People are nuts for essential oils right now. Some Durangoans even carry little vials with them wherever they go. Essential oils are highly concentrated aromatic extracts derived from plants. They’re harvested from various plant parts by distillation, a process that produces some ingredients in the oil that are not present in the living plant. People love scented candles, but those are mostly artificial scents, mimicking natural ones – these oils are the real thing. They can change your mood and even improve bodily ailments. We spoke with Debra Swanson, trained herbalist and founder of Dancing Willow Herbs in Durango, about why people are so obsessed with essential oils and what their magical properties are.
How do you use them?The way essential oils are typically used is on your skin, your biggest organ, which can receive and absorb a lot. But there’s this movement, presently, with a number of the larger multilevel marketing companies, where they’re recommending you take essential oils internally. The internal use is NOT something any layperson should do! If I was to take a drop of essential oil and put it in my water, does it disperse? No. You wind up having a drop of oil sitting on top. If you drink it, that oil is going to stick to your mucus membrane and not disperse. That can burn your skin. We have people come in all the time and ask about taking the oils internally, and I say “I can’t advise you to do that!”
If you’re ingesting oil, it’s recommended that you put it on a medium, so that it makes it into your digestive tract. It could be put on a fat like butter or coconut oil, or on a sugar cube. But just drinking it in water can create a hazard.
Are there differences in quality of essential oils?There’s different grades of oils. The best ones are made from organic material, which means you’re extracting out these oils from organically grown stuff. Or “wild-crafted,” which means you’ve collected the plant material from the wild. If I’m not able to obtain an organic essential oil, I’ll only get steam-distilled, because there’s no chemicals involved. [Organic Infusion is the brand Dancing Willow carries and recommends].
Why are EOs so popular?Essential oils have really come to the forefront, and part of that is because our world is so mechanized. We live in a beautiful area here, where we have access to nature; but in the broader sense, there’s a lot of people who live in Middle America and the suburbs and the city, without access to wild things and natural smells. They’re surrounded by chemicals. So the resurrection of this is about people starting to wake up to how destructive chemical stuff is, the carcinogenic. What we put on our skin has a deep effect on our whole physiology. People are attracted to using these oils because it’s not only the olfactory, but it takes us back to something natural, the wildness of our world, a connection with the earth.
Where on the skin should you put oils?On the spot that’s two or three fingers up from your wrist, a pulse point, where you absorb stuff well (like perfume). The soles of your feet are also one of the most therapeutic places. If it’s a respiratory infection you’re treating, put it between your shoulder blades or on your chest.
You should first dilute the essential oil to maybe 10 percent into a “carrier oil” like jojoba, almond, apricot or even olive oil. Especially if you’re using eucalyptus, thyme or peppermint oil on your skin – those are all very strong. The exceptions are tea tree and lavender, which can be used directly on the skin without diluting.
How does conventional medicine compare to the oils?I get a lot of people who come to me as the last ditch. They’ve gone to every specialist there is, now they’re so desperate they go to the herbalist. In terms of allergies, we treat people all year long with success. Colds and flus, digestive, hormonal problems, no brainer. But if you have a ruptured appendix or cancer, I can’t help. We do supportive therapies for folks going through cancer treatments. For general health and well-being, that’s where I can help. For the heroic type things, modern medicine is amazing.
Is any of this the placebo effect?Where your mind is at affects how well you receive chemo or how well you respond to anti-depressants. Our frame of reference and belief systems have the most profound effect over our health. But even if you don’t believe in herbs, they will still work. Same with antibiotics.
Can you overdo it and use too many oils?Yes, you should prioritize. Treat acute first, then go to chronic. If you’re doing chronic, you probably won’t be taking anything too strong, since you’ll be taking it over a long period of time. You don’t want to cover your body in essential oils.
Anya Jaremko-GreenwoldThis interview has been lightly edited for space and clarity.