Friday, August 30, 2013

Essential oils and the feet

As a practicing Reflexologist and Clinical Aromatherapist I scratch my head when I hear the suggestion of applying essential oils to the feet for health complaints or "immune support." I'm not actually sure where this myth began but it has been parroted by mommy bloggers, essential oil sales reps, and the staff person at the health food store. It's been repeated so many times that some don't think to question the science or reasoning behind it. I mean, if this many people are recommending to do it then surely it works, right?

Let's break it down and see!

The Reflexology Misconception
Reflexology is cited as one of the reasons to apply essential oils to the feet, and frequently undiluted, or neat, is recommended. Whoever came up with this connection failed to realize the fundamental differences between applying a product to the feet and a foot reflexology treatment. The key is in the varied pressure techniques unique to the reflexology profession. This alternating pressure of the thumb and fingers over a reflex area is what sends the message to the brain regarding the reflected area of the body. This is done without the use of lubrication so the practitioner's thumbs and fingers do not slip or glide over a reflex area and lose the opportunity to correctly stimulate that reflex.

The reflexes do not have the ability to transport a product from the foot to another region of the body. That's not how Reflexology works. What is happening is a message is being sent, using this alternating pressure over a reflex area, to the brain through the Central Nervous System. Once the brain receives the message it sends signals to that corresponding area of the body, which in turn enhances blood flow to that part, gland, or organ. While it may feel nice to have a foot rub it is not the same as receiving a Reflexology treatment.
Large Pores
Another reason I've come across is the explanation of very large pores on the feet making it a quicker method of getting essential oils into the bloodstream. This is another misunderstanding when in fact the pores in the feet are excreting larger quantities of sweat than any other area of the body. Up to half a pint a day! The feet don't absorb a topical product as well because they are constantly sweating it off! Even if you soaked your feet in a bowl of vodka, like these researchers did, it's still a poor absorption method.
Robert Tisserand explains that approximately 10% of a leave-on product will be absorbed into the bloodstream. If the leave-on product applied to the feet is even less than 10% isn't this just a gross waste of costly essential oils?

Safer for the Babies
This is one of the most frustrating reasons to apply essential oils to the feet for me. Anyone advising this method for children has clearly never received formal education in aromatherapy, specifically when it comes to aromatherapy for children. Those of us who have taken a 200+ hour course in aromatherapy know that essential oils and babies rarely mix well. With a myriad of cautions, contraindications, and safety guidelines to consider for this population it can be downright dangerous. An aromatherapist in Dallas received a report of this method sending a toddler to the emergency room. For children under five years of age hydrosols are your safest choice.

Spiritual and Energetic Uses
Now here's one area that has been left out in the hype of applying essential oils to the feet. I think this is a very valid reason to use essential oils on the feet and here's why: historically the feet have been revered and honored in ancient cultures as an important body area in spiritual practices. This includes foot washing, removing shoes before entering a home so the wearer doesn't track in negative or unwanted energy to the home, earthing, barefoot walking as a meditation, and annointing with precious oils.
 “And forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair”
― Kahlil Gibran
Energetically the feet represent our connection with earth, rooting us to Mother Nature and our sense of being grounded and belonging to the earth. It is a beautiful connection oft forgotten in our daily lives running from one thing to the next. Simply removing the footwear and plunging one's toes into the sand or soft blades of grass is a euphoric experience - a reminder of that connection to the ground and an immediate slowing of the mind and body to be in this present moment.
Aromatherapy absolutely has a place with the feet for grounding and connecting with the energies of the lower body. I often find a foot soak with a rich, root essential oil like vetiver or ginger can whisk me straight out of my head - a thousand worries forgotten within moments. An aromatic foot oil can feel amazing massaged into the feet by a skilled bodyworker or a loved one. 
In Conclusion
Applying essential oils to the skin anywhere on the body should always be diluted. A couple of reasons why:
  1. Essential oils are 100 times more concentrated than the original plant.
  2. Essential oils work more effectively in low dilutions with the exception of clinical applications for infection control.
  3. Sensitization is a very real concern when using essential oils and undiluted applications raise your risks substantially.
Inhalation is still the quickest method of absorption in therapeutic aromatherapy. Topical applications come in second and should be applied to the areas of concern - Lavender in an aloe gel to the finger for a mild kitchen burn, Roman Chamomile in a carrier oil to the calves for muscle pain, Tea Tree in arrowroot powder and baking soda for Athlete's foot. Oral applications under the guidance of a qualified aromatherapist for intestinal parasites or an internal bacterial infection, but not as a daily supplement and never in a glass of water.
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Amy Kreydin, Clinical Aromatherapist, Board Certified Reflexologist, has been in private practice since 2004. She has her Certified Clinical Aromatherapy Practitioner (CCAP) from R.J. Buckle Associates, and is Board Certified by the American Reflexology Certification Board. She sees clients at her practice The Barefoot Dragonfly in Austin, Texas, and is an Aromatherapy and Reflexology instructor.
This article is the property of  Amy Kreydin dba The Barefoot Dragonfly ©2013. All Rights Reserved. Permission to quote or use any portion of this article requires written permission by the author in advance.
This blog is written for informational purposes only and may not be construed as medical advice or instruction. No action or inaction should be taken based solely on the contents of this information; instead, readers should consult appropriate health professionals on any matter relating to their health and well-being.

37 comments:

  1. So, out of curiosity, why does it work to apply egg whites to the bottom of the feet to draw down a fever? Or garlic poultices used on the feet for infection in the body? I have done both for my family and they have worked. (Not trying to stir up a hornet's nest, just wondering.) :)

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    1. Old wives' tales as far as I can tell, Jessica. Similar to the study I linked to above about the Danish urban myth that a person can get drunk soaking their feet in alcohol.

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    2. Thanks for the reply. :)

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    3. It is similar to the hoax of applying Vick's Vaporub to the bottoms of the feet for a chest cold. Probably started back when we didn't have as strong of an understanding of how the physiology works. This one's an interesting read: http://urbanlegends.about.com/od/medical/a/vicks_for_cough.htm. And just for clarity the term "reflex" in this article is not referring to the same "reflex" areas that Reflexologists use. :-)

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  2. Anonymous7:00 PM

    WELL before Amy has a chance to answer, egg whites and garlic poultices are NOT essential oils, and neither of the methods you mention constitute reflexology.

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  3. Anonymous7:03 PM

    Rub a clove of garlic on the soles of the feet...smell it on the breath...try it

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    1. Same thing happens if you rub it on your thigh, arm, or use it as a rectal or vaginal suppository. Yes, the skin absorbs product applied to the skin, a great argument for making sure the products you put on the skin have ingredients you don't mind going in your bloodstream!

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  4. Anonymous7:40 PM

    not agreeing with you on a few issues...one being topical application and effectiveness...I saw a hand with a HOT coffee burn, bright red....applied one drop of lavender then 1 drop of peppermint essential oil....repeated 2 more times over 90 minutes and you could not even tell there had been a burn and it was not red and it not longer hurt or felt hot. The body is made amazingly and quality oils can be ingested (in small amounts)and the body knows how to use them. Their effectiveness can be viewed via blood work....a sample taken before application then within minutes of application shows an amazing difference when viewed with a microscope. Reflexology and oil application is like comparing apples and oranges...and how can you "un-explain"a swipe of peppermint oil across your forehead for a headache which you no longer have after a minute or 2? Quality EO's and education are a must...personal experience is my proof that they work....

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    1. I think you're missing my point Anonymous. There is a time and place for topical applications of essential oils. My point is that applying them to the soles of the feet hoping it will affect another part of the body just doesn't add up. Inhalation is the quickest and most effective application in aromatherapy.

      Yes, the body is amazing but aromatic medicine (the ingestion of essential oils for internal complaints) is a separate area of study and in this country is limited to those with the ability to prescribe it. Most cases are remedied with inhalation, topical, or internal applications though there are a number of good reasons to consult with a qualified aromatherapist on ingesting essential oils.

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  5. Hi Amy --

    I was kind of surprised to see an article like this. I am a reflexologist and one of those "esential oil sales reps", and in my 6 years practicing reflexology and extensively using essential oils on my clients' (and my own) feet, I have to disagree with you!

    I don't pretend to know the exact science behind why using oils on the foot reflexes before working them appears to give an enhanced effect, but I have experienced it time and time again.

    Also, I use essential oils neat on a daily basis with myself and use them neat with my clients all the time. I have seen severely blocked sinuses open immediately and sinus headaches abate with the combination of essential oils and reflexology, sciatic pain immediately depart, severe flu symptoms abate in minutes, all with the use of oils on the feet combined with reflexology.

    Just a side note, whenever I use peppermint oil on my clients' feet, it absorbs quickly through my hands and I can usually either taste it or feel a cooling effect in my eyeballs within a couple of minutes.

    Essential oils do travel very rapidly to all the cells in the body when applied topically. As long as the quality is there, my experience is that most oils can be used neat with no problem unless it is a hot oil like oregano or if you're dealing with sensitive skin.

    Unfortunately, upwards of 95% of essential oils on the market are adulterated even when their packaging says they are "100% pure".

    Anyways, thanks for letting me share my perspective!

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    1. If you are using essential oils neat or ingesting them, you most definitely are NOT a trained professional aromatherapist. If you do not understand the exact science behind essential oils, it is pure negligence to use them on others or to flog them to people who assume that you *should* know what you are talking about.

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    2. Hi Julie - Aromatherapy is a practice completely separate from Reflexology with its own scope of practice, standards, safety considerations, and contraindications. To practice it without a formal education is both unsafe and unethical. You are doing a disservice to your clients by not knowing how to work within your scope of practice. Applying undiluted essential oils to your clients raises your liability risk exponentially, especially without the education behind it to prove in court that you were practicing within your scope as a Reflexologist.

      I would encourage you to look to the safety guidelines set forth by the National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy (http://www.naha.org/explore-aromatherapy/safety/) and the Alliance of International Aromatherapists (http://www.alliance-aromatherapists.org/aromatherapy/aromatherapy-safety/). Furthermore I would encourage you to find a qualified training program in aromatherapy where you can become educated on essential oil chemistry and the real science behind aromatherapy. NAHA has a directory of approved schools: http://www.naha.org/education/approved-schools/. There are also a number of qualified online aromatherapy programs for those who cannot access a school near them.

      Best of luck with the training! It's an amazing modality and I look forward to hearing about your enrollment and studies!

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    3. Hi Julie - How do you know that "upwards of 95% of essential oils on the market are adulterated"? If this is true, what is your source of information or proof?

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  6. Anonymous8:22 PM

    For the same reasons as for babies, it's not a good idea to put on animals' (cats & dogs) feet either, right? Plus they can lick it off. (Actually, so could babies.)

    Diane

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    1. Diane - essential oils and cats don't mix (http://roberttisserand.com/2011/06/cats-essential-oil-safety/). I've successfully used hydrosols in a first aid situation with a paw scrape. If you could keep the dog from licking a paw you might get away with a low dilution for a cut or abrasion. However, the counter argument is that by licking the wound the dog is improving circulation to the site which speeds up the localized healing process. So, I guess you'd have to weigh the pros and cons. Great question though!

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    2. I used essential oils with my cat based on the ground-breaking research of Dr. Melissa Shelton DVM shared in her book The Animal Desk Reference.

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    3. Julie - it is my understanding that that vet you're referring to doesn't have a formal education in aromatherapy. Is this correct?

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  7. To all the anonymous commenters above, nothing that I have read here contradicts the fact that inhalation is, in most cases, the most effective method of administration. When you are applying undiluted peppermint to a headache you are also inhaling it, and inhalation alone will ease a headache. When you rub a clove of garlic onto the sole of your foot you are also inhaling the garlic. In my experience and opinion (opinion formed by more than 20 years experience with and study of these oils) to use the oils neat (undiluted) shows a total lack of respect for their strength and healing power. It is a totally unnecessary waste of a precious natural resource and CAN put your client or your family at risk.

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    1. Thanks Marge, I treasure your decades of experience and willingness to share that with the rest of us. I'm in agreement that it is very wasteful to use essential oils undiluted. At 100 times concentrate I think some folks miss that it takes pounds of plant material to create a single drop of essential oil. That drop diluted at 1% in a carrier oil can be used for multiple applications, like a headache roll-on. The environmental implications of using undiluted essential oils is a whole other area to keep one up at night. :-/

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    2. i found that on one website you should dilute all oils no matter what oil you are using

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    3. Yes, ma'am. All essential oils, every time. If you want something that's ready to go straight out of a bottle a good hydrosol would be a better fit.

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  8. Thanks for such a professional and thorough article on essential oils and reflexology. I plan to share this information with practitioners.

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    1. Thank you for the feedback touch the earth, I am glad you enjoyed the read!

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  9. I agree with Marge, the olfactory system is where the oils are entering the system quickly - no one seems to realize that when applying the oils you ARE using the inhalation method at the same time! Don't forget the sensitization issues with using oils neat as well... this is crucial to keep in mind at all times whether for yourself or for your clients!

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    1. Thank you Donna, I don't think sensitization comes up enough so I'm glad you're mentioning it.

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  10. Karen Murphy5:25 AM

    I use 100% pure oils on my clients during reflexology and both my clients and myself love the results. I also ingest them put them on and inhale them, whatever suits the situation and the oil, and LOVE the results. Never as yet had an adverse reaction or heard of one. To each his own I say.

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    1. Karen - as I explained above in my comment to Julie, Aromatherapy is a separate practice from Reflexology with its own scope of practice, standards, safety considerations, and contraindications. If it is something you want to practice you need to have the formal education first, grounded in science and research. Without that you education you are practicing outside of your scope of practice as a Reflexologist which holds its own legal and ethical implications. Scroll above and read my response to Julie for links to safety guidelines and training programs.

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    2. Karen are you a aromatherapist ????

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  11. My Reflexology teacher was one of those who advocated (and trained her students in) the use of neat essential oils on the feet at the end of the session. Fortunately, I had been trained as an Aromatherapist prior to taking the Refexology course. After my first class, I began taking my own diluted essential oils to use. In my opinion, it is a pleasant transition to have a quality lotion applied to the feet at the end of a Reflexology session to keep the skin supple and smooth, but it certainly is not a necessity nor is it advisable to do so at the beginning of the session as stated in the article. Using neat essential oils is never a good thing to do, and it is, unfortunately, promoted by certain retail essential oil companies.

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  12. I enjoyed reading your article and following comments. I have been an IIR trained and ARCB certified Reflexologist for over 23 years. I have chosen to use therapeutic grade, not fragrance grade, essential oils on the reflexes of my clients as I have found our population is more "densely" toxic than when I started. Our bodies have been compromised with petrochemicals, air pollution, agriculture mayhem, and an overload of stress. I have noticed the reflexes in the feet have become "armored" and more hidden and more challenging to "dissolve", if you will. Both Reflexology and the life blood of the plants, essential oils, carry a vibrational frequency into the body and when coupled together are immensely effective. Yes, I agree they must be used with careful deliberation and training, but I also feel that this usage of EO has surfaced to empower us to be more effective against the onslaught of present day synthetic attacks on our health and vitality. I encourage the Aromatherapy Institutions to investigate new and "out of the box' usages for these precious God created healing oils. We are facing a pharmaceutical health take over and natural healers need all the assistance and tools we can use to be more effective in less time and encourage our clients to rely on natural tools for their health and wellness.

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    1. Laurie, you were one of the people who played a crucial role in my healing from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome & fibromyalgia years ago using reflexology and essential oils on the feet. I had a huge emotional release in that first session and I'm so glad I went on to follow in your footsteps using reflexology and essential oils for healing!

      I don't feel its useful at all to argue with fellow healers, but let's just say you have your experience and I have mine. I don't claim to know everything about essential oils and reflexology -- there is always much more to learn. But I do know that there have been many, many advances in essential oils spearheaded and advanced through a po-dunk MLM essential oil company such as the one I represent, and I've had a lot of happy clients through the years.

      I would be happy to look at any objective evidence that shows I may be wrong about using essential oils on the feet.

      - Julie =)

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    2. Laurie,

      I believe you've fallen prey to the marketing hype of one of the MLM companies selling essential oils. Therapeutic grade is a marketing ploy to sell more essential oils without ever offering documentation on purity and quality. You can read more about this marketing ploy over on Cropwatch: http://www.cropwatch.org/Therapeutic%20Grade%20Essential%20Oils%20corrected.pdf.

      Unfortunately this vast amount of disinformation and half-truths on the true science and chemistry of aromatherapy is what happens when a company places money before safety and research.

      What did your aromatherapy instructor teach you about topical applications?

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    3. Hi Amy seems like if you dilute the oils it is safer than using the 100% oil >>> i have read that the companies want you to use full strength so they sell more products but on the bottles it says 1 drop of oil to 4 oz's of a carrier i've been using veg cooking oil is that a good source ????

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    4. Yes Sandra, you do want to dilute the essential oils to meet the therapeutic application you're working with and the age and constitution of the person who it will be applied to. An 11 year old won't receive the same dilution guidelines as a healthy 35 year old nor will it be the same for a frail 78 year old.

      Cooking oil isn't intended for use on the skin. Try looking in the body care section of the local health goods store for things like apricot kernel oil and grapeseed oil - those are good ones to start with and have a relatively stable shelf life.

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  13. Amber9:49 AM

    I'm extremely disappointed at the lack of ethics by some of the "professionals" who are commenting. As someone who loves to be on the receiving end of a fantastic reflexology session, if someone attempting to use eo's 1) without explanation and 2) without proper dilution, I would walk out. Aromatherapy is a powerful tool and essential oils need to be chosen with care for the issues, not just apply some oil willy-nilly because "By golly, that feels good". One could easily end up doing much more harm than good. No malice intended, but is harm caused by willful ignorance any more forgivable?

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  14. I am a reflexologist and offer clients the option of using aromatherapy with their treatment, but not in the way that is discussed in the comments. I use witch hazel to clean a clients feet at the start of the session and they can choose to have witch hazel that has 1% organic eo's added if they want it. I offer a Calming (frankincense & chamomile & lavender), Clearing (eucalyptus, peppermint, spearmint), Warming (ginger & sweet orange), and Labour Support Blend (geranium, lavender, clary sage) or of course plain witch hazel. I also dry their feet with a towel before starting so there is no chance of residual 'slip' on the feet. They receive a regular reflexology treatment and then I massage their feet with oil when the treatment is complete. They can choose to have eo-enriched essential oils then as well or plain organic sunflower oil. I think you CAN combine aromatherapy and reflexology well, but I have never promoted it to my clients as a way to absorb essential oils through the feet and because I work with a lot of pregnant women I don't use more than a 1% dilution.

    When I am asked about using essential oils for health and wellbeing on vulnerable persons (young children, pregnant, elderly....) I suggest that they use a low dilution (0.5-1.0 % depending on the circumstances), and that they use them on their feet. *Not* because the feet can absorb more quickly, but because they are furthest away from their nose for inhalation, can be covered easily by socks so that a young child doesn't get them on their hands, and because the skin on our feet tends to be a bit thicker and less sensitive. So my recommendation looks the same on the surface but is for completely the opposite reasons as are commonly given. lol.

    I also offer hot stone reflexology to my pregnant clients as the heat from the stones really penetrates deeply into the feet - - but that too is an add-on AFTER a regular reflexology treatment.

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  15. I appreciate this post so much. The internet is flooded with mommy bloggers giving untrained advice about the use of EOs and it's simply terrifying. I disagree with undiluted use and internal use especially in children. If adults want to do potentially harmful things to themselves, fine, they're adults they have the right to sensitize their skin to no end... But they need to know it's not safe for their kids.. The kids have no say and have no advocate other than the parent doling out the potentially harmful treatment... Anyway thank you for trying to spread the word on safe use. I found you while trying to read up on why everyone is recommending oils on the feet... It has never made sense to me but I wasn't sure why. Your explanation makes perfect sense.

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