Essential Oil Safety: The Basics
I was prompted to write this in light of all of the posts I see on social media regarding staying well during a pretty awful flu season. Many people are using essential oils (EOs) to try and safeguard against illness, but, let me tell you, far fewer people are using essential oils safely. (And I wouldn't even try EOs first, but that's for another day.) I think this is due to a lack of education from non-biased sources, like natural medicine professionals such as licensed naturopathic doctors and registered aromatherapists. If most of the education on EO use comes from the companies that sell them, that information is likely to be biased in order to sell more product.
Those who know me have heard my essential oil soapbox and say I'm kind of hater. That's not totally true, because I own a diffuser and use EOs when I make my own lotions, candles, cleaners, etc. But if I'm a hater because I think EOs are not a panacea and can be pretty harmful when not used judiciously, then so be it.
Here's my soapbox.
The following information is based on lectures, conferences, and reading materials from and recommended by licensed naturopathic doctors and registered aromatherapists (RA).
1. Essential oils are not natural. They are naturally derived and are often adulterated.
People think that because I'm studying natural medicine that I am ok with just about anything that has "natural" emblazoned on the packaging, especially if it's a really popular product like EOs. EOs are not natural. Those oils are potent, highly concentrated chemicals that cannot be found in nature. Due to the distilling process of taking whole plants and producing drops of oil, other stuff is often added as a filler. Whether that filler material is disclosed is on the company. To my knowledge, only NOW essential oils has FTIR spectra available to the public so consumers can evaluate the purity of the oils for themselves. (If you're nerdy and stuff you'll get a kick out of the spectra.) Make sure you're purchasing good stuff.
And as reminder, just because something is "natural" does not mean it's safe.
2. Essential oils should not be ingested.
There are certainly always exceptions, but I think if the user is the average person not working with a licensed professional--don't ingest essential oils. EOs are potent, often caustic, chemicals that can irritate and damage the mucosa, or lining, of the gastrointestinal tract. I have heard too many stories of people ingesting EOs daily for a variety of reasons and, as a result, thinking they have food intolerances because they start to suffer from GI irritation. Ingesting essential oils can damage the microbiota of the GI tract too, which can be really detrimental to overall gut health. Too many people think ingesting oregano oil will kill germs or viruses that might make them sick. The mucosa of the GI tract is more sensitive than your skin, and oregano oil is considered a "hot" oil, meaning it is capable of great irritation! Unfortunately, the mucosa only sends pain signals when the irritation has gone too far and caused damage. Oregano in particular burns right away, but with other oils, the damage is more insidious. Placing EOs in water to drink is problematic too. EOs do not mix in water and will just sit on top, increasing the risk of damaging your skin and mucosa.
EDIT: Essential oils are often used in the food industry, and that's fine. I'm concerned about people putting EOs directly in their mouths or in beverages.
3. Essential oils should not be applied directly to the skin.
Essential oils are highly potent, often caustic chemicals. Yes, there are exceptions, but only for someone who knows what she/he is doing. Always put EOs in a carrier oil before applying to the skin, making sure to use the proper dilution ratios. Citrus essential oils should not be used on the skin, even if they are properly diluted. (Some exceptions, but I would just not use citrus EOs topically.) They are phototoxic and can result in pretty awful sunburns! Since EOs do not mix in water, it is not recommended to put them in bathwater either. They will sit on top of the water and irritate the skin. Lastly, applying an EO directly to the skin over time, say as perfume, can result in sensitization to the oil that looks like a rash or allergic reaction.
4. Essential oils should not be used around infants or small children.
Something I was shocked to learn in school last year is that essential oils, in large enough doses, can cause acute liver failure in infants. Their little livers are not capable of metabolizing the chemicals in essential oils. Do not give EOs to infants internally. One professor went as far to say that infants and small children should never be around EOs at all (no diffusing). There are many other natural and far safer alternatives for the ailments of babies and small children (talk to a licensed naturopathic physician!).
There are anecdotes too of children going into dangerous bronchospasm or suffering severe eye irritation because of EO blends utilizing strong mints. There are many other natural options that are much safer for children who are sick or have stuffy noses. Please go see a healthcare professional, such as a licensed naturopathic doctor, to discuss those options.
Store essential oils out of reach of children. If a child were to get into an EO stash or open a bottle and consume the oil, call poison control immediately!
5. Many essential oils can lower the seizure threshold.
This is another reason why I'm leery of using EOs around children. Rosemary, eucalyptus, sage, and pine are just a few of the EOs known to lower the seizure threshold, meaning these oils make seizures more likely to happen. I wanted to point out rosemary and eucalyptus in particular, because those two oils are featured in a popular EO company's very popular immunity boosting blend.
6. Many essentials oils should not be used during pregnancy and lactation.
The list I was given at a conference had 48 EOs that should not be used by pregnant women. 48! It includes commonly used oils like oregano, wintergreen, and cinnamon bark (once again, ingredients featured in immunity boosting blends). It is so very important to consult a healthcare professional when pregnant regarding the use of any medicinal or wellness products. You can find this list in Tisserand's essential oil safety book.
7. Essential oils can be ecologically devastating.
It takes 30-60 roses to make one drop of rose essential oil! It can take an entire pallet of one plant to make one essential oil drop. There might be 600 drops in a 1 oz bottle of essential oil. If certain companies are encouraging consumers to use EOs for any and everything, then consumers go through more of the product. In the end, that's a lot of plants. Frankincense, Boswellia serrata, has been over harvested because of the EO industry.
8. Essential oils are missing the synergistic properties of botanical medicine and/or do not have the same medicinal value as the plant.
It is recognized in botanical medicine that plants have synergy when used whole, meaning the chemicals that result in medicinal value only behave the way they do when all of those chemicals are present at the same time. Essential oils only represent the volatile oils of a plant and are certainly not representative of the plant itself. By only using a particular chemical constituent from a plant, the medicinal value that comes from using the whole plant may be missed.
Additionally, the medicinal value in certain plants only exists in certain parts of the plants. Frankincense is an excellent example of this. It is a popular EO for a variety of reasons. However, it's medicinal properties are found in it's resin, and not the volatile (essential) oils. In my opinion, frankincense EO is not worth the financial or ecological costs.
I hope I encouraged the safe use of essential oils. Aromatherapy has its uses, so do not be totally put off from exploring essential oils. There are health professionals out there, such as registered aromatherapists, who have done extensive research and study and know what the exceptions and indications are for ingestion, direct application, uses in children, etc. I highly recommend Tisserand's book on essential oil safety. Lastly, essential oils hardly represent the plethora of natural solutions available for creating and maintaining health, and I often find they can cast a shadow over the better, safer, and more sustainable natural solutions. Consult a licensed naturopathic doctors for those natural medicine needs!
Tisserand, R., & Young, R. (2014). Essential oil safety: a guide for health care professionals, Second Edition. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone/Elsevier.
Tisserand Institute. Safety guidelines: How to use essential oils safely. http://tisserandinstitute.org/safety/safety-guidelines/. Accessed January 22, 2018.