Essential Oils Are Natural, but They're Not as Safe as You Think

Many of us use essential oils to help calm our nerves (a lavender oil-infused bubble bath, anyone?) or we’ll turn on our diffuser using peppermint oil for a little pick-me-up. Essential oils have been used by healers for hundreds of years, and they don’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. But how safe are essential oils, really?

“Aromatherapy — the science of using essential oils to achieve balance and harmony in one’s mind, body and soul — is safe when used correctly,” Jean Liao, a certified aromatherapy health professional and aromatherapist for Way of Will, tells SheKnows. “It becomes unsafe when essential oils are used incorrectly and inappropriately.”

The one thing to remember about aromatherapy, according to Liao, is that less is more. “Essential oils are highly concentrated botanical extracts, so a little goes a long way,” she says. “Some think that essential oils are natural so there’s no need to be cautious. This is simply not true. Dosage, application method, integrity of the skin, age of the client and quality of oil all play important roles in the oils’ effectiveness.”

Here’s what you need to know about using essential oils safely.

Are you using quality oils?

Essential oils are big business. In fact, the global essential oil market is expected to reach $11.67 billion by 2022, according to a new report by Grand View Research. But not all essential oils are created equal.

“The biggest harm in using essential oils is using poor-quality oils,” Dr. Lindsey Elmore, a pharmacist and board-certified pharmacotherapy specialist, tells SheKnows. “Purity is of utmost importance when it comes to purchasing any natural product. Because the FDA doesn’t regulate the [essential oil] industry, it is so important to do your research and seek out a company with a good reputation that you can rely on.”

Elmore suggests looking for absolutely pure essential oils that have not been adulterated or diluted with solvents or extenders. “When you use poor-quality essential oils, they may contain additives, fillers or synthetics that are known to increase the risk of skin irritation,” she says.

According to Elmore, the small molecules of essential oils readily penetrate skin and get into the blood stream, which means every other contaminant inside the bottle does the same thing. “Essential oils are meant to be used in their whole form, and if they have been chemically altered in any way, they may not be as effective and can even pose harm,” she explains.

Do a patch test first

Liao warns that using essential oils incorrectly may result in dermal irritation, such as blotchy skin or redness, or even causing severe burning depending on the dosage applied. This is why it’s not only important to remember that less is more when it comes to essential oils, but to always conduct a patch test beforehand if you are planning to apply the essential oil directly on your skin.

To do this, place a small amount of the oil diluted in the carrier oil (which is typically almond, coconut, olive or jojoba oil) on the arm and wait 24 hours to see if there are any skin irritations. And even if you don’t experience any irritation, you should stick to lower doses at first. “It is best to start small when first using essential oils or trying an oil for the first time,” says Elmore. “Start out with a drop or two diluted in a carrier oil and work up to using more.” She adds, “Essential oils should never be applied directly inside the ears or eyes.”

Avoid certain essential oils

Liao says some oils, such as citrus oils, are phototoxic, which causes burning or skin pigmentation under UV ray exposure. She suggests avoiding UV ray exposure for at least 24 hours after application of phototoxic oils. 

Some pregnant women may choose to avoid certain essential oils, like fennel or peppermint, which are both known to stimulate menstrual flow according to Elmore. Additionally, she says, anyone taking prescription or over-the-counter medications should consult a professional before adding essential oil to their regimen. Certain essential oils, such as wintergreen and peppermint, are known to interact with medicines.

Also, thyme, oregano, cinnamon and clove are known to be irritating or hot on the skin, says Elmore, so she advises using caution and diluting the essential oil in carrier oil before you place them on the skin. Babies and young children are particularly at an increased risk of skin irritation, Elmore notes.

When in doubt, read the label

Not every essential oil is made to be used the same way, which is why it’s so important to read the label of your essential oil before usage, says Elmore.

While Liao says ingesting oil is not recommended because incorrect use may lead to organ failure, there are some essential oils that are safe to ingest.

“Once pure essential oils are selected, they can be safely diffused, applied topically or sublingually, added to a suppository or ingested by mouth,” Elmore explains. “Just make sure you are using the essential oil according to the label instructions for that specific oil. Not every oil is suitable for ingestion….”

She adds, “With common sense and a little education, essential oils are perfectly safe…. In the United States, if an essential oil is labeled for topical use, it is dual-labeled for aromatic use, so feel free to place an essential oil in the diffuser and on your skin.”

Ultimately, the safety surrounding your lavender-infused bubble bath or citrus-scented diffuser comes down to educating yourself. Liao recommends anyone who is interested in essential oils and aromatherapy to check the Canadian Federation of Aromatherapists and the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy websites for guidance on safety. Also, when in doubt, don’t be afraid to seek advice from a physician or registered certified aromatherapist.

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