[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.