Turpentine, Sweet Birch and Wintergreen

Jan 25, 06:40 PM

by Katharine Koeppen, RA

Last week, I received a call from a woman seeking turpentine oil. In my 15 years as an aromatherapist, I've met only one practitioner who uses turpentine essential oil, so I was very curious about how the caller planned to use it. She told me that she wanted to concoct a home remedy which, combined with sweet birch oil, had once helped her mother's arthritis. I counseled her not to use these oils due to the high potential for dermal irritation, but she refused to believe me. I've gotten so many requests for sweet birch and a chemically similar oil, wintergreen, that I really feel the need to post warnings on these oils.

Turpentine (terebinth) would certainly not be my first choice oil for an arthritis blend; many other oils are more effective and present fewer problems. Turpentine essential oil is derived from the needles of a number of different pine species, notably Pinus pinaster and Pinus palustris. It oxidizes easily, and when oxidized, causes contact dermatitis or eczema even with topical application of low doses. Even fresh turpentine oil can sometimes cause dermal sensitization. Per Martin Watt (1996), this oil was removed from many industrial products due to the high level of skin problems reported by factory workers and painters using these products. If you feel you need to use an oil with similar properties, fewer problems are reported with fresh scotch pine oil.

Sweet birch (Betula lenta) and wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) are far nastier essential oils, and are not even recommended for use by professional aromatherapists, much less those who dabble in home remedies. Both oils are composed of roughly 98-99% methyl salicylate. Transdermal absorption of methyl salicylate is quite high and rapidly occurring, and the body can absorb toxic levels very easily. Methyl salicylate poisoning is fatal in 50-60% of cases (Tisserand and Balacs, 1998), and this should be of particular concern for children and elderly users. Not to mention that anyone with an aspirin sensitivity or allergy will also react negatively to birch and wintergreen oils (Harris, 2008).

Worst of all, most people who insist on using these oils don't even realize that they are almost always purchasing a synthetic product. Distilling birch or wintergreen oil takes time, effort and expense, and it is far easier to concoct an artificial product out of readily available synthetic methyl salicylate (Tisserand and Balacs, 1998; Watt, 1996).

Why use these potentially dangerous essential oils when a more effective remedy can be blended from other oils which are commonly available from named botanical sources, safe and relatively inexpensive?

Harris, Rhiannon. Drug-Essential Oil Interactions: Risks and Reassurances. Presentation to Alliance of International Aromatherapists, (17 Dec. 2008). Denver, CO.

Balacs, Tony and Tisserand, Robert. Essential Oil Safety. 1998. Churchill Livingstone: Edinburgh.

Watt, Martin. Plant Aromatics: Adverse Effects on the Skin of Aromatic Plant Extracts. 1995. Self-published: Blackmore, UK.

Commenting is closed for this article.