Essential Oils Usage Safety
By Jean Dukes -AIRASE Member
When it comes to using Essential Oils (EOs) safely, there is much controversy and varying opinions, which often result from the individual training the Aromatherapist received. Many believe EOs can only be used on the skin when highly diluted with a carrier oil and used for massage. Others believe EOs should only be inhaled, but many believe EOs can be used in a variety of ways including inhalation, topically (with or without dilution) and internally, including orally, rectally, and vaginally. Many books have been written on the subject of EO safety, including Essential Oil Safety, by Robert Tisserand and Tony Balacs. Although much debate exists on this subject, there are several basic safety issues that should always be considered.
An important starting point when using EOs for healing purposes is to use those with unquestionable purity. This can be quite confusing, due to the fact that labeling laws in the EO industry are very loose. Many times a bottle states it is “100% pure”, or “organic”, however these terms are often misleading. Even though the label implies purity, its contents often contain adulterants, chemical additives, or have been tampered with in some way. Unfortunately, there is no one governing agency with the authority to set standards in the EO industry (Burfield, 2003). So the bottom line when using EOs is having 100% confidence in the supplier of the EOs you purchase.
Since there is a lot of negative press and many poorly administered studies, it has created fear and hesitancy for many when it comes to using EOs. Often people are scared to venture out and use EOs for fear of causing problems or doing harm. I choose to use the term pure, unadulterated essential oils (PUEOs). And the truth is, when PUEOs are used, there are very few precautions one must follow. However, since EOs are very concentrated it is always best to err on the side of caution until you gain confidence in using them for yourself, family, or friends.
Now I will discuss several important considerations when using EOs.
EOs should be stored in a cool (though not refrigerated), or room temperature environment and not be exposed to heat or light to help avoid degradation. When stored properly EOs will maintain their qualities for many years. Some EOs are highly flammable and therefore it is best to not use any EOs near open flames, sparks, or electricity (ESP, 2007).
A first good rule of thumb is to keep a bottle of carrier oil handy when you are using EOs. I recommend a high quality vegetable oil (NOT Mazola, Wesson, or Canola) such as extra virgin olive oil, jojoba, almond, or coconut oil, for example. I carry my EOs with me wherever I go, and I always carry a little dropper bottle filled with diluting oil in case of emergency.
Skin reactions are more likely to occur in people who have sensitive skin, for instance babies or the elderly, or those who are very toxic, or are taking pharmaceuticals. When using EOs topically, it is wise to first do a “patch test” on the skin to determine sensitivity. A good place to apply the EO is to the tender skin on the inside of the upper arm, either undiluted, or diluted with a carrier oil, and waiting about 3-5 minutes to determine any sensitivity (ESP, 2007). Some advise applying an adhesive bandage over the area and waiting 24 hours before evaluating sensitivity, however EOs often try to destroy toxins and chemicals, and therefore a reaction to the adhesive is likely if used in close proximity to an EO. This reaction could be misinterpreted as a sensitivity to the EO.
It is important to use caution when applying EOs to skin that has been exposed to soaps, cosmetics, or other personal care products containing synthetic chemicals. Since EOs often react with petroleum products, rashes, irritation, or other undesirable side effects may result.
Sometimes when applying EOs to the skin, the area can turn red, which may or may not be accompanied by discomfort. This may be an allergic reaction but it can also be a sign of detoxification. Sometimes there are toxins present in the skin, and some EOs by nature, detoxify chemicals. So if an area gets red or itchy after EOs are applied, it could be a sign that the body is detoxifying and not an allergic reaction. There is a slight chance of being allergic to a PUEO, so if you suspect this is the case, just discontinue the use of that oil. However, allergies to PUEOs are rare, and the “allergic reaction” is more likely either a reaction to a toxin in the skin (this is common when candida is in the body) or a sensitivity to an artificial ingredient in the EO.
Sometimes terpnes are blamed for skin reactions that occur, but there can be chemicals known as hyrdroperoxides which form due to inappropriate manufacturing or storage of EOs and cause an allergic-type skin reaction (Schnaubelt, 2007).
Chemical sensitivities are becoming more and more of a problem due to increasing chemicals in nearly everything, and are potentially one of the reasons asthma is on the rise. There is a possibility people can be sensitive to pure EOs, but in my experience, people with chemical sensitivities do not have any problems with PUEOs and I have actually have seen improvements in people’s health after they start using PUEOs.
One of the safest places to apply EOs topically is on the bottom of the feet. The skin there is tough and the pores are large, so the oils are absorbed quickly. To my knowledge skin reactions virtually never occur when EOs are applied to the bottom of the feet.
It is important to drink plenty of water after using EOs topically or internally. As I mentioned earlier, the chemical constituents found in many EOs by nature, have the inclination to detoxify the body. Therefore it is important to drink generous amounts of water to help flush out the toxins that EOs can stir up, to help eliminate the toxins through the kidneys or digestive tract.
Some EOs do have “hot” properties, which can result in a warm, or heat sensation when applied to the skin. Examples of such oils are clove, cinnamon, and oregano. These oils should be diluted when applied topically, or at least be ready to apply a carrier oil if discomfort is experienced. In fact, if any EO is applied undiluted and discomfort or heat is felt, a carrier oil should immediately be applied to the area and this will normally dissipate the discomfort almost instantly. If it doesn’t, continue to apply more carrier oil every 15 seconds or so, until the discomfort disappears. Even butter can be used in a pinch! EOs are fat-soluble, not water-soluble, therefore do NOT dilute with water, because water will only intensify any discomfort.
Some oils, particularly certain citrus oils, contain constituents called furanocoumarins which can cause a skin reaction (phototoxicity), and therefore should not be applied to skin that will be exposed to sunlight within 12 hours. These oils include Angelica archangelica (angelica), Citrus bergamia (bergamot), Anethum graveolens (dill), Citrus paradisi (grapefruit), Citrus limon (lemon), Citrus sinesis (orange), and Citrus reticulate (tangerine). You must also consider photosensitivity when using blends containing these EOs.
A phrase I like to use when referring to these oils is, “put ‘em where the sun don’t shine”, for instance, under clothing. If these EOs are applied to the skin, and that skin is exposed to sunlight, a rash or dark pigmentation can result (ESP, 2007) which can take quite a long time to dissipate.
EOs should NEVER be placed in the ears—for instance in a child with an earache. You would never tilt their head and drop the EO into the ear canal, as it would land on the delicate ear drum and cause great pain. However EOs can be place on a piece of cotton, and then the cotton can be inserted into the ear, or, they can be rubbed onto the pinky finger, and the finger can then be inserted into the ear canal and rubbed inside the ear canal.
EOs should also never be dropped directly into the eyes. However, when using EOs for pink eye, for example, EOs can be rubbed around the eyes. A good landmark is to keep the oils on the bone surrounding the eyes. If an EO does get into the eye, again, use a high quality vegetable oil to dilute it, NOT water.
When using EOs internally, for instance to fight a systemic infection, it is a good idea to start out with only a drop or 2 and work your way up to higher amounts. I like to put them in vegetable based gelatin capsules especially when the EO doesn’t taste very good. You can dilute them with a carrier oil to help with what I call “oil burps”… then gradually increase the amount. Coconut oil is a great choice when using EOs internally. EOs can also be added to honey, tea, agave, apple cider vinegar, milk, or put into capsules. Some oils should definitely not be used internally, including absolutes such as jasmine. It is wise to use EOs internally only if you know what you are doing, and only use those that are certified as food additives by the FDA, or are listed on the GRAS (Generally Regarded As Safe) list. Generally not more than 2-4 drops should be used in a 4-8 hour period, as EOs are so concentrated only small amounts are needed to obtain considerable results (ESP, 2007).
When EOs are added to drinking water it is imperative to use a glass or stainless steel container—NEVER use plastic—since EOs degrade petrochemicals, if you put EOs in plastic containers, you will be drinking small amounts of plastic.
It is important to dilute EOs with a carrier oil when using them rectally or vaginally, to avoid damage to the fragile mucosal tissues found in these areas of the body.
Many advocate not using EOs during pregnancy or lactation. If a lady is pregnant and has never used EOs before, caution should be used during the first trimester of pregnancy, and EOs should be introduced slowly. Certain EOs can be very helpful to alleviate symptoms of morning sickness especially during the first trimester, such as Mentha piperita (peppermint), (Mentha spicata) spearmint, or Zingiber officinale) ginger (ESP, 2007). A pregnant or lactating woman should always consult a health professional before using EOs, especially if she has not been using EOs routinely previously. EOs can also be very helpful during labor and delivery, however a qualified midwife or doula should be present who understands which EOs to use and why.
Since EOs are very concentrated it is important to treat them as any therapeutic product, and keep them out of the reach of children, and therefore, caution should be taken is when using EOs with children and babies. Since their body weight is small, it is always wise to dilute EOs when using them on children and babies, or apply them to your own hands and rub them in before applying them to the child. There are some great resources outlining EO use in children, including one called Gentle Babies by Debra Raybern. This particular book is an excellent guide to using oils with babies and children.
It is thought that certain EOs have the ability to stimulate neurological activity, so those with seizures or high blood pressure are advised to avoid using EOs high in ketones such as basil, rosemary, sage, and tansy (ESP, 2007).
There are certain EOs that should never be used at all including absinthe, mugwort, pennyroyal, thuja, and wormwood (Schnaubelt, 2007).
Robert Tisserand, aromatherapy expert and co-author of Essential Oil Safety…A Guide for Health Care Professionals, spoke to the Alliance of International Aromatherpists (AIA) Conference in Denver, CO, in 2007. He gave an excellent presentation entitled, “Challenges Facing Essential Oil Therapy: Proof of Safety.” He addressed many issues regarding this subject and believes that aromatherapy presents little to no risk, and a particular statement stands out: “As used in aromatherapy today, essential oils have not caused a single death.” (Tisserand, 2007).
The controversy about EO safety rages, and it is always wise to err on the side of caution when using EOs in any manner. However it is generally accepted that “Many adverse reactions can be avoided if pure essential oils are used” (Buckle, 2003, p. 84). Therefore, the primary important consideration when using EOs and avoid doing harm is to use oils with unquestionable purity; I cannot overemphasize the importance of using PUEOs.
Burfield, T. (2003, October). The Adulteration of Essential Oils – and the Consequences
to Aromatherapy & Natural Perfumery Practice. Presented to the International Federation of Aromatherapists Annual AGM, London. Retrieved from http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~nodice/new/magazine/october/october.htm
Essential Science Publishing (ESP) (Ed.). (2007). Essential Oils Desk Reference, Fourth
- Edition. USA.
Schnaubelt, K. (2007). Aromatherapy Course, Part I. Third Edition. San Rafael, CA.
Pacific Institute of Aromatherapy.