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The Benefit of Topical Application

By Jodi Cohen

Close-up of a person holding a small blue essential oil bottle labeled "Lavender Fine" with one hand and unscrewing its black cap with the other hand, against a light-colored background. The bottle is tilted, as if they are about to use it.

Topically applying essential oils on specific reflex points is one of the most effective ways to use essential oils.

Topical application – or transdermal essential oil administration – allows active ingredients of healing substances to be delivered across the skin.  

Transdermal delivery relies on the ability of a healing remedy to pass through the skin into the systemic circulation.  Very few remedies meet the criteria required to be able to bypass the skin, as the outermost layer of your skin – known as Stratum corneum (SC) – limits the permeation of molecules into the skin to protect the underlying tissue from many factors such as infection, dehydration, chemicals, and mechanical stress.

Only remedies that t have both a low molecular weight (less than 600 g/mol) and the ability to pass through the epidermis of the skin, are able to pass through the skin, be absorbed by the blood vessels, and enter into your circulation.  

Essential oils are one of the few remedies that meet both criteria.

Topical application is highly beneficial as it:

  • bypasses first-pass metabolism 
  • acts as a penetration enhancer (because oils are lipophilic) 
  • non-toxic –  skin cell cytotoxicity revealed that the safety of EOs was far higher
  • allows easy access to organs close to the surface of the skin, like lymph and fascia 
  • can be used on reflex points like acupuncture 

The combination of your skin’s permeability to fat-soluble substances and the small size of essential oil molecules make topical application ideal for balancing certain organ systems or stimulating various regions of the brain.

The skin is your largest organ and is relatively permeable to essential oils. For thousands of years, people have placed healing substances on the skin for therapeutic effects. Modern medicine has taken advantage of this transdermal channel, developing a variety of topical formulations to treat local indications, including the use of patches for motion sickness, nicotine addiction, contraception, and hormone replacement.  Topical application on specific reflex points further increases the effectiveness of topical application.

Inhalation is another highly effective method of consuming essential oils. Your sense of smell, which is part of your olfactory system, is one of the most powerful channels into the body.   In fact, research shows that inhalation can be the most direct and effective method for using essential oils. The entire process from the initial inhalation of essential oil to a corresponding response in the body can happen in a matter of seconds.

I do not recommend diffusing essential oils. By diffusing, I mean using a device to break essential oils down into smaller molecules and disperse the essential oil particles into the air.

At best, I find diffusing to be wasteful and inefficient.  Direct Inhalation (holding a bottle of essential oil directly under your nose) is the most effective method of consuming essential oils followed by topical application.  At worst, it could be harmful.

I am also not a fan of ingesting essential oils. Several studies show that taking essential oils internally is, in fact, the least effective way to absorb their therapeutic properties. The oil often winds up in the digestive tract where it has to pass through the stomach and the small intestine before it reaches the bloodstream. This process can chemically alter the essential oils and can be toxic to the liver or the kidneys. And remember, the front door of the digestive system is often compromised, so why would you want to inhibit the effectiveness of these powerful healing remedies?

The topical delivery channel is an effective alternative to oral delivery, especially because it bypasses the stomach and liver, both of which can chemically alter the therapeutic effects of drugs and essential oils. Additionally, transdermal drugs decrease the risk of damage to the gastrointestinal system via the oral route.

“By administering remedies like essential oils transdermally, the hepatic first-pass effect is lessened or maybe eliminated and the dose can be reduced. Essential oils facilitate the passage of drugs through the skin,” according to research.

What’s more, topical application is non-invasive and easy to administer (even for young children or those with serious health or digestive challenges who find other remedies difficult to tolerate or assimilate). 

It also avoids peak and valley levels in the blood and allows for less frequent dosing regimens which helps improve compliance.

The skin has a barrier function for the passage of medicines as well as toxic molecules.  Research has found that essential oils can be used as permeation boosters/enhancers to increase the permeability of the skin layers and facilitate the passage of the remedies through the skin.

Essential oils are lipophilic or able to dissolve more easily in lipids (a class of oily organic compounds) than in water.

“Essential oils increase skin penetration by interacting with the stratum corneum. They were found to be successful in increasing skin penetration of both lipophilic and hydrophilic drugs. Moreover, essential oils do not accumulate in the body since they are volatile and are easily discharged from the body through feces and urine. They are preferred because essential oils are natural, mostly do not damage the skin while increasing skin penetration, less toxic, and less allergenic,” according to research in the Essential Oils as Skin Permeation Boosters and Their Predicted Effect Mechanisms.

Penetration enhancers – like essential oils – allow molecules to pass through the layer of the skin faster by causing a temporary, reversible reduction in the barrier function of the skin.  More specifically, essential oils literally alter the fluidity of the skin membrane by breaking hydrogen bonds and changing the condition, conformation, and structure, of SC lipids and keratin. Subsequently, enhancing the penetration occurred by changing the SC structure. All these conditions temporarily disrupt the barrier of the skin structure, consequently, escalation of drug permeability is observed.

Penetration effects of essential oils differ according to their polarity and the chemical nature of the essential oil.  For example, wintergreen oil increases the absorption of other remedies.  Eucalyptus essential oil, which has antimicrobial activity, increases the penetration and antimicrobial activity of other essential oil remedies.

Clove essential oil, the key ingredient in our best-selling Parasympathetic blend, increased the absorption of remedies like ibuprofen by more than 7 times – the transdermal effectiveness of clove essential oil is one of the main reasons that topical application of parasympathetic blend is so effective at stimulating the vagus nerve when applied behind the earlobe on the mastoid bone.

Research on “The effect of clove oil on the transdermal delivery of ibuprofen” evaluated the skin permeation enhancement effect of essential oils and indicated a significant permeation enhancement effect of the clove essential oil.  The enhancement ratio of clove oil was 7.3. The property of eugenol was believed to enhance absorption.

Similarly, in another study, adding frankincense essential oil to the formulation increased both the penetration and anti-inflammatory activity of remedies.  Cinnamon essential oil enhances absorption and effectiveness and pain inhibitory intensity of pain-reducing remedies like ibuprofen.

This is one reason that essential oil blends are so effective. 

The most powerful therapeutic results are obtained when individual essential oils are blended together with other essential oils.

Research backs this up, noting that “penetration boosting effects of essential oil and its active components proved that the multi-component structure of the essential oil creates a synergic effect. the penetration-enhancing effect of the antimicrobial and antiviral properties.

Your skin – the largest organ of the body – forms an effective barrier between your internal environment and the external environment preventing pathogens invasion and fending off chemical and physical assaults, according to the research.

Your skin is also the most easily accessible organ of the body and skin metabolism is relatively low, making it a desirable site for both topical delivery of remedies.

The outermost layer of the skin – the stratum corneum (SC) – is a barrier that protects underlying tissue from infection, dehydration, chemicals, and mechanical stress. The SC is composed of 15–20 layers of cells with intercellular lipids acting to connect the cells together.  These intercellular lipids are believed to be the main pathway for penetration of transdermal remedies, according to research. Essential Oils increase the delivery of small drug compounds into the skin by interacting with these intercellular lipids through physical processes including extraction, fluidization, increased disorder, and phase separation. 

While EOs and their constituents can easily penetrate through the skin into the bloodstream, they are also easily excreted from the body with urine and feces. Hence, natural EOs have increasingly been used due to their better safety profile. 

Essential oils do not accumulate in the body since they are volatile and are easily discharged from the body through feces and urine. They are also natural, less allergenic, and do not damage the skin while increasing skin penetration.

Essential oils can easily access organs close to the surface of the skin, like lymph and fascia. As you know, fascia lies just below the skin.  Your lymphatic network is located within your fascia right under the skin. This is one of the reasons that topically applying essential oils to the skin allows for easy and immediate access to your lymph and your fascia.

The fascial system is essentially a glide system that forms a continuous web surrounding and connecting your body’s muscles, vessels, nerves, and organs. The lymphatic is designed to glide within the fascial system.  When the fascia is healthy, hydrated, flexible, supple, and unrestricted, your tissues can move freely and help the lymph move more easily through the lymphatic vessels toward the neck for removal.

Essential oils easily penetrate layers of restricted fascia, creating warmth to break up congestion, increasing circulation, lymphatic drainage, and mobilizing adhered tissue.  Essential oils soften the myofascial tissue, allowing the deep and constrained tissue to stretch and move as it is designed to function.  They also have an analgesic effect, relaxing the muscles and reducing pain.

The essential oils in the Fascia Release™ blend are formulated to unravel deeply held tensions, constrictions, and energetic blockages in your tissues to reduce pain, improve blood and lymphatic circulation, and release fear, repressed emotions, and tension held in the body (organs, muscles, tendons, bones, and joints) or the mind.

Essential oils can be used on reflex points like acupuncture needles.

In fact, you can significantly amplify your results by intentionally applying essential oils on specific healing points known as acupuncture points or reflexology points that are correlated with specific organ systems or regions of the brain, like the vagus nerve.

For example, acupuncture points behind the ear and around the neck are the most effective points for stimulating the vagus nerve. A neural anatomy study showed the vagus nerve is most accessible for stimulation via the lower half of the back ear.  Research on “acupuncture and vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) found that acupuncture points produce clinical benefits through stimulation of the vagus nerve and/or its branches in the head and neck region that are anatomically proximate to vagus nerve pathways there, where the VNS electrode is surgically implanted.”

Topically applying stimulatory essential oils, like Parasympathetic®, behind the earlobe on the mastoid bone can stimulate the vagus nerve where it is most accessible to the surface of the skin. Research has shown a strong decrease in inflammatory symptoms from stimulation of three minutes a day, indicating that less might be more. We recommend applying Parasympathetic® to the vagus nerve three times daily, ideally before meals.

Similarly, topically apply Spleen Qi™ over a powerful spleen acupuncture point – Spleen 6, located inside of the leg just above the highest peak of your ankle (four finger widths up from, apply deep pressure slightly behind the tibia bone). You can read more here.

You can also apply specific blends over the organ systems they are designed to balance. To alleviate anxiety or fatigue, which is often a reflection of underlying adrenal imbalances, you might apply indicated essential oils on the lower back over the adrenal glands. Applying essential oils to pulse points, like the wrists, the temples, and the back of the neck, where the blood vessels are the closest to the skin, allows for quicker absorption and helps them get to work faster

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About The Author

Jodi Cohen

Jodi Sternoff Cohen is the founder of Vibrant Blue Oils. An author, speaker, nutritional therapist, and a leading international authority on essential oils, Jodi has helped over 50,000 individuals support their health with essential oils.