Adding Fuel to the Fire of the Bath Brouhaha

Oct 28, 12:55 PM

by Katharine Koeppen, RA

As aromatherapy evolves, for better or worse, aromatherapists find improved ways of doing things. If you've been following the social media groups, both professional and general interest, you know that there have been a few controversies surrounding the protocol for one of the simplest and most pleasant of essential oil therapies, the aromatic bath. 

One would think this was an easy essential oil application to master, but for many untrained or eager but poorly educated consumers, it's not. Too many reports of skin irritation and burns have caused the professional community to rethink the way we instruct others in the art of fragrant bathing. And to perhaps take a more critical look at what is being taught in classes geared to casual users and foundational aromatherapy training, where science has abandoned art, and occasionally plain common sense.

I'm old school, so I was taught to add 5-6 drops of essential oil right under the tap of a warm, running bath, or to mix the oils in a miniscule amount of carrier oil if I needed to address dry skin. The current thought is that it's safer to mix the selection of essential oils in a solubizer or excipient to avoid any chance of large essential oil droplets having direct contact with the skin. A few other things I was taught back in the Dark Ages regarding bath therapy:

- To generally avoid most citrus oils in the bath due to the fact that they are nearly 100% monoterpene hydrocarbon in composition. And to never use an all-citrus selection for a bath blend due to the high likelihood of skin irritation.

- Ditto for any other essential oils that are excessively high in monoterpene hydrocarbons. If my aromachemistry was still shaky, I was advised to pick my selection of bath oils from the alcohol, ester and sesquiterpene/ol functional groups to avoid likelihood of skin irritation.

- To never use peppermint oil in a bath, unless well blended in synergy with other essential oils, because of the likelihood of a) skin irritation, b) bringing down the body temperature too rapidly, and c) overstimulation leading to insomnia (nightime bathing).

- That bathing for therapeutic effect requires a tub time of only 15-30 minutes, leaving some time before most essential oils agitated by running water rise to the surface.

- That bath therapy is the least effective aromatherapy application for common cold and rhinovirus.

These are points I learned not in foundational training, but long before... in my very first basic, 5 hour introductory aromatherapy class at a local herb store back in 1991. I bring this up because most of the anedoctal reports I'm seeing involve people experiencing irritation after bathing in citrus and/or mint oils, or after soaking in the tub for extended periods of time. And because people who've invested in supposedly comprehensive online "certification" courses don't seem to have been taught any of this.

The same goes for aromatherapy supply companies who allegedly have qualified professionals on staff. Consider this recipe for a single "full-size, adult bath" of "Cold Season Bath Salts," which appeared in one such company's e-newsletter earlier this week:

4 oz    pink Himalayan salt
4 oz    epsom salts
1 tsp  menthol crystals
10 dr  lemon EO
10 dr  eucalyptus radiata EO
6 dr    peppermint EO
2 dr    rosemary EO 

That's a whopping 28 drops of relatively irritating essential oils in combination (plus menthol!) for an application that is inappropriate on so many levels. I expect hobbyists and a few badly trained aromatherapists will be burning their (ahem) privates in the bath, having relied on a trusted supplier to give sound professional tips and advice. 

You can teach an old dog new tricks, so I've changed the way I teach aromatic bath therapy, going with the new safety guidelines on using excipients. I'll also still be teaching most of the old tips I received during my initial forays into aromatherapy, because they're still valid and common sense, and much of our common sense regarding essential oil usage seems to have gone out the window. I do believe that in order to move aromatherapy foward, we all need to be on the same page and be responsible regarding information which is publicly dispersed, whether intended to educate or to sell product.

Signing off to enjoy a fragrant, relaxing aromatherapy bath...

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