‘I am in my second trimester of pregnancy and work with horses. Many horse owners apply citronella oils to their horses to repel flies. I am aware that I should avoid aromatherapy in pregnancy but am worried after reading some things on the internet that I should be nowhere near horses that may have citronella applied to them.’ – Laura
ANSWER: First of all, Congratulations! What an exciting time for you!
I appreciate that while the internet can be an excellent source of information on aromatherapy, it can lead to more questions and confusion, particularly if the subject area is specialized or not well documented. Add to the mix the different views from a variety of aromatherapy schools, practitioners, researchers, experts and authorities, and well, …
I would like to address the first part of your question, that you “should avoid aromatherapy in pregnancy”. There are two ‘camps’ on the subject of the use of essential oils during pregnancy. There are those who advise against the use of any essential oils during pregnancy whether you be a practitioner or client, and others who advocate a role for aromatherapy during pregnancy using what are regarded as safe essential oils. I am amongst the second group.
I determine whether essential oil use is appropriate following the review of a comprehensive health history of the mum-to-be and a consultation with her regarding her current state of health and wellness. She must indicate that her attending physician and midwife, if applicable, have been notified that she will be receiving aromatherapy treatments and for what purpose. If there is ANY question or doubt, aromatherapy treatment is not recommended! This practice is for a specific holistic aromatherapy treatment; the population is in fact exposed to essential oils, plant essences, and plant and vegetable derived oils on a regular basis.
Manufacturers of skin care products, toothpastes, detergents, soaps and shampoos, candles, cleaning products, room scents and so on are using essential oils and/or plant essences in their products. Many have been for doing so for years!
There is concern about the potential for essential oil toxicity in pregnant or lactating aromatherapy practitioners, aromacologists and aromatherapy consultants who are exposed to and use a variety of essential oils on a daily basis. There is also increasing concern that the untrained general public is practicing “aromatherapy” without the full appreciation of essential oil potency nor an understanding of the potential short and long term effects of the oils on body, mind, spirit and emotion.
Now about Citronella … The perennial grass plant Cymbopogon nardus orCymbopogon winterianus is steam distilled using its fresh, part-dried leaves. The essential oil has a number of therapeutic actions and benefits for the musculoskeletal, nervous, respiratory and skin care systems, and as you know, it is often used for its insect repellent property. It is reported to be non-toxic and non-irritant but it may cause contact dermatitis in some individuals. Due to the lack of comprehensive research regarding Citronella’s safety and efficacy in human pregnancy and lactation, a number of essential oil and aromatherapy researchers and experts indicate that it should be avoided during pregnancy. It is important to note that this is referring to Citronella’s specific use in an aromatherapy treatment.
Citronella has an emmenagogue property which in lay person’s terms means that it can promote and regulate menstrual flow. This should not be confused with an abortifacient property which indicates an agent capable of inducing abortion. Citronella is not indicated as having an abortifacient property. I believe this is where much of the confusion and concern is coming from.
I am not sure the nature of your work with horses – stable owner, breeder, walker, groomer, trainer or veterinarian – but I gather that you are required to be ‘up close and personal’ with them. It is likely that this is your livelihood which would indicate that avoiding the “treated” horses and stables is not an option. You may however be in a position to negotiate with the owners about the strength and frequency of Citronella application to help address your concern about secondary exposure.
The rate of essential oil absorption through your skin depends on several factors including the concentration level of essential oil, how clean and warm the skin is, whether the skin is hydrated (damp or wet), damaged or diseased, and the viscosity or thickness of the oil itself. The wearing of long sleeves and surgical gloves when being hands-on with the horses would help impede absorption of essential oil residue from the horses’ coat. This would be particularly important in the case that your skin has cuts, rash or even torn cuticles.
In the case of inhalation of Citronella’s odoriferous essential oil molecules, the effect is increased by deep or rapid breathing. “It is also unlikely that they [essential oil molecules] will be absorbed in quantities likely to be dangerous, unless concentrated vapours are inhaled for very long periods of time” (Essential Oil Safety – A Guide for Health Care Professionals; Robert Tisserand and Tony Balacs, 1995, Reprint Edition 2005). Examples of this would be frequent and prolonged inhalation of an essential oil directly from its bottle or inhaling essential oils that have been added to a steaming bowl of water (towel over head to direct the vapours into nostrils). A well-ventilated stable will help disperse the airborne essential oil molecules.
I hope that you find this information helpful as you deliberate a plan of action regarding your situation. I am required to indicate that this information is for education purposes and that given the limited scope of the answer the information may not be complete. It is not intended to treat, cure, prevent or diagnose any disease or condition. It is not intended to prescribe in any way.
In closing, I came across this non-aromatherapy article about farm animals, the behaviour of which you are likely already aware; “Women who live or work on farms have reported that their barnyard animals tend to follow them a bit more closely when they are out with them. In particular, horses seem to have a thing for following around pregnant women and nuzzling pregnant bellies. Looks like humans aren’t the only ones that can’t resist touching a pregnant belly!” [www.pregnancy-info.net]
Best wishes Laura!
Barbara Power, Certified Aromatherapist