Sacred but not Safe

Jan 6, 11:41 PM

by Katharine Koeppen, RA

At certain times of the year, I receive multiple inquiries from ministers who are interested in using aromatics to enhance religious services. Although there are many types of religious incense available via church supply specialists, an increasing number of clergy seem to be interested in creating their own sacred aromatherapy blends, usually for anointing ceremonies. I enjoy helping them with their endeavors, but am often dismayed that they choose to use some dangerous essential oils without any prior aromatherapy training and little regard for their congregants' safety.

Today I spoke with a minister who was interested in purchasing large quantites of calamus, costus, cassia and cinnamon. When I expressed concern over the safety of these essential oils for his intended purpose, he was very skeptical. After all, they are mentioned in the Bible, and he spent a lot of time praying over his blends to "change their energy" (although he admitted having previously burned himself when using cinnamon essential oil).

This is a case of stupidity trumping spirituality. 

I've often said that anyone working with essential oils needs to have at least one safety data manual in their possession. When it comes to aromatherapy, those are my bibles. And here is what those good books have to say:

Calamus (Acorus calamus) - Calamus should not be used in aromatherapy. It contains beta-asarone, which is thought to be one of the most active carcinogenic compounds present in any essential oil. Beta-asarone is banned in this country as a pharmaceutical ingredient, and banned as a fragrance ingredient in a number of other countries. [My note: As a formulator, I would not want to be handling large quantities of this essential oil, or be anywhere near it, in any quantity, on a regular basis]

Costus (Saussurea costus) - When tested for the Research Institute of Fragrance Materials (RIFM) costus oil produced a severe level of dermal irritation in the majority of subjects tested. The lactones in costus oil can cause cross-sensitization to various species in the daisy family. Tisserand says "it would be wise to avoid... altogether."

Cassia (Cinnamomum cassia) - Containing roughly 75-90% cinnamic aldehyde, cassia is rated as a strong dermal and moderate mucous membrane irritant. The oil may be mildly phototoxic.

Cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum) - Cinnamon bark essential oil contains 60-90% cinnamic aldehyde, a known contact allergen, dermal sensitizer and cross-sensitizer (Cinnamon leaf oil is somewhat less caustic). Dermal reactions can occur with exposure to very tiny amounts of cinnamic aldehyde, as can irritation to the mucous membranes with somewhat lower exposure. In regard to both cassia and cinnamon oils, Martin Watt says he "can see no sound reason for using these oils on the skin."

When faced with this information, how could one possibly justify making a "sacred anointing blend" with these essential oils? Which begs the question, "WWJD?"


Balacs, Tony and Tisserand, Robert. (1995). Essential Oil Safety: A Guide for Health Care Professionals. Churchill Livingstone: London.

Watt, Martin. (1992). Plant Aromatics: Adverse Effects on the Skin of Aromatic Plant Extracts. Self-published: United Kingdom.



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