As I was telling you last week, I came up with the Vapor Rub formula not long after beginning to use essential oils. And applying it to the neck and chest made sense to me for treating congestion. It could be absorbed or inhaled from this location to provide relief. At that time I was also convinced of the validity of another “old wives tale” about Vapor rub and Thieves oil application: The practice of applying the rub (or diluted oil) to the bottoms of the feet and covering them with socks before going to bed so that the oils could be absorbed.
In order for essential oils or anything else for that matter to be absorbed into our bodies as a whole they would have to reach our circulatory system (our blood vessels) so they could be transported throughout our body. That is how topically applied medications like pain patches and anti-nausea gels work. They contain a “driving” agent to get through our skin (the epidermis and dermis) to our subcutaneous (meaning “beneath the skin”) layer where the blood vessels are. According to my Human Anatomy textbook, yes I still have it, our outer layer of skin, the epidermis, is composed of 5 layers. Two of these layers, the stratum granulosum and the stratum corneum, contain/produce lipids (fats) that seal and waterproof the epidermis. The lipids keep water in and foreign materials out. Some people would say that these layers alone would prevent oils from being absorbed through the skin. But even though these layers are designed to keep things out, I believe that since they are fatty they would more readily absorb oils. However your oil still has to get through 5 layers of epidermis and the dermis to make it to the blood vessels so it can help your congestion. It seems a little counter-intuitive to apply the oils so far from where they are needed.
Supporters of the foot method of application say that it works because we have larger pores in the soles of our feet and less sebum production (which according to them interferes with absorption).
My Human Anatomy textbook says that the soles of the feet are basically hairless and thick skinned with a larger number of sweat glands (pores) not larger in size. These (to me) are indications that the bottom of your feet would be a poor site of essential oil absorption.
The hair follicle is basically a shaft down to the bottom of the dermis thereby bringing the oils closer to the blood vessels in the subcutaneous layer. This means that skin with hair on it has blood vessels with better access from the surface than skin with no hair. The hair follicle also contains a sebaceous (oil) gland with its own capillary system and since sebum is oily the essential oils should mix right in. I see the oiliness of sebum to be a benefit to rather than a hindrance of essential oil absorption.
We do have more sweat glands on our soles (feet) and palms (hands) and therefore more “pores” but there is no indication that they are any larger than “pores” in other areas of the body and sweat glands excrete water (oil and water don’t mix).
The thicker skin on the soles of the feet is due to the stratum lucidum layer of the epidermis (between the granulosum and corneum). It consists of layers of thick, dry dead cells, which are more difficult to penetrate with anything (think about how dry our feet get in the winter, nothing seems to help). This layer is almost nonexistent in other areas of the body. The thick stratum lucidum layer alone would make just about any other area of the body a better choice for absorption of oils. Thinner skin would provide less of a barrier to penetration.
Supporters of “the foot method” also claim that due to the reflexology points on the feet which correspond to just about every system in our body this method gets the oil directly where it needs to go.
Reflexology practitioners say that reflexology points only work when you apply steady gentle pressure to the exact point on the foot corresponding to your ailment/body part, which makes sense to me especially after consulting a reflexology chart of the feet. So rubbing oil all over your feet to help ease your congestion seems a stretch from a reflexology standpoint. Reflexologists do admit some benefit to foot application due to the amount of oil inhaled during the process. Thus benefit due to inhalation not absorption of essential oils. I say that if you want the essential oil to work through absorption, it may be better to apply it to thin skinned areas such as on the inner wrists or behind the ears. Otherwise apply them nearer to your head where they can be readily inhaled. Protective blends (like Thieves) also work well when applied to the lymph nodes on the neck or under the arm, but that’s another blog topic.
Nevertheless when my children are sick they want a diluted Protective “Thieves” blend and socks on their feet in addition to the vapor rub on their chests and necks. Whether or not the practice of encasing their feet in oil and socks is actively “healing” in its own right (which I seriously doubt), the established benefits of both the comfort provided by the treatment and the belief that the treatment is working are invaluable.