Integrating essential oils for skin care
Most abnormal skin conditions include some amount of inflammation or infection. As allopathic veterinarians, we were trained to utilize anti-inflammatory drugs such as prednisone, immunosuppressives such as cyclosporine, antibiotics such as cephalosporins, or parasiticides such as ivermectin to manage these conditions.
We have watched our cases become more difficult to manage due to medication side effects and the development of drug resistance. This has caused a resurgence of treatments which were used in the “olden days”. Some view this as a fad, but essential oils, some of which have been revered since biblical times, can be very effective and safe if selected and utilized properly. Essential oil usage is often the modality of choice now requested by many natural-minded pet parents!
What is an essential oil?
These oils are not the lipid or fatty oils from the plant, but rather the life blood of the plant. An essential oil is a concentrated hydrophobic liquid which contains the volatile aromatic compounds from the plant.
Using oils to manage skin conditions is where essential oils shine the most! Many skin conditions produce an odor, so what could be better than using a treatment that smells good too? It is the volatility of the essential oils which makes them aromatic.
The aromatic oil carries the components which protect the plant from adversaries. A natural chemical might repel an insect or kill a fungus. These same plant constituents can be used protect us or our animal patients.
It is also these same constituents that can be analyzed with tools such as gas chromatography to identify the specific “finger print” of an essential oil. The combination of these natural chemical constituents is what gives particular oils their unique properties for use, effectiveness, safety or danger.
Do they work?
Natural product producers cannot make claims that their products are used to prevent, manage or cure disease. The FDA only allows that these claims be made by drug manufacturers. But, as a holistic veterinarian, I can tell you that my experience using essential oils has been so positive, I would never want to go back to practicing without them! Additionally, there are many testimonials and studies which support efficacy or safety of essential oils.
Top 12 essential oils for skin
There are a dozen top oils that I use to support healthy skin. Each oil possesses different percentages of natural chemical constituents. These chemical constituents have been found in research to have anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, or immune supportive properties. Indeed, pharmaceutical companies have isolated some of these constituents in order to manufacture drugs. Further study of each chemical constituent can guide you toward additional uses of the oil. For this, Google is your friend; also some of the oldest oils reference books are the most useful.
Almost every essential oil discussion begins with lavender because its applications are so universal. It is soothing emotionally and physically. It does not burn irritated skin when applied topically, even if the skin is burned, chafed or rashy. It can help to relax a pet that is frenzied due to chronic itching. It has been used internally, but make sure that it is pure and not perfume grade.
Lavender may refer to Lavandula angustifolia or the hybrid lavandin. Their chemical constitution is similar but different. Both are high in linalyl acetate and linalool. Lavandin contains camphor which differentiates it from the original Lavandula.
Methods of application
When applied “neat” (undiluted) to the skin, the smell and the taste of lavender can deter licking. Clients love this feature as they may not need to use an E-collar. Lavender on a pet might help an exhausted pet parent get some rest, as both can benefit from the aroma. Lavender not only penetrates the skin but also the nasal passages and the blood brain barrier. Fur is a wick, not a deterrent to effectiveness. This oil can be diffused actively with a cold-air diffuser, or passively through the air even when only applied topically. Never use heat with quality essential oils. This will damage the natural chemistry.
Sometimes lavender is diluted to disperse it or to dilute the potency. An essential oil may be diluted with a fatty vegetable oil such as coconut oil, olive oil, almond oil, grapeseed oil, wheat germ oil, sesame seed oil or even avocado oil. (These are called carrier oils.) You can also dilute essential oils with water if you add some healthy soap to emulsify. Remember, water and oil don’t mix. So the oil will float on top of the water. If you are using a mister, don’t forget to add soap to the water and oil, and shake before spraying. This is a great way to cover a larger body surface area.
My favorite method to apply essential oils for overall body care is with soaks. I do not call this a bath, as you do not lather, spray or rinse! It is a peaceful procedure. Fill the tub or basin with warm water, add a ‘healthy’ soap, and add the selected essential oils. I use a toxin-free soap which contains coconut oil. The soap allows for the dispersion of the essential oils. This soap does not need to be rinsed off. It is ideal because then the coconut oil and essential oil residue remains on the pet. This can be soothing and provide immediate relief. It is not drying, so this procedure can be performed daily if needed and desired, or weekly as maintenance. The skin is a huge surface area which allows for the transfer of chemical constituents into the body and toxins out of the body.
All of the oils discussed in this article can be utilized in a soak, separately or in various combinations depending on the goal.
Frankincense is distilled from resin and includes several varieties such as Boswellia carteri or Boswellia sacra. It is high in alpha-pinene and limonene. This has been used for centuries to support healthy skin and immune systems.
Copaiba is sold as an essential oil, but is essentially a sap from a tree in an Amazonian culture where this is their antiinflammatory medicine. It is very high in beta-caryophyllene.
4. Chamomile (Roman)
Chamomile is ideally steam distilled from its flowers. Roman chamomile is very high in isobutyl angelate and isoamyl methacrylate. These have anti-inflammatory, anti-parasitic and skin regenerative properties in addition to being calming.
Citronella is also steam distilled, but from its leaves. It is high in geraniol and limonene. Citronella is antibacterial, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, an insect repellent and a deodorant.
6. Tea tree
Also called, Melaleuca alternifolia, this oil is commonly used and commonly feared. It is very high in terpinene and terpinenol. It is antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, antiparasitic, immunostimulant, analgesic, a neurotonic and protects against radiation. Fears may be unfounded and due to negative experiences with contaminated or poorly distilled product.
7-11. A Blend of Clove, Lemon, Cinnamon, Eucalyptus radiata, and Rosemary
This popular combination contains oils which are antiseptic, anti-inflammatory and can numb tissues on contact. Clove can be as high as 87% eugenol. Cinnamon is also high in eugenol, but approximately 50% trans-cinnamaldehyde. These natural chemicals make this a “hot” oil, which can burn skin, but at the same time be antimicrobial and increase blood flow. It is best used diluted or within a blend.
Eucalyptus radiata, also distilled from leaves, is up to 75% eucalyptol, making it antiinfectious and anti-inflammatory. Rosemary is Rosmarinus officinalis 1,8 cineol or vervenon. The former contains a much greater concentration of 1,8 cineol which is a eucalyptol, again, making this antimicrobial. The verbenon variety is much higher in alpha-pinene. Both can help decrease hair loss. Avoid using if a pet is epileptic.
Lemon oil is cold-pressed from rinds and is up to 73% limonene, a most common terpene. Limonene has been shown to be safe and multipurpose for the body due to the nature of terpenes.
I have used this blend dozens of times to soak a paw in need. Mix a few drops in warm water with a healthy soap.
Because neem oil is highly revered as a natural skin care product, I will mention it here to clear up any confusion. It is not an essential oil. It is a cold pressed vegetable oil which contains essential fatty acids (EFAs), triglycerides, vitamin E, calcium, steroids and some essential oil constituents. Because of its EFAs and vitamin E, neem oil penetrates deep into the skin to moisturize and heal. The primary essential oil constituents are terpenoids. The EPA explains that in cold-pressed neem oil the most common terpenoid, azadirachtin, is now a federally registered active ingredient pesticide.
You can see how the natural chemistry of this dermal dozen make them ideal for utilization in the management of healthy skin for our animal patients.
The amount of water and the number of drops of oil will depend on the species, size and age of the pet, and the oil. Certainly it would be difficult to do a full body soak on a horse or a mastiff; but surely you can soak a hoof or a paw. Horses respond fabulously to essential oils. On the other spectrum, we can soak a small dog or even a cat, but we must be cognizant of a potential sensitivity to an oil, and treat small animals as we would an infant. One drop of oil can go a long way! Sometimes we use the ‘tooth pick method’. A toothpick is placed into the center hole of your oils bottle in order to dispense less than a drop. The oil on the tip is then delivered to the area of concern or even blended with a carrier oil to dilute further. Roughly, I would suggest beginning with one drop per 10 pounds into the soak water. Multiple oils can be combined.
The Chemistry of Essential Oils Made Simple. David Stewart, PhD, D.N.M.
Essential Oils Integrative Medical Guide. D. Gary Young, ND
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Dr. Jodie Gruenstern has been practicing veterinary medicine in Muskego, Wisconsin since 1987. She is a UW-Madison graduate and has been a Chi Institute-certified veterinary acupuncturist and food therapist since 2008. Dr. Jodie is the owner of the Animal Doctor Holistic Veterinary Complex, an integrated, fullservice small animal practice. She is an avid writer, speaker and local radio personality. For more info, healthy products or an educational DVD, visit AnimalDoctorHolistic.com.