As the essential oil market continues to grow, so do concerns about whether these highly concentrated plant extracts are safe for common use. Many consumers are unaware of the potential risks of using essential oils in their wellness, beauty, and cleaning routines.

Whether a specific oil is safe for you depends on a number of factors, including your:

  • age
  • underlying health conditions
  • medication and supplement use

When it comes to the oil, it’s important to consider:

  • chemical composition and purity
  • method of use
  • duration of use
  • dosage

Read on to learn how to safely use essential oils topically and for aromatherapy; which oils to try and which to avoid; what to do if you experience side effects; and more.

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Many people turn to topical oils for their skin healing or pain-relieving properties. However, if administered improperly, rash and other side effects may occur.

Some essential oils can even be poisonous if absorbed directly through the skin. Others, like orange, lime, and lemon, can cause phototoxicity if applied before exposure to sun.

Dilution

Many essential oils require dilution to prevent adverse reactions. As a general rule, you should keep concentration levels of essential oils below 5 percent.

Diluting at 1 percent is equivalent to adding 6 drops of essential oil to 1 ounce of carrier oil. Guidelines for safe concentrations vary by age and health condition.

You can easily dilute your essential oils by blending a few drops with a carrier oil. Carrier oils are typically vegetable based. They carry the essential oil safely onto your skin and help you spread it over a large surface area.

Patch test

Patch tests allow you to see how your skin reacts to a particular oil before you perform a full application.

To do this:

  1. Wash your forearm with unscented soap.
  2. Pat the area dry.
  3. Rub a few drops of diluted essential oil into a small patch of your forearm.
  4. Wait 24 hours.

If the skin patch is red, itchy, blistering, or swollen, you’ve had an adverse reaction to the oil and should discontinue use.

If you experience discomfort before the 24-hour period ends, immediately remove the gauze and wash the area with soap and warm water.

Oils

Essential oils are commonly inhaled with a diffuser. All essential oils should be diluted before topical use. Some stronger essential oils may need to be used at fewer drops per ounce. Popular essential oils that might need more dilution include:

  • bay
  • cinnamon bark or leaf
  • clove bud
  • citronella
  • cumin
  • lemongrass
  • lemon verbena
  • oregano
  • thyme

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Essential oils aren’t regulated. Consider talking to someone who has undergone advanced training and certification or talk to a trained professional. Essential oils are meant to be diffused into the air or diluted and applied topically. Essential oils are not intended for internal use.

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The benefits of aromatherapy are well-researched. Inhaling certain essential oils, like sweet orange, can help ease symptoms of stress and anxiety. Inhaling lavender may improve sleep quality.

You can reap the benefits of aromatherapy through inhalation or diffusion. Inhalation is most effective when treating respiratory issues, whereas diffusion is best suited to mood management. For aches and pains, topical use of diluted essential oils is typical.

When diffusing oils, use these safety precautions:

  • Follow proper dilution guidelines.
  • Make sure you diffuse in a well-ventilated area.
  • Diffuse intermittently, typically 30 to 60 minutes on, then 30 to 60 minutes off.

Oils

These popular essential oils can be diffused without any potential risks to children or pets:

  • cedarwood
  • fir
  • grapefruit
  • lavender
  • lemon
  • spearmint
  • tangerine

Popular essential oils that should be diffused with caution because they’re mucous membrane irritants include:

  • bay
  • cinnamon bark or leaf
  • clove bud or leaf
  • lemongrass
  • peppermint
  • thyme

This is a highly controversial practice — especially during the first three months.

There is worry that topical essential oils can cross the placental barrier and harm the fetus. Because there is potential danger and not research to examine dangers, essential oils should be avoided in pregnancy unless in consultation with a healthcare professional.

While there are some essential oils that should never be used during pregnancy, there are a few that are considered safe for use during prenatal massages or through the diffuser method.

Talk with your healthcare provider or a certified aromatherapist before using any essential oil while pregnant or breastfeeding.

Some essential oils may be effective in reducing nausea or anxiety and fear around childbirth.

If you’re interested in using essential oils during pregnancy, talk to your healthcare provider before use.

Oils

These popular essential oils that have be used during pregnancy:

  • chamomile
  • clary sage
  • eucalyptus
  • frankincense
  • ginger
  • grapefruit
  • lavender
  • lemon
  • rose
  • orange

Essential oils that should never be used during pregnancy, labor, or while breastfeeding include:

  • camphor
  • parsley seed
  • hyssop
  • pennyroyal
  • tarragon
  • wintergreen
  • wormwood

This is another highly controversial topic. Infants and children have thinner skin and less developed livers and immune systems. This makes them more vulnerable to potential toxicity associated with oil use.

Following safety guidelines and exercising extreme caution is crucial. You should always consult a healthcare provider before using essential oils on or around infants and children.

With children over 2 years old, aromatherapy methods are generally seen as safe — but only with certain essential oils.

With children over 2 years old, certain essential oils can be administered topically and through aromatherapy methods, but at a much weaker concentration than adult dosing. A safe dilution ratio is typically 0.5 to 2.5 percent.

Remember, diluting at 1 percent is equivalent to adding 6 drops of essential oil to 1 ounce of carrier oil.

Keep essential oils out of the reach of infants and children. Call a poison center if essential oils are ingested. As a safety precaution, essential oils should never be added to bath water for children.

Oils

These popular essential oils are often used on or around infants and children:

  • cypress
  • German chamomile
  • geranium
  • mandarin
  • sandalwood

Evidence suggests using lavender and tea tree oil topically on prepubescent boys is linked to hormonal abnormalities that encourage breast growth. These oils should be avoided.

Other popular essential oils that should never be used on or around infants and children include:

  • eucalyptus
  • fennel
  • peppermint
  • rosemary
  • verbena
  • wintergreen

Here are a few key considerations for using other popular oils:

  • Anise. When inhaled, this essential oil might lower the antidepressant effects of some medications and increase the effects of drugs that affect the central nervous system.
  • Bergamot. This oil can cause skin sensitivity and result in burning if applied topically in a high concentration before sunlight exposure.
  • Cinnamon. If applied without diluting, this oil can cause mucous membrane irritation, contact dermatitis, facial flushing, double vision, nausea, and vomiting.
  • Eucalyptus. If accidentally swallowed, this oil can cause seizures. Use of this essential oil with aromatherapy or topically might have the same effect for those who tend to have seizures.
  • Lavender. Topical application has been shown to affect hormones in prepubescent boys.
  • Lemon verbena. If topically applied before sun exposure, this oil can cause photosensitivity and may result in burning.
  • Nutmeg. This oil may cause a rash or a burn if applied topically. It is toxic and can cause hallucinations and even coma if accidently ingested.
  • Peppermint. This oil can cause rash and other irritation when applied to skin.
  • Sage. High doses of sage in aromatherapy, or when diluted and used topically, might have neurological effects with vomiting, dizziness, seizures, and other problems.
  • Tea tree. When applied topically, it can cause rash or irritation. This essential oil may also affect hormones in prepubescent boys.
  • Citrus oils. Grapefruit, lemon, or orange essential oils when diluted and applied topically can cause significant skin damage on exposure to the sun.

Essential oils are natural, but that doesn’t mean they can be used without taking precautions. Before using any essential oil, you should ask yourself — and be able to answer — the following questions:

What method do you want to use?

The method you use is based upon the desired effect. Are you looking for mood-altering effects (aromatherapy)? Are you looking to treat a skin ailment or relieve pain (topical)? Or are you looking to treat a medical condition (topical or aromatherapy)?

Does the oil need to be diluted?

Essential oils need to be diluted. Always check dilution guidelines for how much they should be diluted.

Does the oil increase photosensitivity?

In general, citrus essential oils increase photosensitivity. Applying them before sun exposure can cause skin burns.

Does the oil have any clinical interactions?

Some essential oils can interact with medications or supplements. They may also trigger or worsen symptoms of an underlying medical condition.

Is the oil safe to use around infants, children, or pets?

Always check whether a specific essential oil is safe for children and pets. Keep in mind that what might be safe for dogs may be poisonous for cats. Cats are more sensitive to essential oils than other pets.

Diffusing essential oils or using them topically may have an effect on others in the home. Infants and children may be particularly sensitive. Essential oils can trigger asthma attacks.

Is the oil safe to ingest?

No, essential oils should not be taken internally. Essential oils that are perfectly safe when used topically or in aromatherapy may be toxic when ingested.

In general, you should treat essential oils like other medications, supplements, or hazardous materials. This means practicing caution when purchasing, storing, and using them.

Keep essential oils out of reach of children and pets

It’s not enough to keep your essential oils out of view. In order to ensure safety, place all essential oils in one lockable case and store it in a cupboard out of reach. Alternatively, store these oils in a high cabinet and add a child lock.

When diffusing, don’t exceed 30 to 60 minute intervals

With essential oils, less is often more. Exceeding the ideal times doesn’t amplify the oil’s benefits. In fact, it can actually create stress on your nervous system.

Only diffuse in well-ventilated areas

As a general rule, if all you can smell is the essential oil, your area isn’t well-ventilated. In such cases, you risk irritating your respiratory system.

Ventilation is especially important in the presence of pets — and it includes leaving doors open for pets to remove themselves.

Dilute the oil

Carrier oils shouldn’t be overlooked. Not only are they useful in spreading an essential oil onto a larger surface area, but they also protect your skin from rash and irritation. Choose a high-quality oil that you like on your skin.

Never use photosensitizing oils before UV exposure

Safety guidelines suggest waiting a full 24 hours after using photosensitizing oils, such as citrus oils, before tanning in a booth or spending time in direct sunlight.

Always wash your hands after using essential oils

If you have remnants of essential oils on your hands and you rub your eyes or scratch the inside of your ears, you could experience a serious adverse reaction. Essential oils shouldn’t come into contact with eyes and ears.

Keep all essential oils away from flames

Essential oils are highly flammable. They shouldn’t be used near candles, gas stoves, lit cigarettes, or open fireplaces.

Practicing caution and following safety guidelines will help ensure your experience using essential oils is a positive one. However, adverse reactions can still happen. Part of responsibly using essential oils is knowing what to do if side effects do occur.

In most cases, minor side effects can be taken care of at home.

If essential oils get into your eye, you can do one of two things:

  • Soak a cotton swab in a food-grade fatty oil like sesame or olive. Wipe the swab over your closed eyelid.
  • Immediately flush the area with cool, clean water.

If you’re experiencing skin irritation, use a fatty oil or cream to absorb the essential oil and wipe it away.

If you’ve accidently ingested an oil, immediately contact your local poison control center or call the Poison Control help line at 800-222-1222. Then, follow these precautions:

  • Drink full-fat or 2 percent milk.
  • Avoid vomiting.
  • Keep the essential oil bottle handy to show the emergency response team.

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Michelle Pugle is a Canadian-based health and wellness writer. She has a diploma in holistic nutritional therapy, a double bachelor’s in English and sociology, and a master’s in research theories. Her work has been featured in magazines and anthologies, and on websites around the world.