Essential oils and the feet

[Updated: November 20, 2014] This blog post has been updated from its original version to include further references and citations to help readers further their education and understanding of percutaneous absorption with essential oils. The author wishes to encourage readers to identify authentic aromatherapy applications versus those grounded in the marketing of essential oil sales to better make informed decisions about their wellness care. Thank you for your continued interest in this post!

As a practicing Reflexologist and Clinical Aromatherapist I scratch my head when I hear the suggestion of applying essential oils to the feet for health complaints or “immune support.” I’m not actually sure where this myth began but it has been parroted by mommy bloggers, essential oil sales reps, and the staff person at the health food store. It’s been repeated so many times that some don’t think to question the science or reasoning behind it. I mean, if this many people are recommending to do it then surely it works, right?

Let’s break it down and see!

The Reflexology Misconception

Reflexology is cited as one of the reasons to apply essential oils to the feet, and frequently undiluted, or neat, is recommended. Whoever came up with this connection failed to realize the fundamental differences between applying a product to the feet and a foot reflexology treatment. The key is in the varied pressure techniques unique to the reflexology profession. This alternating pressure of the thumb and fingers over a reflex area is what sends the message to the brain regarding the reflected area of the body. This is done without the use of lubrication so the practitioner’s thumbs and fingers do not slip or glide over a reflex area and lose the opportunity to correctly stimulate that reflex.

The reflexes do not have the ability to transport a product from the foot to another region of the body. That’s not how Reflexology works. What is happening is a message is being sent, using this alternating pressure over a reflex area, to the brain through the Central Nervous System. Once the brain receives the message it sends signals to that corresponding area of the body, which in turn enhances blood flow to that part, gland, or organ. While it may feel nice to have a foot rub it is not the same as receiving a Reflexology treatment.

 “Foot and hand reflexology is a scientific art based on the premise that there are zones and reflex areas in the feet and hands which correspond to all body parts. The physical act of applying specific pressures using thumb, finger and hand techniques result in stress reduction which causes a physiological change in the body” – The American Reflexology Certification Board, 1993-1999.

Large Pores

Another reason I’ve come across is the explanation of very large pores on the feet making it a quicker method of getting essential oils into the bloodstream. This is another misunderstanding when in fact the pores in the feet are excreting larger quantities of sweat than any other area of the body. Up to half a pint a day! The feet don’t absorb a topical product as well because they are constantly sweating it off! Even if you soaked your feet in a bowl of vodka, like these researchers did, it’s still a poor absorption method.

Robert Tisserand explains that approximately 10% of a leave-on product will be absorbed into the bloodstream. If the leave-on product applied to the feet is even less than 10% isn’t this just a gross waste of costly essential oils?
Furthermore, regional variation of skin absorption has been studied and the feet routinely come up as the least ideal location:
Feldmann and Maibach (1967) were the first to systemically explore the potential for regional variation in the percutaneous absorption. […] The scrotum was the highest absorbing skin site. Skin absorption was lowest for the foot area, and highest around the head and face. (Bronaugh, Maibach, Percutaneous Absoprtion: Drugs–Cosmetics–Mechanisms–Methodology, Third Edition, 1999, CRC Press.)

Safer for the Babies

This is one of the most frustrating reasons to apply essential oils to the feet for me and is the second highest route associated with anecdotal pediatric poisoning reports I hear. A good example would be the case my colleague in Dallas received a report on that sent one toddler to the emergency room in seizures. The layperson and practitioner alike will find hydrosols are the most forgiving for children under five years of age and most have relatively low safety margins. In my practice I don’t recommend generic protocols for anyone, and am uncomfortable with the usage of essential oils on children under the age of five without guidance from a qualified aromatherapist that can help the parent or guardian choose a first do no harm approach to wellness.

Spiritual and Energetic Uses

Now here’s one area that has been left out in the hype of applying essential oils to the feet. I think this is a very valid reason to use essential oils on the feet and here’s why: historically the feet have been revered and honored in ancient cultures as an important body area in spiritual practices. This includes foot washing, removing shoes before entering a home so the wearer doesn’t track in negative or unwanted energy to the home, earthing, barefoot walking as a meditation, and annointing with precious oils.

 “And forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair”
― Kahlil Gibran
Energetically the feet represent our connection with earth, rooting us to Mother Nature and our sense of being grounded and belonging to the earth. It is a beautiful connection oft forgotten in our daily lives running from one thing to the next. Simply removing the footwear and plunging one’s toes into the sand or soft blades of grass is a euphoric experience – a reminder of that connection to the ground and an immediate slowing of the mind and body to be in this present moment.
Aromatherapy absolutely has a place with the feet for grounding and connecting with the energies of the lower body. I often find a foot soak with a rich, root essential oil like vetiver or ginger can whisk me straight out of my head – a thousand worries forgotten within moments. An aromatic foot oil can feel amazing massaged into the feet by a skilled bodyworker or a loved one.

In Conclusion

Applying essential oils to the skin anywhere on the body should always be diluted. A couple of reasons why:

  1. Essential oils are 100 times more concentrated than the original plant.
  2. Essential oils work more effectively in low dilutions with the exception of clinical applications for infection control.
  3. Sensitization is a very real concern when using essential oils and undiluted applications raise your risks substantially.
Inhalation is still the quickest method of absorption in therapeutic aromatherapy. Topical applications come in second and should be applied to the areas of concern – Lavender in an aloe gel to the finger for a mild kitchen burn, Roman Chamomile in a carrier oil to the calves for muscle pain, Tea Tree in arrowroot powder and baking soda for Athlete’s foot. Oral applications under the guidance of a qualified aromatherapist for intestinal parasites or an internal bacterial infection, but not as a daily supplement and never in a glass of water.
References and Resources:

– Mehta, Topical and Transdermal Drug Delivery: What a Pharmacist Needs to Know. Pharmaceutical Sciences College of Pharmacy – Glendale Midwestern University Glendale, Arizona, 2004, notiCE 221-146-04-054-H01.
– Bronaugh, and Maibach, Topical Absorption of Dermatological Products. Marcel Dekker, Inc, 2001.
– Bronaugh, and Maibach, Percutaneous Absorption: Drugs–Cosmetics–Mechanisms–Methodology, Third Edition, 1999, CRC Press.
– Kielhorn, Melching-Kollmuß, and Mangelsdorf, Environmental Health Critera 235: Dermal Absorption, International Programme on Chemical Safety, World Health Organization, 2006.
– European Commission Health & Consumer Protection Directorate-General, Guidance Document on Dermal Absorption, Sanco 2004.
– Maiback, Zhai, Appendix E, Percutaneous Absorption: Strategies to Protect the Health of Deployed U.S. Forces: Force Protection and Decontamination, NCBI Bookshelf.
MYTH – Apply to the Feet, Aromatherapy United
– Tisserand, Young, Essential Oil Safety, Second Edition, Churchill Livingstone, 2014.

By | 2016-10-17T20:49:08+00:00 August 30th, 2013|Aromatherapy, Reflexology|28 Comments

About the Author:

Amy holds her board certificate in Reflexology (ARCB), is a clinically-trained Aromatherapist (CCAP), and an Aromatic Medicine Practitioner. She launched her private practice, The Barefoot Dragonfly, in June 2004 with a special focus on women’s health, pediatrics, and pain management. Amy sees clients and teaches a 200-hour aromatherapy certificate program and a 300-hour reflexology certificate program at her studio in Northwest Austin. She offers phone consults for private and commercial aromatherapy consultations. See her CV here: http://www.amykreydin.com/amys-cv/

28 Comments

  1. Sarah October 27, 2014 at 7:42 pm - Reply

    As a certified Aromatherapist and a certified Reflexologist – Thank you for this article! I totally agree with everything you have said here!

    • Karrie September 30, 2015 at 10:44 am - Reply

      Do they offer class training without going to college. If so where would i go to look.

      Thank you

  2. Michele October 30, 2014 at 5:26 am - Reply

    Thank you for this article. I have been applying oils to my feet for sleep. I used a diffuser at night until I read that it should not be used for more than one hour.
    You had mentioned to use oils for a bacteria infection. I have recently been diagnosed with nocardia. I am on medication for one year. I worry what this medication will do for me. I have been searching for natural foods, oils, herbs, etc to help me. Not that I would substitute for the medication. Any suggestions?
    Thank you,
    Michele

    • Amy Kreydin November 12, 2014 at 9:09 pm - Reply

      Michele – I would recommend that you sit down and talk with your aromatherapist and/or herbalist for a holistic consultation. I do not provide consultations without a complete health history and a live conversation about the big picture of your constitution and your wellness goals. I’m sure you will find adding an aromatherapist to your wellness team an invaluable resource for years to come. Best of health to you!

  3. Sandra polichemi November 13, 2014 at 11:11 am - Reply

    so where should I apply oils?

    • Amy Kreydin November 14, 2014 at 9:27 am - Reply

      Therapeutic applications of diluted essential oils on the skin are used to ease site-specific tension, discomfort, or to promote skin healing.

    • Jo November 9, 2015 at 10:28 am - Reply

      Read the section which says “in conclusion” … She can’t tell you where to apply “oils” if she knows nothing of your health, which oils u mean, or the goal of treatment.

  4. Pat January 22, 2015 at 5:00 pm - Reply

    Hi Amy. I’ve been researching EO’s and still have a few questions. I’ve been putting clove oil and water in Glade plug-ins and keep them plugged in all day and all night. Is this only scenting the air and not providing any therapeutic benefits? Should I only leave them plugged in for shorter periods of time? Should I not be adding water? Also, I am avoiding those oils that are contraindicated for high blood pressure, but would those oils be damaging if I only inhaled them rather than applying topically? Thank you for your help.

  5. Rachel Gabel June 17, 2015 at 9:01 pm - Reply

    I have read that frankincense is potentially a cancer fighter. Would putting a few drops topically on the breasts with a carrier oil as a precaution be safe?

    • Amy Kreydin June 18, 2015 at 7:40 pm - Reply

      The current research on anti-cancer activity of Frankincense doesn’t involve the essential oil, Rachel. The chemical constituent that is getting a lot of in vitro (in a lab not in humans) research doesn’t come across in steam distillation of the essential oil.

  6. Stephanie June 24, 2015 at 7:52 pm - Reply

    We always apply to feet also…if feet isn’t the spot what is?? Where do you apply essential oils?

    • Amy Kreydin June 26, 2015 at 4:33 pm - Reply

      It really depends on what your goal is, Stephanie! Topical isn’t always the best use of aromatherapy in a treatment plan.

  7. Laura October 14, 2015 at 5:17 pm - Reply

    What a very informative article, thank you!!! Where should I apply oil for stress relief or anxiety then, if the feet aren’t as good as we all thought? Wrist? Temples? Over my heart?

    • Amy Kreydin October 14, 2015 at 8:05 pm - Reply

      It all depends on the goal of the treatment.

  8. Monica April 19, 2016 at 1:37 am - Reply

    I’ve been using a combination of 4 essential oils, witch hazel and distilled water as a hair loss treatment. My hair looks amazing but I’ve gained a couple of pounds (this is the only thing different about my routine: diet and activity level have remained the same). I apply the solution to my scalp where the hair loss is most noticeable and the bottom of my feet. Do you have any insight as to the weight gain? Should I continue to apply but only to my scalp? Thank you!

    • Amy Kreydin April 21, 2016 at 10:34 am - Reply

      Without a health history I haven’t any way of knowing what’s going on with the weight gain, Monica. I would strongly recommend that you emulsify your hair formula if you haven’t already, essential oils don’t mix with hydrosols and water, they need an emulsifying agent to disperse them.

  9. Nicole July 1, 2016 at 10:34 pm - Reply

    After reading all of the comments and your responses…you have not answered any of the questions asked. It just seems like your saying “I don’t know” in many different ways. One commenter asked where she can apply the oils topically for anxiety and stress…you answered, “depends on the goal of the treatment.” The goal of the treatment is the relief of stress and anxiety….it’s ok to not know the answers to questions that are being asked but don’t beat around the bush.

  10. Kristine August 6, 2016 at 6:56 am - Reply

    I’ve been told by a naturopath to apply oregano to feet when I’m sick. She said the hands and feet have larger pores AND no sebaceous glands which produce sebum and waterproof our skin. Thus making them more absorbant.

    • Kristine August 6, 2016 at 8:51 am - Reply

      Sorry, just read another website that claims:

      When using the foot application, the oils will be bypassing the liver and will not accumulate there. Instead of being processed by the liver, the oils reach the lower bronchial capillaries via the circulator system and the entire organism unprocessed.

      Could there be truth in this?

      • Amy Kreydin August 16, 2016 at 1:05 pm - Reply

        The liver still has to process essential oils applied to the skin. Since you’ll absorb a much smaller amount through the plantar surface of the feet than other regions of the body it isn’t a particularly large load for the liver to process. Would love to see the research backing up such a wild claim as the feet being a direct line to the lungs. *sigh*

    • Amy Kreydin August 16, 2016 at 1:02 pm - Reply

      Did your naturopath take anatomy and physiology as well as aromatic chemistry, Kristine? Neither of those statements are accurate with regards to essential oil absorption.

  11. Steph August 25, 2016 at 8:27 pm - Reply

    Thank you for your article…should also be labeled “don’t believe every thing you hear” or “somethings really are too good to be true”. I now feel a duty to be better informed about my oils as I too thought the were a safer way to go . 😖 Nothing is as it seems 😩 My son and I sleep with a diffuser every . single . nite. 😳 😱😰

  12. Michelina M October 31, 2016 at 11:39 pm - Reply

    There are too many people trusting their health to un-trained, un-licensed, un-certified folks online. Many old remedies are being revived from the old traditions because they are powerful and work in harmony with our bodies. But even ancient medicine women and shamans and community healers were trained in the realms of plant medicine, energy, and natural remedies because improper practices could harm or kill someone. I don’t think it’s wise to follow a nugget of advice from an un-vetted source, or to expect someone to diagnose or treat you without a full and complete consultation and examination of your issues. Amy Kredin has done a tremendous service by clearing up this issue from a place of studied knowledge and experience.

  13. […] your feet is NOT the same as reflexology, as the Barefoot Dragonfly eloquently explains here. Reflexologists use a particular technique to work on reflex points, which does not involve […]

  14. Cofused and Skeptical November 20, 2016 at 2:38 pm - Reply

    Thank you for your article. I have been using oils for a long time and now am just finding out how misinformed I really am. I never really bought into the whole putting oils on your feet to improve some other point in your body. It when against basic biology for me. I have been continually researching, but feel over whelmed at time because there are so many contradicting sites. Like someone said earlier “don’t believe everything you read on the net”. Can you recommend a information source? Confused and skeptical

  15. Chris Clark January 2, 2017 at 1:27 am - Reply

    Aromaweb.com are reputable, informative sites. Books like The Complete Guide To Aromatherapy by Battaglia & Essential Oil Safety by Tisserand & Young are reliable sources for the serious student. Essential oils are powerful & should be used cautiously…. Serious Student

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