Essential oils are popular among the holistic healthcare crowd — they are portable, smell delicious, and are purported to have amazing healing properties.
What you may not know is that essential oils can be dangerous if not used properly. Unfortunately, a lot of marketing hype now surrounds essential oils and aromatherapy. Common claims include the maxim that pure essential oils are always safe and any negative reactions are just “detox” — but is this really true?
If you are not careful, you could harm yourself, your child, or your pet by using even the most “pure” of essential oils.
Why Essential Oils Must Be Used Carefully
I’ve studied aromatherapy with David Crow, one of the leading experts in botanical medicine. (If you have a chance to take one of his online courses, I’d highly recommend it.) What I have learned about essential oils blew my mind. My one big takeaway from Crow was this: Essential oils are the most concentrated form of herbal medicine.
What does that mean? Well, anything that is highly concentrated tends to be more potent. Potent means powerful, which is often a double-edged sword. The potency that can heal also has the potential to do damage.
Essential oils are thus highly potent, and should be used with caution.
Side effects of essential oils can include:
- Allergic reactions
- Heart palpitations
- Acid reflux
- Damage to skin, eyes, and internal organs
I’m not trying to be an alarmist here, but in cases of severe allergic reaction or toxicity, death is a possibility. While I am personally unaware of any human deaths due to essential oils, I have read sad reports about pets dying from essential oil use.
All essential oils should come with warning labels: Use with caution!
The Big Problem with the Aromatherapy Industry
Some of the biggest sources of misinformation about essential oils are the people selling them. Oftentimes, this is a well-meaning and enthusiastic distributor of an essential oil brand from a multi-level marketing company.
Sometimes, the companies themselves promote practices that are iffy at best. I’m not going to be pointing fingers at any specific companies here, in part, to protect myself from a lawsuit. But sufficed to say, I perused some essential oil company websites while researching this article, and was a bit shocked that even some of their so-called “safety” information was misguided at best.
Not all essential oil companies are being greedy and purposefully trying to mislead people — in fact, it’s possible that even the ones promoting bad information are just woefully misguided.
Some essential oil companies do their best to educate people on safety. In this case, sometimes the enthusiasm of the seller overcomes any of the cautionary education they may have been provided.
In other words, you can’t always blame the company producing the oils…though some essential oil companies are largely at fault.
If you are an essential oil distributor, be careful about marketing hype from your company, which has a financial interest in downplaying essential oil dangers. Not only could you be doing damage to your customers by spreading bad information, you could be setting yourself up for a lawsuit if something terrible happens.
If you sell essential oils, the bottom line stops with you. Make sure you become fully educated in aromatherapy, and don’t just get caught up in the excitement.
12 Common Myths About Essential Oil Safety
With all that said, here are some common myths about essential oil safety. If you want an eye-opening look at why some of these myths are truly dangerous, just go read the essential oil injury reports provided by Aromatherapy United in conjunction with the Atlantic Institute of Aromatherapy.
Myth 1: Essential Oils Are Inherently Gentle and Safe
As I’ve already explained, because essential oils are the most concentrated form of herbal medicine, they are potent and therefore can cause strong reactions. Think of it this way — what is more likely to get you drunk? A glass of beer or the same amount of straight vodka?
A 12 ounce beer is equivalent to one 1.5 ounce shot in terms of alcohol content. In other words, drinking straight vodka in a beer glass is the equivalent of eight shots.
Essential oils are the shots. The whole plant or herb is the beer. So, let’s say you had a choice between basil in herb form or as an essential oil. Which would be more gentle and safe? The herb, of course.
We’ll get more into the specifics of “safe” below.
Myth 2: Essential Oils Are “Natural”
People have these romantic ideas that essential oils have been around since the dawn of time and are even found in the Bible. Actually, this is a bit of a myth. First, much confusion abounds about what we mean when we use the word “oil.” An essential “oil” is not the same as the “oil” we use for cooking or massage. Olive oil, safflower oil, sesame oil, and almond oils are not essential oils.
These types of oils can typically be extracted simply by exerting pressure or squeezing.
Food-grade oils have been around forever. The confusion lies in the fact that the ancients had aromatherapy, and used herbs along with food oils to create aromatic and healing blends.
But this is not the same as our modern-day essential oil.
Essential oils can trace back to distillation techniques that were originally developed during the Middle Ages (around the 10th century).
Modern day essential oils are made through a variety of methods. Typically, this requires a lot of plant material that must be processed in machinery (and that’s not natural, is it?). Steam is a common method of essential oil distillation, which we might call the most “natural.” However, many essential oils are generated through the use of chemical solvents. This is typical with essential oils used in perfumes, and even those found in health food stores, and some oils must be extracted that way.
So, yeah, I’d hardly call the use of “chemical solvents” to be “natural.”
Of course, the bigger problem is the addition of synthetic ingredients into essential oils. Even some oils marked “pure” have fake essential oils in them. I recently got a batch off as an add-on gift that were clearly fake. They smelled like bad cheap perfume from the 1980s and left oily residue on paper (a simple way to test most (though not all) oils for authenticity).
Even if an essential oil passes the paper test, that doesn’t necessarily mean it is safe. Essential oils may have other toxic ingredients, such as heavy metal or pesticides, depending on where and how the plants were grown. The machinery the oil was produced in could leave some unwanted heavy metal residue. Even advanced essential oil testing techniques may not pick up these issues.
Myth 3: “Pure” or “Therapeutic Grade” Essential Oils Are Safe
Regardless of the manner of distillation, an essential oil might be labeled “pure” because it (allegedly) is made up of one specific type of plant. In other words, if you are purchasing sandalwood essential oil that is labeled “pure,” it should have only sandalwood in it.
Here’s a wrinkle — the problem with that sandalwood oil may not be that it has added chemicals in it. It may, in fact, be impure because it is mixed with other “pure” essential oils or similar plant varieties to mimic sandalwood. (And, if you are buying cheap sandalwood oil, this is likely what you are getting. Real sandalwood is exceptionally rare and expensive.)
To further confuse things, some types of essential oils may be labeled “pure” because they have the same type of plant, but a different plant variety. This is common with lavender essential oil — it is often made up of various varieties of lavender, some of which have different properties or aromas.
And, of course, you do have some companies cutting essential oils with other types of oils or synthetic perfumes.
Let’s not forget that even the best oils are highly concentrated. Therefore, they are potent and can cause potential side effects. The idea that “therapeutic grade” essential oils are always safe is just BS. They may be “pure,” but as we will see, pure oils still have side effects.
Myth 4: Essential Oils Have No Side Effects
Just because something is natural, it doesn’t mean it is always good for you. And, even if it can heal you, that doesn’t mean it won’t have some side effects. Herbs can have side effects, and so can essential oils. A side effect can be defined as any negative reaction that does not support your healing.
For example, a well-known side effect of bergamot oil is photosensitivity, which makes your skin more light sensitive and prone to sunburns. But did you also know that bergamot can cause potassium depletion when consumed? Even diluted bergamot oil in Earl Gray tea can cause issues, although most people won’t be drinking one gallon per day, as one man who experienced side effects did.
Myth 5: You Can’t Have an Allergic Reaction to Pure Essential Oils
One of the worst myths about essential oils — and shame on the person who came up with this silly idea — is that you can’t be allergic to them if they are pure. The idea is that since essential oils don’t have proteins, you can’t possibly have an allergic reaction to them. Well, guess what? That’s a lie. Does nickel have protein in it? Nope. Yet, nickel allergy is so common, you often see nickel-free jewelry advertised.
Worse, topical essential oil use on the skin can lead to a worsening allergy called “dermal sensitization.” That means, you might not react negatively much at all when an essential oil is first used, but then it will become worse over time.
Certain essential oils are known “dermal sensitizers.” These include:
- Cinnamon Bark
- Verbena Absolute
- Peru Balsam
- Turpentine Oil
- Elecampane Oil
- Fig Leaf Absolute
- Rue Oil
- Oak Moss Absolute and Resinoid
- Tree Moss Absolute
- Costus Root
- Styrax Gum
- Oxidized Pinaceae Family Oils
- Oxidized Rutaceae Family Oils (Citrus Oils)
However, even essential oils that are not known dermal sensitizers can become problematic, including common and generally safe oils like lavender.
Myth 6: Any Bad Feeling After Using an Essential Oil Is Just “Detox”
This is a truly dangerous myth that has led people to actually injure themselves because they ignored their body’s own warnings about essential oil use. First, remember that you can be allergic to an essential oil. So, if you apply an oil to your skin and get a rash, stop using it!
That rash is not a detox reaction! It is likely that your skin found the essential oil to be an irritant or allergen.
You can read more at the Tisserand Institute about the science, and why it is highly unlikely that a rash after topical (or “neat”) use of an essential oil on the skin is a detox reaction. The short version is that most detoxification occurs via the liver and kidneys, and it is rarely sweat out. Either way, that essential oil is not being immediately processed by the liver when put on the skin.
This myth is so incredibly dangerous, and it is being promoted by some of the companies selling essential oils, which is absolutely shameful. Real life people experience a rash, which is actually an allergic reaction, and then are told by their “upline” (the person who signed them up for the essential oil distribution) to keep using the oils — that this will help speed up the detox.
People have ended up in the hospital with serious allergic reactions this way. This is not a joke.
Myth 7: Essential Oils Are Safe Applied “Neat” (Directly) on the Skin
As we have just seen, even pure essential oils applied to the skin can cause allergic reactions and dermal sensitization. Yet, so many essential oil distributors recommend that people apply essential oils directly to the skin without dilution.
Granted, some essential oils are probably relatively safe on the skin. But many are not safe. And some that are generally safe may not be safe for you personally, if you happen to be allergic or sensitive.
Yet, I can’t tell you how many yoga classes and workshops I’ve been in where teachers and other students go around placing undiluted essential oil drops directly from the bottle onto people’s hands.
Generally, the most dangerous types of essential oils for the skin are citrus oils and spicy or hot oils like cinnamon. But caution should be exerted with all essential oils. When in doubt, dilute!
Myth 8: Essential Oils Are Safe to Take Internally
What really gets me is this idea that swallowing essential oils is a good idea. No, no, no, and no. Some claim that certain oils are safe for this type of usage, which may be true. But I wouldn’t risk it. I have read enough reports of people who have literally burned the lining of their esophagus and stomach by taking supposedly safe essential oils internally.
It is now a common practice to take a few drops of essential oil, put them “diluted” with a few drops of a vegetable oil in a capsule, and take it as a medicine. Another type of oral ingestion involves drops put in water.
Here is a report from a 36-year-old woman who was taking a “detox” protocol of essential oils (including citrus oils) in water:
“Within 2 weeks, developed a sore throat. Over next four weeks developed reflux, uncomfortable ache in stomach and under breastbone, and diarrhea.”
What did her upline do? They suggested she was going through a detox and might want to try using capsules instead of water.
She was using three drops of essential oils per eight ounces of water, two to three times per day for about six weeks. (Note: Essential oils do not dissolve in water, and therefore do not dilute.) The end result:
“Underwent colonoscopy and endoscopy in January 2016 (approximately two months after stopping ingestion, side effects were continuing). Results indicated that the lining of my esophagus and stomach had been eaten away. Undergoing continuing appointments with a gastroenterologist to monitor and facing an upcoming endoscopy to determine if the lining is improving/repairing.”
I myself went through a period of painful acid reflux after a serious illness screwed up my stomach. A yoga teacher I respect told me to start taking essential oils internally to “fix” this problem. Thank God I had already taken David Crow’s training and knew better. I could have permanently damaged my stomach.
Myth 9: Essential Oils Last Forever
Essential oils can oxidize and go bad, particularly citrus oils. This changes the actual substances in them. The oils can not only lose their antibacterial properties, they might cause more negative reactions if you use them. Heat can be particularly problematic for essential oils, so do not leave them in a hot car and consider refrigerating them for longer potency.
Make sure you are using fresh oils, especially when applying topically (even diluted). Old oils can be potentially used in homemade household cleaning products, but they may have lost their effectiveness anyway.
Myth 10: Essential Oils Are Safe During Pregnancy
First of all, don’t freak out if you are pregnant and walk into a room with an aromatherapy diffuser puffing out steam. Being pregnant doesn’t mean you can’t ever use or be around an essential oil.
However, avoid being around a diffuser for longer than 10–15 minutes at a time, as it can cause nausea.
You will find many sites offering advice on what essential oils are safe (or not safe) during pregnancy. Some essential oils are definitely a no-go, including nutmeg, rosemary, basil, jasmine, clary sage, sage, rose, and juniper berry. Some of these essential oils can stimulate contractions!
But even some of the best advice, such as that found on one blog at Babycentre, ignore some of the potential issues with citrus oils and other essential oils that need to be used carefully, even when you are not pregnant.
Unless you are willing to do a lot of research, it might be best to avoid essential oils entirely during pregnancy.
Myth 11: Essential Oils Are Safe for Children
I really get angry when I read some of the stories parents have shared about using supposedly “safe” pure essential oils on children — and then their children end up with painful skin rashes or a scary allergic reaction. I don’t blame the parents — they are just being mislead by essential oil propaganda. For this reason, however, it is really important to educate yourself and others about the dangerous of essential oils for children.
The Tennessee Poison Center sent an alert out to the media in 2016 after seeing cases of toxic exposure to essential oils double from 2011 to 2015. Four out of five victims were children.
Why are essential oils so problematic for children?
First, children have thinner skin, so any essential oil applied to their skin will be that much more potent than on an adult. Children may also come across bottles of essential oils lying around and take them internally without dilution, which is especially dangerous.
Believe it or not, children who are accidentally poisoned by essential oils can get pneumonia, because they often choke on the essential oil, and a little bit gets into the lungs. Less than half a teaspoon can cause this.
Other nasty side effects include hallucinations, seizures, chemical burns, breathing issues, and liver failure.
My personal recommendation is to avoid applying essential oils to kids. Absolutely do not give essential oils to them internally.
If you want to use essential oils to calm a child, perhaps the safest way to do this is highly diluted in a water-based aromatherapy diffuser for brief periods at a time, and never in a tiny, enclosed room. Use common sense — if you your child has asthma, even a diffuser could be a problem. Talk to your doctor first and research as much as you can.
Myth 12: Essential Oils Are Safe for Pets
Never, ever, ever put essential oils on your pets, even diluted. You could kill them.
Cats are especially sensitive to essential oils, and even using a diffuser could be irritating to your animals.
According to the Atlantic Institute of Aromatherapy Injury Report of 2016, one person lost both dogs after applying essential oils of penny royal, eucalyptus, and citronella to ward off fleas.
Better to be safe than sorry: My recommendation is to never use essential oils with pets, and if you use an aromatherapy diffuser, use it sparingly in an open room so your animals can move elsewhere if it bothers them.
How to Be Safer Using Essential Oils
Given all the bad news about essential oils, you may be wondering if it is safe to use them at all. Yes, essential oils can be safe, provided they are used properly. Do as much self-education as you can, and avoid listening to hyped up sales pitches. Essential oils aren’t this magical elixir that can cure everything without potential risk.
If you need to consult with someone over the use of essential oils, try to find a Certified Aromatherapy Professional with at least 200 hours of training, or a Clinically Trained Aromatherapy Professional with 400 or more training hours.
Consider also: If you need healing benefits from a particular plant, try using the herb form instead of the essential oil. You will also get the benefits of phytochemicals and other substances in the whole plant that aren’t included in the “pure” essential oil.
Herbs may not be as glamorous, and they usually don’t smell as good, but they can be safer. Of course, they can have side effects too, so always educate yourself before medicating yourself.