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 while 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:
- 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
Read on to learn how to safely use each method, which oils to try and which to avoid, what to do if you experience side effects, and more.
Many people turn to topical oils for their or properties. However, if administered improperly, rash and other side effects may occur.
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 tests allow you to see how your skin reacts to a particular oil before you perform a full application.
To do this:
- Wash your forearm with unscented soap.
- Pat dry.
- Rub a few drops of diluted essential oil into a small patch of your forearm.
- Wait 24 hours.
- Remove the gauze.
If the skin patch is red, itchy, blistering, or swollen, you have had an adverse reaction to the oil and should discontinue use.
If you experience discomfort before the 24-hour period ends, immediately wash the area with soap and warm water.
Popular essential oils that can be used with or without dilution (neat):
- tea tree (unoxidized)
Neat applications should be done under professional supervision.
Popular essential oils that must be diluted:
- cinnamon bark or leaf
- clove bud
- lemon verbena
Essential oils aren't consistently regulated.
You shouldn't use essential oils internally unless you’ve undergone advanced training and certification or are acting under the guidance of a trained professional.
This includes oral ingestion and internal application, such as in the mouth, vagina, or other mucus membranes.
Popular essential oils that may be orally ingested under medical supervision:
Make sure any essential oils that are orally ingested internally are of food-grade quality. You can find this information on the product’s label.
Popular essential oils that should never be orally ingested or used internally due to health risks:
The benefits of aromatherapy are well-researched. Inhaling certain essential oils, like sweet orange, can symptoms stress and anxiety. Inhaling lavender 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.
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.
Popular essential oils that can be diffused without any potential risks to children or pets:
Popular essential oils that should be diffused with caution, because they’re mucous membrane irritants:
- cinnamon bark or leaf
- clove bud or leaf
This is a highly controversial practice — especially during the first three months.
Some people worry that topical essential oils can cross the placental barrier and harm the fetus. However, people who are pregnant develop a thick layer of fat beneath the surface of the skin on their stomach.
According to NAHA, this layer of fat serves as a protective boundary between the fetus and the oil.
If properly diluted, the amount that crosses over is miniscule and rendered harmless.
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.
Some essential oils effective in reducing anxiety and fear around childbirth.
If you’re interested in using essential oils during pregnancy, talk to your healthcare provider before use.
Popular essential oils that can be used during pregnancy:
- clary sage
- tea tree
Popular essential oils that should never be used during pregnancy, labor, or while breastfeeding:
- parsley seed
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.
After three months, aromatherapy methods are generally seen as safe — but only with certain essential oils.
After two years, 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.
Infants and children shouldn’t ingest essential oils because they’re more sensitive to the potency of the oils. As a safety precaution, essential oils should never be added to bath water and should always be out of reach.
Popular essential oils that may be used on or around infants and children:
- German chamomile
- tea tree*
*There is evidence that suggests using lavender and tea tree oil topically on prepubescent males has been linked to hormonal abnormalities that encourage breast growth. These oils should only be administered through aromatherapy methods or avoided. Talk to a medical provider before using these essential oils on or around children.
Popular essential oils that should never be used on or around infants and children:
Key considerations for other popular oils include:
- Anise. When used internally, anise lowers the antidepressant effects of some medications and increases the effects of drugs that affect the central nervous system.
- Bergamot. This oil can cause skin sensitivity and result in burning if applied in a high topical concentration before sunlight exposure.
- Cinnamon. If applied without diluting or ingested, this oil can cause mucous membrane irritation, contact dermatitis, facial flushing, double vision, nausea, and vomiting.
- Eucalyptus. If swallowed, this oil can cause seizures.
- Lavender. Topical application has been shown to affect hormones in prepubescent males.
- 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 can also cause hallucinations and even coma when ingested in high concentrations.
- Peppermint. This oil rash and other irritation when applied to skin. It can also cause heartburn if taken internally.
- Sage. If a large amount in ingested, this oil restlessness, vomiting, vertigo, rapid heart rate, tremors, seizures, and kidney damage.
- Tea tree. When applied topically, it rash or irritation. If swallowed, it can cause loss of muscle coordination and confusion. Ingestion may also affect hormones in prepubescent males.
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 (oral or aromatherapy)?
Does the oil need to be diluted?
Most essential oils, unless they are considered “neat,” need to be diluted. Always check the dilution guidelines.
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, especially when used internally, can cause contraindications with other medications or supplements. They may also trigger or exacerbation 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 child and pet-safe. 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.
Is the oil safe to ingest?
Essential oils that are perfectly safe when used topically or in aromatherapy may be toxic when ingested. Certain oils, like wintergreen, should never be ingested. Always check with a health professional before ingesting essential oils.
In general, you should treat essential oils like other medications, supplements, or hazardous materials. This means practicing caution when purchasing, storing, and using.
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 them in a cupboard out of reach. Alternatively, store them in a high-up 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 is not 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.
When it doubt, dilute the oil
Carrier oils shouldn’t be overlooked. Not only are they useful in spreading the essential oil onto a larger surface area, they protect your skin from rash and irritation.
Never use photosensitizing oils before UV exposure
Safety guidelines suggest waiting a full 24 hours after using photosensitizing 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 the 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 and wipe the essential oil away.
If you’ve accidently ingested or over-ingested an oil, immediately contact your local poison control center. 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.
Michelle Pugle is a Canadian-based Health & 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, anthologies, and on websites around the world.