Essential oils are high-concentrated plant extracts that boast a wide range of medicinal benefits, from soothing sore muscles to relieving stress. Given their enormous popularity, many might assume they’re safe to use, though being “natural” doesn’t guarantee safety. Here, we’ll explore why the answer to “Are essential oils safe?” is a little more complex than a simple yes or no.
Are essential oils FDA-approved?
Many essential oils in the United States are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA divides essential oils into three categories:
- Cosmetics – Products intended to clean the body (except for soap).
- Drugs – Products intended for therapeutic use, including “treating or preventing disease or to affect the structure or function of the body.”
- Household items/Other - Fragrance products, like scented candles, household cleaners, and air fresheners.
In the United States, products classified as drugs must be FDA-approved for safety and effectiveness before they can be sold to consumers.
Are essential oils safe to consume?
Even though essential oil companies claim that ingesting essential oils is safe ‒ recommended, even ‒ the experts say otherwise. The National Capital Poison Center confirms that “misuse of essential oils can cause serious poisoning.” The agency also recommends that bottles of essential oils be stored out of the reach of small children and pets.
Because essential oils are so highly concentrated, it’s easy to consume too much without realizing. The compounds that make up essential oils can also irritate the mucous membranes in your mouth, esophagus, gut lining, and digestive tract.
Are they safe to apply to skin?
You can apply essential oils topically, but it’s recommended you dilute it with a carrier oil and then try the essential oil on a small patch of skin to test for any adverse effects, like redness or a rash. When applying essential oils to your skin, it’s important to dilute the oils with a carrier oil, like coconut oil or olive oil. Even if you’re not allergic, some essential oils can cause irritation.
Wait 24 hours to see if a reaction occurs after applying the oil to your inner forearm, for example. If you experience a reaction, discontinue topical use of that oil. If you experience no adverse reactions, you can use the oil topically and focus on pressure points or any areas that are giving you trouble.
Are they safe to diffuse?
Essential oils are commonly used in aromatherapy, where they’re diffused in water and the resulting steam is inhaled. Diffusing essential oils breaks them down into smaller molecules, dispersing them into the air, where they then travel from the olfactory nerves to the brain.
Diffusing continues to be the most popular way to use essential oils, and many people view the practice as a healthy or holistic alternative to burning scented candles in their homes. Though inhaling diluted essential oils is the safest way to consume them, this comes with its own set of risks. People with sensitive skin or breathing problems, like asthma, should avoid directly inhaling undiluted essential oils and limit their exposure to diluted (diffused) essential oils as well.
What Are the Side Effects of Essential Oils?
What – if any – side effects you experience while using essential oil will depend on which oils you use, how you use them, and if you have any allergies to them. If you experience any of these side effects, contact your doctor or seek emergency medical help immediately:
- Slow or shallow breathing
- Gagging or choking
- Shortness of breath
- Nausea and vomiting
- Skin irritation on or around application site
- Eye redness and irritation when applied around the eyes
Five Tips for Using Essential Oils Safely
Dilute the oil
Diluting essential oils when applying them topically is crucial. If you’re buying cosmetic products with essential oils, they likely already contain a carrier oil. Some popular carrier oils include coconut oil, avocado oil, sweet almond oil, and argan oil. These carrier oils are used to protect the skin from the highly concentrated essences.
Wash hands after contact
If your hands come in contact with undiluted essential oils, make sure to immediately wash your hands thoroughly. Most essential oils come in bottles that release only one drop at a time, to help avoid this issue, but this can still happen. Washing your hands immediately helps avoid the possibility of forgetting you have oil on your hands and having that oil end up in your eyes or on the food you eat.
Beware of increased photosensitivity
Photosensitivity is sensitivity to ultraviolet (UV) rays from sunlight and other light sources, such as indoor fluorescent light. Some essential oils (including citrus oils) contain compounds like coumarins and linalool, which can cause serious skin damage ‒ such as redness, itching, burns, blisters, and permanent skin discoloration ‒ when exposed to the sun.
Diffuse with caution
Although diffusing is generally considered the safest way to use essential oils, it can still hold risks. People with asthma may find that certain oils induce symptoms, and some essential oils can be dangerous for pets. Ensuring that you have proper ventilation in your home and that you’re not diffusing constantly may help.
Avoid clinical interactions
Some essential oils may interact with prescription medications you’re currently taking. Lavender is one example – because of its sedating properties, using lavender essential oil while taking any kind of medication that makes you drowsy (including some allergy medications, sleep aids, and some antidepressants) can exacerbate the sleepy feeling you get. This can be as mild as needing to take a nap during the day to being completely unable to stay awake.
Unfortunately, there hasn’t been much research done on just how essential oils may interact with different medications. But there’s always a chance of interactions between medications and other substances you put in or on your body.
The Bottom Line
The popularity of essential oils continues to grow every year, and many people have questioned whether they are safe. The short answer is: It depends. It depends on frequency of use, quality of the essential oils, and the way they’re used. The consensus is that using high-quality essential oils for aromatherapy purposes is safe in moderation, but it always comes down to your bio-individual needs and health concerns.