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Essential oil safety 101

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Safety Guidelines for essential oils

Using essential oils has exploded in popularity in recent years. They are delightful. They are useful. Essential oils are aromatic and some are very valuable. Essential oils are a wonderful addition to daily life. However, some of them are very powerful, and as a result should be used with caution, or in certain cases not at all. This safety article is a general guideline for application. It is not an exhaustive list and doesn’t cover all topics of medical concerns. If you are being treated for a medical issue and want to use essential oils, clear it with your health care provider first. Also let them know about any other herbs, vitamins and supplements you are taking (or planning on taking). You might be surprised at some possible drug interactions that could cause you problems.

Don’t be afraid to talk to your doctor- many of them are supportive of supplementing your treatments with other alternatives. There is no need to be secretive about using essential oils, and it is in your best interest for them to have all the information they need.

General essential oil safety guidelines

  • Do not use essential oils as replacement treatment for serious medical problems. These products are made available as comforting measures only.
  • Even though essential oils are naturally derived, it is still possible to have an allergy to them. Results and benefits of using essential oils can vary from person to person and are not guaranteed.
  • Rotate or vary the essential oils you use.
  • Be careful to not overuse essential oils. You may experience a kind of toxic buildup if you overexpose yourself to essential oils (certain ones in particular).
  • If you have cancer, or are undergoing treatment for cancer, do not use ANY essential oils without first consulting your doctor.

Signs that you need to rest from using essential oils include:

  • headache
  • nausea
  • skin irritation
  • the general feeling that its been too much for you

Dilution Rates

  • Know your dilutions rates:
    • 1% dilution: 5-6 drops essential oil per ounce of carrier oil (about 30ml)
    • 3% dilution: 15-18 drops essential oil per ounce of carrier oil (this is standard dilution rate)
    • As a general rule.. Do not apply essential oils undiluted to skin.

Ingestion of essential oils

  • Do not ingest essential oils.

I understand that there is considerable controversy on this particular subject. I refer you to more detailed info on this. Aromatic practitioners who practice medical aromatherapy may work with you on a case specific basis.

Case study: Last year while traveling, I happened to have a conversation with another traveler regarding essential oils. They were pleased to tell me how they were ingesting eucalyptus to help them with their cold. When I explained to them that eucalyptus can be toxic when ingested, they were a bit alarmed at what they had done. I explained that there were safer ways to use eucalyptus, such as in the shower or diffuser. Did this person choose an appropriate oil? Yes, they did. But here’s the problem:

The average person doesn’t understand what can happen if certain oils are ingested, especially if taken regularly, and especially if unsafe amounts are used. There may be long term effects that you are unaware of. These are preventable injuries! To put it simply, toxicity is dose dependent.

Store your essential oils safely away from children. There have been fatalities (and serious illness) reported from eucalyptus ingestion in both children and adults.

What about cooking with essential oils?

The food industry does use essential oils for food and beverage flavoring. These recipes have been formulated to be Generally Regarded As Safe (GRAS). They use essential oils that have been processed in a way that renders them acceptable for ingestion. This usually means re-distillation of an essential oil such as spearmint, or the use of CO2 extracted oils. They are also appropriately diluted in order to protect the digestive tract.

So, what am I saying?

Unless you are a highly skilled, trained aromatherapist, don’t ingest essential oils for medical purposes. I actually do think there is a place for aromatic medicine. Reading a brochure or attending a weekend workshop does not cut it. The qualification process for this is HUGE and underappreciated by most people.

Phototoxic Essential Oils

angelicabergamotbitter orange
cumingrapefruitlemon
lemon eucalyptuslemon verbenamandarin
melissagingerlime

What does phototoxic mean?

Basically, if you use a phototoxic essential oil and then go out and enjoy the sun, you increase your chances of sun damage to your skin. Save these oils for use at night.

Possible Skin Irritants

basilgingersweet fennel
cuminlemonlemongrass
peppermintmelissafir needle
limeparsley seedpimento leaf
tea treethyme

Using essential oils when you have certain medical conditions

If you are under a doctor’s care for any condition, check in with them before you start using any natural or alternative therapy. Most of the time using essential oils doesn’t present a problem- but under certain conditions it just might. The usual reasons include drug interactions between certain oils and certain drugs, or interference of essential oils on radiation therapy. Just check! It’s important for everyone to be on the same page.

Avoid using with high blood pressure

rosemarysage, commonsage, clary
sage, spanishthymepine

Avoid using with epilepsy or seizures

hyssopsage, clarysage, spanish
rosemarysage, commonsweet fennel

Avoid using with glaucoma

may chang
(ylang ylang)
cypresstarragon
thymehyssop

Avoid using with male cancers: prostate, etc.

angelicacyresshyssop
cinnamonfennelrose geranium
nutmegstar anisemastic
bay laurelho leafbasil
wild thymethyme

Avoid with estrogen dependent cancers: breast cancer etc.

angelicacypresscaraway
fennelcoriandercajeput
cinnamonho leafaniseed
clovebay laurellemongrass
star anisemelissanutmeg
ravensara anistatasage, allverbena

Note: There is differing information available at this time regarding the use of certain essential oils (ones that contain estrogen- like compounds) during cancer. Some sources also list lavender and tea tree as oils to avoid, but others do not. Discussion on this topic is beyond the scope of this article, and obviously more clinical studies and further research are needed in this area. If in doubt about using any essential oil during the time you have cancer, DON’T USE IT. You should avoid using phototoxic and skin irritating essential oils during this time as well.

Using essential oils during pregnancy

Essential oils generally considered to be safe if all is well AFTER the first trimester in pregnancy:

Chamomile, romanChamomile, germanChamomile, moroccan
bergamotgrapefruitlemon
limetangerine/mandarinorange
nerolipetitgrainylang ylang
gingereucalyptusrosewood

Use at half the standard dilution rate as normal. Always use caution when using any essential oil during pregnancy. The above list is based on my research. It was interesting to note that there were some differing opinions about these.

If you have a history of miscarriage, or are at other risk in your pregnancy, save the essential oils for after you have your precious baby. Safety first.

geranium (may use after the 1st trimester)cypress (may use after 5 months)peppermint (use only after 5 months; do not use when nursing)
rose (may use after 6 months)lavender (use only after 6 months)

Avoid in pregnancy or while nursing:

angelicaaniseedbay laurel
basilbirchblack pepper
camphorcedarwoodcitronella
cinnamonclovechampa
cassiacumingalbanum
hyssop*jasminejuniper berry
lemon balm
(melissa)
labadanumlemongrass
mugwartmyrrhnutmeg
lovageoreganomusk
parsleypennyroyalpeppermint
rosemarysavourysnakeroot
marjoramstar anisetarragon
thyme, all*sage, allwintergreen

*May trigger contractions

If something goes wrong

I remember an instance when I was at an event with some other makers. A customer approached me for help after sampling a natural product from another vendor. They were having a reaction to something and didn’t know what to do. Fortunately, I had some carrier oil with me, and was able to dilute the offending ingredient on their skin with it. Then I sent them into the washroom to carefully use soap and warm water to remove everything.

Pro tips:

  • Don’t use water to try and dilute an essential oil on your skin- it will only drive it in deeper
  • Don’t keep using the essential oil- your body is telling you something important- listen!
  • Have some carrier oil available for dilution
  • Don’t use oils that are oxidized or not fresh on your skin- save them for cleaning instead
  • Don’t underestimate the power of small amounts of essential oils

Report an essential oil injury

You can view injury reports and also make one here

It’s also a good idea to have your local number for poison control handy, especially if you have children around.

To sum up

As with anything, it is up to you to use common sense. The information provided here has been researched and documented by various experts in the aromatherapy industry, however, it cannot be used as a complete listing. Use essential oils at your own risk. Use them respectfully (but don’t be afraid of them, either).

What to check out next

Related education: Aromatherapy Foundational Concepts (online course)

Recommended Reading: list of essential oil and aromatherapy books

Check out the books I recommend for anyone who wants accurate and reliable information and recipes about essential oils.

Have a half hour? Take the FREE Essential Oil safety mini course.

Take me there!

 

References

Essential Oil Safety- A guide for health professionals 2nd edition by Robert Tisserand and Rodney Young, Churchill Livingstone, London, 2014

Smart mom’s guide to essential oils by Dr. Mariza Snyder,Ullyses Press, Berkely, CA, 2017

NAHA: National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy

Disclaimer

This article is not intended as a substitute for medical care and/or any medication prescribed to you by your health care provider. It is not meant to diagnose or replace treatment(s) by your health care provider. It is for informational purposes only, with the understanding that neither Nature Notes or Deanna Russell may be liable or held responsible from any adverse effects or consequences resulting from the use or misuse of essential oils.

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Deanna Russell

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