I’ve heard these questions many times: “What is essential oil safety?” Or: “It’s natural so it must be safe, right?” The aromatherapy industry has grown in leaps and bounds recently. As a result, home users need to be more knowledgeable about basic essential oil safety before opening and using these very condensed bottles of plant matter.
There is much advise going around these days (some of it bad, and some of it good) on how to use essential oils. For accurate guidelines on the safe use of essential oils, turn to these two highly respected organizations.
The Industry Experts on Essential Oil Safety
- NAHA – The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy has a mission statement, “to advance the knowledge of the medicinal use of aromatic plants and essential oils to its fullest extent and to support aromatherapy as a truly holistic professional art and science.” You can read more about their advice on using essential oils in the Exploring Aromatherapy / Safety tab of their website.
- AIA – The Alliance of International Aromatherapists has this mission: “to increase awareness of and expand access to aromatherapists, help its members build successful practices, expand the body of aromatherapy research, and serve as a resource for members, the media and the public.” Here is a link to their Safety Statement.
Realize that essential oils are VERY potent – LESS IS MORE. Thus, do not overuse; toxicity and irritation can occur. Here are a few more general pointers on essential oil safety.
Essential Oil Safety Pointers
- Avoid internal/oral use unless advised by a medical professional. Many essential oils can cause liver toxicity, mucous membrane irritation, have drug interactions, and more.
- Avoid undiluted topical use. This means: do not drop essential oils directly onto your skin without mixing in a carrier oil such as olive oil, jojoba, or coconut oil. Carrier oils help reduce irritation. Further, due to the high volatility of essential oils, their lasting effectiveness is improved when combined with carrier oils. Experts advise a 2% dilution for all over body use, a 1% dilution for the fragile population, and up to a max 10% dilution only for local areas.
- Skin patch test before using a new oil. If irritation occurs, discontinue use. Certain essential oils should not be used topically.
- Be aware, certain essential oils are dermal irritants. According to NAHA (2018) these include: cinnamon, clove, citronella, cumin, lemongrass, lemon verbena, oregano, tagetes, and thyme.
- Mucus membrane irritants include bay, cinnamon, clove, caraway, lemongrass, peppermint, and thyme (NAHA, 2018).
- Photosensitizing oils can cause damaged skin with sun exposure and include: angelica, bergamot, cumin, grapefruit, lemon, lime, bitter orange, and rue (NAHA, 2018). Related to citrus fruits, expressed oils are photosensitizing, but steam distilled are not an issue. Related to bergamot, some essential oils are bergapeptene free, meaning the constituent that causes photo-toxicity has been removed.
- Avoid prolonged use of the same essential oil exceeding two weeks to avoid bioaccumulation.
- Diffuse essential oils in well ventilated rooms. Avoid exposure for over an hour.
- Do not put essential oils in the eyes!
- It is important to store essential oils properly because exposure can cause oxidation. Oxidation can change the chemical constituents and possibly making them more toxic. Skin irritation can become an issue with oxidized essential oils, especially those high in monoterpenes. Store in a dark, sealed container. Avoid excessive heat. Research the shelf life.
- Avoid synthetic essential oils, fragrance oils, and non-reputable sources when purchasing essential oils. Look for well labeled essential oils to purchase. Labeling should include: Latin name of the species, part of the plant used, location of origin, and extraction method.
- Essential oils are flammable.
Using Essential Oils with Special Populations: Children, Pets, & The Fragile Population
- Many essential oils are not safe to use during pregnancy, breast feeding, and with babies. Additionally, certain essential oils are inappropriate for the elderly, fragile populations, and children. Seek expert advice before using essential oils with those who have medical conditions and be aware of possible drug interactions. Here is NAHA’s list of essential oils to avoid during pregnancy: aniseed, basil, birch, camphor, hyssop, mugwart, parsley, pennyroyal, sage, tansy, tarragon, thuja, wintergreen, and wormwood (2018).
- Children must have a fraction of essential oils related to adults comparable to their smaller size. Thus, children are much more susceptible to overexposure to essential oils.
- Those in fragile health should consult a Doctor before using essential oils. Oils may counter-interact with medications or be contra-indicated with certain medical conditions.
- Essential oils can cause poisoning and severe skin reactions; keep out of reach of children and pets.
- Never use essential oils with cats, reptiles, birds, and rodents. Several essential oils are also not appropriate for dogs. Research before using essential oils with animals.
In review, essential oils are powerful. They represent the most volatile chemical constituents of a plant. Excessive and inappropriate use can cause health damage. In addition, some essential oils are not safe for certain populations or certain types of use. Further, some essential oils should be avoided all together. Here is a link to AIA’s list of cautionary essential oils.
Click the links below for more information about essential oil safety:
- Do Essential Oil Diffusers Really Work
- Cautions with the Internal Use of Essential Oil
- Essential Oils versus the Same Plant’s Herb
- Skin Patch Testing with Essential Oils
- Why You Shouldn’t Use Essential Oils Undiluted
- Essential Oils and Massage Therapy – When the Two don’t Mix
- Benefits of Using Carrier Oils with Essential Oils
- Can You Blend Essential Oils in Water?
By: Kathy Sadowski, MS in Aromatherapy, Registered Aromatherapist, LMT