others doing the same. And I will take years of experience, knowledge, and personal observation over intellect (and often even research) any day.
No, I am not denying that individuals have had reactions when taking baths with essential oils (or other commonly used bath products). And there are a lot of potential reasons for this: from adding too many drops, adding the ‘wrong’ essential oil (e.g. cinnamon bark, yikes!), using them in surfactants with a high pH which may modify the skin microbiome increasing the chances of sensitization, adulterated essential oils, lack of relationship with essential oils, prior sensitization from other substances, skin sensitivity (a growing epidemic way before the expansion of the aromatherapy market), oxidized essential oils, other bath products that have made the skin sensitive (e.g. with preservatives which have the potential to cause reactions in and of themselves and then also their impact on the skins microbiome (another article!), etc, etc, etc.
It’s not just the essential oils and sometimes its not the essential oils at all. Most adverse reactions are not explored in depth to more fully understand the circumstances of the reaction nor is the product ever tested. I know Robert disagrees with me on this, but with what we are seeing, I can’t help but to wonder just how many industrialized oils are on the market and if they contain an adulterant that is one of the many potential reasons individuals are reacting to essential oils.
Research is meant to complement our knowledge, not lead or be the center of our knowledge. Just like safety.
We cannot build our profession in reaction to what others are or are not doing and information cannot be put out this way (such as the bath safety infographic) because it is not helpful to any of us. It ends up like this, where knowledgeable practitioners have to defend their stance because Tisserand’s information becomes weaponized against everyone that does not agree with it. Not by Tisserand himself, but by those who follow him. It’s not right and it’s not helpful.
I am reminded of the writings of Kurt Schnaubelt who rightly draws attention to the degrees to which an individual has a relationship with essential oils may actually create different types of reactions. Oh no, the individual experience! 🙂
Food for thought:
I wonder sometimes if some believe that only undiluted essential oils or essential oils in the bath can cause sensitization, since these are the most common experiences shared in adverse events within the aromatherapy community. However, sensitization can occur from essential oils in creams, lotions, gels, deodorants, wipes, etc. In fact, these cosmetics, as they are called, are the ones most often researched. It is only in the aromatherapy community that we seem to hyper focus on baths and undiluted application, when in fact, creams, lotions, gels, and every other product we make may also lend itself to sensitization or irritation.
After an exhaustive day of research (yes, I do love research), I am beginning to question a few things:
1/ Would the addition of an emulsifier with essential oils prior to placing them in a bath truly prevent sensitization? I am beginning to question this…. Or, it at least needs to be looked at (perhaps researched, lol).
2/ One of the cases shared to argue the point of adding in an emulsifier involves the use of tangerine essential oil. Tangerine essential oil is rich in limonene, which can oxidize and create hydroperoxides (limonene hydroperoxide). Limonene is listed as a fragrance allergen. And according to Nardelli et al. 2011, “Limonene was the most frequent PC confirmed fragrance allergen.” And this would go for all essential oils rich in limonene. Hmmmm… I am surprised Robert did not point this out. This case was also unable to clarify how many drops were actually added into the bath. Too many drops of any essential oil in the bath will more often than not = irritation, even with lavender!
Intellect versus Experience: It’s origins
I have been attacked this week due to my blog post questioning the validity of Robert Tisserand’s Bath Safety Infographic, so I thought I would give you a bit of a background regarding my use of “Intellect versus Experience”.
First though, I need to clarify and admit that I had two things on my mind when I wrote that article:
1/ the over emphasis on research these days (mostly due to several conversations I had had with highly qualified herbalists – who got me to thinking research is pretty much just that because it does not really matter until the second appt with the client – meaning, did it work in real life? – Along with the article I happened across where a colleague (no need to name) shared a personal experience with an illness and I was so excited to get to the part where she shared what essential oils she worked with only to be disappointed that instead of sharing what worked for her, she shared research on possible essential oils to use, ugghh. I was so disappointed because it helps to hear which specific essential oils a person uses so as to at least consider those for similar cases. Perhaps sharing both, what one used along with research, would have been more beneficial.
2/bath safety and my experience of what I am about to write and the lessons I learned about intellect versus experience. I realize that how I wrote it may have given some the impression that I did not like or support research. Nothing could be further from the truth. So I have attempted to correct the way I stated certain things in my rebuttal on bath safety. 🙂
Intellect versus Experience
A few months ago I received a note from a friend and esteemed herbalist, Rosalee de la Forȇt, about a bathing salt recipe in her new book. She said she had been contacted by someone in the aromatherapy community saying that this recipe was dangerous. Rosalee was writing to me to ask me what I thought. At first glance and intellectually, I thought, wow! That’s a lot of essential oils and peppermint (yikes!). So I shared with her that I thought perhaps it was too much essential oil along with the recommendation that the essential oils listed all needed to have the Latin binomial so that we knew which essential oils specifically to use.
Here is the recipe (formulated by Rebecca Altman – whom I adore!), which states to use one to three cups per bath:
1 cup Dead Sea salt
3/4 cup Epsom salt
1/4 cup Baking soda
3/4 cup mustard powder
1/4 cup ginger powder
10 drops eucalyptus essential oil (*I used Eucalyptus radiata)
10 drops peppermint essential oil (Mentha x piperita)
10 drops cedar essential oil (*I used Cedrus atlantica)
10 drops lavender essential oil (*I used Lavandula angustifolia)
And 10 drops rosemary essential oil (*I used Rosmarinus officinalis ct. cineole)
I then decided to take it one step further and actually make the recipe, which I did. Next, I decided I would use the entire formulation in the bath instead of breaking it into three parts. I filled the bathtub with hot water, poured in the mixture, and then proceeded to get into the bath. Yes, I was a bit nervous but I thought ‘what’s the worst thing that can happen?’, irritation, some burning, nothing long term.
Immersed in the bath, I was pleasantly surprised that I did not experience a thing other then a slight cooling sensation from the peppermint (which I have become a bit sensitive to it’s cooling aspects since entering menopause). And to be perfectly honest, I was quite surprised myself by the complete lack of anything happening on my skin. I slept like a baby that night and awoke feeling great!
So I wrote to Rosalee and shared my experience. And the first words out of my mouth to her were: Lesson learned about the difference between intellect (when we look at something and make an opinion) versus experience (when we actually use it to see what happens!).
There ya go…. With a total of 50 drops (which I would never have personally recommended or done) – nothing happened. Why? Who knows…. I have some ideas about salt and essential oils and why this works but nothing to show on the scientific side. Is it my relationship with essential oils? Is it the authenticity of essential oils I used? I don’t know. But for whatever reason, no reaction, just sheer enjoyment.
So this is the origins of my intellect versus experience. Just in case you were wondering 🙂
Stay tuned! Part II: How to use essential oils safely in your bath and what to use with infants and young children (due out in late October/early November). Because, for sure, there are general safety guidelines!
1. Bridges, L. (2017). The Appeal of Tradition. Retrieved from: http://indigoaromaticservices.com/the-aromapologist/the-four-horsemen-of-aromatherapy-argumentum-ad-antiquitatem